Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee, Troy continue to show way

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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This isn't your father's Sun Belt.

Actually, since the conference is only 10 years old, it's more like ... this isn't your older brother's Sun Belt.

Once the laughing stock of Division I, the conference has made huge strides over the past decade and has got the commissioner talking (gulp) BCS bid.

"Most conferences a third of your teams are competing for a championship," commissioner Wright Waters said. "Our top third needs to set its sights on being a BCS bowl team. If Hawaii, Boise State, Utah and TCU can do it, in my mind I don't see any reason why our teams can't do it."

That's a long way from a conference that once had its champion represent itself in a bowl game with a 5-6 record. North Texas did it in 2001 when it went 0-6 out of conference and then won the Sun Belt with a 5-0 record. The poor Mean Green got destroyed in the New Orleans Bowl, losing 45-20 to Colorado State.

But things are a little different now. The conference is producing 9- and 10-win teams, upsetting BCS teams and even churning out some of the most breathtaking players in the nation like Middle Tennessee's Dwight Dasher, Troy's Jerrel Jernigan and FIU's T.Y. Hilton.

In the past, the Sun Belt was a whipping boy for the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 in the non-conference schedule.

But look what the conference has done in the past three years -- Louisiana-Monroe beat Alabama, Troy shocked Oklahoma State and FAU defeated Minnesota all in the same season. Arkansas State upset Texas A&M in 2008 and last year almost won at Iowa, falling 24-21.

"Since I've been here, we continue as a conference to get better each year," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. "On a national scale, because we have to play so many money games each year, people look at us as a second-tier conference. We don't think that here at MTSU and we don't think that in the conference."

"We've all got some signature wins against the big boys -- the BCS conferences. I think we continue to gain more respect and the bowls see that."

Sun Belt Quick Hits
Best offense: Middle Tennessee
Best defense: Arkansas State
Sleeper team: Louisiana-Lafayette
Coach of the year: Rick Stockstill, MTSU
Offensive player: Dwight Dasher, MTSU
Defensive player: Demario Davis, Arkansas State
Game of the Year: Troy at MTSU, Oct. 5
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The bowls did finally take notice and for the first time in conference history, the Sun Belt will have two automatic bowl bids -- the New Orleans Bowl and the GMAC Bowl.

"It's a step in the right direction," added commissioner Waters. "The issue now is that we've got to get involved in those games and continue to prove, as Middle Tennessee and Troy did this year, that we can bring fans to those games and once we get there be very competitive. It's a natural progression and that's the important thing."

Getting competitive starts with getting better players. In 2006, the Sun Belt didn't have one player selected in the NFL Draft. This past season the conference had seven players taken in the draft -- the most in history.

Even four-star recruits are finding their way to the Sun Belt.

Hilton, an All-Miami Dade performer in high school, took a chance and signed with FIU after being heavily recruited by Ole Miss, West Virginia and Florida. The all-conference kick returner finished 13th in the nation, averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return last season.

"We got good players and we got good coaches in this conference. We've only been playing Division I for 10 years, some schools have playing for hundreds."

And that's where the uphill battle continues for the Sun Belt. With most schools in the heart of SEC country, it's difficult to compete.

Kids around the nation are wearing jerseys and hats with LSU logos on them instead of Louisiana-Monroe. Go to any local sports bar in South Florida. Miami Hurricanes gear will be a plenty, but not much in the way of FAU or FIU.

But the conference continues to make strides. And just imagine what it would do if Troy or Middle Tennessee ended up in the Orange Bowl to take on the ACC Champion.

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"Going undefeated is the only way any school outside of the automatic qualifying conferences can get there," Waters added. "But just as important is that you need a high-profile win early in the year. Boise did it by beating Oregon. That seems to be the way people have gotten there."

With one decade in the rear-view mirror, it might soon be time for the dream to turn into reality.

Offensive player of the year

Dwight Dasher, QB, Middle Tennessee: One of the most exciting players in the nation, Dasher was the fourth player in NCAA history last year to throw for at least 2,500 yards and rush for another 1,000 in a single season. After earning MVP honors in last year's New Orleans Bowl win, with an all-time NCAA bowl record of 201 yards rushing, it's time to start putting Dasher as a long shot in the Heisman race. He enters this season ranked first in career rushing yards by a quarterback at Middle Tennessee, fourth in total offense, fourth in completions, fifth in touchdown passes, and seventh in passing yards.

Demario Davis, LB, Arkansas State: Looking to improve on last season's numbers, when he led the team in tackles with a career-best 80 stops (51 solo, 29 assists). He also led Arkansas State with eight tackles for a loss and was third on the team with three sacks. Last year's highlights included a 75-yard interception for a touchdown against Iowa and a best 14 tackles against Western Kentucky in the season finale.

Predicted order of finish

1. Middle Tennessee: All the pieces are there for the Blue Raiders to steal the crown away from the Trojans. With eight starters back on offense, including Dasher, four offensive lineman and senior wide receiver Garret Andrews, the Blue Raiders have the best offense in the conference. Defense will be a little more of a challenge as the Blue Raiders have to replace five all-conference players. Look for defensive end Jamari Lattimore to be the leader up front. Safety Jeremy Kellem leads a very good secondary. Must-see game: Oct. 5 vs. Troy. The winner will be in control for the conference title.

