Wednesday, August 3, 2011

OSG College Football Preview: The Sun Belt Conference

As long as the SEC is the mack daddy of college football the SBC will always be fighting for any kind of attention. Those who pay attention know the SBC has some damn good football teams. How many times has Troy brought down a BCS team on their turf? Middle Tennessee State has slayed a big boy or two. The pucker factor should go up if an SBC team is on your schedule.

Troy Trojans
2010 Record: 8-5 – Defeated Ohio 48-21 In New Orleans Bowl

Things To Like About Troy:
Corey Robinson was impressive last season as a freshman. Robinson owned the Sun Belt in passing throwing for a conference best 3,707 yards, almost 800 yards more than any other quarterback in the conference. Robinson also tossed 28 touchdowns to lead the conference as well. Robinson capped off his fabulous freshman season putting on a show against Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl going 32-42 passing for 387 yards and four touchdowns. That earned Robinson bowl MVP honors. Robinson is a rising star.

Massaquoi The QB’s Worst Nightmare: Defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi lived the opponent’s backfield last season. The numbers prove it leading the Sun Belt in quarterback sacks with 13 and tackles for loss with 21.5. Massaquoi showed a national TV audience watching the New Orleans Bowl the havoc he can create with 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss totaling 8 against Ohio.

Things Not To Like About Troy:
No Defense Won A Championship:
Last season Troy bucked the trend of offense wins games, defense wins championships. The Trojan defense was not that good ranked last against the pass and next to last in total defense in the Sun Belt Conference. The secondary was decimated by injuries and was torched much of the season. As great as Jonathan Massaquoi is he can’t do it all.

Who Will Be Corey Robinson’s Targets: Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson were ruled ineligible after spring practice. That was a big blow to the receiving corps. Jerrel Jernigan, Tebiarus Gill and Jason Bruce, Troy’s top three pass catchers last season have graduated. Who will emerge as Robinson’s go-to guy?

OSG’s Take On Troy
It’s a good thing the Trojans have a talented quarterback because with the question marks on defense Troy may have to win a few shootouts in 2011. Defense was a point of emphasis during recruiting. Head coach Larry Blakeney and his staff combed the JUCO’s and picked up some players that should make an immediate impact especially Brynden Trawick in the secondary who began his college career at Michigan State with had 58 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 9 tackles for losses, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 recovered fumbles as a Spartan.
Overall, If Corey Robinson doesn’t experience a sophomore slump, the offensive line jells and the defense shows some improvement than another Sun Belt Championship is possible.

Phil: Always a shootout team, that won’t change here. They are still one of the class teams in this conference. Solid, not spectacular season. 8-4.

Jon: : I think the title gets determined on October 25th when Troy takes on FIU. Who ever thought I would say that…??? Having Corey Robinson as a talented freshman means Larry Blakeney gets him for THREE MORE YEARS!!! Replacing Jernigan will be tough, but the 6th SBC title in a row should come to south Alabama.

Florida International Golden Panthers
2010 Record: 7-6, Defeated Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesars Bowl

Things To Like About FIU:
Hilton’s Rewards:
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has NFL talent and could have gone early but choose to stay at FIU. By staying put the Sun Belt’s best offensive weapon remains in the Golden Panthers arsenal. Hilton totaled 848 yards receiving yards averaging 14.4 yards per catch last season. Hilton accommodates FIU with his kick and punt returning skills, he lead the SBC in kick returns with 833 yards and two touchdowns. Hilton will have plenty of opportunity to get his hands on the ball.

Lock Down Defense: Last season FIU had the best defense in the Sun Belt Conference and even though they lost do it all linebacker Toronto Smith, 2010 team sack leader defensive end Jarvis Wilson, and super aggressive safety Anthony Gaitor, the Golden Panthers will be dominant again. Defensive end Tourek Williams and tackle Josh Forney return to anchor this talented squad. Williams had six sacks last year. Head coach Marco Crisobal recruited some big time talent on defense. Incoming freshman linebacker Lyndon Edwards has star potential. A pair of JUCO transfers linebacker Jordan Hunt and safety Tevin Blanchard will play right away.

