NEW ORLEANS – Although the Sun Belt Conference is in flux right now, all four of the league's bowl teams from last season are back.
Two of them are co-favorites to win the league — according to a preseason coaches' poll — and happen to be in-state rivals: Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. The other two are two-time defending league champion Arkansas State and Western Kentucky, which became the landing spot for Bobby Petrino's coaching comeback after the former Arkansas coach spent a season away from football
This should be Petrino's only season in the Sun Belt because WKU jumps to Conference USA next season. He hopes to have the Hilltoppers on top of the league and in a second-straight bowl, but the former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach doesn't expect it to be easy, and noted how far the once-fledgling mid-major league has come in its 13 years.
"When you look back on the success that the Sun Belt had last year, it just speaks for itself," Petrino said. "You had four teams go to bowl games and some really major upsets. ... It's going to be very, very competitive."
Petrino was referring to Louisiana-Monroe's comeback win at Arkansas. He also recalled how close Louisiana-Lafayette came to upsetting Florida before the Gators returned a blocked punt for a score in the final seconds. ULM also nearly won at Auburn.
"To me, the strength of our conference is still here, intact," said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, who's led the Ragin' Cajuns to two straight New Orleans Bowl triumphs.
After an Independence Bowl berth last season, ULM coach Todd Berry said he would have been disappointed if his Warhawks weren't a favorite, particularly in light of the experience coming back, led by quarterback Kolton Browning, the league's preseason offensive player of the year, who passed for more than 3,000 yards last season.
"In today's college football, when you've got a quarterback, you've got a chance," Berry said. "We've got a quarterback, so we've got a chance."
Coaches picked Troy to finish fifth, but the Trojans and coach Larry Blakeney know how to win, having won five straight league titles from 2006-2010. Last season, all but one of their seven losses came by a touchdown or less, so they don't seem far behind.
5 THINGS TO WATCH
1: PETRINO'S PRESENCE. Petrino is 75-26 in eight seasons as a Division I college head coach, missing out on a bowl only once. He led both Louisville and Arkansas to their first BCS games and if not for off-the-field problems, he might still be coaching the Razorbacks. Arkansans fired Petrino in April 2012 for a "pattern of misleading" behavior following an accident in which the coach was injured while riding a motorcycle with his mistress as a passenger. At WKU, The 52-year-old Petrino replaces Willie Taggart, who left for South Florida after leading the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 regular season record and bid to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2: BROADWAY ENCORE: Ragin' Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway burst onto the scene last year because of an early season injury to starter Blaine Gautier. The dual-threat QB wound up producing 3,611 yards of total offense, including 769 yards on the ground. Now he's on the 2013 watch list for the Manning Award, giving to the nation's top college quarterback.
3: BROWNING'S SWAN SONG: Browning enters his senior season at ULM with a host of preseason accolades. Not only is he the Sun Belt preseason offensive player of the year, but also has been named to watch lists for the Walter Camp Award, Davey O'Brien Quarterback Award, Maxwell Award and CFPA Offensive Awards.
4: COACHING CAROUSEL: Arkansas State is a contender despite having its fourth coach in four years. Last year, Gus Malzahn was in charge. He's since left for Auburn, replaced by former Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.
5: NEWBIES Texas State and Georgia State enter their first year in the Sun Belt, while South Alabama enters its second after a 2-11 record in its debut season. Some coaches see Texas State as a sleeping giant, given its easy access to fertile recruiting grounds and its hiring of coach Dennis Franchione, who previously coached at Alabama and Texas A&M.
Predicted order of finish in preseason coaches' poll:
1. Louisiana-Lafayette (co-favorite)
1. Louisiana-Monroe (co-favorite)
3. Arkansas State
4. Western Kentucky
6. Texas State
7. South Alabama
8. Georgia State
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/