Before every college football season, there are projections, prognostications and opinions, and inevitably, most are wrong. Whether those inaccuracies come because of bias, injury or something that’s just downright weird, the reason college football is so endearing is the fundamental and romantic concept that anything can happen on a Saturday in the fall — even for our team.
With that in mind, we turn to the computer — the soulless, loveless computer — to guide us into the 2014 college football season. Through a series of algorithms, a pile of analysis and plenty of voodoo, the fine folks at PredictionMachine.com have predicted the future, and for the Sun Belt, it looks like this:
(Prediction Machine's rounded projected record in parentheses)
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (9-3, GoDaddy.com Bowl)
Human opinion: No question, the Ragin' Cajuns are the class of the league — and they should pull away from the pack even further in 2014. The Cajuns have the best offense and defense in the #FunBelt, and that puts the school's first outright conference title in 44 years (and probably Mark Hudspeth's departure as coach — he's waited too long to be recognized by an AAC or ACC team) — within reach.
Terrance Broadway leads the charge at quarterback. The Houston transfer gets it done with his feet and in the air — he's one of the most entertaining players in college football. The Cajuns' defense needs to improve from last year, but the team returns nine starters. Dominique Tovell (10 TFL last season) will be the linchpin at outside linebacker, while Miami transfer Jacoby Briscoe (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) looks like he could make an immediate impact on a defensive line that returns standout nose tackle Justin Hamilton.
The Cajuns have a schedule that could help it make waves, as well. While the Sun Belt clashes shouldn't be a problem (toughest game is South Alabama, at home), ULL will also get to face Ole Miss and Boise State. Winning either of those games could have the Cajuns on the tip of the nation's tongue for a few weeks. Either way, 10 wins should be the expectation in 2014.
South Alabama Jaguars (7-5, New Orleans Bowl)
Human opinion: Three years ago, the Jags were playing Henderson State, Mississippi Valley State and seemingly every other non-existent state it could find to fill out a schedule. The year before that, they played a 10-game schedule that included Pikeville, Edward Waters and Missouri S&T. In 2009, South Alabama played a seven-game schedule against prep schools and regional junior colleges.
In 2014, the Jags could win the Sun Belt Conference, or, at least, go to their first bowl game in program history on the backs of 15 returning starters, a standout receiving core (Shavarez Smith, Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson) and a formidable offensive line.
All three will help new starting quarterback Brandon Bridge. Maleki Harris is the top player on a defense that was surprisingly deep and stingy last season. Games against Mississippi State (at home, no less) and South Carolina could prove excellent showcases for South Alabama's progress — don't forget, the Jags only lost by a touchdown to Tennessee last year
Georgia Southern Eagles (7-5, Camellia Bowl)
Human opinion: Last year, Georgia Southern was the triple-optioning FCS squad that upset Florida and nearly cost Will Muschamp his job. This year, the Eagles are heading to the FBS, but they'll leave their buccaneering offensive look back in the lower ranks.
New coach Willie Fritz is moving the team to the a run-first spread look that he ran at Sam Houston State. There will be growing pains with the transition. Linebacker Edwin Jackson leads a defense that didn't exactly tear up the SoCon last year. Given all that's in flux, it's highly unlikely that bowl eligibility is on the horizon in 2014.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (7-5)
Human opinion: The loss of quarterback Kolton Browing is tough but transfer Pete Thomas looks capable of handling whatever Todd Berry's FunRoe offense has in store. Defense is a strength in 2014 — the Warhawks play a 30-stack, and with five of six players returning to that front, there are positive vibes around a defense that was exploited at times last season. A season-opening game vs. Wake Forest in Monroe could give the Warhawks immediate clout, but the 2014 season will most likely be defined by games at Arkansas State and rival ULL. Either way, this is a team capable of going to a bowl in 2014.
