The Troy Trojans have been the class of the Sun Belt football conference for the past five years, clinching at least a share of the conference title the each of those years. They’ve been the story: their rise from Division II to Division I and being as successful in the transition as they’ve been.
This year the story is different. There are 3 new head coaches (two of which have never been head coaches before – Hugh Freeze (N. Texas) and Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana). Even more, there are two other coaches entering their sophomore season as head coaches in the conference. So the story could and ought to be about the head coaches: how they will fare in their first year as inexperienced as they are and how the sophomore coaches fare in their secod year.
As Troy has been the story of the conference for the past five years, there too comes a change. A different team will end the season as the conference champion, alone at the top, and it wont be Troy.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL Golden Panthers — The Panthers return 8 on offense and 7 on defense. The two most important pieces returning on offense are the No. 1 and No. 2 running backs, Darriet Perry and Darian Mallary, respectively. These two combined for over 1,500 yards rushing last season for the Panthers. These two make up what is the best 1-2 punch at running back in the entire conference (a conference of some good running backs).
Returning 15 starters total will be a big advantage for the teams who will be successful this season in the conference. FIU advanced to, and won, its first bowl game last season (beating Toledo in the Little Caesars bowl by 2). One of those returning starters who will bring back the bowl game experience is Wesley Carroll, the quarterback. Carroll had a 2,600+ passing year last season, as one of the most efficient passers in all of college football (61 percent; but a 16-14 TD-INT, nearly throwing an interception for ever touchdown). Even so, he’ll be better this season.
The loss of Toronto Smith on defense shouldn’t be overlooked. His 91 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 4 sacks will have to be made up by a defensive line, which is returning 3-of-4 on the line. Still, bringing 7 back on what was the conference’s best defense last season, will mean similar results this season.
Returning 7-of-11 from the Sun Belt’s best defense and bringing back 8 more on the conference’s second-best offense, including a great running tandem and efficient passer, spells great things for the Panthers.
• THE CONCLUSION — The Panthers actually beat Troy and ULM last season, but it was a tough schedule (including 4 games to start the season against BCS conference teams), which plagued them. Because of weaker teams such as Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic (two teams that upset them last season), the Panthers will be able to swing those games into wins. That doesn’t let them off the hook, though. They don’t have the most difficult schedule in the conference, but an opening season loss to North Texas will set them back, going into week 2 against Louisville, of the Big East. They’ll start 0-3, but beat Louisiana before taking another loss to Duke, of the ACC. After starting 1-4, they’ll close out the season with 7 straight wins, including road wins over Arkansas State and ULM, to win the conference title and advance to their second-consecutive bowl game. (8-4, 7-1 Sun Belt, own tiebreaker)
ULM Warhawks — There’s a lot to like about the Warhawks going into this season; nothing more likable than returning 10 starters on an offense that ranked a measly 7th in the conference last year, looking for improvement. The only player on offense they lost was their running back, Frank Goodin. But Goodin didn’t carry a load like the running backs at FIU did. Goodin only gained 471 yards on the ground. Actually, returning quarterback Kolton Browning gained more yards than anybody on the ground.
Browning tallied 600+ yards on the ground and 4 touchdowns, while passing for 2,500+ yards and 18 touchdowns. As a freshman last year, he completed 61 percent of his passes, but only threw 6 more touchdowns and interceptions (12 INTs). You have to like him coming back, with a year under his belt. He was thrown into the fire last season, but came out of it with a decent year.
Let us not forget the 7 starts coming back on defense, including the entire linebacking core. ULM had the second-best defense in the conference last season, only behind FIU. ULM had the second-best pass defense last season, giving up only an average of 219 yards per game in the air. Bringing back 2-of-4 defensive backs will mean there will be learning curve for the new defensive backs, but Vince Eddie and Nate Brown are no true freshmen, who don’t know what they’re doing. Brown, especially, got solid playing time last year (ending the season with 29 tackles).
The rest of the defense will have to stand pat against some of the best running backs in the conference, but a more experienced QB Browning will mean a more positive season than the 5-7 finish last year.
• THE CONCLUSION — Losses to Louisiana, Midd. Tennessee and Arkansas State were costly for the team last season, but that wont be the case this season. This is just an all around better team than it was last season. The Warhawks will start the first four games of the season at 1-4 (with impossible games against Florida State and TCU). From there, they’ll hit a 6-game win streak, including wins over Arkansas State, Troy and North Texas (back-to-back-to-back). They’ll win 6-of-7 on the mid-season 7-game sprint, losing what will turn into the conference title game Nov. 19 at home against FIU. (8-4, 7-1 Sun Belt)
TROY Trojans — Trying to make it back to their fourth consecutive bowl game, the Trojans have everything back they’d need to repeat as Sun Belt Conference champs. However, with a depleted returning offense (only 5 players), the Trojans could be the victims of other teams who return more starters from last year’s squads.
