Aug. 3, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

When discussion turns to the Sun Belt conference, usually it revolves around Troy. And for good reason.

The Trojans have won at least a share of the league's title the past three years and have gone bowling three times in the last five seasons. The recent run of success has anointed Troy as the league's showcase team and that doesn't figure to change this season with the Trojans loaded for a run at a fourth straight conference crown.

What does figure to change is the number of contenders looking to take them down. While in years past the Sun Belt may have only featured a few teams worthy of taking home the league title, more schools than ever appear primed to give Troy a run for its money.

But the race for the conference's automatic bid to the New Orleans Bowl isn't the only storyline emanating from the south. The other big news involves the official welcoming of the newest FBS member to the fold as Western Kentucky takes its place as a bona-fide conference member this fall. For the first time in the Hilltoppers' brief history they're eligible to compete on the game's highest level.

Arkansas State
2008 Record: 6-6 (3-3)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: There's no reason why the conference's best offense last season won't be just as potent this fall. The Red Wolves return their top skill position players, including QB Corey Leonard, a three-year starter, who can make plays with both his arm and legs. Behind Leonard is Reggie Arnold, undoubtedly one of the top backs in the conference. And behind Arnold sits a pretty good backup in Derek Lawson, who had an impressive freshman campaign last year. There are a few question marks on the offensive line, but there's no reason to think the Red Wolves won't be able to match last year's 27 ppg mark.
Defensive Keys: The Red Wolves are fortified up front with three returning starters on the line, highlighted by the return of DE Alex Carrington, the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. Carrington led the league with 10.5 sacks and his ability to get into the backfield was a big reason why the secondary had a pretty good 2008 and is expected to be just as strong in 2009. The linebacking corps, however, is a little thin. But overall, the Red Wolves have one of the deepest and most experienced units in the conference.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jahbari McLennan, FS M.D. Jennings, K Josh Arauco
All In The Numbers: 8, number of running backs who have rushed for 1,000 yards or more in their first four seasons in NCAA history. Arnold will be looking to add his name to the list this fall.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Florida Atlantic
Outlook: Offensively, the Red Wolves could easily be the conference's top unit and defensively, they're as experienced as anyone. So will this be the year they capture the Sun Belt title? Arkansas State had its opportunities to do so last year, but came up short to Troy. They certainly looked primed to give the Trojans another run. It's just too bad that their annual matchup comes so early in the season (Sept. 26) as opposed to the season finale like it did last year. Bottom line; Arkansas State should undoubtedly be considered one of the league's best.

Florida Atlantic
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-3), Motor City Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Offensive Keys: In terms of numbers, few QB-WR tandems will put up the kind of numbers that Rusty Smith and Cortez Gent are expected to this fall. Smith, the senior QB, threw for 3,224 yards and 24 TD last year while Green, the senior WR, reeled in 60 catches for 935 yards and 9 TD. They're by far one of the most potent one-two punches in the Sun Belt and big things are expected of both this fall. After all, FAU finished 25th in the nation in passing and while they can run the ball, they prefer to throw it - a lot. Fortunately for Smith, who some would say is the top QB in the conference, he's got a pretty sturdy offensive line to rely on despite the fact that several starters must be replaced.
Defensive Keys: For as loaded as the offense is, the defense is barren of familiar faces. The Owls have to replace almost the entire front seven as only DT Josh Savidge returns. And he missed a good portion of 2008 with a knee injury. But Owls coaches seem to be high on the young defensive end and the secondary is surely one of the top units in the league. They'll be relied upon heavily to help out against the rush until the front seven establishes itself.
Keep An Eye On: TE Jason Harmon, CB Tarvoris Hill, FS Ed Alexander
All In The Numbers: 53.8, completion percentage for Smith last season, the lowest of his career.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 at Troy
Outlook: Remember, the Owls have won two straight bowl games and head coach Howard Schnellenberger, in his eighth season at FAU, certainly knows what he's doing. The man is 6-0 in bowl games and has his Owls positioned to make another run at the postseason if the defense doesn't struggle with all the new faces. Offensively, the Owls are going to be fine, as long as Smith improves that completion percentage and cuts down in the interceptions. It's going to be on the defense. A lot will be riding on their relatively young shoulders.

Florida International
2008 Record: 5-7 (3-4)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The passing game should be just as productive for the Golden Panthers this fall with the spread attack. It has its top five receivers from last year all back and ready to go, including T.Y. Hilton. The sophomore may be small in stature, but he's big on electricity, as evidenced by the fact he scored a touchdown four different ways last year. FIU would like to get more production out of its running game to balance the offense and a front five almost exclusively featuring seniors should do the trick.
Defensive Keys: The front four is hurting for familiar faces with only one starter returning. But the linebacking corps has plenty of experience, led by a pair of seniors. The Golden Panthers put up respectable numbers last year thanks to a pretty good secondary that features several of the team's top tacklers returning. Ideally, you want your top tacklers to be up front, but at least FIU knows that it can rely on any runners getting wrapped up if that young front four struggles off the bat.
Keep An Eye On: QB Paul McCall, RB Darriet Perry, LB Scott Bryant
All In The Numbers: 180.25, all-purpose yards per game average last year for Hilton, third best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 at Arkansas State 
Outlook: It wasn't that long ago that FIU went winless in 2006. Last year the Panthers almost reached .500 and this year that possibility looks very real. The schedule is tough off the bat with games against Alabama and Rutgers on the road. But this isn't the same FIU team of a few years ago. The offense has some speedsters and if the front four can keep its head above water there's no reason why Mario Cristobal's squad can't take that next step.