Texas State Bobcats (6-6)
Human opinion: The Bobcats surprisingly reached bowl eligibility in their first season in the SunBelt and second season in the FBS. Dennis Franchione has made a respectable FBS program in San Marcos, but 2014 is not the year that the Bobcats take that next step. Last year, luck was on Texas State's side, as they won close games over Southern Miss, Georgia State, South Alabama and Idaho. Even with a slew of returning starters on offense, this team that won only two conference games last year can't flirt with danger again in 2014. Sophomore Tyler Jones will enter his first full season as quarterback — but he'll have to find an extra gear if the Bobcats are to exceed expectations. Getting home-field advantage in tough conference games against Louisiana and Arkansas State should help, but six wins looks like a longshot for the Bobcats in 2014.
Human opinion: The coaching carrousel keeps turning in Jonesboro, and the Red Wolves keep on winning. But the Red Wolves' vaunted offense isn't as deep as in years past — only four starters return. New head coach Blake Anderson comes over from North Carolina, and there are questions on how his spread attack — which likes to use two running backs — and the question is, will that will work with quarterback Fredi Knighten, who was most effective when running last year? Anderson has weapons to work with — running back Michael Gordon could be poised for a breakout season, and wide receiver JD McKissic has proven to be the offense's focal point since Anderson's arrival. But there are still a few wrinkles to iron out. The Red Wolves should go bowling in 2014, but don't expect a dominant Sun Belt campaign or an upset of a Power Five team.
Idaho Vandals (5-7)
Human opinion: Idaho isn't as bad as it's made out to be. Sure, the Vandals are nowhere near the Sun Belt, and yes, they have only won four games in the last three years, but Paul Petrino kept this program competitive in 2013 despite a hellacious schedule as an independent. In the Belt, they should expect to see immediate dividends from that tough 2013 campaign. The team returns all but two defensive starters in 2014 and should have an offense that's much-improved in year two of Petrino's scheme. Matt Linehan and Chad Chalich will battle for the starting quarterback job, and either candidate should help progress the Vandals to the verge of bowl eligibility.
Troy Trojans (5-7)
Human opinion: Never underestimate Larry Blakeney. The man has been at Troy for 23 years and has seen it all in that time. Last year's 6-6 campaign was tough — close losses at Arkansas State, at ULL and at Duke kept the Trojans from bowling. But with Brandon Burks returning at running back; a capable, and steady, stream of junior college plug-ins ready to go on both sides of the ball; and an advantageous schedule (no Arkansas State or Texas State on the slate) there's no reason Troy can't go make that bowl game in 2014.
Human opinion: The Mountaineers went 4-8 in their last season of FCS play, and despite the fact that the team boasts an impressive offense and plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball — that will keep them competitive — but the step up in competition makes beating last year's four wins a tall task. Do get to know junior quarterback Kameron Bryant though — he's a fun watch.
New Mexico State Aggies (4-8)
Human opinion: Like Idaho, New Mexico State will benefit from the move to the Sun Belt on the basis of having an easier schedule in 2014. But when you consider that the only wins from last season came against the aforementioned Idaho and Abilene Christian, the advantage of an easier schedule might not be translated into wins and losses in 2014. Yes, the situation is grim in Las Cruces. The Aggies defense returns only three players from its front seven. The offense will be led by a new quarterback — Tyler Rogers, a junior college transfer — and will be without its top receiver and rusher from 2013. The Aggies should be competitive in games against Cal Poly, Georgia State, rival UTEP, Idaho and Georgia Southern — but it's going to take a lot of progress in Doug Martin's second year to avoid the Sun Belt cellar.
Georgia State Panthers (1-11)
Human opinion: After a winless 2013, there's nowhere to go but up for the Panthers. Even though they failed to win a game, the Panthers did end the 2013 season strong (tight games with ULL, Arkansas State, Texas State), and that momentum might put the Panthers in line for three wins in 2013. Junior college quarterback Nick Arbuckle will helm the offense in 2014. He put up prolific numbers at Pierce College in California, and even with significant roster turnover, his presence should boost the Panthers. Games against Abilene Christian (Aug. 27), New Mexico State, Georgia Southern and App State should be in play in 2014, and a ninth-place finish could be a sign of major progress in Atlanta.