2009 Sun Belt Conference Preview

The Sun Belt Conference had a solid year in 2008, finishing with four bowl-eligible teams, sending two teams to bowl games and emerging with a 1-1 record in the postseason. The Sun Belt also enjoyed enormous success during the regular season as two of their teams defeated BCS conference foes and a few other teams had memorable close misses, the most notable being Troy turning a 31-3 third quarter lead over defending National Champions LSU at Tiger Stadium into a crushing 40-31 loss. However, the word is out on the Sun Belt: Traditional powers had better take this conference seriously.



Entering its ninth season as a football playing conference, the Sun Belt is finally complete with Western Kentucky officially becoming a full member as the Hilltoppers have completed their two year transition to Division One football. With 9 teams, the conference schedule has been expanded to a balanced schedule of eight games split evenly between home and away for each team. Another exciting event taking place this fall is the first visit by an SEC team to a member institution as Middle Tennessee hosts Mississippi State.

This year should be an exciting season. Troy, the defending champions, is trying to become the first back to back outright champions since 2004. The Trojans have won a share of the title in each of the past three seasons but Florida Atlantic earned the conference’s automatic bowl berth thanks to their head to head win over Troy in 2007. Behind them is an improved field of competitors, many of whom have a good chance to compete for the league title.

2009 SUN BELT EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH



  • Troy Trojans (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)

The Trojans were a big success in 2008, finishing 8-5 and giving them three consecutive seasons with at least eight wins. Their 6-1 conference mark was only blemished by a 1 point loss to UL-Monroe on a last minute touchdown. In fact, this team would like have had double digit wins if their non-conference schedule hadn’t included road trips to heavyweights Ohio State, LSU and Oklahoma State! Expect the Trojans to be a force again this fall as they return a lot key players from 2008’s championship team.

The Trojans’ spread attack averaged nearly 33 points per game last fall on offense and will once more be led by senior quarterback Levi Brown, who threw for 2000+ yards and 15 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions in eight starts. He should be one of the league’s best this year as he has a strong corps of receivers to throw to, led by junior Jerrel Jernigan, who had 77 catches for 868 yards and 5 touchdowns last fall. Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Josh Jarboe, who ran into trouble after signing with Oklahoma as one of the country’s best prep wideouts and never made it to Norman. He could be a major weapon for the Trojans after redshirting last year. Troy’s offense isn’t just a passing attack; junior DuJuan Harris is back after rushing for nearly 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Expect big things from him as a change up to the aerial assault. Furthermore, all of this skill will be protected by a solid offensive line which returns three starters from last year’s unit. Expect Troy to be a dangerous multidimensional offense which should be the Sun Belt’s best.

The Troy defense, which allowed a conference-best 21.4 points per game in 2008, is a little bit less experienced as only 5 starters return. On the line, senior defensive ends Cameron Sheffield and Brandon Lang combined for 16 sacks and 135 tackles last fall and should form the conference’s top book end pairing. The linebackers are also very strong as leading tacklers Boris Lee (126 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 st team All-Sun Belt in 2008) and Bear Woods (108 tackles, 2 sacks) should anchor the Sun Belt’s best middle unit. With that much talent back up front, expect the Trojans to be very good against the run. The secondary is more of a concern as the only returnee is senior cornerback Jorrick Calvin, who had 76 tackles and 2 picks a year ago en route to a 2 nd team All-Sun Belt season. However, the other three spots are a question mark so this secondary will probably be less effective in the early going. However, the Trojans still boast one of the conference’s best defenses.

