August 20, 2009

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The Sun Belt had a season to remember in 2007, when league members pulled off three victories over teams in the "Big Six" conferences.

For a league such as the Sun Belt, getting those types of victories is the only way to get noticed. That's why Troy beating Oklahoma State, Florida Atlantic beating Minnesota and Louisiana-Monroe beating Alabama in '07 were so big for the conference.

In '08, Middle Tennessee beat Maryland and Arkansas State beat Texas A&M, but the season as a whole was rather non-descript for the conference. The league's nine teams - we're including Western Kentucky, which was a provisional conference member last season but a full-fledged member this season - won a total of 11 non-conference games last season. But five of those wins were against Football Championship Subdivision schools, and three more were against MAC teams.

The league did have two bowl teams in 2008 - Troy and Florida Atlantic - and had another - Louisiana-Lafayette - that was bowl eligible. FAU won its bowl, beating Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.

And despite the perceived "low rent" status of the league, there are some talented players. FAU QB Rusty Smith, Troy LB Boris Lee and DE Brandon Lang and Florida International WR T.Y. Hilton would be comfortable playing for almost any team in the country, and chances are you'll see some highlights from those players at some point during the season.

Still, the best way for a Sun Belt team to get noticed is to pull off an upset of a power-conference school, and the potential exists for a few shockers this season. There are 22 games against "Big Six" opponents, with two of those on a Sun Belt campus. Arkansas State, FIU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee each are playing three "Big Six" opponents. In addition, Sun Belt teams are playing just four games against FCS opponents, which ties the Pac-10 for the lowest nationally among the leagues.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida International WR T.Y. Hilton. Hilton was No. 3 in the nation in all-purpose yardage last season (180.3 ypg), when he scored four ways (kickoff return, punt return, run, pass reception), as a true freshman; he also tossed a TD pass. He averaged 24.7 yards per catch, on 41 catches. He has great quickness and knows how to make people miss. Look for the receptions total to climb into the high 50s this season for a team that could surprise in the league race.

 

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Troy E Brandon Lang. Lang, a senior, is seen as a future first-rounder by some draft analysts. He's a big-time pass rusher, following in the footsteps of former Troy standouts DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. Lang had 58 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last season. Lang remains a bit on the light side (6 feet 4, 256 pounds) and needs to bulk up to hold up better against the run. Still, his forte is rushing the passer, and he does that well. He originally signed with Georgia out of high school, but he had academic issues and went to prep school before signing with Troy.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Florida Atlantic QB Rusty Smith. Smith is our preseason all-league first-team quarterback, but he must play better than he did last season if FAU is to seriously challenge for the league title. FAU's rushing attack seems likely to be mediocre, putting even more pressure on Smith and the passing game to come through. He has a good group of receivers to work with, and he must take advantage.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Middle Tennessee LB Danny Carmichael. Carmichael is the only returning starter at linebacker for the Blue Raiders and one of just three returning starters in the defensive front seven. He needs to at least approximate, if not surpass, his 2008 totals for the MTSU defense to be at its best. He had 89 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups and an interception last season. He also needs to provide leadership for a defense that lacks seniors.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Louisiana-Lafayette TB Undrea Sails. The Ragin' Cajuns lost Tyrell Fenroy, one of just seven players in major-college history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. QB Michael Desormeaux, another 1,000-yard rusher, also is gone. ULL has the best offensive line in the league, but who's going to run behind it? Sails, a squat senior (5-8/207), seems likely to head into the season as the starter. He's a strong between-the-tackles runner who's also a proficient receiver. He's ahead of a sophomore, two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman on the depth chart, so there's not much experience other than Sails - who ran for 77 yards last season after transferring from a junior college.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Middle Tennessee QB Dwight Dasher. Dasher played well as a freshman in 2007, throwing for 1,148 yards and running for another 530 while sharing time as the starter. But he regressed last season, losing the starting job and throwing for just 156 yards and running for 192. The starting job is his again, and he appears primed for a big season. MTSU has a deep group of receivers, some OK running backs and what should be a solid line. In other words, the pieces are in place for one of the best offenses in the league if Dasher plays well. The bet here is that he does.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Florida International CB Anthony Gaitor. Gaitor emerged for the Golden Panthers last season as a solid cover man; this season as a junior, he should emerge as the league's best cornerback and even get some national notice. Gaitor had five picks and returned two for scores last season. He also had 11 pass breakups and 44 tackles. He played for prep powerhouse Miami Northwestern.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: North Texas WR Jamaal Jackson. The Mean Green have a few receivers who could end up emerging this season, but we'll go with Jackson. The Mean Green lost their top two receivers and four of their top five, meaning playing time is available. Jackson is a junior college transfer who enrolled in time for spring practice, and he emerged from spring ball as a starter at inside receiver in UNT's four-receiver set. He has the quickness and elusiveness to thrive in the pass-happy offense. If Jackson has the season expected of him, he should have a minimum of 50 receptions.  

