Rivals Sunbelt Preview
Rivals Sunbelt Preview
Troy has owned the Sun Belt of late – winning at least a share of the league title in each of the past four seasons – but the torch should be passed this season because of a change at quarterback for the Trojans.
The highly productive Levi Brown is gone, and Dwight Dasher returns at the position for Middle Tennessee, which was second in the league last season.
MTSU also returns four starting linemen among eight returning starters on offense, and defensive tackle looks to be the only potential trouble spot on defense. Troy, meanwhile, also has to replace offensive coordinator Neal Brown – he took the same position at Texas Tech for new coach Tommy Tuberville – and eight defensive starters. Another advantage for MTSU: It plays host to the Trojans this season.
The potential upstart looks to be Florida Atlantic. The Owls struggled last season, but they got an early start on rebuilding when star senior quarterback Rusty Smith was lost for the season in the seventh game. That pressed Jeff Van Camp into duty much earlier than expected, and he responded well; he and running back Alfred Morris should make for a nice offensive duo for the Owls. One negative for coach Howard Schnellenberger's team is that is has just four home games, the fewest for any FBS school in the nation. Plus, on Nov. 20, FAU plays at Texas, which conceivably could leave the Owls a beat-up bunch going into their final two games – Middle Tennessee and Troy.
There are two new coaches – Todd Berry at Louisiana-Monroe and Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky. Berry had been offensive coordinator at UNLV, while Taggart – a WKU alum – had been running backs coach at Stanford.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida International WR T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is an electrifying kick returner; just ask Alabama, which gave up a return TD to Hilton last season. Hilton has 98 career catches for 1,645 yards and 12 TDs, including two vs. Rutgers last season. He also has thrown a TD pass, rushed for two TDs, returned one punt for a score and returned two kickoffs for TDs in his career. If he could work with a consistent quarterback, his numbers would be through the roof in this league.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Arkansas State LB Demario Davis. Arkansas State was a disappointment last season, but you cannot blame the defense, and Davis was the Red Wolves' leading tackler. He also has big-play ability. Look for him to emerge as the league's top defensive player this season after not garnering any all-league mention last season. He has great size (6 feet 3/231 pounds) and is athletic (he was a high jumper in high school in Mississippi).
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Middle Tennessee QB Dwight Dasher. Dasher had a solid season in 2007, slumped badly in '08, then bounced back in a big way last season. That must carry over to this fall even though he will be playing for his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. He thrived under Tony Franklin last season, but Franklin left for Louisiana Tech. Enter Mike Schultz, who had a disastrous one-season tenure at Illinois after helping build a solid offense at TCU. It will be interesting to see how Schultz, who ran a successful power-based attack at TCU, handles Dasher, a dual-threat quarterback who is a great fit for MTSU's spread. Dasher must be at his best if MTSU is to win the league crown.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Middle Tennessee LB Antwan Davis. Davis, a senior, is the only returning starter at linebacker for the Blue Raiders, and he might be the key performer in the entire front seven for MTSU. Davis made 52 tackles last season to rank eighth on the team, and he'll need to double that total this season. One potential positive: We highlighted MTSU LB Danny Carmichael in this section last season, and Carmichael came through with a 94-tackle season. Davis is more athletic than Carmichael and more of a big-play guy.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: FAU WR Lester Jean. Jean is a senior with good size (6 feet 3/195 pounds). He had 38 receptions last season and is the Owls' leading returning receiver. He needs to prove he can be the go-to guy for QB Jeff Van Camp. Jean has 82 career receptions, and he needs to get into the high 50s this season.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STARS: FAU LB Michael Lockley. Lockley, a senior, made 97 tackles to finish second in that category for the Owls, but he received no postseason mention. Watch that change this season. He will be one of the best linebackers in the league, and if FAU is as good defensively as we think, Lockley will receive credit in the form of all-league honors.