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
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.
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
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
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL:
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
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
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.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT:
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
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:
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.
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
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