Sun Belt Conference
1. Middle Tennessee State
3. Arkansas State
4. North Texas
6. Florida Atlantic
7. Florida International
9. Western Kentucky
Stories to Watch in the Sun Belt
Will the overall competitiveness improve? We keep waiting for the Sun Belt to get over the hump, in a way. Member schools play a lot of "guarantee" games, where they get a large paycheck in exchange for traveling to a big school to get their asses kicked. And those ass-kickings are still happening. Last year, league champion Troy lost by 17 to Bowling Green, 50 to Florida, and 36 to Arkansas. Middle Tennessee State lost by 23 to Clemson and by 21 to non-bowl Mississippi State. Florida Atlantic lost to Nebraska by 46 and South Carolina by 22. Louisiana lost to LSU by 28 and Nebraska by 55. It's a problem, and it's going to continue to be a problem. Even the best the Sun Belt has to offer simply can't compete with the nation's top teams. The best that the Sun Belt can hope for is to get a lower-rung team from a major conference to visit one of their campuses, at which point the league has a chance to pick up a much-needed non-conference win. This year, Minnesota travels to Middle Tennessee State, North Texas hosts Kansas State, Oklahoma visits Lafayette, FIU gets Rutgers at home, Western Kentucky hosts Indiana, and Florida Atlantic plays a "home" game in Detroit against Michigan State. Good luck.
MTSU "dashes" to top. While Troy tries to reload at quarterback, Middle Tennessee State hits the ground running. Senior Dwight Dasher needs to improve his mediocre accuracy, but he brings every other tool the Blue Raiders could possibly want. He led the team with over 1,100 yards rushing last year, and also threw for 2,800 while accounting for 36 total touchdowns. The running game will be dynamic this year, thanks to the return of senior Phillip Tanner from injury. He's joined in the backfield by D.D. Kyles, who ended up running for over 800 yards in his place last year. Wide receiver Garrett Andrews returns, but the Blue Raiders do have to reload a bit on the perimeter. Elsewhere on offense, things look great. The defense brings back six starters, including leading sacker Jamari Lattimore and All-Sun Belt safety Jeremy Kellem. The Blue Raiders look the part of league favorite this year, and they might be able to reach ten wins for a second straight season.
North Texas is back. This is the year fourth-year head coach Todd Dodge has been waiting for. The Mean Green have talented players all over the field. The major question comes at quarterback, where fifth-year senior Nathan Tune starts after Riley Dodge was moved to receiver after suffering another serious injury to his throwing arm. Dodge -- the coach's son -- was one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school, but he couldn't stay healthy. The offense around Tune looks to be very good. Star back Lance Dunbar returns after a 1,400-yard season with 17 touchdowns. Leading receivers Jamaal Jackson and Darius Carey return, and four starters are back on the offensive line. After a disastrous 2008 season for the defense, it got a bit better last year. With eight starters back, more is expected this year. The Mean Green have to both make more big plays on defense and take better care of the football on offense. UNT has averaged a minus-14 turnover differential in the last four seasons, which won't get them to a bowl game.
Best of the rest
I mentioned above that Troy has to reload a bit. The Trojans lost starting quarterback Levi Brown and eight defensive starters, including leading tacklers Bear Woods and Boris Lee, along with sack leader Brandon Lang. That's a lot, but Troy has proven in the past they have more depth than anyone in the Sun Belt. ... Departed quarterback Corey Leonard and running back Reggie Arnold didn't get it done for Arkansas State last year. Now, the Red Wolves have a new quarterback in Ryan Aplin and a new running back in Derek Lawson. Don't be surprised if the athletic duo get plenty of room to maneuver behind an offensive line that returns intact. ... Louisiana has a nasty non-conference schedule this year (at Georgia, at Mississippi, at Ohio), and could struggle overall if quarterback Chris Masson continues to improve. The Ragin Cajuns bring back eight starters on defense, and junior cornerback Dwight Bentley could be a star. ... Venerable coach Howard Schnellenberger has built the Florida Atlantic program from scratch, and he's done well, getting the Owls to two bowl games. This year will be a challenge, as the Owls return two offensive starters and play a brutal non-conference schedule. ... Mississippi State transfer Wesley Carroll and Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden have emerged in the Florida International backfield. FIU continues to improve under Mario Cristobal, and better days are ahead. Those days are probably not imminent, though. Carroll and Harden should improve the Golden Panthers' offense, but not enough to get them to a bowl. ... Former Army coach Todd Berry -- who engineered some total disasters there -- takes over at Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks were awfully close to a bowl last year, but now are faced with overhauling their offense and replacing seven starters on defense. ... Western Kentucky is still building a program that can compete in I-A (FBS, whatever). Former Stanford assistant Willie Taggart takes over after an 0-12 season, and there is promise in sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes.
Preseason Sun Belt Superlatives
Best QB: Dwight Dasher, Middle Tennessee State
Best RB: Lance Dunbar, North Texas
Best WR: Jamaal Jackson, North Texas
Best offense: Middle Tennessee State
Best defense: Arkansas State
Best coach: Larry Blakeney, Troy
Coach in the most trouble: Rickey Bustle, Louisiana
Best non-conference game: Minnesota at Middle Tennessee State, Sept. 2
Worst non-conference game: Austin Peay at Middle Tennessee State, Sept. 11