FIU: The one area of uncertainty about the Sun Belt favorites is the quarterback. Jake Medlock's got more physical talent than Wesley Carroll by half a lap, but not Carroll's experience. As Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry said, guys like Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin, Monroe's Kolton Browning, Lou-La's Blaine Gauthier and others have been around long enough that you're not going to fool them.
I asked Mario Cristobal if he wanted to ease Medlock in, tell him not to take too much on his back, or just let Medlock be Medlock (sort of Joe Kapp with a better arm).
“Jake’s not an ease in kind of guy,” Cristobal said. “It’s not in his nature and it’s really not the nature of the offense. The offense is very fast-paced and aggressive. The combination of having a mature defense, a kicking game that should be in the upper tier of the conference, hopefully in the country as well; having a running game, the offensive line, another year under his belt, a guy like Kedrick Rhodes, like Darian Mallary, Jeremiah Harden, Shane Coleman coming on, all those things together should make it so that it’s not all on Jake’s shoulders.
"Now, Jake does have a big arm, so he does expose some areas that we haven’t been very efficient at the last couple of years. But he’s not a pressure overridden kid, being the son of a coach, having played for so long.”
As far as any competition for the quarterback slot, “Jake is clearly in front. We’re going to push because we need (freshman E.J.) Hilliard and Lorenzo Hammonds to play. Lorenzo’s going to play. He’s earned that time already. Hilliard’s capable of earning some playing time. To me, the best approach with Jake is ‘you be you and not worry about having to lead everybody.’ We have mature guys up front. We have mature guys back there. Those guys will help him settle down some. He needs to be efficient, smart with the football and accurate. He needs to make good decisions. He needs to get on the gorund and slide when it’s time to slide. He doesn’t have to get outside of that. Not until he’s a junior or senior. He’s only a redshirt sophomore.”
Arkansas State: Ryan Aplin, the 2011 Sun Belt Player of the Year, and wide receivers Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer return. That alone guarantees points. But seven lost starters on a defense that allowed the fewest yards and points in Sun Belt games could mean Aplin better enter some games thinking, "Fifty."
"Youth and inexperience definitely concerns me," new Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said. "We don't know what we're going to get. And we open up against Oregon. That's a huge challenge. It looks like a video game when you watch them on film. So we'll need to grow up in a hurry."
Their first two Sun Belt games, their fifth and sixth games of the season, are against Western Kentucky and at FIU.
Louisiana-Layfayette: Lou-La's got nine starters back on offense. Tight end Ladarius Green, one of the Sun Belt's four or five best players last year, one of the two but they should still put up points by the peck behind quarterback Blaine Gauthier. Once Lou-La coach Mark Hudspeth started calling more passing plays for Gauthier their game against FIU, he realized who his quarterback was and how to use him along with a strong running game. A Louisiana reporter told me Gauthier threw more last year than he probably during his entire high school career.
Lou-La gets FIU at home, where they drew and played well last year, but it's Sept. 29. That's pretty early for a defense that lost seven starters off a defense that got turnovers and seven Pick Sixes, but wasn't terribly sound. Hudspeth said his team would be "probably more talented on defense, but less experienced" and admitted last year Lou-La was "a little too exciting," having to outscore too many teams.
Western Kentucky: Willie Taggart's a Western alumnus and was an assistant at Western for eight seasons. Yet Taggart's team plays like Ohio State or Michigan from the "three yards and a cloud of dust" Ten Year's War Big Ten days: physical team featuring a pounding running game, tough defense against the run (not as tough against the pass) and an iffy passing attack. I half expect Western to put down worn artificial turf at any minute.
This year their running backs will be Bobby Rainey By Committee. Rainey ran for 158.6 yards per Sun Belt game. That was 50.4 more yards per game than FAU's Alfred Morris and, among Belt teams with something to play for besides the running back's stats, 53.7 more yards per game than FIU's Kedrick Rhodes. Of Western's nine touchdown passes in Sun Belt play, four went to Rainey. Now, quarterback Kawaun Jakes doesn't have that safety net.
"I think you'll see a lot of the same, but I think you'll see more of the passing game start to develop, which I expected by year three as guys start to understand our system better," Taggart said. "I think you'll see, hopefully, our plan is to be balanced and to complete more passes than we did before. We didn't have good pass efficiency when it comes to completions (55.4 percent for all games). We have to be up around 60-65 percent for us to be what we want to be offensively."
The Sun Belt players spoke of linebacker Andrew Jackson in a tone of voice that said if they had to deal with him to often, well, there's work at the post office. When Taggart was asked if he was surprised Jackson didn't get the preseason Defensive Player of the Year nod that went to FIU's Tourek Williams, he said in a child-please voice, "I'm not surprised about that! WKU, nobody's going to pick us preseason anything! Come on, what're we talking about? We have to earn that respect. We're going to do it by the way we play."
Lousiana-Monroe: I'm picking FIU to win the Sun Belt, but I had a dark horse alternate, this would be it.
Like FIU a few year ago, Monroe's been laboring under some NCAA sanctions for academic deficiencies. Now, they're out from under those and should have better luck with injuries than they had last year. Running back Centarius Donald was averaging 7.0 yards a carry when he suffered a season-ending injury. Quarterback Kolton Browning played much of the season with a broken sternum.
ULM coach Todd Berry said, "Offensive line is definitely a question. Defensively, this is the best we've had. It's the most athletic and certainly have a lot of experience."
FAU: There's not an FIU-FAU game planned beyond 2012. Don't look for one in 2013, after FIU's move to Conference USA. Beyond that, things are uncertain.
Meanwhile, new FAU coach Carl Pelini has to set about rebuilding from 1-11.
"The first thing I needed to do was sit down and evanuate every askpec tof the program. When I say that, I mean all the way down. The academic policies, the class attendance policies, the weight room, the strength and conditioning program, the nutrition of the kids. Are they living on campus, living off campus?"
As for goals this year, he said, "I want to be competitive in every game. For me, the goal for hte spring was not so much scheme oriented, but to teach our guys how to practice. How to play at a high level. How to be physical. Now, in the fall, it's about getting the scheme installed."
In recruiting, Pelini admitted, "I hit the junior college ranks more heavily more than I will in the future. But when you start evaluating your talent -- going from a 3-4 to a 4-3, going from a pro-style offense to more of a spread -- we just needed immediate help at certain positions."
But he plans to make South Florida high schools his bread and butter. He also knows his advantage, especially being on the other side of it, at Nebraska. Pelini said they discussed the boomerang nature of South Florida kids whenever they recruited one. A cold snap or different mores have sent many a kid home.
"One thing I know -- South Florida kids may come home," Pelini said. "Even though a kid may commit to West Virginia or Penn State, we'll continue recruiting them right up until signing day. If, a year from now, they want to come home, they'll know us."
FIU and Beasley Broadcast Group have a meeting planned next week. They'd meet earlier -- and perhaps have hammered everything out already -- but a state rule prevents it. Though it's getting late in the summer for Beasley to sell ad time, the rights cost could be adjusted so Beasley can make money on the deal.