From 2011 to 2013, Arkansas State reigned supreme in the Sun Belt Conference. In the past three seasons, the Red Wolves captured two outright conference titles and shared the honor with Louisiana-Lafayette last year. All good things come to an end though, and with the additions of four schools — Idaho, New Mexico State, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern — ASU’s road to conference supremacy became tougher.
Georgia Southern (9-3, 8-0)
The Eagles shocked the nation last season when they defeated Florida in The Swamp, but nobody could have predicted their first-place finish this season. Unfortunately, since it was Georgia Southern’s first season at the FBS level, the team is ineligible to play in a bowl game.
Led by their dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Kevin Ellison, the Eagles kept opposing defenses guessing with their shotgun triple-option offense. GSU had two 1,000-yard rushers with Ellison (1,096) and running back Matt Breida (1,485) who were key components in earning GSU the nation’s top rushing attack, averaging 381.1 yards per game. Both are sophomores and will likely cause havoc in the Sun Belt for two more years.
Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4, 7-1)
The Ragin’ Cajuns missed out on their opportunity to play Georgia Southern this season and their only loss came from conference newcomer Appalachian State. Like GSU, Lafayette attacked defenses with its rushing attack, which finished 23rd in the country, averaging 229.4 yards per game.
Since Georgia Southern can’t go to a bowl game, ULL will go to the Sun Belt’s first-place bowl game, the New Orleans Bowl. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm predicts the Cajuns to play Pittsburgh from the ACC.
Appalachian State (7-5, 6-2)
It was a rough start for Appalachian State’s first season at the FBS level. The team from Boone, North Carolina, went 1-5 in its first six games, but finished strong and won its last six games.
If it hasn’t become clear yet, the teams in the Sun Belt like to run the ball — and Appalachian State is no different. The Mountaineers finished 19th in the nation, averaging 241.8 rushing yards per game. Sophomore running back Marcus Cox led the team with 1,415 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. The Mountaineers are also ineligible for postseason play because it was their first year at the FBS level.
Arkansas State (7-5, 5-3)
After three years of conference dominance, Arkansas State struggled to capture its fourth title in as many years. The Red Wolves fell victim to arguably one of the conferences best upsets this season, as Appalachian State edged them out 37-32 Nov. 15.
Arkansas State could benefit from the two FBS newcomers (Georgia Southern and Appalachian State) not being bowl eligible. Palm has Arkansas State heading to the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
Texas State (7-5, 5-3)
In its second year in the Sun Belt, Texas State proved its 6-6 season from last season wasn’t a fluke. The Bobcats, like many of their fellow Sun Belt teams, found success running the ball and finished 20th in the nation, with an average of 238.5 yards per game.
Palm has Texas State as the last Sun Belt team to earn a bowl berth, heading to the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Alabama to play against Northern Illinois from the MAC.
South Alabama (6-6, 5-3)
After starting the season 5-2, South Alabama went on to lose four of its last five games. The poor finish could cost the Jaguars their first bowl game in program history. This was their first year being eligible and second year at the FBS level.
In his bowl predictions, Palm has South Alabama getting snubbed with no postseason bowl berth.
Louisiana-Monroe (4-8, 3-5)
The Warhawks proved they could pass the ball and averaged 279.9 yards per game, good for 25th in the nation, but that’s about it. Monroe started the season 3-1, with wins over the ACC’s Wake Forest, Idaho and Troy, but went on to lose six-straight before beating New Mexico State 30-17 on Nov. 22.
Troy (3-9, 3-5)
It was a rough final season for Troy’s legendary coach Larry Blakeney, who is retiring after spending the past 24 seasons as the program’s head coach. The Trojan’s three victories came over the conferences bottom dwellers — Idaho, New Mexico State and Georgia State. The Trojan defense ranked 113th in points against giving up an average of 36.2 points per game.
New Mexico State (2-10, 1-7)
The Vandals should claim the 9th spot in the conference standings, but officially New Mexico State has it because of two wins — one against the Big Sky’s Cal Poly and the other against winless Georgia State.
The Aggies sophomore quarterback Tyler Rogers struggled throughout the year, throwing an interception in every game. He finished with a total of 23 interceptions.
Idaho (1-10, 1-7)
The Vandals improved, but it didn’t result in more wins. Idaho coach Paul Petrino has the program heading in the right direction, and might have found his quarterback of the future with freshman Matt Linehan. He showed glimpses of greatness, but also showed signs of his lack of experience finishing the year with 2,527 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Junior running back Elijhaa Penny might force Petrino to change his pass-happy ways, as he finished the year with 589 yards and 12 touchdowns, most of which came later in the year.
Georgia State (1-11, 0-8)
Georgia State struggled. Its only win was a one-point victory over Abilene Christian from the FCS. The Panther’s defense finished 128th in the nation in points against, giving up an average of 43.3 points per game. This was the team’s second year in the Sun Belt and unlike its fellow Georgia school (Georgia Southern), who found success right away at the FBS level, Georgia State is a long way from a winning season.
Korbin McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org