The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2012

2012 Sunbelt Conference Preview

The Sunbelt Conference has been the lowest-rated conference every year since its inception, but the gap has narrowed quite a bit in the last few seasons.  In fact, had we not brought the Vintage rating into the equation this year, The SBC would have moved out of the basement for the first time.  Taking just the regular PiRate Rating into account, the Sunbelt mean rates .62 points ahead of the WAC.

 

Four new teams have ascended to the ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision of Division I this year.  One of those four is a new member of this conference.  Welcome to the South Alabama Jaguars, a long-time member of the SBC in other sports.  Their coach is former Alabama Crimson Tide star receiver, Joey Jones.

 

Last season, Arkansas State used an explosive hurry-up, no-huddle offense to sweep its conference slate and win the Sunbelt title for the second time.  The Red Wolves lost the GoDaddy.com bowl 38-20 to MAC champion Northern Illinois and finished with a 10-3 record.

 

Then head coach Hugh Freeze capitalized on his first season at the helm to grab the Ole Miss job. 

 

Another first-year coach, Mark Hudspeth, guided his Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns to their first winning record since joining the SBC.  UL won the New Orleans Bowl to finish 9-4.

 

Florida International was the consensus pick by the media to repeat as league champions, but the Golden Panthers finished fourth in the league.  FIU still earned a bowl bid and lost to Marshall in the Beef O’Brady’s bowl.

 

One more team became bowl eligible, but lost out in the selection process.  Western Kentucky, picked to finish in the bottom third of the league (but picked by us to be the surprise team and contend for a winning record) lost its first four games, but then won seven of their last eight, losing only at LSU, to finish 7-5 and alone in second place in the league standings at 7-1.  The Hilltoppers lost by four points to league champ ASU, but by the end of the season WKU was the best team in the conference.

 

Troy and Middle Tennessee, the two former kings of this league suffered through losing seasons, and it sets up a great race for 2012.

 

At the League’s Media Day last month, the preseason poll was released, and Florida International was the overwhelming favorite to regain the title they lost last year.  Here is how the vote went:

 

   

Votes

Pos

Team

1st Pl

Total

1

Florida International

5

92

2

ArkansasState

2

85

3

Louisiana

2

81

4

Western Kentucky

1

70

5

Troy

0

60

6

Louisiana-Monroe

0

47

7

Middle Tennessee

0

46

8

North Texas

0

36

9

FloridaAtlantic

0

23

10

South Alabama

0

14

South Alabama is ineligible in this transition year

 

The PiRate and Vintage ratings bear out similar results, but in a slightly different order.

 

Here is a look at each rating

 

The PiRate Rating

Pos

Team

PiRate

1

Western Kentucky

92.0

2

Florida International

92.0

3

Louisiana

89.6

4

ArkansasState

88.6

5

North Texas

86.0

6

Louisiana-Monroe

85.5

7

Troy

83.5

8

FloridaAtlantic

75.8

9

Middle Tennessee

75.1

10

South Alabama

73.0

  SBC Mean

85.56

 

The PiRate Vintage Rating

Pos

Team

Vintage

1

Western Kentucky

94

2

Florida International

93

3

Troy

91

4

Louisiana

89

5

ArkansasState

87

6

Middle Tennessee

87

7

Louisiana-Monroe

85

8

North Texas

84

9

FloridaAtlantic

82

10

South Alabama

78

  SBC Mean

87

 

 

Team

Arkansas State Red Wolves

               
Head Coach

Gus Malzahn

               
Colors

Scarlet and Black

               
City

Jonesboro, AK

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-0

Overall

10-3

               
PiRate Rating

88.6

               
National Rank

100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

87.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

107

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

7-5

 

Gus Malzahn could have been the Vanderbilt head coach last year, but an eleventh hour backroom decision kept him at Auburn for one more year.  Now, Malzahn tries to take over at Arkansas State, where former coach Hugh Freeze guided the Red Wolves to the 2011 SBC championship.

