Sun Belt Conference Football news and notes

From the Sun Belt Conference

Upcoming Games

August 30

McNeese State at Middle Tennessee (ESPN3) - 6:30 p.m.

Texas-San Antonio at South Alabama (ESPN3) - 6:30 p.m.

August 31

Wagner at Florida Atlantic (ESPN3) - 7 p.m.

September 1

Troy at UAB - 11 a.m. (Fox College Sports)

Austin Peay at Western Kentucky (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

FIU at Duke (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

Lamar at Louisiana-Lafayette (Cox4/ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

North Texas at LSU (ESPNU) - 6 p.m.

Arkansas State at Oregon (ESPN) - 9:30 p.m.

September 8

Western Kentucky at Alabama (SEC Network/ESPN3) - 2:30 p.m.

Nicholls State at South Alabama (ESPN3) - 4 p.m.

Akron at FIU (ESPN3) - 5 p.m.

* Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

Memphis at Arkansas State (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

(1) Arkansas at Louisiana-Monroe (ESPNU) - 6 p.m.

Texas Southern at North Texas (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

* Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee (ESPN3) - 6 p.m.

2012 College Football Season Set to Start

The 2012 football season officially gets underway this week with nine of the Sun Belt Conference's 10 teams in action this week.

All nine contests this week will be available for fans to watch as six games will be available on ESPN3, and one game each will air on ESPN, ESPNU and Fox College Sports.

For the second consecutive season, the FIU football team has been picked as the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference, as determined in a poll of the league's 10 coaches. The Panthers open the season against Duke, concluding the two-game series with the Blue Devils. FIU looks to even the series with Duke after dropping a narrow four-point contest, 31-27, last year in Miami on Oct. 1.

The defending Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State Red Wolves open their 2012 campaign at No. 5 Oregon Saturday at 9:30 p.m. (CT) in an ESPN-televised game. Senior quarterback Ryan Aplin was named Sun Belt Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Five Sun Belt Conference teams open the year at home this week. South Alabama and Middle Tennessee will open the season on Thursday night, followed by Florida Atlantic's home contest on Friday. Saturday will see Western Kentucky University and the defending R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Champions Louisiana-Lafayette host home games.

Around the Sun Belt Conference

Sun Belt Future is Bright

"This is a conference on the rise. You can really sense the momentum that the conference has." - Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn

"In my mind, the Sun Belt came out as a big winner in realignment and conference shuffling. Adding Georgia State, Texas State and UT Arlington clearly put the Sun Belt in a strong position for the future. The competitive gap between us and others has shrunk considerably. The Sun Belt is poised to contend to become the best of the so-called non-AQ conferences, which are our peer conferences." - Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson

"Everybody is getting better. Everybody is recruiting hard, and everybody is hiring good coaches. There's great coaches across the field and have been for years." - Troy head coach Larry Blakeney

"One of messages across the league is why not be that team that takes center stage? That is the next Boise State? To play on New Year's Day in a big bowl against a big opponent and bring credit to the university and to the Sun Belt. There's no doubt in my mind that there is a team in the Sun Belt that will achieve that in the next two to three to five years."- Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson

"Athletic directors and people across the country are saying, 'Hey, they play a great brand football in the Sun Belt Conference.' " - Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth

"Each year we're getting more established, we're building better facilities, we're recruiting better players," - Middle Tennessee Head Coach Rick Stockstill

"This conference probably is more even than any conference in the country. There's just about every team in this conference I feel like if it gets on a roll has the ability to make a run for the championship if not finish in the top 3 every year." - Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth

"The conference is getting better as we go. I think our presidents have done a great job. Everyone is looking better." - Western Kentucky head coach Willie Taggart

Sun Belt Sends Three to Bowls in 2011

The Sun Belt Conference has sent three teams to postseason bowl games for two consecutive seasons. Following the 2011 regular season, Louisiana-Lafayette played in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, FIU played in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and Arkansas State played in the Bowl. The three teams playing in the 2011 football postseason matches the previous high set the year prior. ASU, FIU, ULL and Western Kentucky all finished the 2011 regular season with bowl eligible records, marking the fourth time in league history that the Sun Belt has had four bowl eligible teams.

