Like most conferences, the Sun Belt is in transition. The state of Florida is no longer in the Sun (with FIU and FAU moving to Conference USA with North Texas and Middle Tennessee), and Western Kentucky will move next year as well. New teams for this year include Texas State and Georgia State. In 2014, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, New Mexico State and Idaho will join the Sun Belt, but we'll worry about them next year. For this year, it looks like Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe (who all went to bowl games, as well as Arkansas State) should be the class of the conference. There's plenty of offensive firepower to talk about as well.
TOP FIVE FANTASY STARS
1. Antonio Andrews, RB, Western Kentucky
It will be hard for the Andrews to top his 2012 campaign. The 6-foot-0 running back dominated the Hilltoppers offense last season with 3,161 all-purpose yards (1,684 rushing, 432 receiving, 1,001 returning) to rank second all-time in NCAA history (behind Barry Sanders in 1988). With a new quarterback in the backfield, new coach Bobby Petrino should lean on Andrews a great deal in his senior season. While Petrino has generally favored a high-powered passing attack, he has had success with top running backs. Andrews may not gain as many yards as he did as a junior, but he may see more of the end zone (14 combined TDs in 2012).
2. Terrance Broadway, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette
At the risk of offending the hometown faithful, Broadway could be considered a bust candidate this year after his impressive run in 2012. It's not he won't be good this season, but everything fell in line for the Houston transfer last year. Broadway stepped in for an injured Blaine Gautier and headed for the end zone ... repeatedly. He had 17 passing touchdowns and another nine on the ground, including at least one in eight of his 10 games. The junior will need to adjust to new receivers and the fact that he is a somewhat known quantity. However, Broadway will again have the keys to the Sun Belt's highest-powered offense and should justify his high draft status.
3. Kolton Browning, QB, Louisiana-Monroe
Early in the 2012 season, Browning made his mark by leading an overtime upset of Arkansas and nearly doubling the fun the following week in an overtime loss against Auburn. The Razorbacks and Tigers may not have been the best representatives of the SEC, but they were still in the world's mightiest conference. Browning finished with 29 touchdowns and 3,049 yards in a breakout season, despite missing the majority of two games (both of which the Warhawks lost). The 2013 schedule may not provide the same kind of upset opportunities (the Warhawks open against Oklahoma on Aug. 31), but the senior should be ready to carve up the Sun Belt for many yards and touchdowns.
4. David Oku, RB, Arkansas State
With quarterback Ryan Aplin graduated, the Red Wolves offense has a new look. There is a competition to replace Aplin, but whoever takes the ball from center will have a veteran runner to whom to hand it. Oku, a 5-10 senior, ran for fewer than 71 yards just twice last season and scored a touchdown in all but three games. The Red Wolves offensive line is widely hailed as the conference's best, and Oku should have plenty of gaps through which to run. On an eight-game scoring streak from last year, Oku should be the centerpiece of the Red Wolves offense and get plenty of scoring opportunities in 2013.
5. Corey Robinson, QB, Troy
Although Broadway and Browning are the shooting stars of the Sun Belt, for consistent production fantasy owners can not do better than Robinson. The senior has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of his previous three seasons with the Trojans. One reason owners might not be crazy about Robinson is his total yards and touchdowns have decreased with each passing season, but he still threw for 3,121 yards in 2012 (with just 12 touchdowns). Robinson lost favorite target Chip Reeves, who had 1,050 yards last season, but the 6-2 quarterback has plenty of other targets in the passing game. His touchdowns should return to 20-plus as well, making him a nice second quarterback in most leagues.
Austin Aikens, WR, Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers' aerial assault should be more potent even without quarterback Kawaun Jakes. In terms of lengthening the field, Aikens should be the go-to receiver. The 6-0 sophomore from Tampa averaged 27.1 yards per reception as a freshman. Granted, he only made eight catches and did not appear in four games, but he has a decent shot of starting as a sophomore and hauling in deep passes from Brandon Doughty, who is likely the new quarterback at Western Kentucky.
Mitchell Henry, TE, Western Kentucky
With leading receiver Jack Doyle now trying to make it in the NFL (with the Tennessee Titans), a spot in the starting lineup is open for Henry. The tight end made 13 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore and should get many more targets in 2013. Henry did most of his damage in a two-week stretch in which he made eight receptions (including all of his scores) on the road against Arkansas State and Troy. The Hilltoppers won both games. Look for the Kentucky native to be among the most productive tight ends in the Sun Belt.