 

Conference Player of the Year Ryan Aplin returns to pilot the offense, and for a short time, it appeared that he would be blessed with a former two-time 1,000-yard rusher from the SEC.  However, former Auburn star Michael Dyer was denied eligibility for this season.

 

Aplin should have some decent receiving targets, but Malzahn may take more advantage of Aplin’s wheels than Freeze did.  Whereas ASU passed for close to 300 yards in 2011, look for the Wolves to run the ball more this season.

 

Defense is this team’s Achilles Heel, as the unit was decimated by graduation.  All three units will need to rebuild, and we believe opponents could gain an additional 50-60 total yards per game and up to a touchdown more per game this season.

 

Still, Malzahn has a conference title contender as long as Aplin stays healthy.

 

 

Team

Florida Atlantic Owls

               
Head Coach

Carl Pelini

               
Colors

Red, White, and Blue

               
City

Boca Raton, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

0-8

Overall

1-11

               
PiRate Rating

75.8

               
National Rank

117

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

82.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

119

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

1-17

Overall

2-10

 

It was a sad swan song for former coach Howard Schnellenberger, as FAU did not have the horses to compete in the SBC last year.  The Owls wore the collar in league play and managed to squeak by UAB late in the year to win just one time.  FAU was outscored by an average of three touchdowns per game in conference play, and were outgained by 130 yards per game.

 

New coach Carl Pelini arrives from Nebraska where he was his brother Bo’s defensive coordinator.  He won’t see anything resembling the “Blackshirt Defense” from Lincoln.

 

Pelini became the DC at Nebraska in 2008, and in his first year in Huskerland, NU improved the defensive numbers by almost 10 points and 130 yards per game.  His teams are noted for aggressive pass defense, and it would not be a surprise if the Owls’ pass defense improves by 20 or 30 yards per game this year.

 

The problem is on the other side of the ball, as FAU just couldn’t block anybody last year, and the offensive line does not appear to be ready to make a giant leap forward.  Additionally, Pelini plans to install a spread offense and run the option, something this roster is not equipped to handle successfully.

 

The Owls are going to take their lumps again this season, but the 2012 schedule gives them a chance to double their win total.

 

 

Team

Florida International Panthers

               
Head Coach

Mario Cristobal

               
Colors

Blue and Gold

               
City

Miami, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

92.0

               
National Rank

89

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

93.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

93

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

6-2

Overall

7-5

 

The Sunbelt has two co-favorites this year in our opinion.  Florida International is definitely one of those two high-echelon teams.  If the Panthers can get a full season similar to what quarterback Jake Medlock did in his handful of 2011 starts.

 

Running back Kedrick Rhodes is the lone 1,000 yard rusher returning to the league, and he figures to be the leading rusher in the conference this season.

 

The FIU passing game will have to replace the school’s top ever pass receiver, as T Y Hilton used up his eligibility and departs after grabbing more than 70 passes and gaining more than 1,000 receiving yards.

 

As good as the offense is, the defense will be even better this year.  The Panthers return 17 of their top 18 tacklers from a year ago, including the entire back seven starters from a defense that was rather stingy last year. 

 

The conference race should be decided in a handful of key games this season.  FIU plays at Louisiana in late September, hosts Arkansas State on the following Thursday, and hosts Western Kentucky in late October.  Winning two out of those three should give them the conference championship, while winning one out of three could still give them a chance to share the title.

 

 

Team

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

               
Head Coach

Mark Hudspeth

               
Colors

Vermillion and White

               
City

Lafayette, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-2

Overall

9-4

               
PiRate Rating

89.6

               
National Rank

95

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

89.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

104

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

7-5

 

Mark Hudspeth has been a proven winner wherever his whistle has resided.  He built North Alabama into a Division II power, and then he joined Dan Mullen’s staff at Mississippi State and directed the passing game.  In his first year in Lafayette, the Ragin’ Cajuns improved by large numbers in the passing game, and UL tripled its win output from the year before.

 

Blaine Gautier was the top benefactor of the new offensive wizard.  He was a completely different player running the new offense, and the Cajuns improved by 10 points per game.  Gautier easily finished first in the league in passing efficiency, and more of the same is to be expected in his senior season.  UL should have the top offense in the league this year, and the Cajuns could top 35 points per game.

