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Sun Belt 2012 conference preview

Sun Belt 2012 Conference Report
What impact will Gus Malzahn have on Arkansas State? Can Florida International emerge as the conference powerhouse? Will Florida Atlantic be able to win a game? Holly Anderson answers that and more in her Sun Belt preview. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
 ConferenceOverall
FIU8-09-3
Louisiana7-19-3
Arkansas State6-28-4
Western Kentucky5-36-6
North Texas4-45-7
 
 ConferenceOverall
Troy4-45-7
Louisiana-Monroe3-54-8
Middle Tennessee2-64-8
South Alabama1-73-10
FAU0-81-10
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Ryan Aplin
2011 stats: 588 rush yards, 3,588 pass yards, 29 total touchdowns
2012 projection: 615 rush yards, 3,750 pass yards, 32 total touchdowns
Aplin captained a top 20 offense for the Red Wolves last season, ranking 10th nationally on his own in total offensive yardage. And that was before Gus Malzahn became Aplin's head coach. Now that Malzahn has brought his offensive wizardry to Jonesboro, there may not be a player in the college game whose year-over-year development we're more interested in tracking than Aplin's.
 
Defensive MVP
 
DL
Tourek Williams
2011 stats: 23 solo tackles, 11 TFL, 4 sacks, 4 pass breakups
2012 projection: 40 solo tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 8 sacks
Apart from almost sharing a name with a video game dinosaur hunter, Williams is perilously close to breaking all sorts of career tackling and sack records for the Panthers as he enters his fourth full season of competition. (For those of you Big East fans watching last year unfold with increasing horror, this is the guy who recorded two sacks against Louisville.) The Sun Belt's top pro prospect should become a national name as we enter draft season.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Arkansas State at Oregon
Saturday, Sept. 1
10 p.m. ET, ESPN
We fervently wish this contest were scheduled for later in the season. Wouldn't you just swoon to see the Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly offenses both operating at top speed against one another again?
 
Louisiana at Oklahoma State
Saturday, Sept. 15
Noon ET
The Cowboys open the most crucial two-week stretch of the Ragin' Cajuns' season, one that begins with a trip to Stillwater and ends with a visit from FIU.
 
FIU at Louisville
Saturday, Sept. 22
7 p.m. ET
This is a rematch of one of our favorite upset games of 2011, although the Cardinals aren't even FIU's most intimidating nonconference opponent. That honor goes to UCF, whom the Panthers visit the week prior.
 
Key Conference Game
 
Florida Atlantic at South Alabama
Saturday, Oct. 20
TBD
This game presents both teams' best chance for a win in 2012; the loser may very well not take home a single W for the season.
 
Three Key Questions
 
Are we in for a lobster pot of a season? The Panthers, Cajuns and Red Wolves will presumably all be crammed in tight in the race for the top conference spot. It's not hard to imagine each losing to one of the others, although we like FIU to edge out both.
What's Western Kentucky's trajectory? We've knocked the Hilltoppers down a couple slots thanks to attrition and defense, but we've been surprised before by what Willie Taggart can put on the field.
Are we about to see the last of Rick Stockstill? Remember that time the Blue Raiders had Tony Franklin and Manny Diaz? Wasn't that fun?
 
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