The Sun Belt Conference may be the weakest of the FBS football conferences, but it has made nice strides in recent seasons, even posting a winning 4-3 bowl record the last three years with both conference co-champions, Troy and FIU, winning their bowl games last year. Look for Troy to win the conference handily in 2011, Arkansas State to sneak in second and FIU to slide a bit.
The 2011 College Football season is now less than two months away, and this week we are previewing the Sun Belt Conference, which is commonly perceived to be the weakest of all FBS conferences.
While that may be true, as this conference remains the only “added games” conference on the college football odds, it has made some nice strides in recent years. In fact, last year’s co-champions, the Troy Trojans and the FIU Panthers, each won their bowl game, bringing the Sun Belt Conference to a surprising 4-3 straight up and 3-2-2 against the spread in bowl games over the past three years.
Now Troy and FIU officially shared the Sun Belt crown last season with 6-2 conference marks, but FIU could be considered the de facto champion, as it went on the road to Troy and blew the Trojans out in their head-to-head meeting, 52-35 in college football betting, in a game that was not even as close as that score as the Panthers outgained Troy by 258 yards.
Troy should face no such stiff challenges in the Sun Belt this year however, at least not on paper, so we are picking them to win the conference rather handily. Troy is a co-favorite with FIU in the betting odds at +240 at 5 Dimes, but we see FIU slipping to third this season, with the Arkansas State Red Wolves (+600) being Troy’s closest pursuers.
Here is our look at each team, as well as their odds to win the conference at 5 Dimes.
1 – Troy Trojans (+240): Troy has won or shared the Sun Belt title each of the last five seasons, and the offense was fine last season despite starting a freshman quarterback in Corey Robinson, who passed for over 3700 yards. He should be more mature this yeas as a sophomore, so the offense should not miss a beat after scoring at least 28 points in all but two games in 2010 and averaging 33.8 points in Sun Belt play. The defense underperformed last year, allowing 30.2 points per game overall and 25.1 points per conference contest, but that unit should improve returning eight starters, led by an All-Sun Belt Conference selection in defensive lineman Jonathan Massaquoi.
2 – Arkansas State Red Wolves (+600): The Red Wolves are the only other Sun Belt team offering any value at these odds, but we would temper our enthusiasm, as we see Troy winning the conference by at least two games. That said, with last year’s offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze now promoted to head coach at Arkansas State, the offense should be hard to stop, as Freeze loves to run a no-huddle offense, and can now do so as often as he pleases. The Red Wolves finished at 4-4 in the conference in 2010, but all four losses were by seven points or less. With seven players returning on each side of the ball, the potential is there to improve, but the experienced defense will have to step up after allowing an alarming 437.1 yards per game last year.
3 – FIU Panthers (+240): The Panthers were a pleasant surprise and probably over-performed last year, and they showed they were not ready for prime time by getting upset at home by Middle Tennessee State with an undisputed title on the line in their conference finale. Teams like that usually regress the following year, and that is what we see here. Yes, this team returns 16 starters with eight on each side of the ball, and that would generally be seen as a major positive. However, that is because players usually improve with experience, but in this case, we actually feel that most of the returnees hit their ceiling last year. We think FIU is a gross underlay, as we do not foresee a repeat of their 2010 magic.
4 – UL Monroe Warhawks (+600): The Warhawks are on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible, as they came within one point of doing so last year. They finished at 4-4 in the conference, but only 5-7 overall, as the difference was a season ending 23-22 loss to UL Lafayette as seven-point favorites. This could be the year that UL Monroe earns a minor bowl bid, as the team returns all 11 starters on offense. The key will be the defense though, as it returns eight starters after being wildly inconsistent last year. This is a defense that allowed 29.4 points per game inside the Sun Belt, and yet was able to hold Troy to 14 points in a shocking upset as 17-point underdogs.
5 - Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (+700): The Blue Raiders finished with a 5-3 conference mark last season, just one game behind the two Sun Belt co-champions. However, the season was considered a disappointment after MTSU won 10 games in 2009, and we see further slippage this season. The Blue Raiders lost quarterback Dwight Dasher on offense, and they do not seem to have a legitimate passer to replace him, which should allow defenses to concentrate on just stuffing the run. Even worse, Middle Tennessee returns only three starters on defense. This team is very well coached by Rick Stockstill, but it may simply lack the horses to compete this season.
6 - North Texas Mean Green (+1000): North Texas used to be the class of the Sun Belt at one time, even giving the conference its first ever bowl win. However, the Mean Green have gone an abysmal 8-40 the last four years, prompting a coaching change to former Iowa State head man Dan McCarney. Now North Texas did rank in the top 20 nationally in rushing last season at over 200 yards per game, and they do return lading rusher Lance Dunbar. However, any hope for improvement in McCarney’s first year at the helm rests with the defense, and it must be said that McCarney is more of a defensive mind than last year’s coach Todd Dodge. North Texas can surprise a few folks this year, but not enough to move up greatly.
7 - Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (+1250): Stop the presses, Western Kentucky won two games last year after going 0-22 the previous two seasons, and both victories came in conference road games. Just think how the fans will react if this team wins a home game this year! All kidding aside, the Hilltoppers also lost two games by one point, so Coach Willie Taggert has this program heading in the right direction. Western Kentucky should continue to improve this season, as it returns 10 starters on offense, including last year’s Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year in running back Bobby Rainey, as well as seven starters on defense. Do not look for a last place finish this time around.
8 - UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (+1200): The Ragin’ Cajuns fired coach Rickey Bustle after a 3-9 campaign last year and brought in Mark Hudspeth, who had a 66-21 coaching record at the FCS level. The good mew is that he inherits 12 starters from last season, with seven of them on defense. The bad news is that those 12 players contributed to the team ranking 112th out of 120 FBS schools in scoring defense last year and 92nd in scoring offense while losing its games by an average of -14.7 points. The highlight this year is that quarterback Chris Masson, who has passed for over 4200 yards in two years, returns. Masson should have a lot of passing yards this year also, but mainly because the Cajuns will mostly be playing from behind.
9 - Florida Atlantic Owls (+1400): The Owls are opening a brand new, 70 million dollar stadium this season. The problem is that they can easily be 0-5 by the time it opens, as FAU starts the year with Florida, Michigan State and Auburn and then opens Sun Belt play with two more road games making them solid fade material in the college football lines. This team went just 4-8 overall and 3-5 inside the conference last season, and 77-year-old Coach Howard Schnellenberger seems to have his work cut out for him this year given the team’s killer slate.