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

No. 11 USC needs special teams trickery to help hold halftime lead over UCLA

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The city of Los Angeles came out to the Coliseum expecting a high-scoring blowout but what most of the crowd came to see was a good old fashioned Pac-12 slugfest between No. 11 USC and their crosstown rivals UCLA. In a battle between two of the best college quarterbacks in the country, it was the Trojans’ Sam Darnold who managed to secure the lead 14-7 going into halftime but needed a little help along the way from his teammates to get there.

The signal-caller in cardinal and gold finished the first two quarters with 132 yards passing in another efficient —  if unspectacular — performance behind center, combining with tailback Ronald Jones (88 yards, one touchdown) to help rack up most of the offense for the home team at the Coliseum. Despite being able to move the ball up the field fairly well, USC needed a little help from the third phase of the game in order to jump out in front on the scoreboard.

That came on an amazing special teams play in the first quarter that included a little trickeration on the part of the Trojans, shifting the return team to the right with a decoy return man while Michael Pittman fielded the punt along the left sidelines and went 72 yards nearly untouched for the touchdown.

The Bruins responded however and marched right down the field for a touchdown on a Josh Rosen pass. The potential first round draft pick had the better half of the two quarterbacks outside of a late strip sack, hitting several big plays down the field and finishing with 228 yards at the break. The running game wasn’t much to write home about to the surprise of nobody on the UCLA sidelines but it was an encouraging effort for a team that hasn’t had many the past few weeks.

We’ve seen some surprises on both sides of this rivalry game and it’s not hard to think we could be in for another close, fun second half based on how these two teams played the first two quarters. Whoever manages to make halftime adjustments will likely emerge victorious but both teams are very much in this game to the dismay of the home crowd.

Love quiet as Stanford leads Cal at the half

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Stanford is halfway to keeping its namesake Axe. The Cardinal leads Cal 10-6 at the break in Palo Alto.

Stanford broke a 3-3 tie by moving 70 yards in 10 plays, the last 17 on a K.J. Costello pass to Kaden Smith. Costello hit 11-of-20 passes for 131 yards with a touchdown and an interception on the final play of the half.

Cal moved inside the Stanford red zone with a chance to tie, but the drive stalled at the 9-yard line and Matt Anderson booted a 26-yard field goal to pull the Bears within 10-6 with 2:43 left in the half.

On a night when he could win some points back in the Heisman race, Bryce Love has carried just six times for 17 yards.

Cal will receive to open the second half.

Report: Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall a person of interest in Oregon State coach search

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This is an intriguing potential development.

With Gary Andersen abruptly and unexpectedly stepping down earlier this season, Oregon State finds itself on the hunt for a new head football coach.  On the same day the Beavers fell to 1-10 on the lost season, a new name surfaced as a reported possibility: Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

At least, according to John Canzano of The Oregonian, who lists Mendenhall as a person of interest in the search.  Canzano writes that Mendenhall “interviewed for the job in 2014 and was the runner-up when Andersen was hired,” then goes on to put him on OSU’s short list, along with Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.

Mendenhall, should he decide to jump ship, certainly has ties to that area of the country — and to the university.

Born in Utah, Mendenhall began his collegiate playing career at an in-state junior college before transferring to, you guessed it, OSU for his last two years of eligibility.  He then began his coaching career with the Beavers as a graduate assistant and defensive line coach in 1989-90.  He then returned to his alma mater in 1995 as line coach, spending the following season as defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.  Nearly a decade later, he became the head coach at BYU, spending 11 seasons with that program before abruptly leaving for the Virginia job after the 2015 season.

After going 99-43 with the Cougars, and after a 2-10 first season in Charlottesville, Mendenhall has the Cavaliers bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.

Tennessee fumbles its way to a halftime deficit vs. LSU

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If only Marquez Callaway could catch a punt. Callaway’s two fumbled punts handed LSU 10 of its 17 points as Tennessee trails 17-10 at the half at a windy, rainy Neyland Stadium.

Callaway’s first fumble came at his own 15 yard line, which LSU’s Russell Gage hopped on. The Tigers gained only two yards on the ensuing possession, but it was enough to allow Connor Culp to knock through a 30-yard field goal.

Tennessee answered with a 14-play, 53-yard drive that killed over half a quarter. The 7-minute, 39-second march ended at the LSU 27-yard line, allowing Aaron Medley to tie the game with a 45-yard boot with 13:59 left in the second quarter.

LSU’s offense went three-and-out again, but Callaway again fumbled the ensuing punt, which Michael Divinity, Jr. grabbed at the Tennessee 19. LSU’s offense capitalized this time, as Darrel Williams rushed in from 10 yards out to put the Tigers up 10-3 with 11:31 left in the frame. 

Tennessee strung together another double-digit play drive that ended at nearly the exact same spot as the previous one — this one was the 28 — but swirling winds pushed Medley’s 46-yard field goal (far, far) wide left.

But as the weather picked up, both offenses came alive.

LSU closed the half by putting up its first self-made points of the night. The Tigers needed only 28 seconds to move 61 yards as Danny Etling hit Derrick Dillon for a 12-yard completion, Williams rushed for 36 yards and Etling carried for a 13-yard touchdown with 2:08 left in the first half. Etling conected on 8-of-12 passes for 50 yards, and Williams led all rushers with 50 yards on three carries. Derrius Guice mustered only four carries for 10 yards.

The Vols struck back after LSU’s score, moving 75 yards in four plays and 45 seconds. Jarrett Guarantano hit Callaway for consecutive long passes, one for 26 yards and another for 46, which Callaway caught through pass interference and turned into a touchdown with 1:23 left in the first half.

hit 10-of-12 passes for 144 yards, and John Kelly led the Vols with 17 carries for 29 yards.

A 53-yard Culp field goal clanged off the right upright as time expired.

Tennessee will receive to open the second half.