Denton, TX (Denton Record-Chronicle) This is an early look at next year in the Sun Belt, from Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle.
1 (t). Florida International -- The Golden Panthers finished 7-6 last year, beat Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and have 14 starters coming back, including quarterback Wes Carroll, Hilton and three running backs who rotated (Jeremiah Harden, Darriet Perry and Darian Mallory). FIU also looks like it will have one of the best recruiting classes in the Sun Belt.
1 (t). Troy -- The Trojans have now won at least a share of the last five Sun Belt titles after finishing 8-5 with a win over Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl. Troy returns 11 starters, including arguably the best players in the league at quarterback in Corey Robinson and defensive end in Jonathan Massaquoi. Troy always has one of the best recruiting classes in the league, chock full of junior college transfers. This year won't be any different.
This is where there is going to be a big drop-off. FIU and Troy are clearly the two best teams heading into next season.
3. Louisiana-Monroe -- Watch out for the Warhawks. ULM finsihed 5-7 in its first season under Todd Berry with a freshman quarterback in Kolton Browning. With 18 starters returning, ULM will have a shot to get to a bowl.
4. Arkansas State -- The Red Wolves will be in their first year under a new head coach, but Hugh Freeze was ASU's offensive coordinator last year, when the team finished 4-8. The Red Wolves have quarterback Ryan Aplin back. He is among 12 starters returning.
From here down, it's anyone's best guess as to how the teams will finish. Everyone looks pretty even.
5. Florida Atlantic -- FAU is a team that intrigues me. The once solid Owls have gone down the drain the last few years. FAU will move to an on-campus stadium in the next year or so, which might help the Owls recruit better. FAU has never landed the number of highly-ranked players one would expect considering they are in the middle of one of the best talent beds in the country. FAU does have 13 starters back, including quarterback Jeff Van Camp.
6. Middle Tennessee -- The Blue Raiders were picked to win the Sun Belt last year and still got to a bowl game, despite a disappointing season that ended in a loss to Miami (Ohio) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. But, hey, MTSU got to give Danica Patrick a jersey! MTSU lost starting quarterback Dwight Dasher, for better or worse, and has just four starters back on defense. Seven are back on offense, but some other key players are gone, including running back Phillip Tanner.
8. Louisiana-Lafayette -- ULL has 12 starters back from a 3-9 team and has a new coach in Mark Hudspeth. Tight end Ladarius Green is back and will be among the best players in the Sun Belt.
7. North Texas -- I like the makeup of UNT's new staff with Dan McCarney and Mike Canales. I just don't particularly like the Mean Green's roster. UNT won just three games last season, and the Mean Green won them largely because of a core of seniors that included Craig Robertson, Shavod Atkinson, Kelvin Jackson, Kelvin Drake, Victor Gill, Esteban Santiago, Jamaal Jackson and a host of other key guys in a huge class. Riley Dodge also transferred out, which pretty much gutted the Mean Green. UNT has stud running back Lance Dunbar back, but now has questions all over the offensive line and no proven players on the interior of its defensive line. The pass rush is a question again. And in what is now a Mean Green tradition, UNT once again has huge questions at quarterback. With the late start UNT's new staff got in recruiting, it could be too much to ask to fill all those holes with junior college players and McCarney wants to build with four-year players any way. There are just too many questions on this team to expect a lot, even with 13 starters returning, some of whom where elevated to starting spots by injury in a 3-9 season.
9. Western Kentucky -- Remember when people over in Bowling Green thought the Hilltoppers would be immediately competitive in the Sun Belt? They might want to give the people at South Alabama who think the same thing a heads-up. If WKU is ever going to dig its way out of the Sun Belt basement, this could be the year. The Hilltoppers have 16 starters returning, including running back Bobby Rainey, one of the best in the Sun Belt. I still expect WKU to land near the bottom of the Sun Belt. At least Topper fans have basketball season. Oh, wait. Sorry about that.