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Troy DT Kevin Dixon. Rarely is a senior a newcomer, but that's the case with Dixon, a former all-state player at Sebring (Fla.) High. Academic issues forced him to junior college out of high school, then he signed with Nebraska. He started four games for the Huskers in 2007, then was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules last August. He then moved on to Troy and should be a force in the middle of what should be the best defensive line in the league. His running mate at tackle is expected to be touted JC transfer Eugene Kinlaw, a former all-state player who was high school teammates at Homerville (Ga.) Clinch County High with Troy LB Boris Lee.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: FAU QB Rusty Smith. Here's Smith again. While he's the best quarterback in the league, he took a step back last season and must regain his stride. He threw for 3,688 yards, with 32 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 2007, when he completed 58.7 percent of his passes as a sophomore. Even better things were expected last season, but he didn't deliver; he threw for 3,224 yards, with 24 TDs and 14 picks, and completed 53.8 percent of his passes. He has shown he has the needed tools; he just needs to prove he has it this season.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Louisiana-Monroe LB Cardia Jackson. Jackson, a senior, had 127 tackles, four sacks, eight tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pass breakup last season. But when talk turns to the best defensive player in the league, you never hear his name. He deserves to be in the conversation, and if he were playing for a better team, he'd get more notice.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Louisiana-Lafayette's Rickey Bustle. Bustle led the Ragin' Cajuns to a 6-6 record last season, which was enough for him to keep his job. But Bustle is just 31-50 in seven seasons and lost a ton of talent off last season's team, most notably QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy. ULL is going to have problems finishing in the top half of the league, and a tough early season schedule - Kansas State, LSU and Nebraska back-to-back-to-back - along with a tough late-season, three-game road swing means a less than .500 finish looms.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Troy. The Trojans almost always have the best sheer talent in the league. But give coach Larry Blakeney and his staff credit: They know what to do with the talent on hand. The Trojans have won outright or shared each of the past three league titles and are 36-5 at home this decade. Blakeney is heading into his 19th season and has shepherded the program in its move from Division II to I-AA (now called FCS) to Division I-A (now called FBS). He has 144 wins at Troy, which is fourth nationally among active coaches in wins at their current school.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Troy's Neal Brown. Brown, 29, is the youngest offensive coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He is heading into his second season as coordinator, and in his first - despite losing his starting quarterback to a season-ending injury in Game 5 - the Trojans set 10 school records, including total yards.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisiana-Lafayette's Kevin Fouquier. Fouquier also has coached at FIU and Middle Tennessee, so he knows the league. When he has good talent to work with, his defenses are among the best in the league. But that rarely happens. Instead, he usually has somewhat mediocre talent, yet still puts together some solid units. ULL's defense this season should be at least solid and has the potential to finish in the top three in the league.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Troy at Arkansas State, Sept. 26. On paper, this looks as if it will be a de facto league title game even though it's relatively early in the season. This and an Oct. 17 game at Florida International will be the toughest road tests for Troy, which has won outright or shared each of the past three league titles. But this should be Arkansas State's best team in a while. QB Corey Leonard and RB Reggie Arnold are legit all-league candidates, and the defense returns eight starters, including E Alex Carrington - who has a great chance to lead the league in sacks.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Florida International. The Golden Panthers go on the road to play three "Big Six" schools; two of them - Alabama and Florida - are in the preseason top 10, and the other is Rutgers, which is a contender in the Big East. There also are what should be tough road games against league foes Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee. FIU plays conference favorites Troy and Arkansas State back-to-back. And while FIU opens the season Sept. 12, a week later than most schools, they play 11 weekends in a row before getting a break before Game 12.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Western Kentucky. There really are no easy schedules in this league. But we have to choose one, and we're choosing Western. The Hilltoppers have six home games, one of just two schools in the league with that many. They play just two "Big Six" opponents, and one of those (USF) is at home; the other is against Tennessee, which didn't go to a bowl last season. Western gets conference favorites Troy and Arkansas State, along with FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette, at home. And there's also an FCS opponent.

MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Texas Southern at Louisiana-Monroe, Sept. 12. One week after they play Texas and one week before they play Arizona State, the Warhawks squeeze in this contest against one of the worst FCS teams. We certainly are not begrudging any Sun Belt team an easy game, considering league teams often are treated as cannon fodder. But Texas Southern is pitiful.