Sun Belt has no clear favorite in 2013

Although the Sun Belt Conference is in flux right now, all four
of the league’s bowl teams from last season are back.

Two of them are co-favorites to win the league – according to a
preseason coaches’ poll – and happen to be in-state rivals:
Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. The other two are
two-time defending league champion Arkansas State and Western
Kentucky, which became the landing spot for Bobby Petrino’s
coaching comeback after the former Arkansas coach spent a season
away from football

This should be Petrino’s only season in the Sun Belt because WKU
jumps to Conference USA next season. He hopes to have the
Hilltoppers on top of the league and in a second-straight bowl, but
the former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach doesn’t expect it
to be easy, and noted how far the once-fledgling mid-major league
has come in its 13 years.

”When you look back on the success that the Sun Belt had last
year, it just speaks for itself,” Petrino said. ”You had four
teams go to bowl games and some really major upsets. … It’s going
to be very, very competitive.”

Petrino was referring to Louisiana-Monroe’s comeback win at
Arkansas. He also recalled how close Louisiana-Lafayette came to
upsetting Florida before the Gators returned a blocked punt for a
score in the final seconds. ULM also nearly won at Auburn.

”To me, the strength of our conference is still here, intact,”
said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, who’s led the Ragin’
Cajuns to two straight New Orleans Bowl triumphs.

After an Independence Bowl berth last season, ULM coach Todd
Berry said he would have been disappointed if his Warhawks weren’t
a favorite, particularly in light of the experience coming back,
led by quarterback Kolton Browning, the league’s preseason
offensive player of the year, who passed for more than 3,000 yards
last season.

”In today’s college football, when you’ve got a quarterback,
you’ve got a chance,” Berry said. ”We’ve got a quarterback, so
we’ve got a chance.”

Coaches picked Troy to finish fifth, but the Trojans and coach
Larry Blakeney know how to win, having won five straight league
titles from 2006-2010. Last season, all but one of their seven
losses came by a touchdown or less, so they don’t seem far
behind.

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1: PETRINO’S PRESENCE. Petrino is 75-26 in eight seasons as a
Division I college head coach, missing out on a bowl only once. He
led both Louisville and Arkansas to their first BCS games and if
not for off-the-field problems, he might still be coaching the
Razorbacks. Arkansans fired Petrino in April 2012 for a ”pattern
of misleading” behavior following an accident in which the coach
was injured while riding a motorcycle with his mistress as a
passenger. At WKU, The 52-year-old Petrino replaces Willie Taggart,
who left for South Florida after leading the Hilltoppers to a 7-5
regular season record and bid to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

2: BROADWAY ENCORE: Ragin’ Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway
burst onto the scene last year because of an early season injury to
starter Blaine Gautier. The dual-threat QB wound up producing 3,611
yards of total offense, including 769 yards on the ground. Now he’s
on the 2013 watch list for the Manning Award, giving to the
nation’s top college quarterback.

3: BROWNING’S SWAN SONG: Browning enters his senior season at
ULM with a host of preseason accolades. Not only is he the Sun Belt
preseason offensive player of the year, but also has been named to
watch lists for the Walter Camp Award, Davey O’Brien Quarterback
Award, Maxwell Award and CFPA Offensive Awards.

4: COACHING CAROUSEL: Arkansas State is a contender despite
having its fourth coach in four years. Last year, Gus Malzahn was
in charge. He’s since left for Auburn, replaced by former Texas
co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

5: NEWBIES Texas State and Georgia State enter their first year
in the Sun Belt, while South Alabama enters its second after a 2-11
record in its debut season. Some coaches see Texas State as a
sleeping giant, given its easy access to fertile recruiting grounds
and its hiring of coach Dennis Franchione, who previously coached
at Alabama and Texas A&M.

Predicted order of finish in preseason coaches’ poll:

1. Louisiana-Lafayette (co-favorite)

1. Louisiana-Monroe (co-favorite)

3. Arkansas State

4. Western Kentucky

5. Troy

6. Texas State

7. South Alabama

8. Georgia State

Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/