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2011 CFN Sun Belt Preview

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 31, 2011


The Sun Belt is full of stars, led by two phenomenal running backs, while the league race should once again come down to Troy and FIU. Who else will be in the hunt? Check out the unit rankings, All-Sun Belt Team and top 30 players, thoughts on the season, predictions, breakdowns, and more in the 2011 CFN Sun Belt Preview.


Preview 2011

Sun Belt Preview


- 2011 Arkansas State Preview | 2011 Florida Atlantic Preview
- 2011 FIU Preview | 2011 Louisiana-Lafayette Preview 
- 2011 Middle Tenn. Preview | 2011 North Texas Preview 
- 2011 Troy Preview | 2011 ULM Preview | 2011 WKU Preview 

- 2011 Sun Belt Preview
- CFN Thoughts on the Sun Belt | 2011 Sun Belt Unit Rankings
- 2011 CFN All-Sun Belt Team & Top 30 Players
- 2011 Sun Belt Schedules & Picks
- 2011 Sun Belt Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish  
- 2010 Sun Belt Preview  

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By Pete Fiutak

In case you haven’t noticed, the Sun Belt has become extremely interesting and wildly entertaining.

No, of course the league isn’t the SEC, and 98% of all college football fans aren’t going to revolve their Saturdays around the Sun Belt, but it’s a conference worth paying attention to – “investors” know this already.

It’s a league where teams can quickly rise up and shine, and it’s a league that doesn’t take too much to go from a bad season to a bowl game with just a little bit of tweaking.

Troy is the gold standard. Under head coach Larry Blakeney, the Trojans have grown into the league’s most consistent superpower. And now there are more on the way.

Middle Tennessee was supposed to be neck-and-neck for conference titles each and every year, but it has only been able to top out to be among the above-average. Florida Atlantic looked like it was going to become a giant, but the momentum quickly fizzled as the shift went south to Florida International, as head coach Mario Cristobal has brought his youthful enthusiasm to turn a woeful program into a champion.

Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State have been close in recent years, and ULM has been knocking on the door, and now all three should be better. Western Kentucky showed signs of life in Willie Taggart’s first season, and with a strong recruiting class and a ton of experience returning, the program is on the upswing. North Texas got a strong coach in Dan McCarney and appears ready to make a run back to the days when it ruled the conference.

But even though the potential is there for some big improvements, it could still be business as usual. FIU and Troy appear to be the best teams in the conference and they should battle it out once again for the title, while ULM has just enough talent, and the right schedule, to once again hover around the .500 mark, but without getting over the hump.

So can someone come from out of the blue and challenge for the championship? McCarney should make North Texas far better right away, with some good pieces in place to work around, and WKU has a terrific young base to start with, but they’re still going to struggle. Arkansas State should be in the hunt for a bowl game, but it might not have enough to get it done.

Middle Tennessee might have lost its bowl battle with Miami University, but FIU beat Toledo and Troy blasted Ohio. Bowl games aren’t always the be-all-end-all proof of anything, but the Sun Belt is showing it’s worthy of getting the same attention as the MAC, at least.

Fine, you’re not going to do much with the Sun Belt unless you’re a die-hard, but it’ll be worth a glance once in a while.

Team That'll Surprise

Arkansas State - After three losing seasons in four years, the Red Wolves have become an afterthought in the Sun Belt pecking order. For years, the program has seemingly been on the verge of being decent and has appeared to be ready to turn a corner, but it didn't happen. Now it'll be up to new head coach Hugh Freeze, the offensive coordinator who helped guide last year's offense to a big season. Led by QB Ryan Aplin, and helped by great special teams, a strong receiving corps, and good running backs, ASU has the potential for at least a six win season.

