The Sun Belt isn't as strong top to bottom as some of the power conferences, but plenty of Fantasy talent is still to be found. Few strong running backs return, but the top teams can flat out throw the ball. Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin and Louisiana Lafayette's Blaine Gautier are as good any quarterbacks out there even though they don't have the name-brand identity of their BCS-conference counterparts. Wide receiver also offers a ton of talent, and you can expect to see some high-scoring games, especially when Aplin and Gautier are on the field.
1. Ryan Aplin, QB, Arkansas State: Aplin is one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks and should be even better with former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn taking over as coach of the Red Wolves. Aplin had double-digit rushing touchdowns each of the last two seasons and has a proven set of receivers in Taylor Stockemer, Josh Jarboe and Allen Muse. The only negative for him last season was his 16 interceptions, but look for Aplin to cut that high number this season.
2. Javone Lawson, WR, Louisiana Lafayette: Lawson is the top receiving threat in the Ragin' Cajuns' high-octane offense. He topped 1,000 yards last season with eight touchdowns and had his best games toward the end of the year. Lawson has developed great chemistry with star quarterback Blaine Gautier and should top his impressive numbers from a year ago.
3. Blaine Gautier, QB, Louisiana Lafayette: Gautier returns to pilot the Ragin' Cajuns attack and has an abundance of weapons from which to choose. Lawson, Darryl Surgent and Harry Peoples are back at wide receiver, and Alonso Harris is also a threat out of the backfield. Last season, Gautier threw 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The only knock on Gautier has been his ability to stay on the field. He left two games last season with injury and hasn't proven he can stay healthy for an entire season.
4. Kedrick Rhodes, RB, Florida International: Rhodes is the Sun Belt's top returning running back after rushing for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The big challenge for Rhodes and the Golden Panthers comes in the passing game with the loss of quarterback Wesley Carroll and star receiver T.Y. Hilton to graduation. Defenses likely will stack the line to stop Rhodes until the passing game holds them honest, but whatever Rhodes loses on a per-carry basis he should make up for in workload - the loss of Darriet Perry (131 carries in 2011) should mean more touches. Last season, Rhodes proved he could be a workhorse back, and there's no reason to believe he won't be again this year.
5. Taylor Stockemer, WR, Arkansas State: Stockemer was the Red Wolves' big-play receiver last season and finished with 48 receptions for 756 yards and seven touchdowns. Star wideout Dwayne Frampton graduated, which means Stockemer should slide into the No. 1 role. With standout quarterback Ryan Aplin throwing passes his way, Stockemer should be one of the conference's top receivers.
Josh Jarboe, WR, Arkansas State: The former Oklahoma recruit put up respectable numbers last season with 54 receptions for 730 yards and two touchdowns. The loss of Dwayne Frampton to graduation and the addition of coach Gus Malzahn should only improve his numbers. Plus, he still has Ryan Aplin firing balls his way.
Alonzo Harris, RB, Louisiana Lafayette: Even with the Ragin' Cajuns throwing the ball all over the field, Harris still managed to rush for 700 yards and eight touchdowns. He is by far the most experienced running back Louisiana Lafayette has and is also a receiving threat. The Ragin' Cajuns should put up plenty of points this season, and Harris figures to play a prominent role in the offensive attack.
Harry Peoples, WR, Louisiana Lafayette: Peoples is often the forgotten man behind Javonne Lawson and Darryl Surgent, but he still managed to haul in 58 catches for 697 yards last season. He only caught a single touchdown, but expect that number to increase this season. Tight end Ladarius Green is gone and with him eight touchdown receptions. Quarterback Blaine Gautier throws the ball all over the field and Peoples could benefit greatly while defenses focus on Lawson and Surgent.
Brent Leonard, WR, Louisiana Monroe: Leonard put up good numbers for a bad team last season. He caught 69 passes for 751 yards and four touchdowns, making him especially appealing in PPR leagues. Quarterback Kolton Browning also returns for the Warhawks, so there's reason to believe Leonard can repeat his solid numbers from a season ago, and he'll come cheap.
Kolton Browning, QB, Louisiana Monroe: Ryan Aplin and Blaine Gautier are in a class by themselves in the Sun Belt, and there aren't a lot of appealing options thereafter. Browning threw for 13 touchdowns and ran for five more last season, which makes at least makes him an interesting prospect for the Warhawks. He probably won't put up huge numbers, but he's worth a glance if you're looking for a possible breakout quarterback.
Blaine Gautier, QB, Louisiana Lafayette: Yes, Gautier is one of the nation's top Fantasy stars (see above), but he might be a bigger risk than is acceptable for a top-10 quarterback. First, he has durability issues as he was forced to leave two games early last season. Lafayette gave up 25 sacks last year, and Gautier rushed 118 times, opening himself to more hits. Second, Houston transfer Terrance Broadway likely will see action as well, limiting Gautier's snaps from time to time. Gautier has a ton of weapons in a great offense but also has a couple of red flags, which makes a prototypical high-risk, high-reward pick.
Darryl Surgent, WR, Louisiana Lafayette: Surgent gets a lot of press as the Ragin' Cajuns' big-play threat, but he still only caught 28 passes last year. He might have a few big games, but there will be far too many games with just a few catches. He proved a boom-or-bust receiver last year ( more often the former) with just two games of more than 90 receiving yards. Javonne Lawson is the go-to receiver for Blaine Gautier, and even Harry Peoples might be a safer option than Surgent.
Benny Cunningham, RB, Middle Tennessee State: Cunningham is one of the Sun Belt's top backs but can't seem to stay healthy. He put up big numbers when he played last season, but that was in just eight games. The Blue Raiders also don't have much to offer in the form of a passing game, which doesn't bode well for Cunningham when defenses stack the line.
Eric Thomas, WR, Troy: Thomas came out of nowhere to have a solid season for the Trojans last season, catching 67 passes for 875 yards and nine touchdowns. Why are there doubts that Thomas can repeat those numbers? The biggest reason is Chip Reeves, who returns after missing last season. In 2010, Reeves caught 30 passes for 515 yards and five touchdowns. Expect him to steal at least some of Thomas' targets this season.
Jack Doyle, TE, Western Kentucky: Doyle might be the top tight end in the Sun Belt, but he failed to find the end zone a year ago. He caught 52 passes for 614 yards, giving him value in PPR leagues but leaving him short in standard leagues. In an ineffective (to put it mildly) passing game with a lackluster quarterback in Kawaun Jakes, Doyle doesn't figure to see many more scoring opportunities this season. He'll probably get into the end zone this year, but it likely won't be enough for Fantasy owners.
Team-by-Team Fantasy Stars
(Overall position ranking in parentheses)
Florida Atlantic Owls: None
Florida International Golden Panthers: RB Kedrick Rhodes (21)
Louisiana Monroe Warhawks: WR Brent Leonard (59)
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders: RB Benny Cunningham (63)
North Texas Mean Green: None
South Alabama: None
Troy Trojans: WR Eric Thomas (65)
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: TE Jack Doyle (15)