2011 NCAA Football Preview: Sun Belt Conference

August 30, 2011


It is really hard to get excited about a conference like the Sun Belt unless you are a diehard college football fan. The conference rarely cracks the Top 25 at any point in the season, and is almost never on national television save the first few weeks of the season when one of its teams is getting pounded by a top ranked program.

If it weren’t for Troy, the conference would be almost irrelevant. You don’t have to be a college football junkie to know who Troy is; the team has won or shared the last five Sun Belt conference titles in football, and is almost always seen playing in an early bowl game come December. In a league that doesn’t get much attention, parody can actually hurt its credibility. Luckily for the Sun Belt, they don’t have to worry about that. Troy has been extremely consistent ever since joining the Sun Belt conference in 2004.

Most people may not see much in the Sun Belt conference, but don’t tell any of the teams that they can’t compete. The expectations for teams like Troy and Florida International are as great as they’ve ever been.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid


No surprise here. Members of the Sun Belt conference are competing for a chance to play in the GMAC bowl, a.k.a. The Big One before the Big One, more than they are for a national championship bid. In fact, a Sun Belt team going undefeated would land them in the same bowl game that they would have been in if they would have finished 7-5. Unfair? Maybe, but no one is really complaining on behalf of the Sun Belt conference.

Every Sun Belt team is an early season tune up for some major conference power, and almost all of those games see the Sun Belt team traveling to play the game. If a team like UL Lafayette were to go on the road and beat Oklahoma State, they probably would be celebrating like they received an invitation to play in the national title game.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


The Warhawks should have gone to a bowl game last season, but dropped a crucial game against rival UL Lafayette in the season finale that would have put them at 6-6 had they won. This season, UL Monroe does not want to be saying “what if” when the regular season ends.

The Warhawks bring back a lot of pieces on the offensive side of the ball, which should allow them to become one of the better offensive teams in the league. Sophomore quarterback Kolton Browning made great strides during his freshman year and becoming one of the best play callers in the Sun Belt is expected. Browning will have a great target at wideout in Luther Ambrose, who is extremely fast and has good hands.

As good as the Warhawk offense could be, UL Monroe’s defense should actually be the main strength of the team. They were the second best defense in the league giving up only 378.3 yards per game, but need to be better at stopping the big play. The downfall last season for the Warhawks was that while their defense was strong, they gave up too many points and the offense had trouble keeping up.

If things come together for the defense and the offense continues to improve, expect the Warhawks to play in their first ever bowl game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Lance Dunbar (Sr.), North Texas running back

In the past decade, North Texas has been Running Back U in the Sun Belt. First it was Patrick Cobbs, then Jamario Thomas, and for the past two years it has been Lance Dunbar. Dunbar has been the feature back since he was a sophomore, and has really been the best player on the offense for North Texas since then as well.

This year, Dunbar will have to earn every yard he gains. The Mean Green have issues on the offensive line, so Dunbar may have trouble gaining over 1,500 yards as he did in 2010.

Dunbar will likely compete for Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year with Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey, who won the award last season. Rainey had more yards than Dunbar last season, but also had 66 more rushing attempts. If he can get help from his offensive line, Dunbar may be able show who the best running back in the Sun Belt really is.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Middle Tennessee State vs. Tennessee (November 5th)

Dwight Dasher is no longer running the offense for MTSU, which is bad news because Dasher was one of the most dynamic players in the Sun Belt. However, the Blue Raider offense should also have a much easier time keeping the ball on offense, as Dasher led the conference with 18 interceptions last season.

Middle Tennessee might have problems on defense this season, but Tennessee will have their share of offensive issues. This sets up to be a game that should make fans in Knoxville much more nervous than they are used to being when playing a Sun Belt opponent.

If Tennessee is struggling on offense by the time this game rolls around, they are ripe for an upset. Middle Tennessee isn’t the class of the Sun Belt and may not even make a bowl game this year, but is just the type of team to surprise a team like Tennessee. Nothing to lose, no expectations, and a whole lot of adrenaline.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Louisiana-Monroe vs. Florida International (November 19th)

The team that wins this game is the team that will have the best chance at competing with Troy for the Sun Belt title. Florida International had one of the biggest turnarounds of any team last year, and brings back a lot of the pieces that took down Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. UL Monroe is hoping to live up to the expectations that have been put on the team after a surprising 2010.

FIU will be good on offense this year, and UL Monroe should be good on defense. Last year FIU beat the Warhawks 42-35 in overtime, but it should not be such a high scoring game if UL Monroe’s defense is improved as expected. The game still has the potential to go into overtime, though.

If Golden Panthers quarterback Wesley Carroll is playing as well at the end of this season as he did at the end of last season, then FIU will be very difficult to stop.

Conference Predictions

1. Florida International (8-4, [6-2])

2. Troy (7-5, [6-2])

3. Louisiana-Monroe (7-5, [6-2])

4. Arkansas State (6-6, [4-4])

5. Middle Tennessee State (5-7, [4-4])

6. North Texas (3-9, [3-5])

7. Western Kentucky (3-9, [2-6])

8. Louisiana-Lafayette (3-9, [2-6])

9. Florida Atlantic (1-11, [1-7])

– K. Becks

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