2. Troy: The Trojans still have plenty of talent to win the Sun Belt ... again, but it will be much more difficult than past seasons. The defense returns only three starters and the Trojans are replacing their entire defensive line. Look for DE Mario Addison to bust out. The secondary is pretty good, especially with the return of CB Barry Valcin. On offense, quarterback Levi Brown is gone, so look for Jamie Hampton to take over. The one area the Trojans have no trouble will be at running back where DuJuan Harris returns, along with the conference's best WR in Jerrel Jernigan. Must-see game: Oct. 5 at Troy. See above.

Chris Masson is back at Louisiana-Lafayette for his junior season. (Getty Images)  
Chris Masson is back at Louisiana-Lafayette for his junior season. (Getty Images)  
3. Louisiana-Lafayette : My sleeper pick of the conference. Seven starters are back on defense, including linebacker Grant Fleming, who will contend for defensive player of the year honors. The Ragin' Cajuns also have a solid secondary, led by CB Dwight Bentley and safties Lance Kelley and Maurice Rolle. Quarterback Chris Masson is back for his junior year after throwing for 2,406 yards -- the fourth-best single-season output in school history. The key will be who emerges at RB and WR. Martin Miller (37 catches) is the leading WR back. Must-see game: Oct. 8 vs. Oklahoma State. An Big 12 team traveling to a Sun Belt school? That's always must-see.

4. Arkansas State: The team has many of the conference's stars -- offensive lineman Derek Newton, running back Derek Lawson and LB Demario Davis, but the biggest question mark is at quarterback. Ryan Aplin takes over as the starter after playing mostly as a backup last season. Aplin did finish up last season with some starts and played OK, but now it's his team full time. After leading the conference in defense last year, the unit returns on only four starters. DT Bryan Hall is one of the conference's best defensive tackles. Must-see game: Sept. 25 at Troy. The Red Wolves almost beat the Trojans last year, losing 30-27.

5. North Texas: Is it time for the Mean Green to get back to a winning season? Could be. The team returns eight starters on offense, six on defense. Leading the way will be RB Lance Dunbar, who is back after rushing for 1,378 yards. The offensive line also has four starters back, which should help whichever new quarterback takes over (Senior Nathan Tune or sophomore Derek Thompson). Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford will boost a very good WR core led by all-Sun Belt performer Jamall Jackson (71 catches in 2009). The defense MUST get better after allowing almost 36 points per game. LB Craig Robertson and DE Brandon Akpunku lead the way. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Army. Last year Army won 17-13.

6. Florida Atlantic: A tale of two squads. Sure the defense wasn't great last year, but eight starters are back, including CB Tavious Polo and safety Marcus Bartels, so expect the Owls to improve in yards and points allowed. DE Kevin Cyrille also could help FAU up front. On offense the Owls return running back Alfred Morris, who had 1,392 yards and 11 TDs last year. Things might be a little tougher this year because there are five new starters on the offensive line. QB Jeff Van Camp is back after starting toward the end of the year for an injured Rusty Smith. Must-see game: Oct. 2 at South Florida. The first of three road games, it would be amazing if the Owls could pull the upset.

7. Florida International: Another squad that must get better on defense to be successful. The Golden Panthers were ranked 119th in the nation in yards allowed (491.6 per game), while giving up 35.3 points per game. The key will be stopping the run, where only one starter is back in the front seven. CB Anthony Gaitor leads a pretty good secondary. On offense, former Ole Miss QB Wesley Carroll transfers in and will battle Wayne Younger for the starting job. One of the most exciting players in the nation T.Y. Hilton is back for his junior year at WR and kick returner. Must-see game: Oct. 30 at Florida Atlantic. The classic rivalry continues.

8. Louisiana-Monroe: Frank Goodin is back after another solid season and is fewer than 1,000 yards away from becoming the school's all-time leading rusher. Look for the Warhawks to lean on him on offense because the top two receivers from last year are gone. Only four starters are back on defense, but the good news is that DL Troy Evans is one of them. While the Warhawks are busy rebuilding, the schedule might be the most brutal part about 2010. Games against Arkansas, Auburn, LSU are rough for even a top-flight Sun Belt school. Must-see game: Nov. 6 at FIU. The teams combined to score 83 points last year.

9. Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers continued to struggle in their transition to the FBS Division, going 0-12 last season. The good news is eight starters return on offense, including RB Bobby Rainey, who had 939 yards last season. Junior college transfer Matt Pelesasa will be the starting QB and has a future WR in the making in freshman Willie McNeal. The defense was ranked 119th in points allowed (39.6 ppg) and will be key to the Hilltoppers picking up some wins this year. LB Thomas Majors is one of the conference's best. Must-see game: Oct. 16 vs. Louisiana-Monroe. Might just be the only winnable game on the schedule.

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