Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Sun Belt
Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.
In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s W-L record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 W-L record.
Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.
Last but not least, part 12: the Sun Belt
9. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers | Last Year: 2-10 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10
In 2007, the Hilltoppers began their transition from a member of the FCS to a FBS team by playing a schedule consisting of half FCS, half FBS teams. In 2008, as a FBS independent, the Hilltoppers played their first full FBS schedule and went 2-10—those two wins coming against their only FCS opponents.
2009 will be the Hilltoppers' first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. They'll play just one game against a FCS opponent, so it’s not unreasonable to expect similar results as they continue their difficult transition to better competition.
It’s not as if the Hilltoppers have been bad as they played in several close games against Sun Belt opponents. This year, however, could be a little different considering they’ve lost their starting QB, have yet to settle on a replacement, and return just four starters on DEF. Furthermore, of those four returning on DEF, their best returning starter, SR LB Blake Boyd, was booted from the team this past spring for academic reasons leaving the Hilltoppers even less experienced.
The OFF, returning eight starters, will have some weapons in place to run their spread, including a couple of good RBs and their top three WRs.
The Hilltoppers’ schedule should be difficult with a full FBS slate including two of their four conference home games coming against Troy and Arkansas State—two teams expected to compete for the conference title this year. The Hilltoppers will continue their building process this year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be an easy win for conference opponents.
Nonetheless, with a difficult schedule, lack of overall experience and such low number of returning starters, the Hilltoppers are in for a long season.
8. North Texas Mean Green | Last Year: 1-11 | My 2009 Prediction: 3-9
In Todd Dodge’s two seasons as HC, the Mean Green have won a total of three games, two of which came against Western Kentucky. Considering WKU has been transitioning to the FBS from the FCS over the last two years and will play their first season in the SBC this year, the Mean Green have really gone just 1-13 in conference play the last two seasons.
This year will be Dodge’s best team yet with 16 returning starters on OFF and DEF. The OFF returns seven, including their top RB and best OFF weapon, Cam Montgomery, who put up over 1,000 yards of total OFF with nine scores last year.
The other skill position losses could be significant as they lose their starting QB and four of their top five WRs, including Casey Fitzgerald, who was by far their best WR with 113 receptions for 1,119 yards. The second-leading WR only had 46 and the highest of those returning had 26 receptions.
The replacement at QB will be the coach’s son, redshirt freshman Riley Dodge, who has attempted all of two career passes thus far, but is familiar with dad’s system as he ran it in HS. The O-line, on the other hand, has 103 combined career starts—eighth-most in the FBS—so QB Dodge should at least get good protection.
With nine returning starters, including their top eight tacklers, the DEF should be much more improved after ceding an average of 46 points/game and 484.5 yards/game of total OFF the past two seasons (both worst in the conference).
The schedule shouldn’t be too bad, except on the road at Alabama, and will open with two games against the MAC—at Ball State and home against Ohio. The Mean Green have a good chance to get off on the right track as they catch Ball State in a rebuilding year.
Overall, the Mean Green should be much improved, but they’ll have to significantly improve both their points/game scored as well as their points/game allowed in order to see significant improvement in the W-L column.
7. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns | Last Year: 6-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8
The Ragin' Cajuns look to be taking a step back this year with the loss of some major skill players. The OFF returns seven, but the skill position losses are huge with the absence of RB Tyrell Fenroy, QB Michael Desormeaux, and WR Jason Chery, all of whom combined for almost 4,600 yards and 40 TDs of total OFF last year.
The replacements will be RB Undrea Sails, who carried 19 times last year, QB Brad McGuire, who attempted 30 passes last year, and WR Louis Lee, who had 20 receptions last year, so the Ragin’ Cajuns will be considerably less experienced this year offensively.
The O-line, however, should be one of the best in the SBC with two First-Team and one Second-Team All-SBC linemen.
The DEF returns nine of their top 10 tacklers and will be led by LB Daylon McCoy and FS Gerren Blount. They’re also two-deep at the D-line, so there should be an improvement upon last year’s poor stats consisting of 33.7 points/game allowed and 430 yards/game allowed of total OFF.
The schedule shouldn’t be bad as the Ragin’ Cajuns get Troy and Florida Atlantic at home, but they do start off with non-conference games against Kansas State, at LSU, and at Nebraska after the home opener against Southern from the FCS.