Troy does, however, have a lot going for it, including the conferences best offense last season, and third best defense. A part of the best returning offense is the two pieces you need, Corey Robinson (QB) and Shawn Southward (RB). Robinson had a big year last year, throwing for 3,700+ passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Also, Southward returns as the team’s leading rusher last season, gaining 643 rushing yards and 9 total TDs (rushing + receiving).
Unfortunately for the Trojans, they lose their top three receivers from last season, including Jerrel Jernigan, who led the team in receptions (84), receiving yards (822) and touchdowns (6). Losing the top three receivers means replacing 180+ receptions (approx. 35 percent of Robinson’s passes). The most experienced receiver returning is Chip Reeves, who actually lead the team in average yards per catch (17.2). Still, the productivity is a lot to replace.
Returning 8 on defense, including defensive MVP Xavier Lamb, makes the Trojans one of the best defensive teams in the conference once again. But with new targets at receiver for the sophomore QB Robinson, a learning curve should be expected, especially without star WR Jernigan.
• THE CONCLUSION — The whole season lays on the shoulders of the first 7 games, where Troy will finish 2-5. Losses on the road to Clemson and Arkansas are to be expected, but losses to UAB, ULM, and FIU will certainly decide the conference (as I have ULM and FIU ahead of them in the standings). The Trojans will lost to Navy, but end a three-game losing streak the next week (Nov. 12) against North Texas. After suffering a three-game losing streak, Troy will salvage the season with a four-game winning streak, and probably be on their way to a bowl. (6-6, 6-2 Sun Belt)
NORTH TEXAS Mean Green — This was a dominant running team last season. Averaging 202 rushing yards per game (as a part of 375 total offensive yards per game), they had the fourth best offense and second best rushing offense. Turning into this season, it’ll be comforting for the Mean Green to get back the best running back in the conference, Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar tore up the conference for 1,500+ rushing yards in 2010, scoring 13 touchdowns and averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. While the offense only returns five players, Dunbar is the important one. Derek Thompson is new at quarterback, and was the fourth string QB on last year’s depth chart. Since he’ll have peaks and valleys to overcome, the offense will rely heavily on Dunbar as the feature player.
The defense returns 3 of the top 5 players from last year’s defense (7 total), and will have to improve in many places. The Mean Green had a poor pass defense, which will burden them in a conference of passing teams. However, all four defensive backs are returning, including De’Leon McCord and Royce Hill, who combined for 9 pass breakups last season.
If North Texas is going to be successful they’re going to have to bring back their four defensive backs, having learned their lesson. They’ll have to tighten up the coverage. And in a league of passing, the Mean Green will have to find away to balance opponents’ experience QBs, and their own experienced secondary.
• THE CONCLUSION — Nobody will know in week one how good or bad the new QB is for the Mean Green, so that presents an opportunity for them to steal a road win against FIU, who I have winning this conference. While they’ll look for that win to set the pace for this season, it wont do exactly that. They’ll suffer four-straight losses against better teams, including Alabama and Houston. They’ll lose a close game Oct. 22 against ULM, but their two other huge road wins will come in consecutive games against Arkansas State (to own the tiebreaker) and Troy. (6-6, 6-2 Sun Belt)
ARKANSAS STATE Red Wolves — This team can have a much better offense this season, returning three key pieces: QB Ryan Aplin, RB Derek Lawson, and WR Taylor Stockemer. The running game for the Wolves was wide spread in 2010, with Aplin being the team’s second-best rusher (477 yards, 11 TDs). The major parts of their running game will return (all 418 carries, actually). Their running game, similar to North Texas above, will be an advantage because of their sheer versatility.
There’s not much Aplin can improve upon this season. He already had a favorable TD-INT ratio in 2010 (21 TDs, 11 INTs), but he can improve with leadership, which will be something this team needs. They have a lot of tough games, as a team in the middle of this conference. Aplin has the versatility to be one of the best QBs in this conference, but whether or not he can be will show clearly throughout the season.
Across the board this defense was one of the worst in the league last season, giving up 436 yards each game. They return 7 players on that defense, and better hope they’ve improved. No matter, their defense will be their Achilles heels in the big games.
