The Sun Belt Conference is beginning to be taken more and more seriously as time goes by. There have been some upsets and some close calls in games with the big boys in D1 college football and perhaps some of schools are thinking twice about scheduling a "sure win" against the teams in this league. This year there are at least two teams that may be a danger to just about anyone outside of the top 25.
Predicted order of finish SBC 2011:
1. Troy: Well coached by a man who is at his destination. The Trojans return a fair number of starters and should be able to maintain the top spot in conference. The non conference schedule is manageable and with the exception of Arkansas, they may do well. It would be a surprise if they are not 2-2 in non conference play with 3-1 being a real possibility.
2. FIU: The Panthers are becoming quite a good team under Mario Cristobal. There is speculation that he will be snatched up by a "bigger" program if his team has another above average year. The team returns a lot of starters from last years' pretty good ballclub. There is no real big name on tap this year in non conference play and it would not be surprising to see them go 3-1 in non conference play and lose no more than one or two in conference. A bowl bid perhaps for this team and a new coaching staff next season.
3. FAU: Florida Atlantic will be a big surprise this year in SBC play. Coach Howard will be retiring after this year and the team loses quite a few starters from a less than stellar squad. I look for these guys to play up, as they say, and send Howard out on a winning note. There non conference schedule is brutal indeed and the Owls will be lucky to go 1-3, but if they remain healthy, they may be more than ready for SBC play.
4. North Texas: Another surprise. There is no reason for the Mean Green not to compete year in and year out in Sun Belt play. They have an excellent recruiting base and an opportunity to snag a couple of blue chip players here and there, but the last few years have been horrible. They probably should have kept Dickey but mistakenly let him go a few seasons back. The Todd Dodge years were horrible. What were they thinking? New coach Dan McCarney has been around the block and did a very good job at a very hard place to win; Iowa State. He should have the Mean Green ready to compete in conference in short order. They have a tough row to hoe in non conference play and 1-3 would be a success.
5. MTSU: A bit of a toss up between MTSU and ULM for this spot. Stockstill is a good coach and probably a bit under rated. They return quite a few starters on offense but not their QB. Dasher was perhaps a bit over rated anyway. The defense looks pretty young and thin. We will see. They may go 2-2 in non conference play but no better than that. With the exception of Memphis they may have trouble with the other non conf. opponents. Perhaps even Memphis may be a problem if Porter has gotten things together in Tigerland. We will see.
6. ULM: The Indians err Warhawks return a good many starters on both offense and D. They perhaps would be ranked higher in the Bartender Cabbie System if they had a different coaching staff. I am just not convinced that Todd Berry is the man for the job here. We will see. They will go 1-3 in non conference play with the only likely win coming against Grambling of the IAA SWAC. They do face Iowa and that is a possible upset although fairly unlikely.
7. Arkansas State: New coaching staff here also. I am not sure why Steve Roberts is not on board here still but so it goes. The team must replace a good many starters on both sides of the ball with about the only good news being a somewhat manageable non conference schedule. If they play their cards right they may get out of non conf. play at 2-2. They only sure loss I see is against the Hokies of Va. Tech. The other games could probably go either way. They should beware of another Arkansas team. Central Arkansas of the IAA SLC is a danger and could trip them up. Memphis? Depends on the job that Porter is doing in that fair city. Illinois? They may be able to sneak up on teams from the Big Ten. They will have some trouble in conference play probably but with a little luck will rank higher than 7.
8. WKU: Taggart will prove to be a good coach. The Hilltoppers will escape the cellar this year and may surprise a few folks in conference. There non conference sked is brutal. Brutal! If they come out at 1-3 that will be a very big surprise.
9. ULL: The Cajuns are apparently in total rebuild mode. A new coaching staff and replacing quite a few starters will be tough to overcome this year. The only bright spot, sort of, is the non conference sked. The do meet Nichols State which they may (or may not) prove to be a victory for them. They could possibly upset either Kent State or Arizona. They may do well to go 1-3 but 0-4 is not out of the realm of possibility. They will have difficulty with in conference play also and may be lucky to best two SBC squads. Any victory with the possible exception of the Nichols State contest will be considered an upset.