 

The questions are on the other side of the ball, where UL experienced heavy losses from 2011.  The front seven is an uncertainty this year, especially up front where three new starters must be found in the trenches.  If former Georgia tackle Jalen Fields can recuperate from surgery (he is out for the season opener against Lamar), and if former Ole Miss end Delvin Jones can be cleared to play this year, UL should be just fine up front.

 

UL has the advantage of having the league’s best kicking weapon.  Brett Baer is almost a sure thing inside 50 yards.

 

In what should be a tightly-fought race, we think the Cajuns might fall one game short of grabbing a piece of the 2012 Sunbelt title, but that is one game closer than last year.

 

 

Team

Louisiana Monroe Warhawks

               
Head Coach

Todd Berry

               
Colors

Red and Gold

               
City

Monroe, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

4-8

               
PiRate Rating

85.5

               
National Rank

107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

85.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

113

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

3-5

Overall

3-9

 

This is a program that always seems to come up a game or two short from a breakthrough season every year.  The Warhawks have regressed the last two years, and this could be a pivotal year for Coach Todd Berry.  Like his rival in Lafayette, ULM should be improved on offense but take a step back on the stop side, a year after improving the defensive numbers by one full touchdown per game.

 

Quarterback Kolton Browning does not rank up there with Gautier and Aplin, but he is as good as any other signal caller in this league.  Browning is a dual threat, and if he stays healthy taking all the punishment he will get as a runner, he could top 275 yards per game in total offense.

 

The rest of the offense is capable but not flashy.  The running game should average around four yards per attempt, and the passing game should produce close to 250 yards per game.

 

The ULM defensive line will be a liability this year, and the second line of defense may not be much of an asset.  There is some quality in the secondary, but without a viable pass rush, their numbers could take a step back.

 

ULM has a tough out of conference schedule this year with games against Arkansas, Auburn, and Baylor looking like sure losses, and a short trip to New Orleans to play Tulane gives the Hawks a chance to win one time outside the league.

 

 

Team

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

               
Head Coach

Rick Stockstill

               
Colors

Blue and Gray

               
City

Murfreesboro, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

1-7

Overall

2-10

               
PiRate Rating

75.1

               
National Rank

119

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

87.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

108

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

 

It was a long year in Murfreesboro in 2011, and not just on the gridiron.  A long, continued black eye over the building of a Moslem mosque divided the city and brought national attention to this large bedroom community of Nashville.

 

The Blue Raiders did not divert attention away with their worst showing of the decade.  The defense could not get off the field, and the offense could not succeed having to play catch-up early and often.  Wins over lowly Memphis and Florida Atlantic were overshadowed by losses to Louisiana Monroe and North Texas by a combined 101-21!

 

Expect the Blue Raiders to bounce back some this year, but don’t plan on seeing this team play a 13th game.  Middle Tennessee has a long way to go to get back to where they once belonged.

 

Logan Kilgore is a serviceable quarterback, but he will not carry the offense on his shoulders.  This team needs a quality running game to give Kilgore a chance to succeed through the air.  Jeff Murphy should see playing time in the pocket and could eventually displace Kilgore.

 

In 2009 and 2010, when the Raiders went to back-to-back bowls, the running game was potent.  It was closer to impotent last year during the last two months of the season.  Newcomer Drayton Calhoun inherits the starting position after originally signing with LSU.  Calhoun has track sprinter’s speed, and he can take it to the house with just a little daylight.  He should allow the MTSU offense to approach 28-30 points per game this season.

 

The defense must replace the top four tacklers from a year ago, including the top player in the secondary.  While six of the top seven return up front, the secondary will be a major liability even if opposing quarterbacks see more pressure from the Raider pass rush.

 

Middle opens with McNeese State on Thursday, August 30, and the game could have added meaning if Tyrann Mathieu ends transferring there.  The Honey Badger will merit national exposure for this game, and McNeese is talented enough already to compete with and even upset Middle.

