2. Arkansas State
3. Middle Tennessee
4. Florida Atlantic
5. Florida International
8. North Texas
9. Western Kentucky
Fab Four: Top Storylines in Sun Belt
Tony Franklin's arrival in Murfreesboro. It wasn't exactly as big as Lane Kiffin in Knoxville, but Franklin's hire by Middle Tennessee made headlines, and it could create a change atop the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders will now run Franklin's wide-open spread, and he won't have to worry about alumni, administrators, or head coaches getting in the way (hi, Auburn!). He also won't have to worry about finding any talent. Philip Tanner ran for 15 touchdowns last year, the top receivers are all back, and Franklin simply needs to groom the right quarterback. That guy could end up being Dwight Dasher, if he improves his horrific accuracy from last season. On defense, the Blue Raiders bring back leading tackler Danny Carmichael and all-conference safety Jeremy Kellem. Early trips to Clemson and Maryland are survivable, and MTSU might be able to split those. An Oct. 6 Tuesday night game at Troy could define the Blue Raiders' title chances.
FIU's continued improvement. Just two years ago, the Golden Panthers were a laughingstock of college football. They were coming off a season where they averaged under ten points per game, went 0-12, and were involved in a humilating on-field fight at Miami. Mario Cristobal has changed much of the perception surrounding this program. They won just once in 2007, but went through some of the growing pains necessary to build a program the right way. Last year, FIU won a non-conference road game for the first time since their move to Division I-A (er, FBS), as they beat Toledo 35-16. FIU opened a new on-campus stadium, played competitively for much of the season, and look to be even better this season. The next hump is the toughest one to get over, as Cristobal looks to get Florida International into bowl eligibility. Senior quarterback Paul McCall needs to take even better care of the ball, and FIU has to find a running game somehow. The defense features a lot of youth, especially in the front seven, but it's a group that played some of its best football down the stretch last year.
Beating on the new guy. Last year, Western Kentucky played five games against Sun Belt teams, the final year before becoming a full member of the league. The Hilltoppers went 0-5 as part of their 2-10 season, and they were outscored 140-80, an average margin of 12 points per game. Things should get better this year, but don't look for WKU to crack the upper half of the league. A defense that got pounded last year lost seven starters, including leading tackler Travis Watters and two cornerbacks. With a freshman (Kawaun Jakes) possibly taking over at quarterback, the onus is on running back Tyrell Hayden to stay healthy and have a productive senior season. The schedule is a bit lighter, with trips to Tennessee and Navy the only daunting roadies, as opposed to the Indiana/Alabama/Kentucky/Virginia Tech gauntlet they had to deal with last year. WKU is still probably a year or two away from being seriously competitive in the Sun Belt.
Troy's dominance continues. There are teams like Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee ready to knock them off, but can they? Troy sports a top quarterback in Levi Brown and a solid running back in DuJuan Harris. Not only that, but leading receiver Jerrel Jernigan is now joined by Oklahoma transfer Josh Jarboe, who could be lighting up SBC defenses pretty quickly. An experienced offensive line should keep Brown well-protected (Troy quarterbacks took just 13 sacks last year, and the line kept a clean sheet in five games) while opening plenty of lanes for Harris, who is also becoming a solid receiving option out of the backfield. Defensively, the Trojans have to replace six starters, but they've always been pretty good at rebuilding on that side of the ball. Linebacker Boris Lee and cornerback Jorrick Calvin should emerge as the leaders this year. The Trojans don't have much of a shot to be a BCS buster because of the Sun Belt's stature, but they do have a shot to shock the world Sept. 12, when they play at Florida. Remember, Troy led LSU 31-3 in the third quarter last year before giving up 37 straight points.
Best of the rest
15 starters are back at Arkansas State after last year's team fell just short of a bowl. Seniors Corey Leonard and Reggie Arnold lead the way from the offensive backfield. ... If Rusty Smith can stay healthy and continue to be effective, Florida Atlantic should be able to challenge for a top spot. The Owls get Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State at home, but early trips to Nebraska and South Carolina could hurt their confidence. ... Leader Kinsmon Lancaster is gone, but Louisiana-Monroe brings back 17 starters. Finding a quarterback is a key to bowl eligibility, as is finding a way to diversify the offense. Too much was placed on Lancaster's shoulders. ... Louisiana-Lafayette also loses their offensive stars, as quarterback Michael Desormeaux and running back Tyrell Fenroy are gone. The Ragin' Cajuns face long odds if they want to overcome these losses, as the two combined for over 4,000 total yards and 37 touchdowns. ... After years of respectable defense under Darrell Dickey, Todd Dodge has seen North Texas become a joke on that side of the ball. They've won three games in two years under Dodge, and they've allowed fewer than 30 points exactly twice in those 24 games. It doesn't matter how good the Mean Green become at running the spread with quarterback Riley Dodge (Todd's son). They have to learn how to stop people. Now.
Preseason Sun Belt Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Rusty Smith, QB, Florida Atlantic
Defensive Player of the Year: Alex Carrington, DE, Arkansas State
Coach of the Year: Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Coach on the Hot Seat: Todd Dodge, North Texas
Best non-conference game: Mississippi State at Middle Tennessee, October 17
Worst non-conference game: Mississippi Valley State at Arkansas State, September 5