Brandon Bridge, QB, South Alabama
Senior quarter Ross Metheny has the edge in experience for the Jaguars as they move to the Sun Belt, but Bridge has more upside. At 6-5, 220, Bridge is also bigger and has been Metheny's equal in camp. Nevertheless, coach Joey Jones named Metheny the starter for the season opener. Bridge should still see playing time, though, and if Metheny struggles, could take the job. He threw for 2,000 yards at Alcorn State in 2010 and had 19 passing and eight rushing touchdowns. The USA offense may not be great in 2013, but with Bridge it will have a shot at being exciting.
Kyler Neal, RB, Georgia State
Expectations are generally fairly low for schools that reclassify from FCS to FBS. The difference in size of defenders is a key factor, and the Panthers may not be terribly competitive in 2013. However, first-year coach Trent Miles, formerly of Indiana State, will look for productive players wherever he can find them. Junior college transfer Gerald Howse is currently slated to start, but freshman Neal could take over at some point. At 5-11, 209, Neal has drawn praise from the coaching staff and has a lot of upside, if he gets carries.
Jared Johnson, WR, Louisiana-Lafayette
The 6-5 converted tight end likely will be a factor this year after redshirting last season. Starters Harry Peoples and Javone Lawson are gone, and Johnson has more size than any of the incumbents. He could be an attractive red-zone target for Broadway and has been praised for his talent and attitude. Johnson should be on fantasy radars. All he needs is an opportunity.
J.D. McKissic, WR, Arkansas State
The aforementioned instability at the quarterback at Arkansas State should give owners pause when looking at McKissic and the rest of the Red Wolves receiving crew. The 5-10 sophomore racked up fantastic numbers as a freshman, especially in the second half of last season. He finished with 103 receptions and had 53 in the last five games, and some no doubt will tab him as a late-round sleeper this season. But he only scored five times last year and will have a hard time equaling even that production this season.
Eric Thomas, WR, Troy
It would stand to reason that Thomas will step into Reeves' role and become Corey Robinson's favorite target, but these things aren't usually so simple. The guess is that Thomas, a senior, will catch approximately 60 passes and have about seven touchdowns with 750 yards, which would be the average of his sophomore and junior seasons. Robinson will find other targets, and Thomas' production was not consistent in 2012. Granted, those numbers won't make Thomas a bust in most books, but expectations will be higher for Thomas. Don't overpay for him.
Wes Saxton, TE, South Alabama
Saxton was the only Jaguar to make the RotoWire rankings and it is not hard to see why after one looks at his second-half numbers from 2012. The 6-4 junior finished the season with 20 receptions in the last five games and scored his lone touchdown in the season finale against Hawaii. Saxton was also named to a number of preseason All-Sun Belt teams as the league's best tight end. However, instability at quarterback and the rigors of the Sun Belt likely will depress Saxton's value.
Tim Gay, RB, Texas State
Roster turnover can mean opportunities for players once stuck on the second string. Sometimes those second stringers look too good to be true, and that could be the case with Gay, a 5-11 sophomore from Houston. In limited playing time as a freshman, Gay averaged 10.3 yards per carry. He was used as a change of pace for starter Marcus Curry, who has moved on. There's little doubt that Gay's average per carry will regress. While his offensive load will increase, he will still have to share duties with Terrence Franks and C.J. Best. Although he is listed as a starter, owners are better off letting Gay go undrafted and watching what develops in San Marcos.
Ben McLane, QB, Georgia State
A new coaching regime for the Panthers may mean good things for the incumbents for the team, but it may also mean the winds of change are blowing. McLane started nine games for the Panthers as a redshirt freshman last year and threw for 1,592 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He only completed 50.7 percent of his passes, so Miles and his staff may look at other options, including Ronnie Bell (who started two games for the Panthers) and 6-4, 215, Clay Chastain, a transfer from Georgia Military College. It would probably be wise to stay away from most Panthers during drafts, but McLane has maybe the most question marks after his name.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
QB Adam Kennedy (31), RB David Oku (41), WR J.D. McKissic (46), WR Julian Jones (74), TE Darion Griswold (44)
Georgia State Panthers
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
QB Terrance Broadway (2), RB Alonzo Harris (60), WR Darryl Surgent (49), WR Jamal Robinson (60)
QB Kolton Browning (18), WR Je'Ron Hamm (15)
South Alabama Jaguars
TE Wes Saxton (28)
Texas State Bobcats
WR Eric Thomas (38), K Will Scott (11)
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
RB Antonio Andrews (4), TE Henry Mitchell (26)