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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Forecasting the Sun Belt in 2011

Troy owns the Sun Belt more than any other F.B.S. program, B.C.S. or otherwise, owns its respective conference. We’re in the middle of five straight tied or outright conference championships, which places Troy in a very elite historical group of programs with such a successful run — I smell a 100-word preview question, by the way. The Sun Belt will continue to belong to the Trojans in 2011, in my mind, but Florida International presents the greatest challenge yet seen to Troy’s run of dominance. The Golden Panthers are full of confidence after last year’s bowl run, and might be even better with another year of experience. Then there’s Middle Tennessee State, which made a change at both coordinator spots in an effort to avoid another disappointing season.

What about the rest of the league? Well, it’s the same old story: the Sun Belt really puts forth only three or four good teams a year, so the picking are slim after the above trio and Arkansas State. Speaking of the Red Wolves: there’s your Sun Belt sleeper pick. The bottom half of the conference is the worst in the F.B.S., with Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and North Texas bringing up the rear.

Most likely to succeed

Troy The Trojans have some issues to address but remain the surest thing in the Sun Belt, as they’ve been for the last five years. There’s little reason to think this year will be any different. But there are issues, as noted: there’s nothing proven at receiver, some holes along the offensive line and the defense needs to prove itself. Still, Troy gets the edge over Florida International.

Most likely to struggle

Louisiana-Lafayette The Ragin’ Cajuns have a nice new coach in Mark Hudspeth, who has already made a sizable impact on the recruiting trail. He’s landed players who will eventually make a difference in his new offensive system, but expecting this team to hit the ground running in year one is a tall order. I’m more likely to think that Louisiana-Lafayette will struggle mightily adapting to the new regime in 2011, though I think brighter days are ahead.

Wait until next year

Western Kentucky The Hilltoppers have experienced one of the more painful transitions from the F.C.S. to the F.B.S., somewhat due to a coach not prepared for the endeavor and a youthful roster learning on the job. Western Kentucky will continue to struggle in 2011, as it has for three years, but those struggles will ultimately benefit a roster that remains one of the youngest in the Sun Belt. Willie Taggart, like Hudspeth, has been adding several nice recruits who will eventually make a difference.

Best coach

Larry Blakeney, Troy It’s partly due to the resume, which includes 20 years of solid play stretched across several levels of competition. It’s also due to his recent success in the Sun Belt, which has found Troy run roughshod over each challenger it has encountered en route to five consecutive tied or outright conference titles. It’s clear now that Blakeney will have the Trojans at the top of the conference for as long as he’s around.

Up-and-coming coach

Mario Cristobal, Florida International He was not quite on the radar prior to last season. He is now, I promise. Florida International’s unforeseen run to the top of the Sun Belt vaulted Cristobal up the list of non-B.C.S. conference coaches in line for a major promotion; should F.I.U. repeat, perhaps adding a win to its total, the university will have a fight on its hands to retain Cristobal’s services.

Offensive player of the year

T.Y. Hilton, Florida International You could make a case for Troy’s Corey Robinson, but no offensive player means more to his team’s success than Hilton. He can do it all, receiving, rushing, returning kicks and punts, and is a threat to score each time he touches the ball. His numbers might be even better in 2011, should quarterback Wesley Carroll continue his improvement.

Defensive player of the year

Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy He’ll need to duplicate his outstanding 2010 numbers without fellow end Mario Addison, but Massaquoi is as unstoppable a defender as you’ll find in the Sun Belt. He also has an opportunity to make a name for himself nationally with season-opening games against Clemson and Arkansas. In a conference largely devoid of defensive play-makers, Massaquoi stands out.

Five biggest non-conference games

Troy at Clemson Sept. 3
U.C.F. vs. Florida International Sept. 10
Florida International at Louisville Sept. 3
Troy at Arkansas Sept. 17
Arkansas State at Illinois Sept. 3

Five biggest conference games

Troy at Florida International Oct. 25
Florida International at Arkansas State Oct. 18
Middle Tennessee State at Troy Sept. 24
Troy at Arkansas State Dec. 3
Florida International at Middle Tennessee State Nov. 26

Projected order of finish

Florida International
Arkansas State
Middle Tennessee State
North Texas
Florida Atlantic
Western Kentucky

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  1. Zac says:

    No love for Georgia Tech @ Middle Tennessee? We’re celebrating our centennial that weekend, against the closest AQ conference member to ever come to Floyd stadium and it’s our home opener, the place should be rockin’ and I think we’ll give the Jackets all they want.

  2. “Troy owns the Sun Belt more than any other F.B.S. program, B.C.S. or otherwise, owns its respective conference.”

    Thanks for the love fellas, couldn’t have said it better myself. ;)

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    Bobby Rainey at WKU is the best running back no one has ever heard of- if he stays healthy, the Hilltoppers arrive a year early and win 5-6 games.

  4. Sticks says:

    I think GT will set some all time rushing records at that MTSU game. It won’t be pretty.

    See the GT @ UConn game, or the GT @ Navy game from about 10 years ago. Exact same situation. MTSU just lost too much.

  5. Steve says:

    North Texas is on the road back and will soon take back the SBC crown.

  6. trojanbrutha says:

    Come on Steve…new coach, new stadium, but it still remains a tall order to flip-flop the peckin’ order in the Belt…As long as TROY’s still in it :-D

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