For UNT fans, hope. Not hope for winning the conference, but rather hope for being competitive and entertaining all season. There are good reasons to think UNT will spend the entire season off the ESPN bottom 10 this year.
For fans of the other Sunbelt teams, maybe a little despair. With a couple teams perched far above the rest of the conference, the Sunbelt looked like it was on the verge of possibly having a team in the running as a BCS buster this year. That hope is gone.
This was supposed to be the year the Troy emerged as the dominant team in the Sunbelt and if not a regular BCS threat like Boise or Utah, at least an occasional one like TCU or Hawaii.
Well, maybe next year.
Troy was spotted 14 points by Bowling Green, but then BGU rolled off 31 unanswered points. When a MAC school takes your best, figures you out, and shuts you down—beating you handily—you are not a BCS buster. To make matters worse, Bowling Green was a .500 squad last year.
They may turn out to be one of the better schools in the MAC this year, but right now that loss really hurts Troy's national perception for this year (a matter not helped by the fact that Troy has Florida next week and that could be an ugly loss too).
Troy may still have a very good year, perhaps even still reaching the 10 win level at the FBS level for the first time this year, but make no mistake, whatever record they end up with will be looked on dubiously due to this loss and will be credited primarily to a weak conference.
Howard Schnellenberger's Florida Atlantic team did even worse, getting run off the field by Nebraska. Certainly most experts think Nebraska is a front-runner to win the Big 12 North, but most are predicting a top 10 finish as a best case scenario for the Cornhuskers. Currently Nebraska is barely a top 25 team (No. 24).
One would hope arguably the best team in the Sunbelt could at least score a touchdown on them. South Carolina is not likely to run FAU off the field, but even if FAU upsets the Gamecocks, it won't wipe away the media's memories of the Nebraska rout.
Middle Tennessee was never really in their game with Clemson. Clemson took a 30-7 lead in at the half and cruised in from there. Clemson certainly has good talent, but they were only a 7-6 team last year—not exactly world beaters.
Of the four favorites, only Arkansas State looked like a conference champion, but that was likely strictly due to a major talent mismatch against FCS also-ran Mississippi Valley State (3-8 at the FCS level last year). With ASU's rebuilt OL, most predictions have them falling slightly short in their efforts to win the Sunbelt crown.
We will have a better idea of where they stand next week when they take a shot at Nebraska. If they also lose badly, even if it isn't 49-3, and FIU doesn't get close to upsetting Alabama, you can probably put a fork in any media coverage of the Sunbelt whatsoever this season.
(Side note: I would have loved to see a C. Arkansas/Arkansas State game this year instead of the Mississippi Valley State matchup. I guarantee that would have drawn a lot more than the paltry 21,000 who showed up to see this stinker of a matchup with MVSU. ASU would have sold out their 33,000 seat stadium effectively adding almost two and a half thousand to their season attendance average—and significant money to their bottom line. Frankly, I'd have called that game a pick 'em. C. Arkansas went to Hawaii and almost knocked off the Warriors at home—something pretty much only Boise State does. UCA plays some fierce football. Those guys really are godless killing machines. Maybe in the future ASU will look at their financial bottom line first and play the Bears...)
It is only the first week of the season and the Sunbelt has pretty much bowed out of the national conversation. That has to be disappointingly familiar for Sunbelt fans, but for UNT fans there is quite a silver lining.
The gap between the Sunbelt elite and the rest of the conference may not be as wide as it appeared prior to the season.
Prior to the season it appeared there were 3-5 games UNT would not be able to realistically have a shot to win. Alabama (obviously), Troy, FAU, and possibly MTSU. Additionally FIU appears on the verge of a breakout year and has been a challenging matchup for UNT in the Todd Dodge era, beating UNT 38-19 in 2007 for FIU's only win and 42-10 as a 5-7 team last year.
Arkansas State, on the other hand, has narrowly beaten two very bad UNT teams in the past two years. In 2007 a 5-6 ASU beat UNT 31-27 in Arkansas. Last year's 6-6 Red Wolves team beat UNT 33-28 in Denton. Dodge and his staff seem to be able to gameplan quite effectively against ASU.
Today, I think the likelihood of an upset by a Sunbelt bottom feeder vs. those top 4-5 teams are merely somewhat unlikely, not highly unlikely as it appeared before the season.
But what about UNT? Does this and their play in game one mean they are a contender? I still think probably not.
Offensively, I still question this unit. I think their offensive success had a lot to do with Ball State not being quite ready for UNT. Certainly as video builds up, teams will have more reference on the skills of this team's new receiving unit.
The scheme and the playcalling measure up to allow the offense to move the ball. No problem there. This team will roll up yards, if not points. The OL is very solid. Riley Dodge is a competent QB who offers a very real rushing threat. My problem is that with the exception of Cam Montgomery no one on this offense can reliably and regularly break a big play.
That is not to say that they don't have guys who can occasionally break a play with enough chances. Receivers Jamaal Jackson, Michael Outlaw, BJ Lewis, and Darius Carey are all capable of breaking plays with enough touches against a middle of the pack defense. And UNT does play a lot of those this year, so maybe it is a bit too harsh of a criticism.
Still I'd like to see a few more shots down field. I'd like to see the speed used a bit more to pull the safeties and linebackers a little further away from UNT's small scrambling QB. And I'd like to see big Micah Mosley get some carries, especially in short yardage situations. I don't think this staff really has a feel for what they have in him.
Defensively, the team was very solid. They gave up a couple of big plays and seemed to lose their composure on a couple of drives (as young teams do), but they also forced a lot of punts, covered well most of the night, and had a lot of stops at the line of scrimmage. Really you couldn't ask for much more from this defense in their first game back.
The position changes on defense to allow better coverage clearly worked well and the DL depth helped keep fresh linemen on the field to stuff the run and create pressure. Hopefully as the Big Three JUCO guys get more comfortable at this level of play we will start seeing some sacks.
In my season preview I said if UNT's special teams coverage was merely poor this year, special teams would be greatly upgraded. Their coverage was actually quite solid in game one.
Their coverage could end up slightly better than average this season—but I am still predicting slightly less than average units. Bad habits don't go away overnight. Someone will probably get complacent every couple of games allowing big returns. Still they were among the worst in the nation last year—slightly below average would be a huge upgrade.
It seems like all three units could be at least competent. If that occurs and the top of the Sunbelt is not as good as we thought, a bowl eligible finish not only looks like a best case scenario—it also looks like a reasonable one.