Sun Belt Preview

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

MIDDLE TENNESSEE TRIES TO
TACKLE TROY IN IMPROVING SUN BELT

For years the Sun Belt was the worst conference on the board. They're still listed in the 'added' section in most schedules...even though it's very hard right now to differentiate them from the MAC, and probably 90% of the WAC. 2010 is shaping up to be a down year overall, though the race at the top could get very interesting.

Troy is the perennial favorite because of their proven track record under head coach Larry Blakeney. But, this year the Trojans are rebuilding on both sides of the ball, while Middle Tennessee returns dangerous QB Dwight Dasher to the fold. The Blue Raiders won their last seven games of 2009, and took out both Memphis and Maryland from better conferences in September. And, that 42-32 win over Southern Miss is the New Orleans Bowl may have been a loud warning shot aimed directly at Troy.

You're about to see several teams listed among the 10 worst in the country by the Athlon publication. Let's start with the teams who are worth paying attention to...last year's champion...and possibly this year's NEW champion...

TROY
Athlon Ranking: 77
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 3 on offense, 104 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 3 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Troy ranked 4th in the nation in passing last year, and third overall on offense. But, quarterback Levi Brown is gone. This program has a history of smooth transitions at the position. But, this year's QB may not be as good as Dasher at Middle Tennessee! The defense is the big area of concern. They couldn't stop people last year...and now have to rebuild with guys who weren't good enough to play last year.

If the new signal caller is any good...we'll be jumping on Overs with the Trojans. If he struggles, we'll be looking for opportunities to fade them. The toughest early season test is September 11th at Oklahoma State. The huge game with Middle Tennessee will be on the road in the first week of October. A November meeting with South Carolina may offer up some upset potential if the newcomers mature during the course of the season.

We understand why you're supposed to put Troy at the head of the pack in this league. They're truly vulnerable in 2010 though in our opinion.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Athlon Ranking: 80
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 27 on offense, 50 on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Dasher had some huge games last year, particularly in the bowl. It's important to note though that Middle Tennessee couldn't do much of anything vs. good defenses. They're like Nevada in that regard...they'll bully bad teams but disappear vs. quality. That's the key factor preventing us from getting too gung ho about their title hopes.

Returning 13 starters is actually high for the Sun Belt this year. So, we're talking about a team that went 7-1 in league play returning more starters than the others who matter. We're very interested in the season opener at Minnesota as a litmus test game. If we see a spark there, we'll be looking to back this group at value prices most of the way. Though, a September 16th game at Georgia Tech could get ugly in a letdown week after Troy.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC
Athlon Ranking: 99
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 15 on offense, 112 on defense
Returning Starters: 2 on offense, 8 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Three teams in, and we're already down to about #100 in the Athlon rankings! That's probably justifiable given the lack of results outside the league last year for the Owls. They went 5-3 within the league, which is upper division. The 0-4 non-conference slate included a home loss to Wyoming.

The numbers above show offense is going to be a big issue. Only two starters return for head coach Norm Schnellenberger. Quarterback Jeff Van Camp saw action in November, and didn't embarrass himself. That by itself puts this team ahead of everyone just below them. Early tester games are September 11th vs. Michigan State in Detroit, and October 2nd at South Florida.

ARKANSAS STATE
Athlon Ranking: 107
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 95 on offense, 41 on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: The Red Wolves have a recent history of disappointing fans and backers more than exciting them. Last year's team has such early promise, losing heartbreakers to bowl bound Troy and Iowa. They basically fell off the map after that, beating only the bottom of the barrel teams in the Sun Belt.

This year they're breaking in a new quarterback, under the watch of a run-and-shoot type new offensive coordinator. Teams always think that's a solution to their problems...but it often just causes new problems (particularly for a defense that never gets any rest!).

Tough to hit the ground running with a season opener at Auburn. Louisville, Indiana, and Navy await later in the year. Give Arkansas State credit for scheduling some toughies! W may be fading them in all their toughies if the new offense struggles to get in gear.

