2009 College Football: Sun Belt Conference Preview
by Matt Fargo
The Sun Belt Conference has always been the weakest of the 11 conferences across the nation and that will be the case again this season. However, it could be one of the more improved in the country as many teams bring back significant returning starters. This may not equate to more non-conference wins but the parity could mean a chance for teams to get a crack at dethroning Troy, the 2008 Sun Belt Champion.
Troy Trojans 8-5 SU, 7-5 ATS, 5-7 O/U
Summary: The Trojans had the best defense in the conference last season and will likely possess it once again. They only return five starters but all five are seniors while five new starters are also entering their final season so experience is all over the place. Troy finished first in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense and second in rushing defense. The offense is the weakness but quite honestly it is far from shabby. The Trojans return their starting quarterback, running back and two receivers to a unit that finished second in both scoring and overall offense. The biggest question is on the line where both tackles need to be replaced. They will have the bullseye squarely on their backs this season.
Schedule: Troy has two tough non-conference games at Florida and at Arkansas to go along with a home game against an improved UAB team. The other non-Sun Belt game is at Bowling Green to start the year. The conference schedule has only one real roadblock and that is a game at Arkansas St. which happens to be the Sun Belt opener. After that could be seven straight wins.
Bottom Line: If Troy wins on the road against the Red Wolves, it will likely coast to the New Orleans Bowl once again. If it loses, it will make things more interesting but top to bottom, the Trojans are ahead of the pack and are once again the team to beat. A third bowl game in six years is likely.
Betting Forecast: Troy will be overpriced all season so looking the other way could be the way to go.
Arkansas State Red Wolves 6-6 SU, 3-8 ATS, 2-9 O/U
Summary: Statistically speaking, the Red Wolves should have done better than their 4-3 conference record from a season ago. They were first or second in seven major categories in the conference but two of the three conference losses came by a combined six points and that was the difference. The offense boasts the best quarterback and running back combo in the conference in Corey Leonard and Reggie Arnold respectively but three key offensive line losses will dictate how potent the unit will be. The defense is a question mark with the loss of some huge talent but experience could make up for it as eight players are back. The Red Wolves finished 18th in the nation in turnover margin last year and a repeat of that could be difficult as those stats tend to even out year to year.
Schedule: Arkansas St. starts the season at home against Mississippi Valley St. but the other three non-conference games are at Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville, all likely losses. As mentioned with Troy, the Red Wolves catch the Trojans at home in their conference opener and that result is going to go a long way in deciding the conference champion.
Bottom Line: Beat Troy, and the conference championship is within its grasp. Lose to the Trojans, and the title is likely gone after just one game as it is hard to see another Sun Belt team defeating Troy. Still, this is the Sun Belt where crazy things happen every week so no team can be counted out that early in reality.
Betting Forecast: After going 3-8 ATS last season, look for a turnaround similar to the 2003-2004 seasons.
Florida Atlantic Owls 7-6 SU, 8-5 ATS, 4-9 O/U
Summary: Florida Atlantic comes into the 2009 season with some major momentum as it won five of its final six regular season conference games and then won in the Motor City Bowl over Central Michigan. Whether or not that carries over into this season remains to be seen but the Owls have what it takes to make a run. Offensively, they are led by fourth-year starter Rusty Smith at quarterback who will have two top receivers back as well. The problem is, the rest of the offense needs to be overhauled, in particular, four-fifths of the offensive line. The same holds true for the defense that brings back just three starters on a unit that finished 92nd in the nation in total defense. Smith will be asked to carry this team and that will be a tall order no matter how talented he is.
Schedule: Part of the reason that momentum from last season does not carry over is because the Owls start the season at Nebraska and then at South Carolina. Wyoming and UAB round out the non-conference part of the slate. The Owls host Arkansas St. and then travel to Troy in consecutive weeks in November with a loss in either of those meaning possible elimination from title hopes.
Bottom Line: The pieces are in place for another late season run for the Owls who will be hoping the defense has found its chemistry once the meat of the SBC games arrive. This offense will be explosive but it might have to score a lot of points early on as the defense will be giving up its share as well.