 

Team

North Texas Mean Green

               
Head Coach

Dan McCarney

               
Colors

Green and White

               
City

Denton, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

86.0

               
National Rank

105

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

84.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

115

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

6-6

 

If you are looking for this year’s Western Kentucky surprise team, then look no further.  Dan McCarney took over a mess in Denton last year, and the Mean Green started to compete like it was 2001-2004 again.  UNT split their eight conference games and even upset Indiana last year. 

 

Another difficult non-conference schedule will keep North Texas from winning seven games like WKU last year, but the Mean Green could actually contend for the SBC title this year.  McCarney did the same thing at Iowa State, twice coming within one last-minute field goal attempt of winning the Big 12 North Division title with the Cyclones.

 

McCarney’s teams are noted for hard-nosed play.  They play it close to the vest and try to limit turnovers.  They were +8 in turnover margin in their five wins last year.

 

Look for the Mean Green to improve their offensive production this year with most of last year’s key contributors returning this year.  The real star of this team is the offensive line, and four starters return.  The one new starter, Cam Feldt, could actually be the best athlete in the line.  He began his career at Arkansas and is the highest-rated player on this roster.

 

In a league noted for offense, to compete for the conference crown, you must have a strong defense, and that may be the one reason why UNT will come up short this season.  Injuries in August to tackle Ryan Boutwell and defensive back Freddie Warner combined with the loss for the season of fine linebacker Michael Stojkovic means UNT will be more green and less mean on this side of the ball.  Still, McCarney has a knack for getting more out of less, and we believe this team can break even overall and contend in conference play.

 

 

Team

South Alabama Jaguars

               
Head Coach

Joey Jones

               
Colors

Red & Blue

               
City

Mobile, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

0-0

Overall

6-4 (as FCS Independent)

               
PiRate Rating

73.0

               
National Rank

122

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

78.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

123

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

0-8

Overall

2-11

 

This will be a rough welcome for the Jaguars to FBS play.  The program began playing just three seasons ago, and USA went 7-0 and 10-0 in their first two years playing the likes of Georgia Military Junior College, Edward Waters, Henderson State, and Louisburg Junior College.  Last year, the schedule included games against North Carolina State and Kent State.  The Jags lost to the Wolf Pack 35-13 and to the Golden Flashes 33-25.  USA can compete in their first year in the big leagues, but until they prove they can beat a FBS team, we are picking them to lose most of their games.

 

Head coach Joey Jones has scheduled wisely.  The first two games are winnable, and we expect the Jaguars to start 2-0 with wins over UT-San Antonio and Nicholls State. 

 

C. J. Bennett and Ross Metheny will compete for the starting quarterback job.  Bennett started last year, but Metheny is a transfer from Virginia with FBS starting experience.  The receiving corps is not yet up to FBS standards, so expect the passing game to stall at times.

 

The running attack was not all that strong against last year’s competition, and when you factor in sacks, we expect the Jags to average less than 100 rushing yards per game this year.

 

The defense may not be all that bad, but the stop troops will wear down as the offense sputters.  The Jags will give up 150-175 rushing yards per game, and that will allow opposing offenses to convert a lot of third downs.  The more the defense stays on the field, the better opposing quarterbacks will exploit weaknesses in the secondary coverage.

 

 

Team

Troy Trojans

               
Head Coach

Larry Blakeney

               
Colors

Red and Gray

               
City

Troy, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

3-9

               
PiRate Rating

83.5

               
National Rank

108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

91.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

99

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

5-7

 

After dominating the Sunbelt for four seasons from 2001 to 2004, North Texas fell to 2-9 in 2005 and never since has competed in the Sunbelt.  Troy nearly dominated from 2006 to 2010, winning or sharing the league title all five seasons.  Last year, the Trojans experienced a North Texas like fall to 3-9.  Wherefore go the Trojans this year?  Are they doomed to repeat the ill-fated Mean Green and continue to decline for the next half-dozen years?  We think not, but we also believe this team has too far to go to get back to the top.