Sun Belt Conference Membership

The Sun Belt Conference is currently comprised of ten football playing members – Arkansas State (founding football member in 2001), Florida Atlantic (joined league as football member in 2005), FIU (joined league as football member in 2005), Louisiana-Lafayette (founding football member in 2001), Louisiana-Monroe (founding football member in 2001), Middle Tennessee (founding football member in 2001), North Texas (founding football member in 2001), South Alabama (joined league as football member in 2012), Troy (joined league as football member in 2004) and Western Kentucky University (joined league as football member in 2009). Georgia State, Texas-Arlington and Texas State will join the league on July 1, 2013. UT Arlington joins current Sun Belt members as a non-football playing member.

South Alabama Makes Sun Belt Debut

South Alabama will open the 2012 season on Aug. 30 against Texas San-Antonio where it will make its Sun Belt Conference and FBS debut. The Jaguars will not be eligible for the Sun Belt Conference championship, however, they will play a full Sun Belt schedule where their games will count as conference games for their league opponents. USA will be eligible for the Sun Belt title and a bowl berth in the 2013 season.

Bowl Game Winning Percentage

Since the 2007 football season the Sun Belt Conference ranks fifth out of the 11 FBS conferences in postseason bowl game winning percentage. In fact, the Sun Belt Conference ranks ahead of noted "Big Six" leagues – the ACC, Pac-12 and the Big Ten. Furthermore, the Sun Belt Conference outpaces its non-automatic qualifying BCS partners in the WAC, Conference USA and the MAC.

Cristobal Continues to Build FIU

FIU's Mario Cristobal is undoubtedly one of the hottest rising coaches in college football, taking over the FIU program in 2007 after spending time on Greg Schiano's staff at Rutgers (2001-2003) and Larry Coker's staff at Miami (2004-2006). Cristobal led the Panthers to their first winning season in program history in 2010, winning a share of the Sun Belt Championship and then the Little Caesars Bowl. FIU also finished 8-5 in 2011 and received a bid to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Cristobal has shown dedication to the Miami community as he was raised there, played, coached and earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Miami and has been FIU's head coach for five seasons.

Trojan Trio Wins Super Bowl Title

The Trojan Trio of Jerrel Jernigan , Lawrence Tynes and Osi Umenyiora are Super Bowl Champions after the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI. The title is the second for both Tynes and Umenyiora and the first for Jernigan. Troy's three former players in the Super Bowl (active rosters) were the fifth most of any school in the country.

Tynes, who sent the Giants to the Super Bowl with a game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game, booted field goals of 38 and 33 yards in the third quarter to pull New York within two, 17-15.

Jernigan, who in 2010 led the Trojans to their fifth consecutive Sun Belt Conference title, set up Tynes' first field goal with a 34-yard kickoff return. The rookie finished the game with three returns for 71 yards (23.7 per return).

Umenyiora finished the game with one tackle and a pair of hits on New England quarterback Tom Brady.

Sun Belt Football Championship Trophy to Honor Waters

The annual winner of the Sun Belt Conference's football regular season will take home the H. Wright Waters Trophy as the league approved the honor at the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Spring Meetings.

Waters served as Commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference from 1998 through 2012 and largely responsible for football becoming a league sponsored sport. The Sun Belt had been a viable entity on the nation's collegiate athletic map since its founding in 1976, but Waters made the call for a serious approach to gaining access to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Due to his leadership the league played its inaugural season under his watch in 2001.

Malzahn Returns Home to Take Over at Arkansas State

Gus Malzahn was named the Red Wolves' 28th head football coach last December, bringing him back to his home state after most recently enjoying highly successful stints as a top assistant coach at three NCAA FBS universities that garnered national acclaim. Malzahn comes to Arkansas State after serving as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn for the past three seasons. A native of Fort Smith, Malzahn was named the winner of the 2010 Frank Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top collegiate assistant coach.