Betting Forecast: With a potent offense and suspect defense and only four overs last season, we could see great value in the over in 2009.
Florida International Golden Panthers 5-7 SU, 8-4 ATS, 6-6 O/U
Summary: Not much was expected from Florida International last season following a 1-23 combined record in 2006 and 2007. The Golden Panthers were looking at a similar path to start 2008 by losing its first three non-conference games by a combined 99-19 but instead of folding, they used that as a motivator and went on win five of their final nine games. The five wins overall and three within the conference both tied the most in program history and that isnít bad considering football wasnít played here until 2002. With 16 starters returning overall as well as the best recruiting class ever, things are definitely looking up and this team can no longer be taken lightly.
Schedule: Four of the first five games are on the road including the first two at Alabama and Rutgers so a strong start might be farfetched. Four of the final seven games are at home, bookended with Troy and Florida Atlantic, two of the top teams in the conference so those are must wins if there is any chance of a conference title. The Golden Panthers are 7-32 in road games all time.
Bottom Line: The offense has the potential to be really good but it is the defense that will dictate how good this team will be because of the losses up front. The last two losses a season ago came by just 11 points total so Florida International was close to bowl eligibility. It may still be a year away but things are definitely looking up.
Betting Forecast: The public will be weary to back this perennial loser which means value on the Golden Panthers side all season.
Louisiana-Lafayette Raginí Cajuns 6-6 SU, 8-4 ATS, 8-4 O/U
Summary: The Raginí Cajuns had a great season in 2008 but were not rewarded with a bowl game despite being eligible. Matching that .500 record will be difficult this season as they are replacing the bulk of the offensive talent from last season including 2008 SBC Player of the Year quarterback Michael Desormeaux and all-time leading rusher Tyrone Fenroy. On a positive note, the entire offensive line returns which will help give the young offense time to find some chemistry. Nine defensive starters from last season are back but that may not be an especially positive thing. The defense ranked 105th overall and 104th in scoring last season so it really has nowhere to go but up.
Schedule: The good news is that Louisiana-Lafayette gets Florida Atlantic and Troy at home but the bad news is that those two games are surrounded around four road games including three straight at one point. The Cajuns open the season with a likely win at home against Southern but it gets real tough real quick with non-conference games against Kansas St., LSU and Nebraska, the final two coming on the road.
Bottom Line: It is likely going to be a rebuilding season in Lafayette unless the team can find some offense right out of the gate. If that happens and the defensive experience helps the stop unit perform better, this could be the surprise of the conference. A middle of the pack finish is likely however.
Betting Forecast: After going 8-4 against the numbers last year, the Cajuns could be in for some tough times at the window this season.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS, 5-7 O/U
Summary: Middle Tennessee has been one of the most consistent teams in the Sun Belt since its formation as it has gone 30-24 since 2001 and has had fewer than three conference wins only once. That consistency may be good but it has only one conference championship and one bowl game to show for it. Last season the Blue Raiders were the youngest team in the conference but now they are the most experienced and their scholarship numbers have gone from 71 to 85. On offense, everyone is back with the exception of quarterback Joe Craddock but Dwight Dasher is a solid replacement. Defensively, Middle Tennessee was average last season and they return seven players including the entire secondary. Expectations are high.
Schedule: The reason for being ranked as low as they are is because of a tough schedule to start the season. Non-conference games against Clemson, Memphis and Maryland start the season and then it is two straight road SBC games before playing another tough one against Mississippi St. The backend of the slate eases up but by then it may be too late for the Blue Raiders to make a run.
Bottom Line: The experience is there and Middle Tennessee finally has a full squad but that schedule is not easy. In order for things to move in the right direction, it will have to run the ball better as it ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing offense last year. An upset of Maryland and a near miss at Kentucky last year will be tough to duplicate.
