Five things about the Sun Belt

NEW ORLEANS -- The Sun Belt begins its 12th season as the No. 11 conference (out of 11) in FBS.

The doesn't mean there aren't intriguing storylines. Gus Malzahn decided to begin his head coaching career at Arkansas State. Florida International is trying to hold onto Mario Cristobal. The same goes for Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana-Lafayette which played (and won) its first bowl game in 41 years.

It is a league that owes part of its existence to the innovative Karl Benson, who took over as commissioner for Wright Waters in April. The constituted league is going to get bigger, hopefully better.

Here are five high-minded issues for the nation's lowest-ranked conference heading into its media day on Monday.

Just what the heck is Gus Malzahn doing Arkansas State? Officially, it was an opportunity the offensive couldn't pass up. He's tight with the governor of the state. The Red Wolves are coming off a 10-win season.

Unofficially, this move is odder than Pat Boone rapping. Malzahn's career had been on upswing until this move – Arkansas, head coach at Tulsa, offensive coordinator for national champion Auburn. This puts Malzahn's career track at risk. Sure, he could stick around Jonesboro a couple of years trying to duplicate Hugh Freeze's 2011 success before jumping to a sexier job. He could also find his coaching reputation damaged playing the typically brutal non-conference schedule. (There are trips to Oregon and Nebraska this season).

It's hard to determine, but a video featuring his wife may have damaged his chances at places like Kansas and North Carolina. Kristi Malzahn looks quirky in this video that went viral in the offseason. Some contend it was edited by forces hostile to Auburn, his old employer. Regardless, this remains a strange and risky place to start a head coaching career for the man who helped Cameron Newton win the Heisman.

SBC MVP: Ryan Alpin is the next Newton, Sun Belt version. If nothing else, Arkansas State's quarterback is going to benefit from Malzahn's teaching. Pencil in Alpin for Sun Belt player of the year. In 2011, he led the league in passing and was top 10 in rushing while accounting for 29 touchdowns.

Fill us in on the new commissioner: Benson left the WAC after that league's presidents made the hideous mistake of running him out. Something about Boise leaving for the Mountain West. The Broncos have since left the Mountain West for the Big East (beginning in 2013) so you can't pin that one on Benson.

The former Boise State shortstop oversaw some of the best times in WAC history when the Broncos (twice) and Hawaii played in BCS bowls. He quickly shored up the Sun Belt adding South Alabama this season as well as Georgia State and Texas State beginning in '13.

Don't be surprised if the conference expands to 12 (at least) in the near future. Then, don't be surprised if the next Boise comes out of the Sun Belt.

The Hotness: While we wonder why Malzahn came to the league, it's equally strange why Florida International's Mario Cristobal is still in the league.

In five seasons, the former Miami offensive tackle and assistant coach has the Panthers poised for their third consecutive bowl game and second conference title (shared in 2010). Just like great Hurricane coaches before him, Cristobal has recruited heavily from the area. Miami can't have them all. Plus, unlike Miami, FIU will be eligible for a bowl this season.

Cristobal turned down interest from Pittsburgh and Rutgers in the offseason. Unless the bottom falls out at FIU, this will be his final season with the Panthers.

Oh, those body bag games: The league went 2-18 against BCS level competition last season which was actually an improvement. The Sun Belt was 0-26 against BCS schools in 2010.

It is a Sun Belt necessity to play up in order to play the bills. It is the eternal business/collegiate struggle. How much is it worth to get your brains kicked in? So far, a lot. It would be nice for everyone if the Sun Belt won a few more of these games. We love upsets. The SBC would love the attention.

Games to watch (or not) this season: Arkansas State at Oregon, Louisiana-Lafayette at Oklahoma State, North Texas at Kansas State and Baylor at Louisiana-Monroe.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
 
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