CFT predicts: the Sun Belt

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Like other non-power conferences, the Sun Belt will be getting a different look in the near future. Florida International and North Texas are out to Conference USA, while Georgia State and Texas State will enter in 2013.

FIU is the preseason favorite for the second consecutive year and Arkansas State will have a new coach in former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the Sun Belt should shake out:

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

1. Florida International (last season: 8-5; lost Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl) 
Mario Cristobal continues to be the hot coaching commodity, but he turned down Rutgers for another year with FIU. The Golden Panthers are the favorite to win the league this year despite losing receiver T.Y. Hilton.

2. Arkansas State (last season: 10-3; lost GoDaddy.com Bowl)
The Red Wolves have Gus Malzahn as the coach to replace Hugh Freeze. They do not, however, have former Auburn running back Michael Dyer joining them this year, next year or any year. Dyer was dismissed from the team last month after another run-in with the law.

3. Western Kentucky (last season: 7-5) 
Willie Taggart is doing great things at Western Kentucky, and he’ll keep the momentum going this year despite losing the most productive running back in the conference last year in Bobby Rainey. The Hilltoppers have a tough schedule to start, but could end strong.

4. Louisiana-Lafayette (last season: 9-4; won New Orleans Bowl) 
Mark Hudspeth is quickly making a name for himself as one of the hot name coaches in college football. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns return only 12 starters and need to replace practically their entire defense.

5. Troy (last season: 3-9)
The Sun Belt had belonged to Troy for the past couple of years, but a 3-9 campaign last season was an eye-opener. The Trojans could pass the ball, but not much else and were statistically one of the worst teams in 1-A (FBS) football in 2011. The return of nine offensive starters and 15 overall should help.

6. Louisiana-Monroe (last season: 4-8) 
Things should get bad and fast for Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks do have Brent Leonard coming back at receiver, but ULM also has to replace more than half their defensive starters from a year ago.

7. North Texas (last season: 5-7)
Dan McCarney was able to pull UNT out of the dark ages and lead the Mean Green to the most wins  in a season since 2004. UNT has lots of returning starters, but they do lose their key running back, Lance Dunbar. Also, North Texas plays just five home games this season.

8. Middle Tennessee (last season: 2-10) 
The Blue Raiders have been trending down since 2009, but Rick Stockstill isn’t on the hot seat just yet. Another year like 2011, though? Things could be warming up. Like North Texas, MTSU only plays five home games this year.

9. Florida Atlantic (last season: 1-11) 
Legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger has had better departures than the one he had at FAU. Ex-Nebraska assistant Carl Pelini will try to get the Owls back into the postseason and has added former Ohio State and Alabama wide receiver Duron Carter. 

10 South Alabama (last season: 6-4 in FCS) 
South Alabama, already a Sun Belt basketball member, finally makes its football debut. Even in a mostly terrible league, the Jaguars will struggle despite a relatively soft non-conference schedule.

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ‘em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

ACC
Big East
Big Ten
Big 12
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
SEC
WAC
Independents

Drag racing accident leads to arrest for Mississippi State commit

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Mississippi State commit Nathaniel Watson has gotten himself into some legal trouble before his arrival at Mississippi State. Watson, currently a high school senior, was charged with assault first degree and a handful of traffic violations following a traffic accident earlier this month. Another student from Watson’s high school was arrested for reckless endangerment and other traffic violations as well. The two are accused of drag racing.

“The accident occurred after Tyrone Davis, also a student at [Maplesville High School], lined up in front of the school with his vehicle along with Nathaniel Watson’s vehicle for a race, witnesses stated that they lined up side by side and floored it, and both vehicles were squalling their tires and fishtailing up the highway heading into town,” according to an Maplesville Police Department press release (via The Clanton Advertiser). “As the racing vehicles topped a hill, an oncoming car caused Nathaniel Watson Jr. to swerve and lose control striking a power pole, cutting it in half and knocking power out to portions of Maplesville.”

A passenger in Watson’s vehicle suffered a crushed femur, fractured pelvis, a broken right arm and internal injuries. Neither vehicle involved in the accident was insured. Watson currently awaits a date in court in a county court. There has been no update or comment from Mississippi State’s football program or head coach Joe Moorehead about Watson or his status with the football program at this time.

Watson signed with Mississippi State on February 7. The wide receiver and two-sport athlete signed with Mississippi State over Auburn.