His innovative offense made an immediate and profound impact during his tenure at Auburn, highlighted by a record-setting offense in 2010 when the Tigers finished 14-0 and claimed the school's first national championship since 1957. Malzahn's record-setting offense in 2010 led the Southeastern Conference and finished in the top 10 nationally in six statistical categories. He coached Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton during the Tigers run to the 2011 BCS National Championship. Under Malzahn's direction, Newton later became the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft after producing one of the best single-season quarterback performances in collegiate history.

Before coaching at Auburn, Malzahn spent two seasons at Tulsa, coordinating a Golden Hurricane offense that finished first nationally in total offense in 2007 and 2008. Prior to his time at Tulsa, he coached one season at Arkansas, where he served as offensive coordinator, coached Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden and helped the Razorbacks finish fourth nationally in rushing offense at 228.5 yards per game.

Carl Pelini Begins New Era at Florida Atlantic

Carl Pelini was named Florida Atlantic's second head coach in program history to replace the retired Howard Schnellenberger and brings more than 25 years of football experience to Boca Raton.

The Ohio native was a defensive coordinator at Minnesota State Mankato (2004) and helped revitalize a struggling program at Ohio University where he was the defensive line coach for three seasons (2005-07). In 2008, he moved to Nebraska and assumed the position of defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Pelini's role in the resurgence of Nebraska's defense has been recognized by his two-time nomination for the Frank Broyles Assistant Coach of the Year Award.

Prior to his time in the collegiate ranks, Pelini spent more than 10 years at the high school level. Pelini will make his collegiate head coaching debut on Aug. 31 against Wagner.

Sun Belt Conference Bowl Partners

The Sun Belt Conference is currently in the third year of four year partnerships with the Bowl and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Sun Belt teams will continue to represent the league in the games following the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons.

WKU and Taggart Agree to New Contract

Willie Taggart, who guided WKU to the biggest one-season improvement in league wins in Sun Belt Conference history in only the program's third season competing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, has agreed to a new four-year contract. The contract began on January 1, 2012 and includes an automatic one-year rollover each year through 2019. WKU's 7-1 conference record in 2011 after a 2-6 league record a year ago stands as the biggest one-season improvement in Sun Belt Conference history. Taggart leads WKU into 2012 with a seven-game conference winning streak, the fifth-longest current streak in the country.

ESPN Scheduled to Televise Seven Sun Belt Games in 2012

The ESPN family of networks is scheduled to air seven Sun Belt Conference football games in the 2012 season. Five contests are scheduled for ESPNU: Arkansas State at FIU (Oct. 4), Western Kentucky at Troy (Oct. 11), Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky (Nov. 1), Louisiana-Monroe at Arkansas State (Nov. 8) and FIU at Florida Atlantic (Nov. 16). The Louisiana-Lafayette at North Texas (Oct. 16) and Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette (Oct. 23) games will air on either ESPN or ESPN2.

Sun Belt and ESPN Announce Multiyear Agreement

The Sun Belt Conference and ESPN reached a new agreement that extends the network's relationship with the conference through the 2019-20 academic year. The agreement, which will take effect beginning in the 2012-13 academic year, will expand the conference's national television exposure and makes ESPN the exclusive national cable and satellite provider of the Sun Belt Conference. The new agreement will give Sun Belt Conference football a minimum of two games on either ESPN or ESPN2 and also a minimum of five games on ESPNU that will be scheduled for Thursday or Friday nights. Additionally, ESPN Regional Television will have the right to produce, distribute and syndicate up to five football games each year. ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, the 24-hour college sports network, will also be granted additional opportunities to select games to air. This trio of networks will be granted a 12-day rolling window during the season to select additional games to televise. Games available for selection are after the third Saturday of the season.

Cajuns Grab Top Attendance Increase in NCAA

The Ragin' Cajuns football team added yet another honor to its list as the NCAA announced that the University of Louisiana-Lafayette had the top attendance increase for the 2011 season.

