NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Sun Belt Conference has lost a member and gained four new ones since last season.
Unchanged are the expectations for defending champion Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns are favored to take the title again in 2014.
In all three seasons the Cajuns have been coached by Mark Hudspeth, they’ve won no fewer than nine games and finished with a New Orleans Bowl victory.
”We know now, being the favorite, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot every week, so we better come to play to match that intensity and hopefully surpass it,” Hudspeth said. ”It’s going to be quite a challenge, but I really believe with the veteran team we have we’re up to that challenge.”
Those veterans include senior dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway, the league preseason offensive player of the year, who also made the Davey O’Brien Award watch list.
Also returning on offense is running back Alonzo Harris, a Doak Walker watch list candidate.
”We’re looking to translate that on the field,” Broadway said.
The league now consists of 11 teams after losing Western Kentucky and gaining Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State.
Here are 10 things to watch in the new-look Sun Belt Conference in 2014:
MOMENTUM: South Alabama was in only its first season of bowl eligibility last season and went 6-6 after closing 2013 on a three-game winning streak, including a 30-8 demolition of Louisiana-Lafayette. Now the Jaguars are among the favorites to challenge ULL for the league title.
FAMOUS NAME: The Sun Belt lost one Petrino after last season but gained another. Bobby Petrino was with Western Kentucky in 2013 before heading back to Louisville as the Hilltoppers left the league. But Idaho’s arrival as a full Sun Belt member brings Petrino’s brother, Paul. The Vandals, picked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll, are banned from postseason play because of past academic performance.
ON THE RUN: In addition to ULL’s Harris, the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list includes three other Sun Belt running backs: Appalachian State’s Marcus Cox, Arkansas State’s Michael Gordon and Texas State’s Robert Lowe.
MOVING UP: Two of the Sun Belt’s newest members, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, have moved up after decades as dominant forces at the Football Championship Subdivision level. Georgia Southern won six national titles, while Appalachian State won three.
COACHING CAROUSEL: Arkansas State, which tied ULL for the conference title last season, has its fourth new coach in four years. Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson takes over for Bryan Harsin, who left for Boise State. The Red Wolves were coached by Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze in 2011 and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn in 2012.
SEEKING RESPECT: In 2013, the Sun Belt was among the top mid-major conferences, going 8-1 against Conference USA, the Mountain West and MAC. This year, the Sun Belt champion is eligible for a New Year’s Day bowl but will have to also play well outside the conference to get such a bid. Nonconference games involving Sun Belt favorites include: Louisiana-Lafayette at Mississippi (Sept. 13) and at Boise State (Sept. 20); Arkansas State at Tennessee (Sept. 6) and Miami (Sept. 13); and South Alabama playing at home against Mississippi State (Sept. 13) and on the road against South Carolina (Nov. 22).
BOWLING: When Sun Belt football began in 2001, it had one bowl tie-in: the New Orleans Bowl. Now, with the new College Football Playoff bringing the chance for a New Year’s Day bowl bid, the Sun Belt has affiliations with up to four bowls this season. The New Orleans, GoDaddy and Camellia bowls are the other three. The league adds the Cure Bowl in 2015 and the Miami Beach and Bahamas bowls in 2016.
GOOSE EGG: Georgia State went 0-12 in 2013, its first Sun Belt season. Still, coach Trent Miles got a second year to try to make the Panthers more competitive.
TAKE TWO: Former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione enters the second season of his second tenure with Texas State. The first came when it was called Southwest Texas State from 1990-91. The Bobcats beat Southern Mississippi and Wyoming last year but faded in conference play, finishing 6-6.
FALLEN TROJANS: Troy has struggled through three straight sub-par seasons since a string of five consecutive years of winning or sharing the conference crown. This season, the Trojans look to improve with a new quarterback after the departure of prolific passer Corey Robinson.
Predicted order of finish:
1, Louisiana-Lafayette. 2, Arkansas St. 3, South Alabama. 4, Troy. 5, Louisiana-Monroe. 6, Texas State. 7, Appalachian State. 8, Georgia Southern. 9, Idaho. 10, Georgia State. 11, New Mexico State.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org