NCAA rule prevents Penn State football players from participating in THON activity

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This weekend is the annual THON dance marathon at Penn State, which has traditionally done wonders in racking up donations to help fight pediatric cancer. This year, however, the NCAA rulebook is getting in the way of one of the events members of Penn State’s football team typically participate in.

A message from Penn State informed media members there would be no media availability for football players at the THON event at the Lasch Building due to an NCAA rule regarding time restrictions in the offseason.

“We were informed this afternoon that due to the NCAA Time Management regulations, our current student-athletes are not permitted to participate in the THON event at the Lasch Building nor conduct media interviews [today] as it is a mandatory day off for the team,” a statement from Penn State Associate Director of Athletic Communications Kris Petersen said.

Members of Penn State’s football team have typically spent part of the day interacting with kids benefitting from THON’s mission, but that has tended to overlap with offseason days already scheduled through the athletics department for the football program. Because this was a scheduled day off for the football program, players are not permitted to take part in any organized activity while representing the football team. Although, one wonders just how far the NCAA would have been willing to challenge Penn State on this infraction in the event there was a conflict.

Players on the team can still participate and appear at the main event in the Bryce Jordan Center, and a couple already have along with head coach James Franklin.

Georgia football coaches all getting well-deserved raises

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File this one under stories that should have been expected from a mile away. The football staff at Georgia, following up on an SEC title and appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game, are getting bumps in pay. As a whole, the assistant coaching staff under head coach Kirby Smart will be paid roughly $2 million more than the staff received a year ago, according to a report from Seth Emerson of Dawg Nation.

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will see the biggest pay raise with of $900,000 to bump his total pay up to $1.5 million. That would make him one of the top assistant coaches in assistant coaching salaries. Based off last year’s USA Today salary database, Tucker would be the fifth highest-paid assistant coach, and that may even be higher now given some of the offseason changes in the assistant coaching pool. Last year, four assistant coaches received a total pay of at least $1.5 million, and three of them were in the SEC (LSU’s Dave Arranda and Matt Canada, and Texas A&M’s John Chavis; Clemson’s Brent Venables was the outlier).

Keeping in line with another growing trend when it comes to power conference programs and how much money is budgeted for the football staff, Georgia will give strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Sinclair a $150,000 raise from his previous contract of $300,000.

What has not been finalized, publicly at least, is what the future holds for the contract of Smart. After a wildly successful season, Smart is expected to receive a raise as well as Georgia continues to build something special under his leadership after just two seasons. Smart was paid a base salary of $3.75 million last year, according to USA Today’s salary database, which made him the 9th highest-paid coach in the SEC in 2017. That is fair, considering Smart was a first-time head coach and other coaches in the conference had more head coaching experience, but Smart has quickly proven himself among his peers in the conference and is likely to move up the SEC coaching salary ranking quite quickly. Nick Saban (Alabama) and now Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M) may still be on another playing field in terms of salary, but Smart should manage to move up closer to the high-end of the SEC salary spectrum.

Purdue raises $388,000 in beer and wine sales at football games

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Around the nation, college football attendance took a downward trend, but the Big Ten was the rare conference to see an increase in attendance. At Purdue, not only did more fans attend games in the first season under new head coach Jeff Brohm, but Purdue saw a revenue surplus fueled by the expanded sale of alcoholic beverages at football games.

According to The Journal & Courier, Purdue athletic department recorded $567,000 in gross revenue, of which $388,000 was generated from the sale of beer and wine last fall at football games in Ross-Ade Stadium. It was the first time alcohol sales had been expanded to the entire football stadium, as opposed to limited offerings in premium sections of the stadium.

“In general, it was very positive and it added to the game day experience. Fans responded to it,” athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “We’ve talked to our concessionaire group (Levy Restaurants) about how we can improve the operation so we don’t create bottlenecks and long lines that cause people to miss extended periods of the game. It was a really good start.”

The success of expanded alcoholic beverages at football games at Purdue continues a growing trend of alcoholic sales at athletic events around the country and will only help to encourage other schools to explore similar options if they have not already. Ten schools in the Big Ten already offer alcohol sales to fans at football games, but Purdue is just one of four to currently offer the sales throughout the majority of their football stadium.

The games that saw the most amount of money spent on alcohol at a Purdue home football game were the Michigan and Indiana games, with $88,341 and $98,223 spent on alcohol, respectively. Bottoms up, indeed.

The other chunk of revenue that helped pad Purdue’s budget sheet was a season-opening game in Indianapolis against Louisville. The game was played in Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts, and each school received a check for $805,267.