With such significant losses at the skill positions, it will be very difficult for the Ragin’ Cajuns to match last seasons increased production of 33 points/game, and therefore should fall back to the 20-22 points/game range. But, with nine returning starters on DEF, the stats should improve on that side causing an overall balancing of statistics.
It’s tough to say how this will affect the W-L column, but I’m willing to predict a drop from last year’s 6-6 mark.
6. FIU Golden Panthers | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7
The Golden Panthers are another SBC team that has transitioned from the FCS during the past five years—and they certainly started off well going 5-6 their first season. But after going 1-23 the next two seasons in ‘06 and ‘07, the Golden Panthers realized it wasn’t going to be as easy a transition as it might have appeared.
They did, however, make considerable improvements last year going 5-7 overall and 3-4 in conference play. It could have been even better considering they lost to Florida Atlantic 50-57 in OT, and to ULM by four.
This year the Golden Panthers should continue with their progress, particularly on OFF, which returns 10 starters, including all five starting linemen, their starting QB, entire WR corps and even their best RB of last season, Darriet Perry.
The biggest question mark for the Golden Panthers this year appears to be on DEF, where they return a total six starters and just three of which to the front seven. The secondary returns First Team All-SBC CB Anthony Gaitor, who led the conference with 16 pass defends including five INTs.
The schedule is difficult and starts out with four of the first five on the road including at Alabama and at Rutgers. The Golden Panthers also play Troy, at Florida, at Middle Tennessee State and at Arkansas State, which are four games, in addition to the aforementioned games, most don’t expect them to win (myself included).
The Golden Panthers would then have to win all six of their remaining games just to become bowl eligible and improve upon last year’s W-L record. While not impossible, it’s unlikely, but they should at least match last year’s record with an improvement on OFF.
5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7
Last year the Warhawks led the nation in starts lost to injury with 54 and still managed to be very competitive in most of their games. Even though the Warhawks went just 4-8, they lost to Florida Atlantic by one, Arkansas by one, Middle Tennessee State by three, and even beat Troy by one.
This year should be a different story as 17 starters return and mostly everybody is back healthy. The leading rusher Frank Goodin returns, but three-year starting QB Kinsmon Lancaster is gone as well as the top two WRs, which makes for the biggest question mark for the Warhawks this year.
The replacement at QB will be JR Trey Revell, who played sparingly the past two seasons. The O-line should be good with four returning starters, despite the loss of four-year starter, RT Larry Shappley.
The DEF returns nine and will be solid up front in their 3-3-5 scheme with DE Aaron Morgan and NT Aaron Williams. The LB unit loses just one starter, but the secondary returns in tact. The DEF should be a strength of the team, and they’ll need to be considering the lack of proven skill position players on OFF.
The Warhawks play seven road games with five being expected losses to Texas, Arizona State, Florida Atlantic, Kentucky, and Troy. Overall, the experience should go a long way and the DEF should improve. But, unless the pass game develops, RB Frank Goodin won’t have the run lanes, the OFF will be stagnant and will cause the DEF to wear down from being on the field too much.
Best case scenario, the Warhawks can improve to 6-6 and earn a bowl appearance for the first time ever.
4. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6
The Blue Raiders were largely inconsistent last year and went 5-7 as a result. They started off with a loss to Troy, but then beat Maryland, lost to FIU, but beat FL Atlantic, lost to LA-Lafayette, but then beat ULM. It’s tough to say if this year will be any different despite returning 10 on OFF.
While a solid and deep WR corps returns, as does leading rusher Phillip Tanner, the Blue Raiders lose two-year starter, QB Joe Craddock, who last year completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 15 scores and seven INTs. JR Dwight Dasher, who played sparingly the last season and decent at times in 2007, looks to be the replacement at starter and will benefit from a veteran O-line possessing 99 combined career starts.
The DEF returns just six, including one starting LB—their leading tackler Danny Carmichael—but has a good D-line and strong secondary.
The schedule starts out difficult with four of the first five on the road, including a non-conference slate of Clemson, Memphis and Maryland. There’s only two road games in the last seven, which will allow the Blue Raiders the opportunity for a strong finish.
HC Rick Stockstill enters his fourth season with the Blue Raiders and therefore will benefit from the maturation of his first couple recruiting classes to fill the voids on DEF. If Stockstill’s recruits can fill in seamlessly on DEF and QB Dasher can play like he showed in 2007, the Blue Raiders will not only become bowl-eligible this season, but should contend for a SBC tittle.