The schedule is much friendlier this year. While a trip to the Swamp looms large in early September, the Trojans only have two BCS opponents and face most of their toughest Sun Belt competition at home. However, they have a tough closing stretch with three out of their final four on the road. Overall, Troy has a dynamic offense and a solid defense which should improve as the year progresses. Their schedule is less difficult than last year’s and they enter the year with the quarterback position settled. When you add all of that up, it leads me to believe that it will a very good year for the defending champions. I expect the Troy Trojans to be back to back Sun Belt Conference champions and I won’t be surprised if this team ends up with nine or ten wins.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ Arkansas State, Oct. 24th vs. North Texas, Oct. 31st vs. UL-Monroe, Nov. 21st vs. Florida Atlantic

 

 

  • North Texas Mean Green (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

Entering last season, I was a fan of the Mean Green, expecting them to field a competitive team in the Sun Belt in head coach Todd Dodge’s second season. Instead, they fielded the worst defense in the nation (47.5 points per game allowed!) and finished 1-11 with their only win coming against lowly WKU. However, I have a feeling that things will turn around this year. Dodge was one of the elite high school coaches in the state of Texas three years ago and I think it has taken him a little while to adjust to the higher pace of college football. North Texas has a lot of talent on hand and could be a surprise team this fall.

On offense, one of the factors in only producing 20 points per game was the redshirting of Todd’s son Riley, who was one of the country’s top 10 prep quarterbacks and decommited from Texas to play for his father. Riley was injured in the third game but showed some flashes early in the season with his mobility. Another reason that I like the younger Dodge’s chances to perform well this fall is the return of the entire offensive line and the team’s leading rusher, senior Cam Montgomery, who ran for over 900 yards and 9 touchdowns last year. Expect the Mean Green to improve upon their 127 yards per game on the ground last year. In fact, my only concern is at receiver, where there is not very much experience returning. If Dodge can find any targets to catch his passes to provide some balance for what should be a solid running game, North Texas could field one of the conference’s toughest offenses.

On defense, the country’s worst unit returns most of their starters and a lot of hard earned experience. The Mean Green started at least five freshmen during last year and they should all improve drastically after being thrown into the proverbial fire. Up front, senior Edrick Gilmore led the team with 3 sacks and will lead an improved line but considering how poor they were last season the big question isn’t whether they’re better but by how much. However, one of the best collections of linebackers in the league plays right behind them, so the Mean Green should still be decent against the run. Seniors Tobe Nwigwe (111 tackles) and Kylie Hill (77 tackles at strong safety) and junior Craig Roberston (94 tackles) are the team’s three leading tacklers from 2008 and should be a very mobile set of linebackers. The secondary also returns intact and three starters were freshmen last year. Sophomore Antoine Bush appears to be the leader of a young group which will only get better. North Texas’ defense has its strengths and question marks but I think that it will turn out to be one of the conference’s better defenses, especially if the new starters on the defensive line play to their potential. They certainly will not allow more than 40 points per game for the 3 rd consecutive season.

The schedule is quite reasonable. The Mean Green has six home games for the first time in recent memory and only faces off against one BCS conference opponent. Furthermore, they don’t face any back to back road games all year long! Todd Dodge couldn’t hope for a better slate to turn this team around. In short, the Mean Green turned the ball over seventeen times more than they forced their opponents to, couldn’t stop anyone on defense and had trouble finding good quarterback play last fall. I believe that they’ll improve by leaps and bounds with Riley Dodge at quarterback and a year of experience under their still-young defense’s belt. I think North Texas could see the positive side of the turnover margin this year with Riley Dodge under center and end up eligible for the postseason, though I don’t think that this is their year to knock the Trojans off of the top of the conference standings.

Biggest Games: Oct. 26th vs. MTSU, Oct. 17th vs. FAU, Oct. 24th @ Troy, Nov. 7 vs. UL-Monroe, Nov. 28th @ Arkansas State

 

 

  • Arkansas State Red Wolves (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

2008 was a solid year for the Red Wolves as they earned their 3 rd winning conference record in four years and finished the year bowl eligible with a 6-6 mark. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly their upset of Texas A&M to start the season and despite missing out on a bowl berth it was one of coach Steve Roberts’ most successful years in Jonesboro.