Betting Forecast: The Blue Raiders are 7-2 ATS in non-conference games the last two years so we could see dog opportunities early.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks 4-8 SU, 6-5 ATS, 7-4 O/U
Summary: The Warhawks were hammered with injuries a season ago so their 4-8 record could be considered decent. Looking closer shows that five of those losses came by single digits including a one-point setback against Arkansas so things could have actually been even better. La-Monroe has a lot of the same attributes as other SBC teams in that it returns a lot of players on both sides of the ball but there are still plenty of question marks surrounding key areas. The biggest is at quarterback where Kinsmon Lancaster needs to be replaced and that job will go to Trey Revell who has limited experience behind center. The running game as well as the offensive line is in excellent shape and that is important in breaking in a new quarterback.
Schedule: As with most SBC teams, the schedule is a bear. Three non-conference games are at Texas, Arizona St. and Kentucky but letís not forget this team did win in Alabama two years ago. The Sun Belt schedule is difficult with games at Florida Atlantic, which is the conference opener, as well as a game at Troy. The final four games are all winnable but by then it may be over.
Bottom Line: The Warhawks could be ranked anywhere from fourth to seventh and like the three teams ranked ahead of them in this range, it could pull a few surprises. The offense should be ok at running the ball but the defense will have to improve immensely in order for a top half finish to take place.
Betting Forecast: The Warhawks have gone 5-2 ATS in the SBC in each of the last four years which means play against in 2009.
North Texas Mean Green 1-11 SU, 4-8 ATS, 7-5 O/U
Summary: After winning 24 straight conference games from 2001 to 2004, the Mean Green have gone 5-23 over the last four seasons including a 0-7 record last season. Some are calling for North Texas to be one of the most improved teams in the nation but it was so bad last year that even the biggest of improvements could mean little movement upward. North Texas was last in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, allowing 47.6 PPG and 482.6 YPG respectively so it has nowhere to go but up. How far up remains the million dollar question. The offense will be led by the coachís son, freshman Riley Dodge and that could mean early growing pains and turnovers. That is not good considering the Mean Green were 116th in the country in turnover margin last year.
Schedule: The good news is that the North Texas schedule is relatively easy compared to the other conference teams. The biggest non-conference test is a game at Alabama but the other three games are against Ball St., Ohio and Army. As for conference action, the Mean Green are at Troy and Arkansas St., the two likely frontrunners but those would even be tough at home with this team.
Bottom Line: Head coach Todd Dodge is squarely on the hot seat. He is 3-21 in his two years in Denton with only one conference victory so he needs some vast improvement from his team to help keep his job. If not for new member Western Kentucky, the Mean Green would be looking at another sure last place finish in the SBC.
Betting Forecast: We will see some huge underdog numbers for North Texas but it could still lose big so looking at totals will be key.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 2-10 SU, 2-7-1 ATS, 2-8 O/U
Summary: The Hilltoppers won the 1-AA National Championship in 2002 so this is a solid program that knows how to win. In its first season in limited FBS status in 2007, Western Kentucky went 7-5 but six of those wins came against non-FBS teams as did both wins last season enroute to its 2-10 finish. Overall, the Hilltoppers are 2-19 since 2004 against FBS teams so its first year as a full member of the Sun Belt Conference will likely have its issues. The Hilltoppers were outscored by only 9.7 PPG last year so they were competitive in many of their games. Still, this is a very young team with only nine senior starters but with expectations so low, the season will not be a disappointment no matter how many games are won.
Schedule: The schedule really isnít that bad for Western Kentucky as games against Tennessee and South Florida are the two tough non-conference contests. The others include Central Arkansas and Navy. The first two Sun Belt games are at home against FIU and La-Lafayette so a surprise could take place. The last two home games are against top teams Troy and Arkansas St.
Bottom Line: The Hilltoppers are a few years away from becoming legitimate contenders but the same was said about Troy when it entered the conference in 2004 and it has done nothing but win. It may take more time here but this is not a program that is starting from scratch. There will be at least one upset at some point this year.
Betting Forecast: The Hilltoppers went 3-7 ATS last year and we should see a big improvement with a lot of value all year.
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