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Arkansas State WR Dwayne Frampton. Frampton, a junior college transfer, is expected to start at a huge position of need for the Red Wolves. Frampton, who went to high school at Los Angeles Dorsey, had 78 receptions for 1,246 yards and 10 TDs for Los Angeles Harbor College last season. Arkansas State has just one returning receiver who caught more than six passes last season.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Troy CB Jimmie Anderson. Anderson, a junior college transfer, is expected to start for the Trojans in what should be one of the league's best secondaries. He was a touted recruit out of Kilgore College in Texas and went through spring drills with the Trojans.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: North Texas' Todd Dodge. Dodge, a former Texas quarterback, had tremendous success as coach at powerhouse Southlake Carroll High in suburban Dallas, but it hasn't translated to college ball. He is 5-31 in three seasons with the Mean Green, and another poor season almost certainly would lead to his dismissal. He and his staff know their predicament; they signed 10 junior college transfers in February and eight of them play defense, including five defensive backs.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Troy. Coach Larry Blakeney and his staff know what to do with their talent. The Trojans have won outright or shared each of the past four league titles and are 416-5 at home this decade. Blakeney is heading into his 20th 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). One issue: The Trojans have a new offensive coordinator after Neal Brown left to work for Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech. Inside receivers coach Kenny Edenfield, a Troy alum, was promoted to replace Brown.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: FAU's Darryl Jackson. This is a tough one because there was so much coaching turnover in the Sun Belt in the offseason. Jackson is one of just two offensive coordinators returning this season. His offense was a good one last season, though, averaging 432.1 yards and 27.4 points. He has one of the best backs in the league in Alfred Morris, and QB Jeff Van Camp should be productive, but there's an all-new line this season.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisiana-Lafayette's 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.
THE OTHER STUFF
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: North Texas. The Mean Green dominated the league earlier this century – winning at least a share of the title each season from 2001-04 – but they have stumbled mightily since, winning just 10 games in the past five seasons. Look for the tide to turn again this season. They return 17 starters and should be markedly improved on defense. Three of the first four league games are at home, which is a plus. If the Mean Green struggle again, coach Todd Dodge almost certainly will be fired.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks have won six games twice in the past three seasons, which might not sound like much. But considering they haven't had a winning record since 1993, when the school was known as Northeast Louisiana and competed in Division I-AA, that's noteworthy. Still, school officials saw fit to dismiss coach Charlie Weatherbie and hire Todd Berry, who had been offensive coordinator at UNLV and was fired along with the rest of the staff. ULM has 13 starters back, but just four on defense. The secondary, which had been a strength, lost a ton of key players. It is going to be a long season in Monroe.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Troy at Middle Tennessee, Oct. 5. This will be the second conference game for both, and the winner of this game becomes the hunted for the rest of the league. Troy blew out MTSU last season and went on to an unbeaten league mark; it was the only league loss of the season for the Blue Raiders, who haven't beaten Troy since 2005.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Louisiana-Monroe. Three of the Warhawks' four non-conference games are at SEC schools – Arkansas, Auburn and LSU. ULM also plays at Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee, and five of the first seven games are on the road. It's not an easy schedule for a team with a new coach, a new offense and likely a new quarterback.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders play just two Big Six opponents – tied for the fewest in the league – and play host to one of them, Minnesota in the opener. Early betting lines have MTSU favored in that one. While it's hard to see Middle winning at Georgia Tech, the other two non-conference games are eminently winnable (Austin Peay and Memphis). Plus, the toughest league games (Troy and FAU) are at home.
Re: Rivals Sunbelt Preview
Re: Rivals Sunbelt Preview
Re: Rivals Sunbelt Preview
walty12 saidUNT will be much better.
You've been saying that for 3 years…homer!† ;)
And I hope Lockley gets his head right this year. He looks like freaking Ray Lewis out there, (now he just has to play like him) and if Van Vs killer D lets him loose, I think we might be pleasantly surprised.