The offense looks primed to continue the success of 2008, where Arky State scored a Roberts era best 27 points per game. Six senior returning starters will take the field, led by quarterback Corey Leonard, who produced over 2,500 total yards and 20 touchdowns last year. His top three targets are all seniors as well and will be counted on to produce this season. Tailback Reggie Arnold, another senior, is also back after running for nearly 1,100 yards and 7 touchdowns, earning him a 1 st team All-Sun Belt berth. The only major question is the offensive line, which only returns two starters from a year ago. Even worse, they have the least number of career starts in all of college football! In short, it might be tough to give their exceptionally experienced skill players the room that they enjoyed last fall. I think that Arky State’s offense will probably be slightly less effective this year due to some early growing pains.

The defense looks very good after allowing less than 24 points per game last season. Eight starters return from that group and as many as seven seniors could contribute in a starting role. Senior Alex Carrington, the 2008 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year thanks to his 53 tackles and 10.5 sacks, will lead an experienced defensive line that might be the best in the league. With the return of two starters at linebacker, I expect the Red Wolves to be very solid against the run, much like their stellar 2008 performance of allowing only 125 yards per game. In the secondary, junior MD Jennings is the team’s leading returning tackler and also had 3 interceptions last fall. He is one of three returning starters and the Red Wolves could have a very strong pass defense this season. Overall, this was the conference’s best defense last season and I would be surprised to see any regression this fall.

Outside of my concern about the offensive line, ASU’s schedule is the primary culprit for Arkansas State’s predicted 3 rd place finish. They have only 5 home games, travel to Nebraska, Louisville and Iowa in the non-conference schedule and finish with four of their last 6 games on the road! They also have two away weeknight games in the conference slate. The good news is that they host both Troy and North Texas and are probably the biggest wild card in the entire conference. If their offensive line can find its bearings quickly then you could see Arkansas State compete for the Sun Belt title. At the very least, this team should be able to overcome their tough schedule to finish bowl eligible.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th vs. Troy, Oct. 13th @ UL-Monroe, Nov. 14th @ FAU, Nov. 28th vs. North Texas

 

 

  • Florida Atlantic Owls (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

The Owls were my overwhelming choice last fall to win the Sun Belt title. However, a 2-5 start during which they lost to three BCS teams and were defeated on a last second Hail Mary at MTSU derailed their title hopes as they started 0-2 in conference play. However, the Owls charged down the stretch to secure a 4-3 conference record and bowl eligibility at 6-6 overall. Their play was rewarded as they defeated Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl to give Howard Schnellenberger’s team two consecutive bowl victories.

A large part of FAU’s struggles last year was an early injury to their star quarterback, rising senior Rusty Smith, who struggled through the season’s first half with a shoulder dislocation. Despite the injury, Smith still finished the season with over 3,200 passing yards and 24 touchdowns, though he did toss 14 picks. This was a major step back from the year before when he threw for nearly 5,000 yards and the Owls’ offensive production dropped by over five points per game! Expect Smith’s production to rise significantly this fall as his top four receivers (led by Cortez Grant, who caught 60 passes for 935 yards and 9 touchdowns) are all seniors. There is some concern about balance as the Owls lost their top two rushers to graduation and their only returning player with any yardage in 2008 is senior fullback Willie Rose, who had 63 carries last year. The offensive line returns 3 starters and should be more than strong enough to allow Smith and company to cause some damage. If they can get a running game going then this group will be dangerous.

The defense is a much bigger concern. Only three starters return from last year and the Owls lose seven of their top eight tacklers from 2008. FAU had their best rush defense since fully transitioning to D-1A football last year but only senior defensive tackle Josh Savidge returns in the front seven! Expect teams to earn far more on the ground than FAU’s stellar 4.4 yard per carry average in 2008. The linebackers are a virtual unknown as well since the Owls graduated three players who were multiyear starters. In the secondary, junior safety Ed Alexander is a bright spot and should be a big contributor this year. However, they lost TWO 1 st team All-Sun Belt defensive backs from last year and will definitely regress. This season will be a rebuilding year for the Owls on defense and I expect them to allow more points per game than last year’s 28.7 average.

