|Nati Harnik / Associated Press|
|Arkansas State hopes to ride Doak Walker Award candidate David Oku to a conference title.|
Rivals Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe are, by a vote of the league's coaches, co-favorites in the Sun Belt this season. But just as many eyes will be on former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's season debut with Western Kentucky, and defending league champion Arkansas State.
Four Sun Belt teams went to bowls last year, going 2-2. The Red Wolves knocked off Kent State in the Godaddy.com Bowl, while Louisiana-Lafayette handled East Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl. WKU and UL-Monroe lost in bowl games to Central Michigan and Ohio, respectively. The talent in the league this season is strong relative to what is typically offered in the Sun Belt, and several of its seniors are capable of being drafted next spring. Safety Jonathan Cyprien was the first of four from the Sun Belt selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, going with the first pick in the second round to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Top current NFL players from small schools (FCS or below)Take a look at these players from small schools who are making a big impact in the NFL.
Top senior prospects
Western Kentucky RB Antonio Andrews: Andrews broke WKU's record for single-season rushing yards last year with 1,728, and his 3,161 all-purpose yards ranked second only to Oklahoma State and NFL legend Barry Sanders in NCAA history. Andrews (6-foot-0, 211 pounds) had 131 all-purpose yards against Alabama's No.1-ranked defense, and posted 10 100-yard rushing performances.
Louisiana-Monroe QB Kolton Browning: The 2012 SBC Offensive Player of the Year returns for a final shot at a conference championship. Browning is a bit smallish for the position (6-1, 211) by NFL standards, but his production has been stellar. He threw for 3,049 yards last season with 29 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, and also led the Warhawks in rushing with 488 yards and seven more touchdowns.
Arkansas State DL Ryan Carrethers: The Nashville, Tenn., native is on the Outland Trophy watch list and, after the season he had for the Red Wolves, he deserves to be. The 6-2, 310-pound Carrethers amassed 68 tackles -- an uncommon total for an interior defensive lineman -- and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Western Kentucky OL Sean Conway: The league's top offensive lineman, Conway (6-3, 305) hasn't missed a start at center in his entire college career, spanning 37 games. Conway was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list earlier this summer.
Western Kentucky LB Andrew Jackson: The preseason Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, Jackson (6-1, 265) has terrorized Sun Belt offenses for two seasons already. He made 122 tackles last year with 17.5 tackles for loss, and forced a team-high four fumbles. He's led WKU in tackles in 14 of his 26 career games, and should be the first player from his conference drafted in the spring.
Top 10 all-time NFL players from small schoolsCheck out the Top 10 all-time NFL players from small schools.
Louisiana-Monroe DB Isaiah Newsome: Newsome intercepted a team-high four passes and broke up five others from his safety position with the Warhawks. He started every game, making 57 tackles, 36 of them solo. Newsome (5-11, 200) has 31 career starts and was named second-team All-SBC last season.
Arkansas State RB David Oku: The Red Wolves' Doak Walker Award candidate rushed for 1,061 yards last season with 16 touchdowns and figures to be one of the league's elite offensive weapons once again. He also caught 20 passes, showing the versatility he'll need for the NFL at his size (5-10, 195). Oku transferred to Arkansas State after two seasons as a prolific return specialist for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Louisiana-Lafayette QB Terrance Broadway: A dynamic offensive threat in his first year as a starter last year, Broadway threw for 2,842 yards with a 17-9 TD-INT ratio, but he did plenty of damage on the ground as well. He rushed for 769 yards and nine more touchdowns with a team-best 6.5-yard average per carry. The 6-2, 205-pounder figures to be a three-year star in the league.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31, Louisiana-Monroe at Oklahoma: Last year, the Warhawks stunned Arkansas in the season opener for both teams, 34-31 in overtime. Can they pull off another season-opening stunner in the Big 12? They'll have the Sun Belt's best passer taking his shot.
Sept. 7, Western Kentucky at Tennessee: If WKU linebacker Andrew Jackson isn't good enough to play in the NFL, Tennessee's vaunted offensive line, complete with four starters who project as NFL players, ought to be good enough to expose it. Jackson, for his part, isn't worried about the SEC.
Nov. 30, Arkansas State at Western Kentucky: This could be the game of the year in the Sun Belt Conference, and it's the regular-season finale for both teams. Arkansas State won the conference title last year, but Bobby Petrino's new team could be in a position to knock the Red Wolves off that perch.
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.