The Sun Belt has made significant strides over the past few years in terms of its competitiveness over other conferences, especially ones in the BCS. Last season FAU beat Central Michigan, Arkansas State was victorious over Texas A&M and MTSU beat Maryland. Troy also was very competitive against Ohio State and LSU, but was not able to close out.
The conference will get another opportunity this season to show that they can compete at a high level. Sun Belt teams face off against the likes of Nebraska, Alabama, Rutgers, Clemson, Florida and LSU in 09. Tough out of conference schedules define the Sun Belt, but to gain some respect [and pay bills], you must play the best.
The 2009 Sun Belt conference can be summed up in one sentence: The Trojans of Troy and the 8 dwarfs. No team in the league seems to have the capability of challenging Troy for its 4th straight conference title, but that being said FAU and MTSU will have should have decent seasons and be bowl eligible.
What team will be the biggest surprise in 2009?
The biggest surprise in the conference might be Middle Tennessee State. It is clear that Troy will be at the top and FAU will have a solid season, but the Blue Raiders could be the conference's sleeper team. They enter the 2009 season with plenty of talent, experience and depth. The entire starting offense is returning from last season, which is good news for MTSU. The only question mark is quarterback Dwight Dasher. He needs to play up to his potential
and be consistent if the Blue Raiders are to have a successful season on offense.
The defense also has veteran talent returning in 2009. They return seven starters on defense including lineman, Dwight Smith. Smith recorded 30 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss last season. The line needs to continue to get pressure up front, especially more pressure on the quarterback. Although the secondary might be considered undersized, they possess as much talent as any other team in the league, including fantastic speed and depth. They return four starters from last season including the leader at free safety, Jeremy Kellem. Kellem had 72 tackles, two interceptions and a sack last season. The secondary should be one of the stronger ones in the conference and has the talent to make some game changing plays.
The Blue Raiders should be able to reach .500 and be bowl eligible. If MTSU can steal a game, look for them to make a push to be a top the conference.
What player if lost will impact the team the most?
It is without question that the FAU Owls would be devastated if they lost their veteran senior quarterback, Rusty Smith. Smith is a candidate for Sun Belt Player of the Year and has plenty of weapons surrounding him. A true leader in every sense of the word, Smith has shown to have all the tools to be a great college and possibly even NFL quarterback. He has thrown for over 3,000 yards and more than 20 touchdowns the past two seasons.
With talks about the Owls making a push for the Sun Belt title, they need Smith to stay healthy. Behind him they junior Jeff VanCamp and red shirt freshman Graham Wilbert, neither of which have a ton of experience. Although Wilbert might be the future, if the Owls want to compete this year, Smith must be healthy and productive.
Does a team from the Sun Belt make a BCS game?
Although the Sun Belt teams have made improvements over the past few years on their talent and playing at a higher level of competition, they are still not close to having their names mentioned in the BCS talks. Troy may have a decent chance at a double-digit win season, but you will be hard pressed to see them playing in a BCS game this season. Even though their out of conference schedule is impressive, the weakness of their in conference games will leave their RPI wanting every time... even if they go undefeated.
What Sun Belt team has the opportunity of beating a team from one of the major 6 conferences?
In the past Sun Belt teams have given some of the major conferences a tough time. This season there are a few games that could end up in a Sun Belt teams favor including Troy's trip into SEC country when they play Arkansas in the middle of November. Arkansas is coming off a 5-7 season, lost their starting quarterback and finished last in the SEC in total defense. If Troy can take advantage of the inconsistent play of the defense, the Trojans might be victorious.
We might also see a repeat of last year's performance between Maryland and MTSU. This year the game is at Maryland and the Terrapins showed last year that they are inconsistent. They lose seven starters on defense and a few key players on the offensive line. With the experience returning at MTSU and a solid defense, the Blue Raiders might have the Terrapins number again in 2009.
Florida Atlantic University 7-5
Middle Tennessee State University 6-6
Arkansas State 5-7
North Texas 4-8
UL Lafayette 4-8
UL -Monroe 3-9
Western Kentucky 2-10