The Cajuns had an average increase of 11,788 per game setting both the Sun Belt Conference average and total attendance record and the ULL average attendance record. ULL beat out Arizona State, Stanford, Iowa State, Temple, Florida State and Oklahoma State for the top honor.

Team News and Notes

Arkansas State Red Wolves

The defending Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State Red Wolves open their 2012 campaign at No. 5 Oregon Saturday at 9:30 p.m. (CT) in an ESPN-televised game. Arkansas State will kick off its 98th season of football Sept. 1 at Oregon.

ASU now holds a 416-454-37 record since the inaugural 1911 season and has played in eight bowl games.

Senior quarterback Ryan Aplin was named Sun Belt Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and one of four A-State players named to the all-conference team at the league's Media Day in New Orleans. Aplin, senior wideout Josh Jarboe, senior offensive lineman Zack McNight and senior defensive back Don Jones were all named to the Preseason All-SBC Team. The Red Wolves were picked second in the preseason coaches poll announced as part of the league's annual Media Day.

First-year Arkansas State Head Football Coach Gus Malzahn was recognized as one of the top hires in the nation this offseason, named as the No. 4 best hire and No. 2 most intriguing hire in the nation by He was also one of two head coaches in the nation to receive a grade of A+ among new hires for the 2012 season by the Sporting News. Bleacher Report's "Over/Under Victories" for every new head coach places A-State at nine victories, one of the tops listed in the report . . . A-State returns five 2011 All-Sun Belt Conference players this season, inlcuding the league's Player of the Year in senior quarterback Ryan Aplin.

Arkansas State claimed its first ever outright Sun Belt Conference championship last season. Arkansas State received as many as 18 votes in the AP Top 25 Poll and 13 votes in the USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll, while also ranking as high as No. 35 in the BCS and reaching No. 30 in the 120 rankings during the season.

An All-America and Heisman candidate, senior quarterback Ryan Aplin has garnered a significant amount of national attention this preseason as he is listed on the Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List, Davey O'Brien Award Watch List, Johnny Unitas Award Watch List and the Manning Award Watch List.

The Red Wolves ended the regular season on a nine-game winning streak, one of the longest in the nation. Along with Northern Illinois, ASU's opponent in the 2012 Bowl, the Red Wolves regular-season winning streak is the third longest in the nation behind only LSU (13) and Georgia (10). Following ASU and NIU, Louisiana tech, TCU and Virginia Tech all have a seven-game win streak to their credit heading into the 2012 season.

Florida Atlantic Owls

FAU's football team will take the field 8 p.m. August 31 under the direction of first year head coach Carl Pelini. Pelini assumed the helm of a program which had known just one head coach, the program's founder, Howard Schnellenberger.

Pelini was hired and began showcasing the new on-campus stadium to recruits. In February, he signed the most diverse class in the program's history based on age and geography. Since that time he has molded the program into the team that will take the field in 2012. The team promises a new offense (spread) and a return to the 4-3 defense.

The players have taken to the new coaching staff and have completed one of the most grueling preseason camps since the 2000, another camp that everything was new. David Hinds, the 2011 no. 2 SBC tackles leader has taken the leadership role and will spearhead an experienced defense. Hinds, a senior, will be supported by fellow linebacker Randell Johnson, a junior from Miami. Senior Jimmy Jean will anchor the defensive line while Keith Reaser returns to lead an experienced defensive back corps. Offensively, the Owls will miss all-time career rushing leader Alfred Morris, who has shined in the Washington Redskins preseason games. Senior Graham Wilbert, redshirt sophomores Stephen Curtis and Nick Bracewell return to fight for the starting quarterback spot as will newcomer Melvin German. The Owls are expected to use a committee at running back, led by junior Damian Fortner, the Owls leading returner. The receivers will be called upon heavily in the new system. DeAndre Richardson will return following rehabilitation of an injury suffered during the spring. Richardson will be joined by returners Marcus Cunningham, William Dukes, Derek Moise, Paul Moore, and Hakeem Ishmar as well as tight ends Nexon Dorvilus and Alex Deleon. The returning wide receivers and tight ends have been pushed throughout camp by a talented group of newcomers. The line also returns almost in its entirety and has been bolstered by several newcomers.

