This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
The Sun Belt Conference has long been the weakest conference in FBS football, even weaker than the MAC on a regular basis. Unlike the MAC, however, the Sun Belt is not geographically positioned to play many games against the Big Ten.
All things considered, that is probably a good thing for these teams. However, teams like Troy and Arkansas State have given Big Ten teams a run for their money in the past, so games against the Sun Belt cannot be ignored.
Here is the "list" of games that the Sun Belt will play against the Big Ten in 2012:
Arkansas State at Nebraska, 9/15
And...that's it. In most years these conferences would tangle two, three, or four times, but only the new kid on the block Nebraska will keep the series alive in 2012. Let's start with a look at the Red Wolves in some detail, and then look at the conference at large and how that conference race will affect the Big Ten in 2012.
With a first year head coach and a team that had not finished with more than six wins in decades, the Red Wolves entered last year with moderate expectations. Then they blew the roof off those expectations with a 10-3 season, including a perfect 8-0 record in Sun Belt play.
That would seem promising for a competitive game against Nebraska, but last year's team was dominated by a mediocre Illinois team with the Big Ten style of play. Only 10 starters return and the coach has been replaced again with Hugh Freeze jumping ship immediately to the SEC.
However, Arkansas State pulled back from the SEC by hiring Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Malzahn does inherit a senior QB Ryan Aplin and some strong talent at the receiver position with seniors Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer.
Unless Nebraska brings back a bit of the Blackshirts pride in September, the Red Wolves could score some points to hand around in Lincoln. Unfortunately, the seven new starters on defense and the third head coach in three years will make the defense too much of a mess to repeat as conference champions or to pull the upset against Nebraska.
The Rest of the Sun Belt
Although there is a chance that the Sun Belt could still lose more teams in the conference realignment shuffle, that trend is cooling down with the playoffs coming in 2014. The Sun Belt adds South Alabama this year and Georgia State next year, while losing North Texas and Florida International to Conference USA. The Sun Belt is rapidly becoming the SEC lite.
This season should be full of high-scoring shootouts as nine of the top 10 quarterbacks return for another season.
The team with the most to prove is Troy after Arkansas State broke their six straight league championships last year. Troy has a veteran head coach Larry Blakeney and a top QB Corey Robinson to lead them back to the top. Florida International is the strongest team on paper, but must finally take advantage of a favorable league schedule to win the title.
Other dark horse contenders include Louisiana and Louisiana Monroe, each of which is stronger on offense than on defense. After a crazy 2011, will the Sun Belt go back to the expected order? Troy looks ready to win it all again, but nothing seems guaranteed in this conference.
Effect on Big Ten
Unfortunately, the geographic isolation and heavy differences in play level between the Sun Belt and the Big Ten means this conference race means little to the Big Ten. One possible and unlikely possibility would be a bowl opening should the Big Ten reach past eight bowl teams again like last season.
However, the Sun Belt only has primary tie-ins with two bowl games and usually they can fill those with ease. Someone has to win those conference games, after all! The two bowl games are not played against major conference teams and the Big Ten would likely not fill in to play a Sun Belt school.
So the only effect could be made in a tidal wave if the Red Wolves pull the non-conference upset at Lincoln. Stranger things have happened (Appalachian State, anyone?), but the effect of this conference race on the Big Ten is minimal at most.
That being said, the Sun Belt usually produces some of the most fun games to watch each Saturday once conference play begins. Don't sleep on these smaller southern schools!
While all eyes were on the ACC and the Big East to see if one of the major conference would collapse in the conference realignment, the worst hits were taken and continue to be taken by the WAC. Boise State left last year, and the next best three teams are gone this year with Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State off to the Mountain West.
2012 will be another transitional year with seven teams in the conference, but five of the seven have already moved on for next season (including the two new members UTSA and Texas State). This appears to be the last dance for the WAC, at least as a football playing conference.
Before Idaho and New Mexico State find new homes, this will be the last chance to win in the old home unless a drastic set of quick invitations get accepted to save the WAC. However, the road will be tough for the Vandals and the Aggies.
Here is the list of games for the WAC against the Big Ten in 2012:
Utah State at Wisconsin, 9/15
Louisiana Tech at Illinois, 9/22
Similar to the Sun Belt, the WAC generally only sends teams for a payday when Big Ten teams are involved. Utah State and Louisiana Tech are the best two teams remaining by the looks of it, so there could be a challenge for the Badgers and the Illini.
The Aggies surged following a 2-5 start last year to end up with five straight wins and a second place finish in the WAC. Head coach Gary Andersen finally got Utah State playing his brand of football with a strong offense and a respectable defense.
One of the most entertaining questions for Utah State this year is who will see the most time at quarterback. Sophomore Chuckie Keaton had solid statistics in the first seven games, but then was injured and senior Adam Kennedy led the team to the five game winning streak.
Keaton seems to have the inside track as the younger player, but leaving Kennedy on the shelf would be a mistake.
The Aggies are playing better defense, but it will be a tall order to slow down the Badgers. Utah State held opposing rushing games to 125 yards per game in 2011, but that average will be hit hard by Montee Ball and James White. Don't expect a close game in this one.
Despite being expected to be a middle-of-the-pack WAC team in 2011, the Bulldogs shocked the conference by winning the championship with a 6-1 record following an opening loss to Hawaii. What's scary is that Sonny Dykes now has his best team in his third season.
The Bulldogs have a back loaded schedule with Utah State at home and San Jose State on the road to close the season. It seems likely that Louisiana Tech will be 5-0 in conference play heading into those two critical games against the toughest competition.
Considering the stronger team coming off a conference championship and the close loss to TCU in the bowl game last year, Illinois better come prepared to defend the home turf on September 22. Senior QB Colby Cameron has not been able to hold the starting job for a full season yet but he has shown promise in his limited opportunities.
Cameron could find some openings in the revamped Illini defense, which would put the pressure on Illinois to keep up. Look for Louisiana Tech to force Nathan Scheelhaase to beat them with his arm, and he just might have the chops to do it this year.
The Rest of the WAC
San Jose State broke a long streak of struggles in the WAC with a 3-4 record last year. However, the Spartans could finally break through with a winning record this year even with only 11 starters returning.
Idaho and New Mexico State should be better, although that might only make these teams better enough to escape the basement. Texas State and UT San Antonio will be making the tough transition to FBS play, but both could pull an upset or two in the only year of WAC play. Expect some unexpected results this year among these seven teams, but one of the two teams playing Big Ten teams should come out on top.
Effect on the Big Ten
The only bowl game that the new version of the WAC has a contract with is the Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, which is bittersweet considering the home team Boise State is no longer playing football for that conference. The MAC will almost certainly be able to fill the opposite slot, so the chances of a third match up with the Big Ten are unlikely.
Similar to the Sun Belt, the WAC will have little effect on the Big Ten race except to maybe knock a national championship contender out if Wisconsin is upset by the Aggies. The more likely upset is Illinois though, and that will actually be one of the more entertaining games of the non-conference schedule.
If you like endangered species, enjoy WAC football this year. It looks like it will be the last year.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Recap/Summary
June: Minnesota team preview; B1G scouting report on the Sun Belt/WAC; Top 10 offensive linemen rankings;
Indiana team preview; Top 10 linebacker rankings
Northwestern team preview; B1G scouting report on the MAC; Top 10 running back rankings
More to come in July and August!