The schedule starts off tough with road games at Nebraska and South Carolina but it does build in two off weeks before the middle of October. Hopefully that will give Schnellenberger’s defense time to improve as the season’s closing run of five road games in the final eight is very difficult. The Owls have to travel to North Texas, Troy and Louisiana during conference play before finishing off with cross-town rival FIU, who pushed the Owls into overtime last year. Overall, I expect Florida Atlantic to field two diametrically opposite units this season. Their offense could be exceptional with Smith at the controls and could be the best in FAU’s short history. However, their defense could struggle with a new front seven and be the worst in FAU’s short history! Thus, I expect to see a lot of shootouts this season and I’m afraid with their defensive concerns that I can’t see them competing for the conference title. However, bowl eligibility seems a good bet for the 3 rd consecutive season.

Biggest Games: Oct. 26th vs. UL-Monroe, Oct. 17th @ North Texas, Nov. 14th vs. Arkansas State, Nov. 21st @ Troy, Dec. 5th @ FIU

 

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  • UL-Monroe Warhawks (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

The Warhawks struggled through an inconsistent season in 2008 to finish 3-4 in conference play, 4-8 overall. ULM played five games that were decided by four points or less and despite their poor record they somehow gave Troy their only conference loss. The positive was that the Warhawks posted a 3-2 home record and bring back seventeen starters this season.

The offense, which struggled at times last year in producing only 23.6 points per game, brings back eight starters and should be much improved. Their offensive line, the basis for any solid unit, brings back four starters and is one of the conference’s best. That offensive line should allow junior Frank Goodin to improve upon his 700+ rushing yards and 5 touchdowns from a year ago as he could be the focus of the offense after sharing the load last year. At receiver, Senior Darrell McNeal will be the top target if he takes care of the off-field issues which caused him to miss spring practice. Sophomore Anthony McCall (400+ yards, 6 TDs as a true freshman in 2008) is a star in the making and could break out in a big way, especially if McNeal is not part of the team. The big question for UL-Monroe is at quarterback, where a pair of juniors will battle out for the starting position. Overall, this offense should boast a strong running game and if they can find some consistent quarterback play then they should beat last year’s scoring totals. Still, this is no better than an average offense in the Sun Belt.

The 2008 defense for the Warhawks was their worst defense since 2004, allowing over 31 points per game. The primary culprit in their ineptitude was a rush defense which allowed 213 yards per game on the ground. However, things are looking much better this year as five of the front six in their 3-3-5 defense return, including an all-senior group on the line led by defensive end Aaron Morgan, who notched 6 sacks last fall. Senior linebacker Cardia Jackson had 127 tackles last year and will anchor a very mobile group. I fully expect this senior-laden group to be much improved against the run. The secondary is also chock full of veterans, returning all four starters, three of which are seniors. Safety Josh Thompson had over 100 tackles last year and will form one of the Sun Belt’s best safety pairings with 2008 interception leader Greg James. I expect a vastly improved defense as the Warhawks could start as many as nine seniors!

UL-Monroe has a very tough schedule. They have only 5 home games (they were 1-6 away from home last year) and their road games come in clusters. Three of their first four are on the road and they run into a stretch late in the year where four out of five are away from Monroe. Their opening stretch includes games at Texas, Arizona State and Florida Atlantic and the second stretch kicks off with road games at Kentucky, Troy and North Texas! Needless to say, this is a difficult schedule. Overall, I think that the Warhawks are a veteran team which is much improved from last season but they face an uphill battle with their difficult schedule and I will be surprised to see them finish with more than 5 wins on the season.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ FAU, Oct. 13th vs. Arkansas State, Oct. 31st @ Troy, Nov. 7th @ North Texas, Nov. 21st @ Louisiana



  • Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

The Raiders fought through a very bipolar season in 2008, losing six out of seven on the road but winning four out of five at home. They also finished with their worst conference record in Head Coach Rick Stockstill’s tenure at 3-4. However, it was a rebuilding year for the Blue Raiders and 16 starters return this fall to battle for a chance at a bowl game.

