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FIU seeks to maintain newfound respect in Sun Belt

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NEW ORLEANS (AP)

It took nearly a decade for Florida International to turn its fledgling football program into a Sun Belt Conference favorite.

Whether the Golden Panthers can live up to their newfound respect remains to be seen.

''The key to the whole thing is to stay the hunter,'' fifth-year FIU coach Mario Cristobal said of his team's perch atop the league's preseason coaches' poll. ''Last year, or the year before, when we were picked sixth or seventh, we really didn't pay attention to it then. We're certainly not going to pay attention to it now.''

Five of the Sun Belt's nine head coaches picked FIU to finish first, including Troy coach Larry Blakeney, whose program is trying to extend a five-year streak of finishing either first or tied for first in the league.

''Mario has done an especially good job shaping that program talent-wise and with his coaches, and they put a wood-shedding on us up here (last season),'' Blakeney said, referring to FIU's 52-35 win at Troy.

After going 9-27 in its first three seasons under Cristobal, FIU opened 2010 by going 0-4 before rallying to win six of its last eight regular season games and earn its first postseason berth since its football program began in 2002.

The Golden Panthers then edged Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesar's Bowl.

Troy won eight games last season, including a lopsided victory over Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl.

That gave the Sun Belt a 2-1 bowl record after the league had gone 2-31 against teams from other conferences during the regular season, including 0-26 against teams from BCS conferences.

Troy has eight defensive starters back including preseason all-conference defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi.

''We realize what we have at hand,'' Massaquoi said of Troy's five straight years atop the league. ''It's a big thing to have on your shoulders ... so there's definitely a drive for six this year.''

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FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - Key players: WR T.Y. Hilton, QB Wesley Carroll, DE Tourek Williams, LB Winston Fraser. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Cristobal is counting on another big season from Hilton, who had 848 yards receiving, 300 yards rushing and 11 total touchdowns last season, including two on kickoff returns. Senior QB Carroll is back after throwing for 2,623 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010. They look to follow first winning season in school history with a second straight run at a league title.

TROY - Key players: QB Corey Robinson, DE Jonathan Massaquoi, LB Xavier Lamb, RB Shawn Southward, OL James Brown. Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: The Trojans have the preseason All-Sun Belt QB in Robinson, who passed for 3,726 yards and 28 TDs last season, but many of his top targets are gone. Jerrel Jernigan moved on to the NFL and WRs Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson have been declared ineligible. ... Coach Larry Blakeney says WR production is his top concern, but he has a lot of confidence in a defense led by Massaquoi.

LOUISIANA-MONROE - Key players: WR Luther Ambrose, DE Ken Dorsey, S Darius Prelow, QB Kolton Browning. Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Second-year coach Todd Berry expects his squad to contend for a league title after narrowly missing out on being bowl eligible with a 5-7 record in his first season. ... Browning gives ULM a duel threat QB, having passed for 2,552 yards and 18 TDs last season while rushing for 385 net yards and four scores. ... RB Jyrus Edwards, a converted DB, looks to solidify his starting job after injuries held him back last season.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE - Key players: LB Darin Davis, LB Justin Jones, K Alan Gendreau, WR Malcolm Beyah. Returning starters: 7 offense, 3 defense.

Notes: QBs Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy both saw playing time last season while 2010 Dwight Dasher was suspended early in the season. Dasher is gone, as is top running back Phillip Tanner, leaving Benjamin Cunningham and D.D. Kyles as the top returning running backs. ... All four defensive line starters will be new.

ARKANSAS ST. - Key players: QB Ryan Aplin, DE Dorvus Woods, LB Demario Davis, S Kelcie McCray. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: First-year coach Hugh Freeze looks to improve an experienced squad that went 4-8 last season. Among ASU's returning starters on defense are three preseason All-Sun Belt selections in Woods, Davis and McCray. ... Aplin returns as a duel-threat QB after passing for 2,939 yards and 21 TDs and rushing for 477 and 11 TDs.

NORTH TEXAS - Key players: RB Lance Dunbar, DE Brandon Akpunku, CB Royce Hill, WR/KR Brelan Chancellor. Returning starters: 4 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: First year coach and former Florida assistant Dan McCarney is trying to restore the Mean Green to the league power it was a decade ago, when North Texas won the Sun Belt's first four conference titles. ... He'll rely on Dunbar, who rushed for 1,553 yards and 13 TDs last season. .. Sophomore Derek Thompson is the likely new starter at quarterback. QB Chase Baine is expected to be moved back to running back.

WESTERN KENTUCKY - Key Players: RB Bobby Rainey, QB Kawaun Jakes, DE Quanterus Smith, CB Tyree Robinson. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Second-year coach Willie Taggart has reason to be optimistic that his experienced squad will improve on its 2-10 season. The Hilltoppers lost four games by a TD or less, including two losses by a point. ... Rainey rushed for a Sun Belt-leading 1,649 yards and 15 TDs last season. ... WKU has its entire starting defensive backfield returning.

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE - Key players: TE Ladarius Green, QB Chris Masson, S Lionel Stokes, CB Dwight Bentley, LB Devon Lewis-Buchanan. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: First-year coach Mark Hudspeth, who spent the past two seasons as passing game coordinator under Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, has some veteran leadership on the Ragin' Cajuns offense as he looks to improve on last season's 3-9 mark. ... Green, a senior, is an NFL prospect after catching 44 passes for 794 yards and seven TDs in 2010.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC - Key players: S Marcus Bartels, RB Alfred Morris, DE Kevin Cyrille, LB Corey Henry. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Longtime coach Howard Schnellenberger enters his 11th season at FAU with his entire starting offensive line back, but needing to replace starters at QB, TE and two WR spots. ... While Bartels was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt team, he is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield. Top two returning QBs David Kooi and Graham Wilbert had a combined one completion on seven attempts last season.

Tagged: Troy, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, North Texas, Arkansas State, Florida, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International, Jonathan Massaquoi, Ladarius Green, Darin Davis, Royce Hill, James Brown, Ken Dorsey, Dwight Dasher, Demario Davis, Tyree Robinson

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