FIU Panthers

Head Coach Mario Cristobal enters his sixth season with FIU in 2012 and has the program coming off back-to-back bowl seasons in 2010-11.

FIU has a large array of veteran talent returning for the 2012 campaign, including 18 starters on offense and defense, plus the kicker and punter. Overall, FIU returns 53 letterwinners overall from 2011.

FIU begins a season for the first time receiving votes in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll, earning three votes equating to being tied for 43rd nationally.

For the second consecutive season, the FIU football team has been picked as the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference, as determined in a poll of the league's 10 coaches.

FIU has an all-time high seven Panthers earning spots on the Preseason All-Sun Belt Team – the most of any league member in 2012. The preseason team was selected by the league's 10 head coaches and selected media members.

FIU starts the 2012 campaign playing one of college football's oldest programs in Duke, whose gridiron lore can be dated back all the way to 1889. 2012 will mark the 100th year of playing football for Duke (1889-94, 1920-29, 1930-present).

The 2012 road trip to Durham concludes the two-game series with the Duke Blue Devils. FIU looks to even the series with Duke after dropping a narrow four-point contest, 31-27, last year in Miami on Oct. 1.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

The winning team in Saturday's game will take home the Sabine Shoe, a traveling trophy that goes to the winner of the Cajuns-Lamar football game. Awarded for the first time in 1937, there is very little information available about the bronze trophy origin. It was named after the Sabine River, the 510-mile estuary of the Gulf of Mexico which helps to form part of the border between the states of Texas and Louisiana. The series has been idle since 1989 with the Cajuns having possession of the trophy. It currently sits in the trophy case in the main lobby of the Cox Communications Athletic Center.

The home opener for the Cajuns each year serves as the Herbert Heymann Classic with Saturday's game vs. Lamar being the 12th edition. It serves to honor the prominent Acadiana businessman, community pillar and Cajuns fan who passed away in 2001. Heymann is credited with having the largest impact on Cajuns athletics for any non-university employee. He served on the committee that was responsible for building Cajun Field. His fund-raiser tournament helped bankroll the Cajuns' golf team for many years while his behind-the-scenes philanthropy helped the program grow in countless ways. The Cajuns are is 8-3 in Heymann Classic games.

The Cajuns will open their 111th season on intercollegiate football against Lamar on Saturday. The Cajuns own a 52-54-4 record in season openers. The Cajuns will be attempting to reverse a bad stretch as they have gone just 3-18 in openers since 1991. The Cajuns are 2-4 all-time in openers against Lamar, winning in 1952 (14-13) and 1953 (22-13) before falling in 1954 (26-20), 1955 (19-6), 1956 (21-14) and 1974 (38-13).

Saturday's game will mark the 105th home opener for the Cajuns, who own a 62-37-5 record in those games. Not included in that record are the six seasons from 1907-1918 in which the Cajuns did not play a home game all season (1907, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1917 & 1918). The Cajuns, who carry a four-game win streak in home openers into this week's game, is just 1-3 in home openers against Lamar, winning in 1952 (14-13) before dropping games in 1954 (26-20), 1956 (21-14) and 1974 (38-13).

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Head Coach Todd Berry begins his third season at the helm of the Warhawk football program.

ULM opens the season on a bye before traveling to Little Rock, Ark., for a match-up with the Arkansas Razorbacks (Sept. 8).

The Warhawks will travel to Auburn, Ala., to face the Auburn Tigers Sept. 15 before hosting Baylor in the home opener. The battle against the Bears will take place at Malone Stadium Friday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN.

Wide receiver Brent Leonard earned Second Team All-Sun Belt honors a year ago after leading the Warhawks in receptions (69), receiving yards (751) and touchdown receptions (4).

In 2011, Quarterback Kolton Browning was named Second Team All-Louisiana honors by the Louisiana Sports Writer's Association… Browning started all 12 games and finished with a 114.43 efficiency rating after completing 244 passes (419 attempts) for 2,483 yards and 13 touchdowns. He posted 2,926 yards of total offense, which ranks third most in a single-season in school history.