Things Not To Like About FIU:
Poor Punting:
Marco Cristobal might want to consider going for it on fourth down after FIU averaged a weak 31.0 yards per punt last season, next to last in the NCAA. Josh Brisk the job is still yours unless Cristobal has student tryouts, it just may come to that.

OGS’s Take
FIU looks to be the most complete team in the SBC. If quarterback Wesley Carroll, a Mississippi State transfer, can run the offense efficiently (in other words, get the ball in Hilton’s hands and let him go.) and the defense pressures opponents the Golden Panthers might raise the championship trophy at the end of the season. They are my pick to do that.

Phil: How can you go wrong with the fightin’ Cristobals? They’ve steadily improved each year and this should be the year it bubbles over. I agree with Wilkie, this is your conference champ...9-3 this season.

Jon: Winning more than 7 should be the quest for the Fighting Cristobals this year- and they’ll get there. Every rusher returns for FIU from last year’s top 7- including Hilton and QB Wesley Carroll. 15 starters return and the Goldens could make it to New Orleans instead of Detroit.

Arkansas State Red Wolves
2010 Record: 4-8

Things To Like About Arkansas State:
Best 7-on-7 Offense In The Sun Belt:
Arkansas State’s skill players are, well skilled. Quarterback Ryan Aplin set school records for completions (252), passing yards (2,939), total offense (3,416), touchdowns (21) and led the SBC in total offense as a sophomore. As a junior and with a year of Hugh Freeze’s high octane offense under his belt Aplin will be lethal. Oh by the way he has a plethora of offensive weapons to choose from. Combined starting wide outs Dwayne Frampton, Allen Muse and Taylor Stockemer totaled 1,933 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010. The running backs are solid too. Chewing up yards and scoring points doesn’t appear to be an issue in Jonesboro this year unless……….

Things To Not Like About Arkansas State:
Offensive Line:
Center Tom Castilaw is the only Red Wolf offensive lineman with any kind of playing experience to return and that’s because the NCAA granted Castilaw a sixth season of eligibility. There is hope in the O-line with five JUCO transfers ready to step in. They will have to jell quickly for this offense to soar.

Where’s The Defense? Bad doesn’t begin to describe the 2010 ASU defense. The Red Wolves couldn’t stop the run and could barely stop the pass becoming the worst defense in the Sun Belt Conference. New head coach Hugh Freeze has brought in coaching veteran Dave Wommack to fix that mess. Wommack has held the defensive coordinator titles at Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Southern Miss, UNLV, Missouri State and Bemidji State. Wommack’s defenses have always been fundamentally sound and opportunistic. Just basic tackling might be a good start in Jonesboro.

OSG’s Take on Arkansas State:
Arkansas State might just put up offensive numbers that are off the charts but then again the Red Wolves may have to if they are going to win games. The defense has nowhere to go but up and any improvement there might be enough to be in the race but don’t expect much more than that.

Phil: They will be fun to watch. We don’t buy Wommack or his defense, but the offense here is good enough to outscore most SunBelt teams. 8-4 isn’t unrealistic, but highly unlikely.

Jon: One of the best names in the college ranks- Sirgregory Thornton is part of an offense that brings back 7 top rushers and 7 of the 8 top receivers from 2010. Hugh Freeze takes over as Head Coach and his offense will put up big numbers. The only thing keeping them from a bowl will be Troy and FIU.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
2010 Record: 5-7

Things To Like About ULM
Young And Experience:
In his first year as head coach Todd Berry went on a youth movement for the 2010 season playing underclassman. The Warhawks were inconsistent but didn’t tank it either. With a year under their belt ULM’s youngin’s will be better and veterans of the Sun Belt wars.