 

It was the offense that really deserted the Trojan faithful last year, as Troy averaged 12 points and almost 75 yards less in 2011 than in 2010.  The defense gave up 465 yards per game and almost 34 points per game, but that was not much weaker than the 2010 team surrendered in an 8-5 season.

 

Troy rushed for just 66 yards per game in conference play, and that stat wasn’t really skewed by quarterback sacks.  The team could not even run against Florida Atlantic!

 

Opponents concentrated on stopping the passing game, and while Troy upped their passing yardage from the year before, the percentage and yards per attempt fell, and turnovers rose.

 

If Troy can get any semblance of a running game going, the passing game could be explosive.  Quarterback Corey Robinson can be as effective as Aplin or Gautier if he gets some help from the running game.  He has the league’s best set of receivers in Eric Thomas, Chandler Worthy, Justin Albert, and B. J. Chitty.  Worthy is a threat to go the distance on any reception.

 

Troy will win once again with offense, but the defense must improve a little or else 2012 will be another long season in Troy.

 

 

Team

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

               
Head Coach

Willie Taggart

               
Colors

Red and White

               
City

Bowling Green, KY

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-1

Overall

7-5

               
PiRate Rating

92.0

               
National Rank

88

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

94.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

87

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

6-2

Overall

7-5

 

Willie Taggart is proving to be as effective as a head coach as his former mentor, Jim Harbaugh.  Taggart helped Harbaugh’s Stanford offenses become dominating on the ground, and he quickly did the same thing in Bowling Green.

 

Last year, WKU was expected to fare little better than the 2-10 of 2010.  We selected them as our surprise team of the conference, and they did not disappoint.  Thanks to a hard-nosed running attack combined with passing to tight ends (recognize the pattern?), the Hilltoppers earned their first winning record since becoming a FBS school.

 

You would expect Western to have to rebuild do to the loss of the fine running back that led the league in rushing by 500 yards over the number two man.  Bobby Rainey leaves Bowling Green as the school’s all-time leading rusher.  He finished last year with almost 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns.

 

Fret not Hilltopper fans.  Taggart went out and signed perhaps an even better runner.  Anthony Wales is the highest-rated recruit in the league.  Wales may not start immediately, and Taggart might be smart limiting his carries in the first two games.  The Hilltoppers will have no trouble defeating Austin Peay, and they will not compete at Alabama the following week.  By holding him back with limited carries until the third game, WKU could give in-state rival Kentucky some big surprises by making him the feature back in that game.

 

Tight end Jack Doyle has no peer in the SBC.  He returns after leading the team with 52 receptions good for 614 yards.  At 6-6 and more than 250 pounds, it takes two and sometimes three defensive players to bring him down.  He can turn a three yard route into a 15-yard gain.

 

Quarterback Kawaun Jakes returns for his senior season, and he should pass for about 2,000-2,220 yards while running for another 200.  It doesn’t hurt that he has most of his offensive line contributors back, and three holdovers could contend for all league honors.

 

The defense improved by more than eight points per game allowed last year, even though they surrendered about the same amount of yards.  The interior line is going to be much improved with the return of end Quanterus Smith.  Smith led WKU with 11 stops behind the line (second in the league in sacks) and added four quarterback hurries.

 

Mike Linebacker Andrew Jackson registered 17 total tackles for loss last year, while picking up 109 total stops.  Teams cannot run away from him.

 

Western would be our consensus pick to win the SBC title this year, but the Hilltoppers face Louisiana, Florida International, Arkansas State, and Troy on the road.  They will do no better than split these four games, but they should win all four home conference games.

 

Coming Tomorrow, August 18: A look at what’s left of the not so wacky WAC.

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2 Comments

  1. Please note: There is no University of Louisiana, There is the University of Louisiana at Monroe,(ULM) and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL). The state of Louisiana has not, and will not designate any school as the “University of Louisiana”. ULL would love for you to forget that little fact. Look it up and get it right.

    Comment by Pat Mcdonald — August 23, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    • Thanks for the heads up Pat. They are listed as UL-Lafayette in the Nevada Rotation.

      Comment by piratings — August 24, 2012 @ 12:35 pm


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