2009 Sun Belt Conference - It's all about Troy
by Jeff Frank, Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Sun Belt has gained increased attention the last couple of years with five victories over BSC opponents after recording just one the previous two seasons. Moreover, the league has increased its ATS winning percentage vs. the top six conferences (33%, 42%, 50%, 59%) in each of the last four years.
When wagering on games within the Sun Belt, it's best to stick with the favorite. The league owns the best winning percentage of all 11 conferences over the last two years at 59% (33-23).
After losing the league title to Florida Atlantic on the last week of the '07 season, Troy (6-1 for a third straight year) reclaimed the championship with a vengeance by destroying both Louisiana and Arkansas State in the final two games, 48-3 and 35-9, respectively.
The Trojans failed to win SU or ATS vs. Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl but Florida Atlantic stretched the conference postseason victory tally to three consecutive years with a win, and cover, over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.
It's been a long time since more than two Sun Belt teams finished the regular season above .500 but that could change this year. Which teams will do so? Let's take an early peek into the crystal ball, going from worst to first:
9) WESTERN KY - Last year was the Hilltoppers first losing season (2-10 SU, 3-7 ATS) since 1995. Expect another one in their first full year of FBS action, especially after 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS records against Sun Belt teams a year ago.
Offense - Their ppg average dropped from 33 to 18 as the schedule became more demanding. A new quarterback must be found, but that might not be a bad thing as last year's starter David Wolke produced just a 99.5 QB rating. The Hilltoppers were terrible on third down conversions in Sun Belt play converting on just 23% of their chances. Eight starters are back so there is a slight chance they could average above 20 ppg.
Defense - The five conference teams the Hilltoppers faced last year were successful 49% of the time on third down plays and that was against a veteran group. This year's unit will have a much more difficult time, especially against the run with star LB Blake Boyd academically ineligible and just five of the top 13 tacklers returning.
Outlook - Look for a one-win season and an 0-8 record in conference play.
8) NORTH TEXAS - The Mean Green are 3-21 (8-15 ATS) in the Todd Dodge era with the nation's worst defense in his two years on the job. They are 4-10 ATS in league play in those two seasons but own a respectable 4-5 ATS out-of- conference mark.
Offense - This will be a year of transition for North Texas with Riley Dodge replacing Giovanni Vizza at quarterback. The coach's son will need new receivers as the top three depart, including Casey Fitzgerald and his 113 catches. Dodge is on the small side (under six-feet) and doesn't have a rocket for an arm so don't expect too much in his freshman campaign.
Defense - North Texas came into last season without its top five tacklers and it showed as the defense allowed 47.6 ppg and almost 500 yards per contest. The top seven tacklers return for '09 and the opposing non-conference offenses (Ball State, Ohio, Army and Alabama) are not nearly as high-powered as last year's teams (Tulsa, Rice, LSU and Kansas State) so look for much-improved numbers.
Outlook - The defense is better, the schedule is easier, but the wins still won't come. Expect a 3-9 record with two conference wins.
7) LOUISIANA - It will be a rebuilding year for Louisiana (6-6 SU and 8-4 ATS) with the loss of 75% of last year's offensive production. Don't expect another season of 8-4 to the "over" from this season's squad.
Offense - Louisiana ranked seventh nationally in rushing (264 ypg) and 10th in the country with 22 offensive TD drives under two minutes. However, repeating those numbers without QB Michael Desormeaux, RB Tyrell Fenroy and WR Jason Chery will be impossible. In fact, last year's backup quarterback Brad McGuire (143 yards) is the leading returning rusher.
Defense - The Ragin' Cajuns have not been known for their defense, allowing over five yards per carry and 49 passing touchdowns the last two years. Moreover, opposing offenses scored over 90% of the time inside the red zone in those two seasons. Help is on the way as nine of the top 10 tacklers return after just half of the top eight came back last year and six of the top 10 returned back in '07.
Outlook - With a few other teams on the way up, the Ragin' Cajuns will win just three games, two in the Sun Belt.
6) UL-MONROE - Expectations were high going into last year after a 6-6 mark (7-4 ATS), including a win over Alabama. Unfortunately, injuries and a porous run defense left the Warhawks at 4-8 (6-5 ATS). Still, they are 20-8 ATS in conference play over the last four years.
Offense - Last year's offense averaged 30 ppg in league play (24 ppg overall) after garnering just 25 the year before. Unfortunately, quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster, who started the last three years, has graduated. His replacement must adapt to a new hurry-up offense, but the offensive line is far more experienced than it was at the start of 2008.
Defense - The Warhawks run defense was a sieve last year, allowing 213 rushing yards per game (5.7 ypc). New Mexico's defensive coordinator was brought in along with his 3-3-5 formation, which puts the focus on the middle of the field. Considering the team's top three defensive players will play the middle for each unit, one can assume better numbers in '09.
Outlook - The Warhawks will not make much noise early on, but look for them to progress in the second half, especially vs. Kentucky off a bye week on October 24. A 3-1 finish will give them six wins, four in league play.
5) MIDDLE TENNESSEE - The Blue Raiders finished strong last year winning three of their final four games (2-2 ATS) after a 2-6 start (3-5 ATS). They are 7-2 ATS out of conference, but 4-7 ATS as an away underdog the last two years.