2008 Record: 6-6 (5-2)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: Replacing a legend is never easy, but that's the task the Ragin' Cajuns must face this fall. Gone is the school's all-time leading rusher in Tyrell Fenroy. And as if that wasn't bad enough for UL Lafayette, QB Michael Desormeaux is no longer around either. The 2008 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year will be replaced by one of three candidates. But sophomore Brad McGuire appears to be the frontrunner to land the spot. Unfortunately, it looks as if the conference's top offensive team last season could take a step back having to replace top-flight players at each of the skill positions - including wide receiver. But all five starters are back on the offensive line for the second straight year.
Defensive Keys: The Ragin' Cajuns defense featured balance last year, albeit the wrong kind. Allowing 213.3 ypg on the ground and 216.3 in the air, they gave up their fair share of points. A big culprit was the pass rush. Hopefully a more seasoned front four, featuring three returning starters, can get more pressure on the quarterback and let the linebacking corps, also featuring three returning starters, make more plays in space. There will be a premium on playmaking this year after finishing last year with a negative turnover margin.
Keep An Eye On: LB Daylon McCoy, LB Antwyne Zanders, FS Maurice Rolle
All In The Numbers: 39, years since the Ragin' Cajuns last appeared in a bowl game.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Outlook: The offense is a big question mark which only makes things that much harder with a difficult schedule that features three straight games against BCS programs, including road games with LSU and Nebraska. After relying on the offense in year's past to win games, the Ragin' Cajuns are going to depend a lot more on the defense than they have in years past. Many are anxious to see how they fair this season to determine whether that offensive success - which has been so stark over the past four seasons - is due in large part to the system or the departed skill position players. 

2008 Record: 4-8 (3-4)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Warp speed. That's how the Warhawks want to play offense this fall. Expect to see plenty of no-huddle from UL Monroe, but it won't be easy without QB Kinsmon Lancaster who is gone after he threw for over 2,000 yards and 18 TD last fall. In steps Trey Revell. He's got some experience playing in six games last year, but not a whole heck of a lot. The strength of the offense was the rushing attack last season and that doesn't figure to change. The offensive line brings back plenty of experience in four starters.
Defensive Keys: Last year's numbers weren't overly impressive, but the Warhawks have some of the best talent in the league on defense. Three seniors are expected to be starting on the front four when the season begins. And if fans don't recognize the Warhawks at first chalk it up to the new 3-3-5 scheme first year defensive coordinator Troy Reffert has instituted. Switching things hope will hopefully highlight the units athletes, most notably at linebacker where they're deepest.
Keep An Eye On: RB Frank Goodin, WR Anthony McCall, S James Truxillo
All In The Numbers: 31, sacks the Warhawks gave up last season, a number that should improve in '09.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 at Louisiana-Lafayette
Outlook: There was a good amount of upheaval this past off-season with the Warhawks after coach Charlie Weatherbie was forced to replace a number of coaches on his staff. How will the new assistants take to the players? Chemistry will be something to look out for as the season wears on and how quickly the team takes to the new voices. The Warhawks have a brutal schedule with road games against Texas, Arizona State, Florida Atlantic, Kentucky and Troy.

Middle Tennessee State
2008 Record: 5-7 (3-4)
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: With 10 starters back, you'd think the Blue Raiders are in great shape on offense. But replacing the quarterback tends to throw a wrench in those dreams. Junior Dwight Dasher will take over for the departed Joe Craddock who put up some very respectable numbers last year. Fortunately for Dasher he's got experience all around him to rely on. Especially up front. Dasher has been taking instruction from Tony Franklin, the former Auburn offensive coordinator who was fired just seven games into his tenure with the Tigers after his patented spread offense failed to take off. Franklin just might have the personnel at Middle Tennessee State to make his offense work thanks to a number of speedy and talented wide outs so if Dasher settles in expect the Blue Raiders to be a threat.
Defensive Keys: End appears to be the strength of this unit. Led by senior Chris McCoy and junior Emmanuel Perez, the Blue Raiders plan on putting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They'll need it to take some of the heat off of the linebacking corps that only features one starter returning. The secondary should be very solid with two standout performers back there in FS Jeremy Kellem and CB Alex Suber.
Keep An Eye On: RB Phillip Tanner, WR Patrick Honeycutt, LB Danny Carmichael
All In The Numbers: 7.13, tackles for loss per game for the Blue Raiders last season, 14th best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. Florida International
Outlook: Ultimate success will depend on how Dasher plays and how well he adapts to Franklin's offense. There's more experience to go around, but the Blue Raiders are still al relatively young team with over half the players on the roster underclassmen. The schedule is not kind with road games against Clemson, Maryland, Troy and Florida Atlantic. 

