As has been usual in the past few seasons, the Sun Belt took a fair amount of beating in non-conference play versus other FBS competition in 2010. However, the Sun Belt placed three teams in bowl games for the first time last season and came away with a winning 2-1 record in those bowl games. Troy and Florida International will be looking to build off those bowl victories as the calendar turns to 2011. However, Troy's dominance of the league the past five seasons may have started to end when FIU shared the title and won the head-to-head last year, while the rest of the league continues to improve and reel the Trojans back in. Will this be the sixth straight conference title for Troy, or will another rise up like the Golden Panthers last year?
Under long time coach Larry Blakeney, the Trojans have dominated the conference the past five seasons and have won eight games every year since 2005. This season the schedule is brutal, with road games at their top two competitors in the conference FIU and Arkansas State as well as non-conference road games at Clemson and Arkansas. Blakeney only brings back five returning starters on offense, but two of the returning players are sophomore QB Corey Robinson and junior RB Shawn Southward. Southward led a running back by committee in 2010, and that may be the order of things in 2011 as well. Southward will be joined by Chris Anderson, Mississippi State transfer Montrell Connor, and Auburn transfer Justin Albert. The Trojans must replace three offensive linemen, but expect that unit to reload and lead a strong rushing-oriented attack this season. The defense returns eight starters and is loaded with juniors and seniors. The best talent on the defense may be DE Jonathan Massaquoi, although do not be surprised if the linebackers take the spotlight with four of the top five players at that position returning. Other than the schedule, the achilles heel of the Trojans may be their special teams, which loses their best return man Jerrel Jernigan and may not have many touchbacks with senior K Michael Taylor. As long as Troy can steal a couple of big road wins, eight wins and another conference title are certainly possible in 2011.
FIU Golden Panthers
Mario Cristobal led the Golden Panthers to their first winning record in 2010, capped by a wild bowl victory against Toledo in Detroit. FIU returns fifteen starters from the co-champion of 2010 and should remain in the mix to unseat Troy as champion. For the first time in Cristobal's tenure, the offense nearly achieved perfect balance last season with the running game improving from 104 yards per game to 188. Darriet Perry and Darian Mallary combined for over 1500 yards and are both back to run behind an offensive line that brings back three solid starters. Senior QB Wesley Carroll also returns and will likely improve on his 16-14 touchdown to interception ratio from a year ago. Carroll will have the best target in the league once more as senior WR T.Y. Hilton adds to his school records. The defense should continue to improve with most of the defensive line intact. The line is anchored by junior Tourek Williams on the end, but looks for highly talented sophomore Gregory Hickman to also make big strides on the other side of the line in his first full year of starting. Winston Fraser is the only returning starter at linebacker, but the unit as a whole will likely improve with two JUCO transfers and the return of Larvez Mars from injury. One weakness of this team could be the special teams, despite bringing back all of the major players on those units from last year. The most important two games of the season come in late October at Arkansas State and hosting Troy on back to back weeks. With the Trojans coming to Miami, there's a good chance FIU will at least share another conference title.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State has consistently won 3-4 games and finished in the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt during former coach Steve Roberts' nine years, but new coach Hugh Freeze could be ready to push the Red Wolves to the next step. ASU plays both of the defending co-champs Troy and FIU at home with at least 10 days to prepare for both games, which should provide a team with 13 returning starters more than enough time to prepare for those showdowns. Freeze won the job by dramatically improving the offense in his first year as offensive coordinator last year, and the offense should continue to roll in the second year under Freeze. Ryan Aplin set a school record with nearly 3000 passing yards a season ago and will likely improve in his junior season thanks to stiff competition for his job from sophomore Phillip Butterfield. All of Aplin's top targets return, including receivers Josh Jarboe, Swayne Frampton, and Taylor Stockemer. The one major question mark for ASU is whether the offensive line can replace four starters with younger players and five JUCO transfers coming in to fill those gaps. The defense struggled mightily a year ago, but the Red Wolves will likely be able to stay in games thanks to the strong offense. The defensive front seven remains mostly intact and one of the two replacements is former Texas Longhorn Derek Johnson. The defensive backfield will have four senior starters this year, which may help improve one of the worst backfields in the league last season. Considering the schedule breaks, this could finally be the year ASU grabs a winning record.
