A new wave of conference realignment began with Colorado's announcement on June 1, 2010 that it would be leaving the Big 12 to join the PAC-10. Announcements by Nebraska and Boise State soon followed and the college football conference landscape has been in a state of flux ever since. The Sun Belt had remained unscathed until Conference USA began plucking members to replace several teams it will be losing to the Big East in 2013.
The Sun Belt adds South Alabama from the FCS this season.
Next year, the Sun Belt is scheduled to lose FIU and North Texas to Conference USA to help that league with its losses of Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF to the Big East. The Sun Belt counters its losses with the additions of current FCS member Georgia State and first-year WAC member Texas State (FCS transition).
FIU shared the 2010 Sun Belt title with Troy, while North Texas won or shared the title for the first four years of the league's existence from 2001-2004.
South Alabama began its football program in 2009 and competed as an unclassified NCAA school in 2009 and 2010, winning all 17 games it played. The teams' first 9 games, including all 7 contests in 2009, were played on the school's home field, Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. The Jaguars were an FCS independent in 2011 and went 6-4 against a schedule that included road trips to FBS members North Carolina State (L, 35-13) and Kent State (L, 33-25). South Alabama's first and only head coach is Joey Jones whose lone previous coaching experience at the collegiate level came as the head coach at Division III Birmingham-Southern from 2006-2007. South Alabama, which is also referred to as "USA", will not be eligible for the Sun Belt title or a bowl game until 2013.
Georgia State began its football program in 2010 under the leadership of Bill Curry, the former head coach of Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. As a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team, the Panthers went 6-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a 3-8 campaign in 2011. The school will compete in the Colonial Athletic Association this year before moving to the Sun Belt for 2013. Georgia State will not be able to compete for the Sun Belt title or a bowl game until 2014.
Texas State is a member of the WAC for this season, but is also ineligible for that conference's title or a bowl game. The Bobcats will be a full-fledged FBS member when they switch to the Sun Belt in 2013. The Texas State football program played its first season in 1904 and has won 14 conference championships at the intercollegiate, division II and FCS levels. The team is coached by Dennis Franchione, former head coach New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M.
Last season saw the Sun Belt title go to Arkansas State which went undefeated in conference play (8-0) and 10-3 overall. In his first and only season in Jonesboro, Hugh Freeze led the school to just its second bowl bid, a year after the Red Wolves had gone 4-8 in 2010. Unfortunately for Arkansas State faithful, the celebratory year made Freeze so popular that Ole Miss hired him away on December 5.
Gus Malzahn was introduced on December 14 as the new head coach at Arkansas State, but offensive coordinator David Gunn served as interim head coach in the 38-20 GoDaddy.com Bowl loss to Northern Illinois.
Malzahn served as Auburn's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the past three seasons after serving in the same capacity for two seasons at Tulsa and one at Arkansas.
FAU is the only other team that will face the 2012 season with a new head coach as Carl Pellini succeeds retiring legend Howard Schnellenberger. Pellini spent the last four years as Nebraska's defensive coordinator under his brother, Bo.
Schnellenberger was 77 years old when he announced on August 11, 2011 that he would retire at the end of the 2011 season. The deep-voiced, mustachioed icon led the Miami Hurricanes to the 1983 national title. He was hired to start the FAU football program which began play in 2001, and he guided the Boca Raton school to a 11-year record of 58-74 (30-44 since becoming a fully qualified FBS member in 2006), including 2-0 in bowl games. He is 158-151-3 overall, but only 4 of his previous 26 campaigns have finished with his team ranked in the Coaches' or AP polls. The Owls were a dismal 1-11 in his final season.
Three Sun Belt teams welcomed new head coaches last season - the aforementioned Freeze, Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana-Lafayette and Dan McCarney at North Texas.
Hudspeth's first year with the Ragin' Cajuns saw that school improve its record from 3-9 in 2010 to 9-4 in 2011, including a 32-30 victory over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl, the school's first-ever bowl appearance.
North Texas improved from 3-9 to 5-7 in McCarney's first season for the Mean Green's best finish since 2005 when they went 6-5. The Congrove Computer Rankings' preseason forecast had projected a 4-8 campaign for North Texas. It was the first time since 2006 that those rankings failed to predict North Texas' exact record. The Mean Green are picked to go 5-7 again this season while going 4-4 in Sun Belt play. However, two of the projected conference losses - home vs. Arkansas State and on the road at Louisiana-Monroe - are by less than a half-point.
FIU is the computer's projected champion of the conference this year, though Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette will mount stiff challenges.
The Golden Panthers are forecasted to go 11-1 overall and undefeated (8-0) in conference play. But, FIU was also the computer's choice last year when it was picked to go 10-2, 7-1 and the squad came up short of those expectations by turning in final marks of 8-5 overall and 7-1 in the Sun Belt. FIU's only projected loss is a mere 0.06-point setback at home to Louisville, although the team also gets narrow winning advantages at UCF (0.23), at La.-Lafayette (0.63), and at home versus Western Kentucky (1.61). Last year, the Golden Panthers defeated Louisville on the road and UCF at home.
Western Kentucky went 7-5 a year ago but was kept out of the postseason despite its 7-1 conference record. It is the expected 2nd-place finisher in 2012 with anticipated records of 10-2 overall and 7-1 in league play. It's a program on the rise after accumulating just 4 total victories in its first three years as an FBS squad, going 2-10 in 2008 and 2010 and winless in 2009.
Louisiana-Lafayette checks in at No. 3. The Ragin' Cajuns are expected to repeat their 2011 performance of an 8-4 regular season and 6-2 conference campaign.
As for defending champion Arkansas State, Malzahn's first season as head coach is forecasted to reap a 7-5 season and a 4th-place conference record of 5-3.
La.-Monroe fans must wonder what their own athletic director has against his own team. The Warhawks have a bye for the first week while their first three opponents get a game's worth of experience under their belts. And what are their first three games? - at Arkansas in Little Rock, at Auburn, and at home vs. Baylor. Given that rough start, the computer's 5-7 projection may be generous.
None of the other six teams are predicted to reach the .500 level, but the most surprising performance among that bunch may be turned in by South Alabama. If the computer is correct, the transitioning Jaguars will enjoy a modestly successful 4-9 season and pick up a pair of conference home victories over FAU and Middle Tennessee in addition to non-conference wins over UTSA and Nicholls State (FCS).