Everyone Is Back On Offense: The entire starting 11 on ULM’s offense returns including sophomore quarterback Kolton Browning who bolted unto the SBC scene as a freshman last season and put up some eye popping numbers, 2,552 yards passing last season and 18 touchdowns, third best in the SBC. The running back position is as deep and talented as it gets in the SBC. Key contributors from last season Jyruss Edwards and Centarius Donald return and they will be joined by Arkansas transfer Mitchell Bailey. Luther Ambrose returns as the go-to guy from the receiving corps. Ambrose was third in the SBC last year in receptions and is one of the fastest players in college football, he is the two time SBC 100 meter champion.

Things To Not Like About ULM:
Offensive Line Must Protect The Quarterback: While the entire offensive line returns its pass protecting skills need to improve. The unit gave up 33 sacks in 2010, Warhawk fans must really like that Kolton Browning is mobile but running for your life doesn’t always bring out the best results.

OSG’s Take:
Louisiana-Monroe’s defense was the best in the SBC against the run and third best against the pass, that’s a solid group. If the offense has consistency there’s no reason why ULM won’t compete for the conference title. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Warhawks went to a bowl game either.

Phil: Sucks to start the season at Florida State. Having the entire offense coming back should help. They are a threat to win every conference team, but probably won’t. Look for them to have a good season by their standards: 7-5

Jon: Todd Berry’s idea of taking the names off the jerseys until they get a bowl bid was a nice touch for a squad that was one game south of .500 last year. They’ll still be off this year, but the team could finish at .500 after games at FSU, TCU, and Iowa.

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
2010 Record: 6-7: Lost To Miami (Oh) 35-21 In The Bowl

Things To Like About MTSU:
Addition By Subtraction: Dwight Dasher is gone but that might be a good thing because during his suspension last season the offense found out its just fine without the all-world talent. Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy are competing for the starting quarterback job. Kilgore threw for 168 yards in the spring game, Murphy added 127 yards in the spring game. Kilgore has the arm that can stretch the field, something the Blue Raiders have lacked along with a dearth of big plays.

Things Not To Like About MTSU:
Too Much Subtraction On Defense:
Last year MTSU’s defensive front was solid however that entire unit must be replaced. Only three starters return on defense for the Blue Raiders.
OSG’s Take:

MTSU gave up the ball way too much last year ending in year with 36 turnovers and a nation’s worst -19 in turnover margin, that’s got to improve. The expectations will be low at MTSU and 2011 might be mediocre at best for the Blue Raiders.

Phil: may be a long season in Murfreesboro this year. They weren’t great last year and lost a lot of players. I am amazed they got Ga.Tech to come to the ‘Boro. Don’t look for anything special here: 4-8

Jon: Those 8 starters lost on defense will come up and bite Rick Stockstill in a huge manner. How quickly they get adjusted to life in the SBC will determine their on-the-field success- as will their game 3 at Troy. Maybe .500…???

Florida Atlantic Owls
2010 Record: 4-8

Things To Like About FAU:
I’m Searching:
Sorry but there’s not much to like about the Owls except running back Alfred Morris. At 5-11, 222 pounds Morris has the size and speed you covet in a running back. Morris just can’t get it going because the offensive line was awful and there’s not much help from the passing game to keep defenses honest. The quarterbacks competing have thrown a total of 13 passes on the collegiate level and the receiving corps lost its two best receivers. And then there’s the defense. Can they stop the run?:

Things Not To Like About FAU:
(See above)

OSG’s Take:
FAU has my favorite name in all of college football right now, starting linebacker Yourhighness Morgan. Well your high ness, the Owls will be lucky to win a few games this season. At least FAU moves into a brand new stadium on campus this year.

Phil: This could get They start with Florida, Michigan State and Auburn. Ouch! We still get a kick out of Howard Schnellenberger being the coach here...but for how much longer? 3-9 this season.

Jon: Jeff Van Camp and Rusty Smith are gone as are the top three receivers and 5 of the 6 top tacklers from a team that went 4-8. Another year below .500 Yourhighness…

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
2010 Record: 3-9
Things To Like About Louisiana-Lafayette:

Clean Slate:
New coaching staff, fresh approach. Always needed when you program stagnates then regresses.