North Texas
2008 Record: 1-11 (0-7)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: It's a big transition year for the Mean Green. Gone are last year's starting QB and all-time leading receiver. In steps Riley Dodge, son of head coach Todd Dodge, to take over the high-flying offense. But Dodge is only a redshirt freshman. The strength of the offense will come up front, where five starters return. But it will be imperative that Dodge, or whoever entrenches themselves at the quarterback position, not turn the ball over. That was a killer for the Mean Green last year considering they finished '08 with a -17 turnover margin.
Defensive Keys: If the Mean Green wants to win more than one game this fall they can't allow 47.6 ppg, the worst mark in the FBS last season. But with more experience to go around there figures to be some improvement. Ideally, a few more playmakers will step up to create more turnovers. The linebacking corps and secondary are by far the deeper than the front four which features just one returning starter. LB Tobe Nwigwe will be the unquestioned leader for a defense that is expected to feature the 4-2-5 at times this year.
Keep An Eye On: RB Cam Montgomery, LB Craig Robertson, SS Kylie Hill
All In The Numbers: 10, number of punts returned by North Texas all of last year.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Western Kentucky
Outlook: Offense hasn't been the problem at North Texas. Sure it could use some improvement, but the defense has been the biggest reason why the Mean Green have struggled during Dodge's two years at the helm. He's feeling some pressure to produce wins after amassing just three wins in his two seasons. The early part of the schedule is much easier this year after featuring Kansas State, Tulsa and LSU right off the bat in '08. Bottom line; if the defense improves, as Dodge believes it will, then North Texas should add to that win total from last year.

2008 Record: 8-5 (6-1), Sun Belt Champs, New Orleans Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: There was plenty of concern last season when Levi Brown took over as quarterback midway through the season. All he did was throw for 2,030 yards and 15 scores, earning him the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year award. Brown's back and much more seasoned and ready to rack up bigger and better numbers for the potent Trojan attack. RB DuJaun Harris and WR Jerrel Jernigan are Brown's top playmakers and in terms of trios, it's hard to find a better one than that in the conference. There are a few holes that must be addressed on the offensive line, but Troy appears to be ready to put up a lot of points via big plays.
Defensive Keys: Statistically the best unit in the conference last year took some hits, but it's nothing they can't overcome. The secondary was hardest hit and must replace three starters. But up front, the Trojans will feature a pair of linebackers and ends that helped the Trojans lead the Sun Belt in pass defense, sacks and turnovers last season. LB Boris Lee, a legitimate NFL prospect, anchors the 4-2-5 defense.
Keep An Eye On: DE Brandon Lang, CB Jorrick Calvin, K Sam Glusman
All In The Numbers: 9, times the Troy offense posted at least 30 points last season.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 vs. Florida Atlantic
Outlook: They've at least shared the last three Sun Belt conference titles and the Trojans, under the leadership of coach Larry Blakeney, are on track to take home another one. Stacked offensively and featuring a nice corps of returning starters on defense, the Trojans will have a big bulls-eye on their back in conference play. The game against Arkansas State will be one of the biggest of the season, even though it's in September, and the home date against Florida Atlantic could be their chance to wrap up another league crown.

Western Kentucky
2008 Record: 2-10
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense 
Offensive Keys: The spread didn't do wonders for Western Kentucky last year as they only averaged 17.5 ppg so new coordinator Walt Wells is changing things up slightly with more pro-style looks and formations this fall. Ultimate success will depend on who emerges as the Hilltoppers quarterback. Senior Brandon Smith has the obvious experience advantage over a pair of redshirt freshmen candidates, but the competition could last well into August and even the season. Fortunately for whoever lines up under center, he'll have four returning starters up front. The backfield should be very productive.
Defensive Keys: While it may feature some talented players, most notably LB Blake Boyd, the Hilltoppers defense will lack depth and experience. The task for new coordinator Mike Dietzel will be to come up with a and reliable front three. That's no easy task considering only one starter returns and that's sophomore Jared Clendenin. Dietzel will need a number of freshmen to grow up very fast to take some of the pressure off Boyd, the Hilltoppers leading the team in sacks and pass breakups last fall.
Keep An Eye On: RB Tyrell Hayden, RB Bobby Rainy, FS Mark Santoro
All In The Numbers: 125, career receptions by WR Jake Gaebler, 25 shy of the school record.
Deciding Game: Oct. 21 at North Texas
Outlook: It wasn't that long ago that the Hilltoppers were the champions of the FCS world (then I-AA back in 2002). But the times have changed and the competition is significantly improved in their new Sun Belt reality. It won't be easy right off the bat, but it helps that they don't have to play five of their first six games on the road as was the case last year. Western Kentucky is definitely building toward the future this season, but optimism is running high around a very proud program.