IN THE MIX
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The Blue Raiders went from a 10-3 season in 2009 to barely making a bowl thanks in large part to senior QB Dwight Dasher being suspended for four games and then contributing an unthinkable 24 interceptions and 14 fumbles in 9 games. Despite losing one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Dasher was so distracted and turnover-prone that the offense will certainly improve under the guidance of either Jeff Murphy or Logan Kilgore, who split time in the first four games last year. No matter who is throwing the ball, he will find most of the receiving corps back along with seven offensive linemen with starting experience. Thus, the new running back (likely junior Benjamin Cunningham) and quarterback should thrive behind the best line in the Sun Belt. The defense will be the major question mark for this team, as only three starters return from 2010. Expect lots of young players to make starts in the defensive front, which only returns LB Darin Davis. Opposing offenses may find the going easy against the Blue Raiders, which will put pressure on the offense to perform on a highly consistent basis. Although MTSU will likely receive some of the breaks that went against them last season, the defense is likely too green to expect a conference championship.
Last season new head coach Todd Berry played tons of freshman and sophmores, which has now led to ULM bringing back an astounding 17 starters. One of these youngsters from a year ago was QB Kolton Browning, who threw for over 2500 yards as a freshman. Browning will be given plenty of time to assess opposing defenses with a senior and junior laden offensive line returning all five starters. The one newcomer on the offense is RB Jyruss Edwards, who did run for 375 yards in his redshirt freshman season. The defense will have to plug a couple of holes in the line and in the backfield, but overall should be better than the unit that gave up 378 yards per game a season ago. On the bright side, the defensive front should be more used to running the 3-4 defense after a full year of that system in 2010. Look for Darius Prelow to thrive in his senior season as he moves to the HAWK linebacker position. ULM also has experienced kickers in the special teams, highlighted by placekicker Radi Jabour, who hit 8-10 field goals and 26-29 PAT attempts a year ago. The non-conference slate is brutal with road games at Florida State, TCU, and Iowa, but every good Sun Belt team except for Troy comes through Monroe this year. Considering all the depth returning, ULM could be a surprise contender for the Sun Belt, although it is just as likely that the team will only achieve middle-of-the-pack status in 2011.
North Texas Mean Green
North Texas tried to recapture the dominance of the Sun Belt Conference they had in 2001-2004 when they hired Todd Dodge four years ago, but five conference wins in four seasons did not keep Dodge around. The Dan McCarney era now begins in Denton and excitement is high with a new stadium and the new coach. Derek Thompson has had two years in the program and looks like he will take over the quarterback position in his sophomore season. Thompson will be helped by a trio of returning receivers led by junior Darius Carey. The receivers have more talent than their poor numbers would indicate from a year ago. Look for the Mean Green to continue trying to pound the ball with senior RB Lance Dunbar, who has broken past 1500 yards each of the past two season. On defense, the biggest improvement should be in the defensive backfield, where all four starters return along with three top backups. Although the defensive line must replace two tackles, juniors Brandon McCoy and Tevinn Cantly appear to be ready to fill those holes as well as the graduates they are replacing. On special teams, placekicker Zach Olen had an outstanding freshman season with 13-15 field goals and 21-23 extra point attempts. Look for Olen to be on awards lists quickly if the trend continues in his sophomore year. With clutch special teams and building excitement, North Texas could exceed their three league wins from a season ago. However, the schedule does not break nicely and UNT could take a step back.