Team That'll Disappoint

Middle Tennessee - The team is fine, and the talent level is as good as any in the Sun Belt, but the team that has gone to two straight bowl games is about to fall back thanks to a rough schedule. Even if the Blue Raiders beat Memphis, road games at Purdue, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Tennessee, ULM, and North Texas is sneaky-tough, and the team isn't good enough to not blow a home game here or there against a Louisiana or FIU. There's also a home game against Georgia Tech to deal with.

Game of the Year

Troy at FIU, Oct. 25 - Troy never had any problems with FIU before, and then last year the shift came. The Golden Panthers came up with a 52-35 blowout last season to pave the way for their biggest season ever. If everything goes according to plan, Troy and FIU will be the two best teams in the conference again, and one way or another, the winner will have a big say in the Sun Belt title.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight

1. RB Lance Dunbar, Sr. North Texas
2. RB Bobby Rainey, Sr. WKU
3. DE Jonathan Massaquoi, Jr. Troy
4. QB Ryan Aplin, Jr. Arkansas State
5. LB Darin Davis, Sr. Middle Tennessee

Coach on the Hot Seat

Howard Schnellenberger, Florida Atlantic - He created the program and he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, but it's been three years since the program was seemingly on the verge of being a Sun Belt power, and after two losing seasons, and with FIU appearing ready to make a good 2010 into a great run, Schellenberger has to come up with a surprising season with a team that doesn't look nearly good enough to be in the hunt for the conference title.

5 Non-Conference Games Sun Belt opponents had better take very, very seriously

1. Troy at Clemson, Sept. 3
2. Indiana at North Texas, Sept. 24
3. Middle Tennessee at Purdue, Sept. 3
4. UCF at FIU, Sept. 17
5. Arkansas State at Illinois, Sept. 3

Bold Predictions …
Arkansas State QB Ryan Aplin will be in the conversation for the Sun Belt Player of the Year. He'll dominate in the Hugh Freeze no-huddle offense. ... Florida Atlantic RB Alfred Morris will get lost in the shuffle with all the other great Sun Belt backs, but he'll be as good as any of them. The stats won't be there, though. ... New FIU defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will make the league's best defense even better. The great linebacking corps will certainly help. ... Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley and Melvin White will be the Sun Belt’s best corner tandem. ... Middle Tennessee's 1-2 rushing punch of D.D. Kyles and Ben Cunningham will combine for over 1,500 yards. ... The North Texas defense that showed promise last year will be special with new head coach Dan McCarney and defensive coordinator Clint Bowen taking things to another level. ... Troy QB Corey Robinson will throw for over 4,000 yards. ... The ULM offensive line that was so miserable last year will take a big turn. Six veterans and starters will help the cause. ... WKU QB Kawaun Jakes will make a big step up as an efficient, effective passer.

5 Best Pro Prospects

1. DE Jonathan Massaquoi, Jr. Troy
2. WR/KR T.Y. Hilton, Sr. FIU
3. TE Ladarius Green, Sr. Louisiana
4. RB Bobby Rainey, Sr. Western Kentucky
5. RB Lance Dunbar, Sr. North Texas

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill

1. WR Khary Franklin for Jerrel Jernigan, Troy
2. RB Ben Cunningham for Phillip Tanner, Middle Tennessee
3. DE Omar McLendon, Jr. for Jamari Lattimore, Middle Tennessee
4. DE John Robles, Sr. for Mario Addison, Troy
5. LB Will Wright for Craig Robertson, North Texas

- 2011 Arkansas State Preview | 2011 Florida Atlantic Preview
- 2011 FIU Preview | 2011 Louisiana-Lafayette Preview 
- 2011 Middle Tenn. Preview | 2011 North Texas Preview 
- 2011 Troy Preview | 2011 ULM Preview | 2011 WKU Preview 

- 2011 Sun Belt Preview
- CFN Thoughts on the Sun Belt | 2011 Sun Belt Unit Rankings
- 2011 CFN All-Sun Belt Team & Top 30 Players
- 2011 Sun Belt Schedules & Picks
- 2011 Sun Belt Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish  
- 2010 Sun Belt Preview