SUN BELT CONFERENCE
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Florida International
4. Arkansas State
5. Middle Tennessee State
6. North Texas
7. Florida Atlantic
8. Western Kentucky
Top Storylines to Watch in the Sun Belt
The rise of FIU. In 2006 and 2007, Florida International combined for one win in 24 games. The Golden Panthers lost 17 of those 23 games by at least ten points. 2007, though, started the Mario Cristobal era, and the former Miami tight ends and offensive line coach has turned the FIU program around very quickly. Last year, FIU went 7-6, advancing to a bowl game for the first time in their short FBS history. A team that couldn't matriculate the ball down the field for three years finally fielded a passable offensive attack last season, averaging nearly 400 yards and 30 points per game. Reigning league player of the year T.Y. Hilton is back, as is senior quarterback Wesley Carroll. Senior running back Darriet Perry returns after scoring 16 touchdowns a year ago. The Golden Panthers have seven starters back on defense, including leading tackler Jonathan Cyprien, who was first-team All-Sun Belt last year. For once, FIU doesn't have a BCS tour of doom this year, with Louisville the only team from an AQ league on the schedule ... and that's a winnable game. Cristobal's team could win nine or ten games if things go right this year.
Troy stays consistent. Since a 4-7 hiccup in 2005, Troy has been the most consistent team in the league. The Trojans have won 41 games over the last five seasons, including two bowl wins and a win over Big 12 member Oklahoma State in 2007. This year, Troy has eight starters back on a defense that was uneven for most of last year. They'll look to linebacker Xavier Lamb, cornerback Jimmie Anderson, and safety Brynden Trawick to lead the way this year. Corey Robinson earned the starting quarterback job as a freshman last year, and he thrived for the most part, throwing for over 3,700 yards. The offense needs more out of junior back Shawn Southward, but Robinson will improve as he becomes more of a leader and more experienced in the offense. A road game at FIU in late October will probably decide the league title.
Can Arkansas State break through? After another disappointing season under Steve Roberts, the school decided to make a coaching change. The Red Wolves didn't look far to replace Roberts, as they hired offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to take over the program. ASU will continue the transition to a pass-happy attack under Freeze, one that set a school FBS record with 30 points per game last year (joined FCS in 1992). He has the right quarterback in Ryan Aplin, a dual-threat who totaled 32 touchdowns last year (21 pass), and he will improve on his 61.5 percent completions in his second year as the starter. His top three targets are back, and the Red Wolves have seven starters back on defense. Arkansas State has to play early-season games at Illinois and Virginia Tech, but they get FIU and Troy at home in league play and could be a threat.
Dan McCarney lands in Denton. After former high-school coach Todd Dodge bombed, North Texas took a safe route with its latest coaching hire. Former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney, a longtime defensive coach, got the job. Expect immediate improvement in many areas, including a defense that made strides last year and returns seven starters. Dodge's spread offense never caught on, largely because the Mean Green had too many issues with injuries at quarterback. The offense won't change much, as coordinator Mike Canales was retained. Sophomore quarterback Derek Thompson returns after his 2010 was ruined by injuries. If the transition is as smooth as expected, the Mean Green could christen their new stadium with a bowl-eligible campaign.
The Rest of the Story
17 starters return for Louisiana-Monroe, and the Warhawks could contend for the league title. Quarterback Kolton Browning played like a freshman at times last year, which made sense because he was a freshman. With so many pieces back, Browning is looking to have a huge season. ... A largely disappointing season ended poorly for Middle Tennessee last year, as the Blue Raiders fell to Miami in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. MTSU loses eight starters on defense, and projects to start a lot of freshmen and sophomores there. It could be a tough season ... Howard Schnellenberger's last season at Florida Atlantic features a new stadium, which the Owls will open against Western Kentucky after a five-game road swing to start the season. FAU won only four times last year, but could improve if the coaches can find a comfort zone with a starting quarterback. ... It's been a struggle for Western Kentucky since joining the FBS, but Willie Taggart has things pointed in the right direction. The Hilltoppers won twice last season in Taggart's first year, but return 15 starters and have a more manageable schedule. Four or five wins might not be out of reach for WKU.