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Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky lead 2013 Sun Belt preview

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Terrance Broadway (8) racked up 3,616 total yards in the 2012 season.

Will Louisiana-Lafayette reach nine wins for the third consecutive season? How will head coach Bobby Petrino fare in his return to the sideline at Western Kentucky? Can any team from the league upset an SEC foe? Chris Johnson answers these questions and more in his Sun Belt preview. For more coverage, check out SI.com's 2013 college football preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

Sun Belt Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
  Conference Overall
Louisiana-Lafayette 6-1 9-3
Western Kentucky 6-1 8-4
Arkansas State 5-2 8-4
Louisiana-Monroe 4-3 7-5
 
  Conference Overall
Troy 4-3 6-6
South Alabama 2-5 4-8
Texas State 2-5 3-9
Georgia State 0-7 1-11
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Terrance Broadway
2012 stats: 2,842 pass yards, 17 TD, 9 INT; 769 rush yards, 9 TD
2013 projection: 3,221 pass yards, 20 TD, 7 INT; 911 rush yards, 13 TD
After leading Louisiana-Lafayette to its second consecutive New Orleans Bowl victory last season, Broadway returns to head up a high-powered Ragin' Cajuns offense that averaged a conference-best 35.5 points per game in 2012. Broadway is one of the nation's most overlooked dual-threat quarterbacks, but if he can help Louisiana-Lafayette reach nine wins for the third season in a row, it will be tough to ignore this senior.
RICKMAN: 2013 college football schedule guide
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Andrew Jackson
2012 stats: 122 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles
2013 projection: 133 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles
While most of the discussion surrounding Western Kentucky will surely focus on new head coach Bobby Petrino, Jackson should steal away some of the attention. Considered one of the conference's top NFL prospects, he ranked second among Sun Belt players with 122 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss last year. At 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Jackson is a big, hulking middle linebacker, but he also has the speed to make plays in space.
ELLIS: Predicting first-year records for 2013's new coaches
 
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky (in Nashville)
Saturday, Aug. 31
7 p.m. ET
This game could be a huge opportunity for disgraced ex-Arkansas coach Petrino to make a statement in his return to the sideline. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has made major recruiting strides, but most of the players who have committed won't arrive until next year. The Wildcats need to be on upset alert.
 
Arkansas State at Auburn
Saturday, Sept. 7
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
The last two Red Wolves coaches (Hugh Freeze in 2011 and Gus Malzahn in '12) have bolted to major-conference jobs following successful one-year stints in Jonesboro. Could former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin continue that trend? Beating first-year Auburn coach Malzahn would certainly be a good place to start.
 
Louisiana-Monroe at Wake Forest
Saturday, Sept. 14
12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe enters this season on the hot seat, so handling Louisiana-Monroe at home two weeks before ACC play feels like a must. ULM is no stranger to upsets, however; the Kolton Browning-led Warhawks stunned then-No. 8 Arkansas in Fayetteville last season.
 
Key Conference Game
 
Louisiana-Monroe at Louisiana-Lafayette
Saturday, Nov. 30
7 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Both teams should be in contention for the Sun Belt title by the time this crucial matchup rolls around. The Ragin' Cajuns have failed to claim the top spot in the standings in each of the past two seasons, but beating a top league opponent on the penultimate weekend of conference play could give them the edge in 2013.
 
Three Key Questions
 
How will recent realignment moves affect the league going forward? Four former Sun Belt teams (Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee State, Florida International and North Texas) left for Conference USA in the offseason, while two newcomers (Georgia State and Texas State) enter the fold this fall, with more additions set for the next two seasons. It will be interesting to see how the turnover affects the league this year and beyond.
Can Bobby Petrino do enough ito earn consideration as a BCS coaching candidate? The fiasco that led to Petrino's firing at Arkansas could fade into the background if Western Kentucky's new coach leads the Hilltoppers to immediate success. WKU opens with consecutive games against SEC opponents (Kentucky, at Tennessee), so Petrino will have opportunities to prove himself early.
Which team has the best chance to upset an SEC opponent this season? SEC teams routinely schedule Sun Belt foes early in the season as warm-up games before league action begins. Sometimes, surprises happen. Last season, Louisiana-Monroe shocked Arkansas in Fayetteville. Western Kentucky has an opportunity to win state bragging rights if it can beat Kentucky at home, while Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette face winnable road trips at Auburn and Arkansas, respectively.
 
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