LOUISIANA MONROE
Athlon Ranking: 112
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 48 on offense, 44 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 4 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Monroe has a chance to be interesting this year because they have some seniors in the backfield. Experience on the ball gives you a shot to hang around vs. your top competition...and a chance to beat everyone else. Last year's team went 5-3 in the league, meaning there's a chance they can represent 'the best of the rest' once you get past Troy and Middle Tennessee.

Arkansas and Auburn are on the September schedule. If we seem competitive outings there, we may be on the Warhawks a few times within Sun Belt action. It's not like Vegas oddsmakers spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly where Louisiana-Monroe and some of these other Sun Belt teams really stand. Take edges where you find them!

LOUISIANA LAFAYETTE
Athlon Ranking: 113
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 76 on offense, 92 on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 7 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Quarterback Chris Masson had a respectable year for coach Rickey Bustle in 2009 (the team ranked 49th passing, but 76th overall). But, the schedule was so soft that you can't really trust those ratings. Really good quarterbacks light up the scoreboard against Sun Belt defenses.

Lafayette will take its lumps from Georgia, as most everyone here has an SEC paycheck game to help cover the full season expenses. They jump right into Sun Belt play after that. We believe we'll get a good read on many Sun Belt teams right off the bat because games that matter pop up so early on the schedule.

In 2009, Jim Hurley's college dogs bit the bookmakers to the tune fo 26-6-2! Get on board for our Blue Ribbon Football Club and be ready to hit your man hard off the ball in September!
 

NORTH TEXAS
Athlon Ranking: 115
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 36 on offense, 97 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: The Todd Dodge era may be coming to an end soon. A man who was VERY successful at the high school level in Texas has shown why college teams don't consider hiring high school coaches to run their programs. Dodge seemed to be just as far over his head last year as we was at the beginning, outside of a shocker at Ball State that started the season.

The team did hang tough though...losing several nailbiters. The fact that many starters return gives them a decent shot to climb the ladder. It's a tightly packed ladder and you don't have to improve much to take a few steps up. We're hoping North Texas wins a few of those nailbiters this year just because we hate watching programs NEVER get better! Maybe something good will happen against Rice or Army early on. The season opener at Clemson will be much tougher.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
Athlon Ranking: 118
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 100 on offense, 119 on defense
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 3 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Mario Cristobal is in his fourth season as head coach. He was supposed to turn things around quicker than this. He did bring a tougher attitude to the team. But, it's their fortune to be in such a horrible conference that SOMEBODY has to win when the bad teams play each other. Two of FIU's three wins last year were over Western Kentucky and North Texas. This is a 1-11 type team playing in a league that has four 1-11 type teams every year.

Things could get ugly this year because a squad that was horrible on both sides of the ball got hit hard by graduation. They get thrown to the wolves too with Rutgers, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Pittsburgh to start the season. Oh, they begin a week after everyone else too. Bad teams shouldn't give everyone else a head start!

WESTERN KENTUCKY
Athlon Ranking: 119
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 101 on offense, 118 on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Willie Taggart takes over as head coach of one of the perennial nominees for worst team in the country. Why did these guys want to join Division I? If a new coach knows what he's doing, he can make great strides forward in a bad conference. We'll be keeping an eye on that. We have to say that most new coaches in the Sun Belt haven't made much of a splash in recent years.

Taggart can try to impress us against a challenging September slate that includes Nebraska, Kentucky, Indiana, and South Florida in successive weeks. We can see the bruises already.

That wraps up our look at all college conferences this summer. Only the Independents are left, featuring Notre Dame, Navy, and Army. We'll take lengthier looks at those teams Sunday since we're discussing just three teams rather than six or more. Then, it's back to baseball for a few days. Our NFL Divisional football reports begin next Sunday with the Dallas/Cincinnati Hall of Fame game on NBC. The rest will be triggered to TV games for the most part from that point forward.

You can sign up for NFL Exhibition football for just $60 by calling 1-800-323-4453. The full season of BLUE RIBBON selections from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK are yours for just $199 on the early-bird rates. Be sure to check on baseball when you call. We're hitting over 60% in July, and the action is going to stay HOT, HOT, HOT!

Football will be here before you know it. TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS NOW!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

21
Nov

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