ALL THE REST
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky has won a total of two games since joining the FBS in 2009, but both of those wins were road victories a season ago and Willie Taggert appears to have the Hilltoppers on the right track. Junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes only threw for about 1600 the past two seasons, but he has a much more experienced offensive line this year which will give him more time to find his young talented receivers. Sophomores Jamarielle Brown and Counrtney Dalcourt will join top receiver Macus Vasquez and tight end Jack Doyle in opening up the passing game for Jakes this season. Jakes will also be helped by the return of senior RB Bobby Rainey, who won all conference honors last year as the primary driving force for the Hilltopper offense. Also look for freshman RB Quartterrio Morgan to see some playing time this season no matter how well Rainey is doing. The Hilltopper defense has really let the team down so far in FBS play, although Taggert is recruiting well and infusing young players into the defense. WKU must replace all three linebackers this season, but will have one of the best secondaries in the conference returning. Like the last seasons in FCS, look for Western Kentucky to hold opposing pass offenses below 200 and perhaps even below 150 passing yards per game. This could make Western Kentucky flirt with a .500 season if everything breaks correctly.
Florida Atlantic Owls
for the first time in five years, the Owls had a losing conference record last season. With a completely lackluster recruiting class incoming and a fair amount of turnover in the starting lineup, the downward trend may continue in 2011. Expect FAU to play two junior quarterbacks this season, as David Kooi has more running ability and arm strength while Graham Wilbert has been more accurate. No matter who the quarterback is, the offense will not succeed unless the running game improves dramatically from the 94 yards per game from a season ago. RB Alfred Morris and FB Xavier Stinson return with all five offensive linemen back from 2010. However, even though Morris might be the best running back in the league, the offensive line may not improve enough to put pressure on opposing SBC teams. The Owls defense brings back five starters from a unit that kept the Owls in most games a season ago, but an unexpected transfer to a 3-4 defense from coach Schnellenberger in his 11th season could cause havoc with the returning starters as well as the new ones. The best talent on the defense is senior FS Marcus Bartels, who always seems to sniff out the direction a play is headed before other defenders. FAU starts with five road games and has to travel to Louisiana, so this may be even worse than last year's 4-8 season.
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Although former coach Ricky Bustle pushed Louisiana to three six win seasons in the past five years, the Ragin' Cajuns never made a bowl in his decade at the helm and now turn to Mark Hudspeth, a first time head coach. The offense has been a pass-first game plan the past few seasons. With senior QB Chris Masson back for a third season at the helm, this strategy will likely continue. Masson will have two new receivers to throw to this season, as only Javone Lawson returns. TE LaDarius Green may be the best weapon in the passing game Masson has, so look for a lot of wide open offensive looks to force mismatches in coverage against Green or other receivers. The defense returns seven starters from a unit that gave up 37 points per game a season ago. Thus, despite being senior laden, the experience may not equate to success with the current talent level on this side of the ball. If the defense has any success in 2011, it will start with the defensive backfield and more specifically, with CB Dwight Bentley and SS Lionel Stokes. Brett Baer takes over the primary punting duties after being only the placekicker a year ago, so look for an adjustment period on special teams as well. Louisiana could struggle to win the three games they did a season ago.
Although the expansion in the number of bowl games can seem silly and lead to too many "meaningless" games, it has also offered the Sun Belt conference an opportunity to show off more than one team in the post season. Troy and FIU should return to bowl games again this season, but the more interesting battle will be determining who can emerge from the middle of the pack to win 6 or even 7 games and grab those elusive bowl appearances. Although out of conference wins can be difficult to project for this league, a couple surprises always happen outside the top tier of teams, and those surprise victories can be the difference in reaching a bowl game. One of the two very long term coaches in the league Howard Schnellenberger will be retiring after this season, so it will also be interesting to see if a struggling FAU program can turn it around to send him out in style. Expect a highly competitive year in the Sun Belt, with a similar result as last year: another split title for Troy and FIU.