Offensively, the Blue Raiders bring back a conference-best 10 starters. Their only loss is at quarterback, where junior Dwight Dasher leads the group battling for the job. The good news is that the entire offensive line returns and should be much improved from last year’s team which only mustered 107 yards on the ground last year. That rushing attack should be much better this year as senior Phillip Tanner returns after rushing for over 700 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2008. The receiving corps is also very deep and returns last year’s top eight targets, though no one stands out individually. With all the experience back, I expect the offense to score more than last year’s paltry 22.8 points per game average.

On defense, three of the top four tacklers return, led by senior Danny Carmichael, who had 89 tackles last fall at middle linebacker. He’ll be counted on as the group’s only returning starter. The defensive line should be much stronger and won’t be replacing any all conference performers this year, unlike last year where they had to replace two 1 st team choices. In the secondary, three starters are back led by junior safeties Kevin Brown and Jeremy Kellem, who combined for 140 tackles last fall. This defense should be at least as good as last year’s solid unit which allowed less than 25 points per game.

The Blue Raider schedule is the biggest impediment to their ability to contend for the Sun Belt title. Keeping in mind their 1-6 road record last year, games at Troy, Florida Atlantic, UL-Monroe, and North Texas are quite daunting. So is their non-conference schedule, which includes trips to Clemson and Maryland. In short, the Blue Raiders’ opening schedule of four road games in the first five weeks is going to put them behind the eight ball early. Overall, Middle Tennessee State is a much improved team which should be solid on offense despite starting a new quarterback. Furthermore, their defense has a lot of experience back and will be better as well. This is probably the most talented team that Stockstill, now in his 4 th season, has fielded but their daunting schedule makes me have a lot of difficulty picking the Blue Raiders to compete for the Sun Belt Title or even secure bowl eligibility. A 6-6 record would be a tremendous achievement.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ North Texas, Oct. 6th @ Troy, Oct. 31st @ FAU, Nov. 21st vs. Arky State, Nov. 28th @ UL-Monroe

 

  • Florida International Panthers (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

The Panthers showed enormous improvement last season as they boasted a four game jump in their win total to finish with a school-record 5 wins. Remember, FIU has only played D-1A football for four years so a 5 win season was a big achievement in Head Coach Mario Cristobal’s 2 nd season. His 3 rd season could be just as promising as 16 starters are back hoping to make a run at the school’s first 6 win campaign.

The Panthers’ pass-heavy offensive attack returns a whopping ten starters. In fact, their only new starter will be at the tailback position, where last year’s leading rusher had an underwhelming 481 yards. Senior quarterback Paul McCall will look to build upon a season where he threw for over 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. His receivers will be young but they have a lot of experience and will be led by sophomore Ty Hilton, whose 41 catches for 1013 yards (24.7 yards per catch!) and seven touchdowns earned him 1 st team All-SBC honors as a wide receiver and his 1,000 return yards and 2 touchdowns earned him 1 st team All-SBC honors as both a kick and punt returner! Can he avoid a sophomore slump? The good news continues for FIU as they return their entire starting offensive line from last year, all of whom are upperclassmen. However, this group also blocked for an offense which averaged the worst yards per play in school history so I’m still not sold on their talent. FIU should have a solid offense after averaging just under 25 points per game last year but I’m not bullish on their chances at improving much beyond that, especially if their running game remains as ineffective as the 2008 attack.

