Mark Hudspeth and the Ragin' Cajuns were tough to beat in 2013; Photo: USA Today Sports
2013 was a year of re-alignment for the Sun Belt Conference. Georgia State and Texas State joined the fold while FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas exited stage left to Conference USA. Arkansas State's revolving door of coaches had not stopped them from winning the last two Conference Championships in 2011 and 2012 but could they repeat in 2013 and hold off Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe?
Sun Belt at a Glance
Georgia State's entrance into the conference was a tough one as they went 0-12. Texas State didn't fare very well either as they went 6-6 overall but just 2-5 in conference play. Every other team in the conference had a conference record of either 4-3 or 5-2 with Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Troy and Western Kentucky finishing 4-3 and Arkansas State (with yet another first year head coach) and Louisiana-Lafayette finishing at 5-2. The Ragin' Cajuns beat Arkansas State straight up giving them their first conference championship since 2005.
Biggest Surprise: South Alabama Jaguars
With everybody grouped so closely together in conference play, there weren't a lot of surprises in the Sun Belt this season. The Jaguars, who went 2-11 last year (with wins coming over Nicholls State and FAU), took the biggest step forward and beat some solid teams along the way in Tulane, WKU, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. They also won their final three games, giving them some solid momentum heading into 2014.
Biggest Disappointment: Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
The Warhawks weren't awful in 2013, but I was expecting more out of them. With their star QB, Kolton Browning, returning I was pegging them for at least 8-4 with a chance to go higher if they could beat the Cajuns or the Red Wolves. They did beat the Cajuns but they got off to a slow 2-4 start with key losses to Tulane and WKU. They finished 4-3 in the conference, which is respectable, but this was their best chance to go higher and they were unable to get over the hump in 2013.
Best Game: Western Kentucky beats Arkansas State in closing seconds
WKU jumped out in front of the Red Wolves by taking a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter but the Wolves came roaring back. In the second half, these teams traded punches with the lead going back and forth. Arkansas State led in the closing minutes, but WKU went on a 16 play, 99 yard drive that took five minutes and 20 seconds and culminated in a TD pass with just 10 seconds left on the clock to give the Hilltoppers the victory.
Despite having seven teams finish with at least six wins, the Conference sent just two teams to bowl games in 2013 with the biggest snub being the 8-4 WKU Hilltoppers. The good news? Those two teams represented the conference very well as Louisiana-Lafayette beat Tulane 24-21 in the New Orleans Bowl and Arkansas State beat ten win Ball State 23-20 in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Andrews, WKU
The best back in the SBC; Photo: USA Today Sports
Andrews ran for 785 more yards than his closest competition in the Sun Belt. He was the only SBC back to average over 100 yards per game (he averaged 144.1). He also scored 16 rushing TDs and had 41 receptions out of the backfield.
Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year: Xavius Boyd, WKU
Boyd led the SBC in tackles for loss (15.5), was tied for the lead in sacks (7.5) and was second in solo tackles with 68 (he had 103 total tackles). Boyd started off the season on a tear but didn't put up the same stats in the second half as teams started game planning against him. He won the SBC Defensive Player of the week for three straight weeks from week four to week six.
Sun Belt Freshman of the Year: Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
As a freshman, McGuire was part of a solid RB tandem with Alonzo Harris as both of them had over 800 yards rushing and finished third and fourth in the conference. McGuire played the roll of the home run hitter as he averaged 8.38 ypc and had 8 TDs.
Sun Belt Coach of the Year: Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette
A great case could be made for Joey Jones from South Alabama but I'm going with Hudspeth. Before Hudspeth took over in 2011, the Ragin Cajun's didn't rage very much as they hadn't had a winning season since 2005 (when they were just 6-5). Hudspeth has gone 9-4 (and 6-2 in SBC play) in all three of his seasons and has taken his team to the New Orleans Bowl three straight times. Hudspeth is the top coach in the conference and I'm a little shocked nobody has plucked him away yet.
The Sun Belt lost four teams in 2013 and will lose WKU this season. The SBC will try to curb those losses by adding Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State to get the conference to 11 teams. The conference will split into two divisions as the Western Conference will feature Arkansas State, ULM, NMSU and Texas State and in the Eastern Conference will be Appalachian State, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and Troy. 2014 should be interesting but my expectation is that with Hudspeth still at Louisiana-Lafayette, they will be the team to beat as Arkansas State once again announces a new head coach as they head into 2014 (their fifth head coach in five years).