Running back Centarius Donald returns for his junior season after missing the final five games of 2012 after suffering a knee injury at North Texas.

In 2011, the Warhawk defense finished ranked number one in the Sun Belt in both rushing defense (100.0 ypg) and total defense (326.2 ypg). The 100.0 rushing yards per game was a new Sun Belt record and it marked the third season in a row that ULM led the conference in rush defense. The club finished tied for third in the conference in sacks with 28. In the final NCAA rankings the Warhawk defense finished eighth in rushing defense and 21st in total defense (326.2 ypg). The squad also finished 47th in total sacks (2.08 per game)… A total of four defensive players (Ken Dorsey, Darius Prelow, Jason Edwards and Troy Evans) earned All-Sun Belt honors.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Thursday's football game between Middle Tennessee and McNeese State will mark the first-ever meeting between the two schools on the gridiron.

Middle Tennessee has an overall mark of 57-38-2 in season-opening games, including a 1-5 mark under Rick Stockstill, and has won 18 of its last 31. The Blue Raiders have won their opening game just three times since elevating to the FBS level in 1999. MT defeated SEC member Vanderbilt in 2001 on the road and then upset Akron on the road in 2004. The Blue Raiders also won the 2006 opener at home against FIU.

Since Middle Tennessee joined the FBS ranks in 1999, the Blue Raiders have played 16 mid-week games with the MT-McNeese contest being the 17th. However, the majority of those games have come during the Rick Stockstill era. Under Stockstill, the Blue Raiders will be playing their 15th mid-week game. Overall, the Blue Raiders have played games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday since 1999.

Middle Tennessee will debut two new coordinators in 2012 when the Blue Raiders face McNeese State. Buster Faulkner was elevated in the offseason to offensive coordinator while Tyrone Nix was brought on to Rick Stockstill's staff as Co-Defensive Coordinator with Steve Ellis. Faulkner is the full-time offensive coordinator for the first time since 2010 at Murray State. Nix has been a defensive coordinator since 2001 at Southern Miss before taking over at South Carolina in 2005. He then went to Ole Miss in 2008.

Middle Tennessee enters the 2012 season with only 11 scholarship seniors on its roster. That total ranks tied for the ninth fewest seniors on an FBS roster this year and matches the fewest in the Sun Belt with North Texas and FAU. Texas-San Antonio, one of the newest members to the FBS ranks, leads the nation with seven, while Indiana, Rice, and Colorado have eight.

North Texas Mean Green

North Texas opens the 2012 season at No. 1 ranked LSU. It's the second season for head coach Dan McCarney, who led the Mean Green to the most wins in a single season last year since 2004. LSU is coming off a 13-1 season in which they lost to Alabama 21-0 in the BCS National title game. The Tigers are No. 1 in the coaches poll and No. 3 in the AP poll.

The Mean Green returns nine starters on offense and five on defense. Junior quarterback Derek Thompson threw for 1,759 yards last season, which was the fifth most passing yards in a single season since 1995. On defense leading tackler Zach Orr returns after leading the Mean Green with 74 tackles last season despite missing the final three games with an injury.

The Mean Green open the season on the road for the 11th straight year. It is the third time in school history that North Texas has started a year out against the No. 1 team in the nation.

North Texas is 37-56-3 all-time in the season debut. The Mean Green has won just two season-openers in the last 15 years, a 14-7 win at Middle Tennessee in 2005 and a 20-10 victory at Ball State in 2009.

In the first-year under head coach Dan McCarney North Texas averaged only 41.4 yards a game in penalties, which was the fewest penalty yards per game for a Mean Green team since 1999.

LSU is the fourth No. 1 ranked team in the nation that North Texas will play in school history. It was 2003 when North Texas last played a team ranked No. 1 in the country, beginning the year at Oklahoma. The other two times North Texas has played the top-ranked team in the nation was 1987 against at Oklahoma and 1965 at Arkansas. The Mean Green hasn't fared well against ranked opponents throughout the years, collecting just one win over a ranked opponent in school history, a 14-9 win against San Diego State in 1974. North Texas is 1-41 all-time against ranked opponents.