3. Florida Atlantic Owls | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6
Despite going 6-1 over the final seven games, including a bowl win over Central Michigan, the 2008 Owls season has to be considered a disappointment considering they were the preseason consensus favorite to win the SBC. It didn’t help that three of the first four games were on the road at Texas, Michigan State and Minnesota—all losses.
This year’s schedule is a little bit better, although it starts out similarly to last year's with two straight road games—at Nebraska then at South Carolina. The Owls do get both Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State at home, but go on the road to face Troy, this year’s consensus preseason SBC favorite.
The Owls OFF will benefit from eight returning starters, including SR QB Rusty Smith, who threw for 3,224 yards, 24 TDs and 14 INTs last season. Smith will get his entire WR corps back, but loses the top two in the backfield. The O-line returns three with at least eight+ starts, but they’ll be less experienced overall with the loss of a two-, three- and four-year starter.
The biggest question mark for the Owls this year is on the DEF side, where the losses are heavy. The DEF returns just three starters and loses seven of their top eight tacklers, including their all-time career leading tackler, LB Frantz Joseph. Last year’s DEF had five returning starters and gave up 400 yards/game of total OFF and only posted 13 sacks for the season.
While star QB Rusty Smith is back as well as his top targets, it remains to be seen if the O-line can provide the same type of protection to allow Smith to carry the DEF while they develop. My guess is the Owls will see similar results to last year: season-long inconsistency with enough to make it above .500 and to a bowl game.
2. Arkansas State Red Wolves | Last Year: 6-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5
The Red Wolves look to be the most viable candidate to challenge Troy for the SBC title this year. The OFF returns all their top skill players of a year ago, including RB Reggie Arnold, who is the leader in rush yards/game (89.5) of all returning SBC RBs.
Although only hitting on 54.2 percent of his passes last year, starting QB Corey Leonard is the leader in passing efficiency (130.7) of all retuning SBC QBs as well and will have his top two WRs back. There is, however, one major question mark with this year’s Red Wolves’ OFF: the O-line.
The losses at the O-line are major as the unit returns just one starter. The rest of the group will have a combined 19 career starts—tied with Army for fewest in the country.
The DEF not only returns eight starters, but the losses are evenly spread throughout the units as the D-line returns seven of their top eight, the LBs return five of their top six and the secondary returns seven of their top eight as well. The DEF will be led by SR DE Alex Carrington, who led the conference in both sacks (10.5, T-1st) and tackles for a loss (19).
The schedule is rather difficult with seven road games including three non-conference games at Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville. The Red Wolves also get FL Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State on the road, but get Troy at home.
The Red Wolves broke a 57-year-old school record last year by averaging 399 yards of total OFF per game. With a suspect O-line, this statistic is expected to drop as might the 27 points/game posted last year.
Other than the O-line, the Red Wolves are loaded with talent and experience and have a solid DEF to rely on. If the O-line steps up, the Red Wolves should be a dangerous team and could easily take the conference crown.
1. Troy Trojans | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2
The Troy Trojans are this year’s preseason consensus favorite to win the SBC title, and for good reason as they won it outright last year and appear to have all the pieces in place to do it again.
The OFF returns seven and will be led by SR QB Levi Brown, who last year completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,030 yards with 15 TDs to just three INTs. Backup QB Jamie Hampton, who last season added 1,046 yards passing with nine scores and four more scores on the ground with 236 rushing yards, will take a redshirt in 2009.
The OFF also welcomes back their 1,000+ yard rusher, DuJuan Harris, who also scored 14 times last year, including 11 on the ground. There’s some concern at the O-line as the starting LT and RT need to be replaced, but three other starters return with adequate experience.
The DEF only returns five, but gets back their stars, including the “Killer Bees” at LB, SR Bear Woods and SR Boris Lee—also the teams two top tacklers—as well as SR DE Brandon Lang, who tied for best in the conference last year with 10.5 sacks.
In addition to Lang, the D-line will start two other SRs, one JR and overall should be pretty solid, although they may not match their conference-best 37 sacks posted last year. The secondary takes a hit losing three starters, including First-Team All-SBC and second-round NFL draft choice, FS Sherrod Martin.
Troy has put together a respectable streak of three consecutive eight-win seasons. This year, I think they’ll not only exceed their previous mark, but will post their first-ever double-digit win total (in their FBS history) on their way to a second consecutive outright SBC title.
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