No Cutting Corners: New Rajin’ Cagin head coach Mark Hudspeth called the defensive backs the strength of the defense. Cornerbacks Melvin White and Dwight Bentley are big pluses and can make plays should the front seven put the pressure on the passer.

Things Not To Like About Louisiana-Lafayette:
The Lines:
Louisiana’s offensive line must replace three starters from last season. The defensive line was 111th in the country against the run. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if you can’t win the battle in the trenches winning football games becomes extremely difficult.

OSG’s Take:
The coaching change means jobs will be on the line so the effort will be there. A sub .500 year again.

Phil: I can’t be too mean since the Lovely Bride is a grad here. But they aren’t going to be good. At least they aren’t a sacrificial lamb for LSU this season.

Jon: This team might surprise with everyone returning on offense, but they won’t surprise too much. More than 3-9, but not much more…

North Texas Mean Green
2010 Record: 3-9

What To Like About North Texas:
No More B.S.:
That’s because new North Texas head coach Dan McCarney is all about business and will tell it like it is. As far as McCarney is concerned, it’s put up or shut up in Denton, TX. This is the same head coach that took over as head coach at Iowa State in 1995 that was pathetic and led the Cyclones to five, yes that’s right, five bowl games. McCarney has his work cut out for him at North Texas.

Let Lance Run It: Lance Dunbar might be the best player in college football you have never heard of. Dunbar was fourth in the nation with 1,885 all-purpose yards last season including 1,553 rushing yards, second in the SBC. Dunbar carried the ball 275 times last season so he can take the workload. You can bet McCarney is going to give Dunbar the ball until he pukes.

What Not To Like About North Texas:
Mean Green Defense Not So Mean:
McCarney made his reputation coaching defensive lines and though he admits North Texas’ front is one of the most undersized he’s seen for UNT to be better they have to develop a pass rush. McCarney and defensive coordinator Clint Bowen feel they have some good parts to work with especially with Brandon Akpunku, whose been UNT’s best pass rusher of late. The secondary has been the strength of the defense and would benefit greatly from an improved pass rush. McCarney and Bowen will be on top of it.

OSG’s Take
I can’t see any more than five wins from UNT this season but I like what is going on in Denton.

Phil: Dan McCarney will be a coaching god if he can resurrect this program. And he is on his way. There’s some potential here. And far worse teams in the conference. If they are lucky, 6-6, if not 4-8.

Jon: Agreed… like the McCarney hire, don’t like what McCarney has to work with… better than 3-9 for sure… but not much more…

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
2010 Record: 2-10What To Like About Western Kentucky:
WKU Loves A “Rainey” Day:
Though only 5-8 Bobby Rainey is the biggest part of the Hilltopper offense. Rainey carried the ball 340 times last season and averaged 137.4 yards per game, third in the nation. Needless to say Rainey must stay healthy.

What Not To Like About Western Kentucky:
More Offensive Weapons: WKU can’t go all Barney Fife and use their one bullet, Bobby Rainey, all year. The Hilltoppers need another offensive weapon to step up to take some pressure off Rainey.

OSG’s Take:
I love the passion of head coach Willie Taggart. He’s a WKU guy whose doing what he can do to improve the fortunes of the football program. Taggart has rolled up the sleeves and improved the talent. The fruits of that labor might be realized this year. At least five wins is possible and I wouldn’t be surprised if six wins is achieved.

Phil: Hey, last year was a success just because they won their first D-1 games ever. Don’t look for craziness, but they’ll win 4 this year. Wonder why they are playing Nashville though...

Jon: win… maybe…??? Indiana State and that’s all I see…

Sun Belt Champion
Wilkie: Florida International
Phil: Agreed, FIU
Nelson: Troy

SBC’s Best Offensive Player:
Wilkie: Bobby Rainey – Western Kentucky
Phil: Corey Robinson, Troy
Nelson: Cory Robinson - Troy

SBC’s Best Defensive Player:
Wilkie: Jonathan Massaquoi – Troy
Phil: Massaquoi
Nelson: Massaquoi

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