South Alabama Jaguars

For the second season in a row, the Jaguars will open on Thursday night; USA defeated West Alabama, 20-10, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 1 to begin the 2011 campaign. It also marks the first of two more milestones the Jag football program will record in 2012 — USA plays a game in August for the first time in school history, and it also has a December contest on the slate with the Jags' regular-season finale set to take place at Hawai'i on Dec. 1.USA will start at home for the fourth time in as many seasons; not only have the Jaguars won their last three debuts by a combined 106-13 total, but they have an all-time mark of 19-1 (95%) at Ladd-Peebles.

This is the first of three straight rematches the Jags will face to open the year, as they defeated UTSA 30-27 in double overtime on Oct. 8 in San Antonio last fall (in what would turn out to be their only road win in 2011). USA has also previously faced Nicholls State (2010) and North Carolina State ('11). The Jaguars have a 3-0 all-time mark against schools from the Lone Star State, having also swept a home-and-home series from Lamar the last two seasons after defeating the Cardinals 30-8 on Sept. 10 a year ago.

Seniors Jake Johnson and B.J. Scott were both named to the Senior Bowl's inaugural "Watch List" last week, making them two of 309 individuals in consideration to play in the annual all-star game. The former paced the Jags with a school-record 83 stops a year ago, while the latter posted 48 tackles in seven outings before suffering a season-ending injury at Georgia State. In last fall's match-up with UTSA, Johnson was credited with 12 tackles and Scott 11.

With the departure of three senior starters, Trey Clark enters the 2012 campaign as the only Jag on the offensive side of the ball to have started all 27 games in the program's first three seasons of competition. The senior center is one of two starters returning up front from a unit that helped USA average over 150 yards per contest on the ground and more than 325 overall in 2011. USA will turn to a pair of newcomers at cornerback to open the season, with junior-college transfers Darrius Morrow and Tyrell Pearson slated to start the UTSA contest. Morrow enrolled in classes in the January and took part in spring practice after helping Hutchinson (Kan.) C.C. to a 9-3 finish in the fall. Pearson arrived on campus over the summer from Mesa (Ariz.) C.C., where he intercepted eight passes to lead the Western States Football League and rank third nationally in the National Junior College Athletic Association. While he is not listed as the projected starter for Thursday's game, sophomore Kendall Houston returns for his third season with the Jaguars having paced the squad in rushing each of the last two falls.

Troy Trojans

Troy opens its 22nd season under the direction of head coach Larry Blakeney looking to rebound from an uncharacteristic 3-9 season. Blakeney was inducted in the inaugural class of the Troy University Sports Hall of Fame in August.

Troy has six home games this season for the Trojans; the most since Troy moved to FBS in 2001.

Eric Thomas had nine catches of 30 or more yards last season, which was the 24th most in the NCAA. Thomas also had nine touchdown catches he to lead the Sun Belt.

Corey Robinson ranked ninth in the NCAA with 32 completions of 25 or more yards last season; he also ranked 14th with 49 passes of 20 or more yards.

The Trojans open the season at in-state rival UAB on Saturday morning; kickoff is set for 11 a.m. on Fox College Sports.

WKU Hilltoppers

Saturday's game with Austin Peay marks the first time the Hilltoppers have opened a season at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium since 2005. Ironically, that is also the last time WKU started a year 1-0 as it opened that season with a 63-3 win over West Virginia Tech. The Hilltoppers are 54-33-5 (61.4%) all time on opening day — no score is available for the first game of 1916.

WKU is 20-0-1 all-time in home games against Austin Peay. That streak includes 16 consecutive wins since the teams tied 6-6 back in 1964.

Compared to his first two seasons as head coach, Willie Taggart will be able to rely on a much larger veteran presence on his 2012 squad. Nearly half of this year's roster (49 of 103) enter either their junior or senior season of eligibility. That trend is only natural considering that in 2011 only 34 of 103 players (33%) were "upperclassmen", and just 29 of 102 Hilltoppers (28%) fell in that category in 2010.