Defensively, the Panthers’ strength will come in the back seven of their defense, where five starters return. Senior linebacker Scott Bryant was the team’s leading tackler last fall and will be counted on again to lead one of the Sun Belt’s stronger linebacking corps. In the secondary, junior cornerback Anthony Gaitor earned 1 st team All-Sun Belt honors last fall after snaring a team-high 5 interceptions. Along with a solid safety pairing, Gaitor should be the foundation of a pass defense which improved last year and should do so again in 2009. The big concern for FIU will be up front against the run. The defensive line returns only one starter and the entire FIU team only mustered a paltry 18 sacks in 2008 while allowing opponents to rush for four yards a carry. I have to expect that they’ll have trouble generating a pass rush with their inexperience up front and that is a huge concern. The FIU defense seems to have a good amount of talent but this group probably won’t be much different from last year’s team which allowed opponents to score over 28 points per game.

The schedule certainly won’t be easy either. The Panthers play three BCS conference opponents in road games, including 2008 SEC Division winners Florida and Alabama. The conference schedule’s most winnable games are all on the road and include a stretch where four out of six games are away from home. Factor in FIU’s 2-5 record last fall away from FIU Stadium and that’s another big concern. On top of that, the Panthers don’t appear that they’ll be able to run the ball or prevent their opponents from doing so. Overall, that adds up to another tough year and I do not expect the Panthers to have their first winning season in school history this fall.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd @ UL-Monroe, Oct. 10th @ WKU, Oct. 31st vs. Louisiana, Dec. 5th vs. FAU

 



  • Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)

2008 marked the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 3 rd six win season in the last four years, a big achievement for a team that has never been to a bowl game. In a way, Louisiana has run into some bad luck considering that they’re three for three in being passed over in bowl games despite being eligible. Despite some serious losses, a lot of experienced players return and the Ragin’ Cajuns will be looking to break their bowl hex.

Offensively, Louisiana brings back seven starters. On the surface that sounds great, right? Well, considering that their losses include a two year starter at quarterback, two tailbacks who each rushed for over 1,000 yards (combining for over 2,400 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns) and their leading receiver, who led the team in catches, yards and touchdowns by a wide margin, there is only one word to sum it all up: Ouch. The good news is that Louisiana returns their entire starting offensive line, which paved the way for two 1,000 yard rushers last fall and all five are upperclassmen. The big concern is replacing most of the team’s yardage from 2008. Their leading returning receiver is tight end Ladarius Green, who only had 22 catches in 2008, though 5 were for touchdowns. They have virtually no experience at quarterback. Their tailbacks are very wet behind the ears. In short, despite the new cast of characters at the skill positions, Louisiana should have the potential to be a solid offense thanks to the presence of one of the conference’s best offensive lines. However, I can’t imagine them coming anywhere close to their impressive 33 points per game average from a year ago.

Defensively, there are far fewer questions. The Ragin’ Cajuns bring back nine starters to a unit which allowed 33.8 points per game, second worst in the conference. Up front, three of the top guns return and Louisiana could have a solid pair of pass rushers in senior Hall Davis and sophomore Nate Douglas, who combined for 7.5 sacks last year. The line should be improved this fall after allowing over 210 yards per game on the ground and having trouble getting to the quarterback in 2008. The linebackers should be solid as they return last year’s co-leading tacklers in senior Antwyne Zanders and junior Daylon McCoy. I expect each to improve upon last year’s production and help their defensive line shut down the run. In the secondary, senior safety Gerren Blount will be counted on to lead a group which was decent yardage-wise but didn’t force hardly any turnovers last fall. They will need to improve or teams won’t be afraid to air it out. I expect the Ragin’ Cajuns to improve on defense for the 2 nd consecutive year but this is no better than an average Sun Belt defense.

The schedule is quite tough, especially the non-conference run. They host Kansas State before traveling to LSU and Nebraska, making a 1-3 start a strong probability. The conference schedule includes a stretch of four games on the road in five weeks, which will be very difficult considering Louisiana’s 4-9 record away from home during the past two seasons. The good news is that they have six home games after posting a 4-1 home mark last year and host four out of my projected top five conference teams in Lafayette. Overall, I think that the Ragin’ Cajuns will have difficulty making up for the enormous amount of lost offensive production this year. I expect their scoring to drop precipitously and while they should have an improved defense, it won’t be nearly improved enough to make up for the corresponding lack of offense. A tough non-conference schedule seals Louisiana’s fate and I don’t expect this team to finish year bowl eligible, much less compete for a conference title.

