Welcome to another installment of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference previews, and as usual, the Sun Belt Conference begins the journey.
The league has been improving on a yearly basis. Three seasons ago, the teams in the Sun Belt won just four of 37 games against FBS opposition. They also were 15-21-1 against the spread (ATS) in those contests. Two years ago, the numbers jumped to 10-25 straight up (SU) and 19-16 ATS, and last year, the conference went 11-21 SU and 21-11 ATS.
Time now to take a deeper look into the league, along with predicted SU (overall and conference) records for those wagering on over/unders for total team victories. The over/under number posted is for the entire season, not conference totals. In addition, all statistics provided in the offense and defense sections are from conference-only play unless otherwise indicated. (All odds to win the league title and totals courtesy of 5Dimes.)
8) GEORGIA STATE (500-1) - The Panthers covered the spread in last year's meeting at Tennessee.
Offense - Trending down. Georgia State averaged 17 points per game (ppg) in 11 total games last season. Expect that number to fall even lower in Sun Belt play without last year's leading rusher.
Defense - Trending down. The Panthers lost four of their top seven tacklers, including both safeties, who combined for five interceptions.
Prediction - The Panthers play nine games against FBS squads this season. They'll be lucky to win one of them. Over/under total - 2.5 (1-11, 0-7).
7) TROY (8-1) - The Trojans are 2-10 as home favorites the last three years.
Offense - Trending down - Yours truly predicted improved scoring in this spot last year and the offense went from 22 to 31 ppg. However, most of the improvement was due to a far superior ground attack, and this season the Trojans break in a new starting running back and four new starting linemen.
Defense - Trending down - The last four years the defense has allowed a combined average of 27 ppg. The combined number for the prior four seasons was 10 points lower. The 2013 defense is without last year's top four tacklers, and with very few junior college transfers coming in, the unit will be worse.
Prediction - The Trojans have to travel to Louisiana, Arkansas State and Western Ky this season meaning they could have their worst record since joining the FBS. Over/under total - 5.5 (3-9, 2-5). At +155, the under on Troy is the Sun Belt's main over/under play.
6) SOUTH ALABAMA (400-1) - The Jaguars failed to win and cover their final five games a year ago.
Offense - Trending steady. Surprisingly, South Alabama did not rank last in scoring, averaging 22 ppg. Still, a huge improvement is unlikely due to the loss of three starting linemen.
Defense - Trending up. The defense was last in scoring, but fared better in quarterback completion percentage (fourth) and in third-down efficiency (third). The unit should improve in its second year in the Sun Belt.
Prediction - The Jaguars have to play the top three Sun Belt teams at home so even though this year's squad will be better than last year's, it won't show in their record. Over/under total - 2.5 (3-9, 2-5).
5) TEXAS STATE (300-1) - The Bobcats went 7-4 ATS last year, including a 3-1 mark in their final four games.
Offense - Trending down. The offense lit up other Western Athletic Conference teams to the tune of 36 ppg. However, a drop-off is expected with the switch to the more defensive-minded Sun Belt Conference. In addition, the Bobcats turned the ball over just five times in six league games a season ago and that number is sure to rise in 2013.
Defense - Trending up. Texas State ranked third in scoring, but last in total defense, last year. This season, the defense gets instant help from a pair of transfers - defensive lineman D.J. Yendrey (TCU) and linebacker Michael Orakpo (Colorado State).
Prediction - A much easier schedule puts Texas State in line for a .500 record. At 300-1 to win the conference, the Bobcats are worth a few dollars. Over/under total - 5.5 (6-6, 3-4).
4) WESTERN KY (2.75-1) - The Hilltoppers are 7-0 as road underdogs the last two years.
Offense - Trending steady. Bobby Petrino replaces Willie Taggart as head coach meaning new schemes. In his final season at Arkansas, the Razorbacks threw the ball 53 percent of the time. Last year, Western Ky ran the ball 60 percent of the time. The system change will curtail any major scoring improvement.
Defense - Trending up. After leading the conference in rushing defense two years ago, the Hilltoppers dropped to sixth in 2013. Even though they lose all four starting linemen, an experienced back seven will keep the points down.
Prediction - The Hilltoppers will struggle early, but pick it up in the second half, to win six games on the season. Over/under total - 6.5 (6-6, 4-3).
3) LOUISIANA (8-5) - The Ragin' Cajuns are an incredible 15-1 ATS in their last 16 games as road underdogs, with seven outright wins.
Offense - Trending steady. I mentioned last year that the 2012 group could be even more dangerous than the 2011 unit and that was true as Louisiana averaged five more ppg. Unfortunately, both longtime starting tackles depart so don't expect another move forward.
Defense - Trending steady. The Ragin' Cajuns were last in pass defense, total defense and yards allowed per play a year ago. Only four of the top nine tacklers return in 2013 so another below average defense is on its way.
Prediction - This team is somewhat similar to last year's when it won nine games. Over/under total - 8.5 (9-3, 5-2).
2) ARKANSAS STATE (5-1) - The Red Wolves are 15-5 ATS as favorites the last three years.
Offense - Trending steady. Former Utah State quarterback Adam Kennedy takes over for Ryan Aplin so the offensive production might not suffer as much as one would think. The rest of the pieces are in place for another solid attack.
Defense - Trending steady. Last year's defense ranked first in scoring even with the return of only four starters. This year's defense returns five starters and twice the percentage of sacks compared to 2012, so similar if not slightly better numbers should be expected.
Prediction - Not many publications believe in last year's champ as the majority of them have Arkansas State finishing third or fourth. Don't underestimate the Red Wolves, especially since they play just three conference road games. Over/under total - 8.5 (9-3, 6-1). Arkansas State is the value play to win the Sun Belt as the 5-1 fourth choice.
1) ULM (8-5) - The Warhawks are 9-2 as road favorites over the last 10 years.
Offense - Trending down. Kolton Browning was outstanding in his freshman and junior seasons but shaky as a sophomore. The key question for ULM is: Will he revert back or move forward? Look for a slight reversal, particularly since this will be his first season without the previous year's top receiver.
Defense - Trending way up. The Warhawks will lead the league in scoring and total defense. They are stacked from top to bottom, similar to 2006 when the defense allowed 16 ppg. This unit will chop off around 10 ppg from last year when it gave up 27 ppg.
Prediction - ULM is a team with very few weaknesses. Over/under total - 8.5 (9-3, 6-1).