Of the 20 seniors on the 2012 WKU roster, 25 percent will not only be playing their final season for their team, but also for their alma mater. Five seniors already hold bachelor's degrees from WKU. Jamarcus Allen and Luke Stansfield both walked the graduation line in December of 2011, while Tye Golden, Kenny Martin and Marcus Vasquez earned their degrees in May of 2012.

The Hilltoppers bring a seven-game Sun Belt Conference winning streak into the 2012 season. After an 0-4 start last year (including a loss to Arkansas State in the league opener), the Topper rattled off seven straight wins in league, and won seven of their final eight games of the season — the lone loss in that stretch came at LSU. WKU will have to watch to extend that streak until Sept. 29, when it opens conference play at ASU. Only four FBS schools enter 2012 with a longer active, regular-season conference winning streak than WKU. TCU, which is moving to the Big 12 this season, won its last 24 league games as a member of the Mountain West. Arkansas State (SBC), Houston (Conference USA) and LSU (SEC) have all won eight straight games in their respective conferences.

Georgia State Panthers (Coming in 2013)

The Georgia State football team opens its third season of play by hosting South Carolina State at the Georgia Dome. Head coach Bill Curry's Panthers look to kick off their third season, and the final campaign for Curry, the same way they opened years one and two: with a rousing victory in front of a packed house at the Georgia Dome.

In GSU's inaugural season of 2010, the Panthers defeated Shorter, 41-7, before a crowd of 30, 237 on Thursday, Sept. 2. Last year's opener ended in the same 41-7 score as GSU downed Clark Atlanta before 26,273 on Friday, Sept. 2.

For the third time in three seasons, the Panthers will start a quarterback who will be under center in a collegiate game for the first time. Redshirt freshman Ben McLane from Snellville, Ga., takes the reins after earning the job in spring practice. Although he is playing his first game for Georgia State, he is no stranger to the Georgia Dome. In fact, his last competitive game also took place in this venue when he led Brookwood High School to the 2010 Class AAAAA state title with a 52-38 victory over Colquitt County.

On the receiving end for the Panthers is the talented trio of juniors Albert Wilson (37 receptions, 772 yards 6 TD), Danny Williams (30-485-3) and Jordan Giles (16-264-4).

The GSU offense also features powerful running back Donald Russell, a senior from West Palm Beach, Fla., who led the Panthers last fall with 665 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

Although inexperienced, Georgia State looks to be much improved on defense under first-year coordinator Anthony Midget. The top returning tacklers are senior safety Demazio Skelton, who had 61 tackles and two interceptions, and junior linebacker Mark Hogan with 56 tackles, five tackles for loss and an interception. Junior cornerback Demarius Matthews had a team-leading nine pass breakups.

Texas State Bobcats (Coming in 2013)

Texas State is playing its first season in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and will play in the Western Athletic Conference in 2012 before joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2013.

Following the Houston game, the Bobcats will play their first home game against Texas Tech on Sept. 8, marking the first time in school history that Texas State has played host to a team from the Big 12 Conference.

Following the Texas Tech game on Sept. 8, Texas State will also play home games against Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 22, Nevada on Sept. 29, Idaho on Oct 13, Louisiana Tech on Nov. 10 and New Mexico State on Dec. 1. The New Mexico State contest will mark the final Western Athletic Conference football game after the WAC announced that it will not sponsor football following the 2012 campaign.

Dennis Franchione is in the second year of his second stint at Texas State after previously serving as the Bobcats' head coach in 1990-91. During those two seasons, he produced the school's first back-to-back winning seasons as a Division I FCS program.

Texas State returns 18 starters and 46 lettermen in 2012 with 23 lettermen and eight starters back on offense. The Bobcats also return 9 starters and 22 lettermen on defense and one starting specialist. Headlining the list of offensive returnees are preseason All-WAC selections Chase Harper, Marcus Curry, Terrence Franks and Isaiah Battle.