Biggest Games: Oct. 10th vs. North Texas, Oct. 17th @ WKU, Nov. 14th @ MTSU, Nov. 21st vs. UL-Monroe, Nov. 28th vs. Troy

 

  • Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

2009 is a historic year for Western Kentucky, as the Hilltoppers enter their first full season as both a Division One football school and as a full member of the Sun Belt conference. Last year’s 2-10 mark broke a 12 year streak of winning football at WKU as the Hilltoppers transitioned up and there were a lot of growing pains. In fact, their only two wins came against the only two D-1AA schools that they played, so it was pretty obvious that they had some more growing to do. With only 12 starters back this fall, expect a lot more growing pains.

Offensively, there are two bright spots. One is the return of four starters on the offensive line. Last year’s offensive struggles aside, the line was beat up all year long and should benefit from a schedule which featured mostly top tier teams. The other bright spot is at tailback, where senior Tyrell Haden was also injured last fall. However, the year before he ran for over 1,400 yards and should have a decent chance at reaching 1,000 yards this fall. At receiver, senior Jake Gaebler had a solid 2008, catching 54 balls for almost 600 yards and 4 touchdowns. Expect him to be the top target for whoever wins the quarterback derby. Overall, this offense looks like a slightly improved unit which should at least surpass last year’s conference-worst 17.5 points per game average and could be a lot better if Haden can return to his D-1AA productivity of two years ago.

The defense was actually fairly decent last year, allowing 27.5 points per game and less than 400 yards of total offense. However, most of that unit is gone as only 5 starters are back. The defensive line lost nearly everyone as their entire two deep has departed (WKU plays a 3-4 defense), making the Hilltopper line a very big question mark. The linebackers are significantly less depleted as three starters return, led by seniors Blake Boyd and Darvis McBride. I expect the veteran linebacker corps to be a solid group. The secondary is a fairly big concern as well, considering that their only two returning starters are sophomores. However, I think they could find themselves in a position where their young starters could progress even further as they assume the mantle of leadership and WKU should have a solid pass defense once more. However, their D-Line is a huge concern and I expect this to cause WKU to take a step back on defense this fall.

The conference schedule isn’t the most daunting as the Hilltoppers have a few winnable home games. However, they do face a stretch where four of five games are away from home and that won’t make things any easier. The non-conference schedule is also pretty tough, including trips to Tennessee and Navy and a visit from South Florida, the first BCS school to visit WKU in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Overall, the Hilltoppers are still in their football infancy at the sport’s highest collegiate level and their talent is still catching up to the rest of the conference. While I expect Western Kentucky to improve this fall, I still don’t see them winning any more than four games at absolute most. Patience will be the key word for the Hilltopper faithful this fall.

Biggest Games: Sept. 12th vs. South Florida, Oct. 10th vs. FIU, Oct. 17th vs. Louisiana, Nov. 7th vs. Troy

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Sun Belt seems to be ready to have another strong season and could field its deepest edition yet. I will be very surprised if at least one Sun Belt team doesn’t knock off a BCS opponent this year and the talent level in the conference is very good. The addition of Western Kentucky as a full time member also means that every team has an even number of home and away games, eliminating another arbitrary scheduling advantage from previous years. That means that the conference will only be more competitive.

In the standings, I’ve predicted a big turnaround for North Texas for the 2 nd consecutive year, another strong season by Florida Atlantic and a big step back for Louisiana. These predictions might be a bit surprising to some but I think that they will bear out this fall. However, one prediction that isn’t a surprise is my choice of the Troy Trojans to repeat as the Sun Belt champions. With their combination of athleticism and experience, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Trojans win ten games. The only surprise would be if they didn’t emerge in December as the 2009 Sun Belt Champions.

 

 

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Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell

 

 

 


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