• THE CONCLUSION — Unlike other teams in their conference, Arkansas State can beat teams on their schedule from other conferences. Memphis and Central Arkansas are two examples of that. So after the first five games, they’ll be 3-2 and in better shape than most of the conference. But then they face a beast of a three games, against ULM, FIU and North Texas, consecutively. After dropping those three, they’ll pick up three straight before ending the season with a crucial placement loss to Troy at home. (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt)
WESTERN KENTUCKY Hilltoppers — It’s basically Bobby Rainey vs. Lance Dunbar for RB of the Year this season in the Sun Belt. Rainey took the cake last season with nearly 1,650 yards rushing and 15 TDs. This season, Rainey will want to continue that trend (he easily could’ve reached 1,700 yards). He’ll look to add 2,000 yards this season to that, and 20 TDs, I bet.
With Rainey returning as the catalyst of this offense, WKU should expect to improve upon their 2-10 season in 2010. They return Kawaun Jakes at quarterback, but he’ll need to be a much better offensive threat than he was in 2010. Jakes barely surpassed the 1,500-yard mark last season at quarterback, and he actually took 99.9 percent of the snaps. However, with only 291 attempts last season, the rest of the league has probably figured out that this team is a passing team.
That’s no wonder they struggled offensively against teams with good rushing defenses. Nebraska held WKU to 10 points. USF held them to 12 points. FIU held them to 21. North Texas held them to 6 (scored 33). Troy held them to 14 points. On defense, the Hilltoppers are similar to other teams mentioned above, as they return all four players in the secondary.
• THE CONCLUSION — The offense has to become more balanced if WKU wants any kind of success. The Hilltoppers have the luck to have Indiana State on their early season schedule. This will keep WKU from starting the season 0-5. Instead, they beat the Sycamores, pick up a two-game winning streak against FAU and Louisiana, and then lost their last five, which is a treacherous stretch for them. They have FIU and Troy at home, but in between those they have to hit the road to play ULM, LSU and North Texas. (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC Owls — This team is the mirror opposite of most of the other teams in this league. Reason being: they’ll be starting a quarterback who threw 2 passes in 2010 (neither were completed). Likewise, while other teams are forced to replace QBs, but have a significant running back advantage, FAU doesn’t necessarily have that either.
Alfred Morris will be their go-to running back. He gained 928 yards on the ground in 2010, for 7 touchdowns. However, he carried the ball 227 times and will be expected to significantly pick up that pace. You could legitimately see him hovering in the Lance Dunbar/Bobby Rainey range of 270-340 carries this season. Whether or not he is capable of carrying the load remains to be seen; but his backup last year, Willie Floyd, is returning this season, only having carried the ball 40 times (a fraction of what Morris did last season).
Their defense is too a rare site for this conference in 2011, not returning the majority of the unit. With only 5 players returning, thankfully including Marcus Bartels, the Owls should expect a drop off from their defensive efficiency last season. Bartels will have the defense on his shoulders. Having made 100+ tackles last season, he’ll be expected to be even more productive, not less productive.
• THE CONCLUSION — The Owls have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the conference, facing Florida, Michigan State and Auburn all on the road. They’ll lose those three games to start the season, but pick up a win against Louisiana (by now you know they’re the worst team in the conference). After beating Louisiana, the Owls will lose two more before beating Middle Tennessee State in a game that will decide which team finishes higher in the standings. That win will be their last of the season. (2-10, 2-8 Sun Belt)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE Blue Raiders — The Raiders were 6-7 even with an experienced QB last season, with Dwight Dasher, who was a multi-faceted player. This year, they’re stuck with the grueling task of replacing him. The guy who looks to fit the part is Logan Kilgore, a sophomore. With a new quarterback under center, the Raiders could struggle once again.
They return 7 players on offense, but lack a returning running back and quarterback. Last season, Kilgore attempted 80 passes, and threw 3 TDs and 5 INTs. The new running back, Benjamin Cunningham, was technically the third-string RB (Dasher was so effective), he rushed for 370 yards.
The defense is stripped. Only returning 3 players to the 5th best defense in the league, will cause a shaky start if anything for the Raiders. They return linebackers Darin Davis, who was the team’s second leading tackler, but not much else besides that.
• THE CONCLUSION — The Raiders will have to wait until Oct. 6 for a win this season, which will come against Western Kentucky. They too will beat Louisiana, but will end the season on a 5-game losing streak. (2-10, 2-6 Sun Belt)
LOUISIANA Ragin’ Cajuns — (1-11, 0-8 Sun Belt)