Offense - A new era has begun with the hiring of former Troy and Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and there's plenty of talent on hand to make the spread offense work. Dwight Dasher finished second in the league two years back in passing efficiency and all the top RBs and WRs return, save for leading receiver Eldred King, who has been dismissed from the team. In addition, the O-line will be in much better shape after injuries hit the unit hard last fall.
Defense - The Blue Raiders finished third in scoring and total defense in league play, and 14th nationally in tackles for losses with 85. The secondary is also one of the best in the conference. However, there are plenty of holes at linebacker and no one knows for sure how the innovative offense will affect the defense. The tempo of Middle Tennessee's games will be entirely new for everyone and the "D" might be on the field more than it has been in the past.
Outlook - Middle Tennessee began last year with only 65 available scholarship players and almost 70% of them were underclassmen. With an added year of development, look for the Blue Raiders to reach .500, overall and in conference play, including a win over Mississippi State.
4) FLA ATLANTIC - After starting the season 1-5 (3-3 ATS), the Owls won six of their final seven (5-2 ATS) to earn their second straight bowl berth. They are 14-7 ATS in conference play but 5-11 ATS as an away underdog the last three years.
Offense - Rusty Smith opened last year with a 5-9 TD/INT ratio the first six games, but once his shoulder healed, he ran off 19-5 numbers over the final seven. The Owls ppg average improved to 33 in those seven contests after just 15 per game early on. Look for even more production in '09 with the return of TE Jason Harmon (63 receptions in '07), who redshirted last season.
Defense - The defense could be the great equalizer, one that might prevent Fla. Atlantic from winning the conference. The Owls lose their top six tacklers, and if DE Jermaine Council doesn't return from injury, the entire front seven brings back just 22 career starts.
Outlook - A mixed bag for Howard Schnellenberger's club: An offense that might not be stopped and a defense that might not impede anyone. (Playing the over in Owls games should be mandatory for all gamblers.) Fla Atlantic could be good enough to beat South Carolina and then lose to UAB later in the year. I'll call for a 6-6 season but 5-3 in the Sun Belt.
3) ARKANSAS STATE - The Red Wolves opened last year at 4-2 (2-3 ATS) with a +10 turnover ratio. They lost four of their final six games (1-5 ATS) posting a -1 turnover ratio. Arkansas State is 0-5 ATS the last three years as a road favorite.
Offense - Last year's team broke the 57-year old school record for total offense, and over 90% of those responsible return, including RB Reggie Arnold, who has three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Despite the record-setting campaign, the Red Wolves ranked only sixth in scoring (26 ppg) in league play.
Defense - Arkansas State has finished second in the conference in scoring defense each of the last two years. With only five returning starters in '08, the Red Wolves allowed 14 points or less four times. This year, eight starters return, including SBC Defensive Player of the Year, Alex Carrington. The defensive end recorded 10.5 sacks, but all but one came in the first seven games. In addition, the team averaged only one sack per contest over the final five after picking up 21 in the first seven.
Outlook - Arkansas State is 27-10 at home but 20-35 on the road over the last seven years. Unfortunately, seven of the 12 games this year will be away from home. If there's any Red Wolves team that can overcome this schedule, it's this year's squad. Expect 7-5, 5-3 marks, including a win at Louisville.
2) FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - The Golden Panthers won five games last year (8-4 ATS) after picking up just one in '07. They are also 5-2 ATS as home underdogs the last two years. Fifty-five lettermen return so look for even more improvement in '09.
Offense - Florida Intl. averaged 25 ppg last year, 10 more than in '07. Two factors created the turnaround. First, Paul McCall replaced Wayne Younger at QB. Second, WR T.Y. Hilton emerged finishing third in the country in all- purpose yards per game as a freshman. This year, the running game will come around behind RB Darriet Perry and an O-line that returns all five starters. Throw in the addition of TE Dudley LaPorte and you have the makings of another much-improved offense.
Defense - The Panthers defense showed the most development of any team in the league, but there's still work to be done, especially without three of their top four tacklers from a season ago. Help is on the way as DE Reginald Jones returns from suspension and DT Jonas Murrell will be more effective after losing 30 lbs this spring. Watch for notable campaigns from LBs Winston Fraser and Aaron Davis.
Outlook - Even with a daunting schedule that includes road games at Alabama, Rutgers and Florida, the Panthers will finish 7-5 (6-2) and go bowling for the first time in school history.
1) TROY - The preseason favorites finished 8-5 SU and 7-5 ATS overall, 6-1 SU and 5-2 ATS in league play. The Trojans are 7-2 ATS as an away favorite and 14-6 ATS on the road the last three years.
Offense - Last year could have been a disaster having to break in a new quarterback (Jamie Hampton) and then losing him for the year in game five. Enter Levi Brown, who completed over 60% of his tosses with a 15-3 TD/INT ratio the rest of the way. Without their leading rusher and receiver in '08, the Trojans still rang up 36 ppg in league play. Look for even better production in '09.
Defense - Troy allowed just 17 ppg in Sun Belt action last year. Arkansas State was second - a full touchdown back at 24 ppg. The Trojans, who were stout against the run (3.0 ypc), now add former Nebraska DT Kevin Dixon to the mix. Last year's defense allowed just two TDs outside the red zone in seven league games and this "D" has the potential to be even tougher.
Outlook - The Trojans are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the league. I expect a 10-2 season with an 8-0 sweep in conference play.