Sun Belt needs a star to emerge

The Sun Belt’s been interesting, it’s had some good conference races and it’s had plenty of offense at times, but it needs a superpower to be the anchor to work around.

North Texas was the star when the league was first formed, winning three outright titles and sharing another from 2001-04, and Troy took over the role the last four years, winning two in a row and sharing half of the 2006 and 2007 titles.

Now, it’s Middle Tennessee’s turn.

The Blue Raiders, not the Mean Green of North Texas, were supposed to be the shining stars of the league, but they’ve just missed time and again. But coming off a seven-game winning streak, and a New Orleans Bowl win over Southern Miss, and with QB Dwight Dasher leading a dangerous group of veterans, this should finally be the year for an outright conference title – unless Arkansas State has something to say about it.

The Red Wolves were a major disappointment after a rough schedule and a lack of consistency screwed things up, but last year’s problems should be worked out (with several young players seeing time in 2009) and the schedule is more favorable. Getting Middle Tennessee at home on November 2 is the biggest plus.

Troy’s undergoing a major rebuilding effort, but the offense should continue to be potent and defensive stars always emerge from out of nowhere. North Texas has the best team yet (which isn’t saying too much) under head coach Todd Dodge, and Florida Atlantic should be peskier after a disappointing season.

Louisiana, ULM and Western Kentucky might be better talent-wise, but the schedules don’t work out well, and FIU could be dangerous on the right day, but the lines aren’t there to be a major factor. That’s not to say there can’t be a shocker in the bunch (ULM has the running game to beat anyone in the league), but it should all come down to a battle between the Blue Raiders, the Red Wolves and the Trojans for the title game.

Team That’ll Surprise

North Texas – This might finally be the year the program turns around. After years of disastrous results, the Mean Green and head coach Todd Dodge should be able to produce more consistently on offense, helped by RB Lance Dunbar working behind the league’s best line, while the defense shouldn’t be a total nightmare. The schedule isn’t a helper with no sure-thing wins, but a five-victory season isn’t out of the question.

Team That’ll Disappoint

Louisiana – The Ragin’ Cajuns have talent with a decent linebacking corps, one of the Sun Belt’s best offensive lines and great special teams, but the schedule doesn’t work out well. If there isn’t an early home win over Arkansas State or Middle Tennessee, there could be problems with road games at North Texas and ULM in conference play along with non-conference dates against Georgia, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss and a road trip to Ohio.

Game of the Year

MTSU at Arkansas State, November 2 – The Blue Raiders get Troy and Florida Atlantic at home, and they get a week off before the showdown against the Red Wolves. However, ASU gets a week off, too, and they also get FAU at home. If Dwight Dasher and the boys are as good as expected, they should turn the corner into November on the verge of bowl eligibility, and the Sun Belt title should be all but locked up with a win. ASU has Western Kentucky and a trip to FIU to close, so if it can win here and take the lead in the conference race, the title will be there for the taking.

Five Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight

1. RB Lance Dunbar, Jr. North Texas

2. RB Alfred Morris, Soph. FAU

3. C Tyler Clark, Sr. Troy

4. CB Anthony Gaitor, Sr. FIU

5. LB Demario Davis, Jr. Arkansas State

Coach on the Hot Seat

Todd Dodge, North Texas – Going 5-32 in three years isn’t a plus, and now Dodge has the team he wants and has his stamp on the program. This has to be the year there’s a sign of life, and there has to be a few upset wins and a flirtation with a winning season. The Texas high school legend hasn’t translated his offense to the next level, but it needs to work.

Five Games Sun Belt opponents had better take very, very seriously

1. Minnesota at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 2

2. Louisville at Arkansas State, Oct. 2

3. Troy at Oklahoma State, Sept. 11

4. Florida Atlantic at Michigan State, Sept. 11

5. Middle Tennessee at Georgia Tech. Oct. 16

Bold Predictions … Middle Tennessee, with an extra week to prepare, will give Georgia Tech a surprisingly hard time on October 16 … There will be a fantastic race for the rushing title between FAU’s Alfred Morris, UNT’s Lance Dunbar, ULM’s Frank Goodin and WKU’s Bobby Rainey. … Five of the nine teams will finish with four wins or fewer. … FAU safety Marcus Bartels will make a run for the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. … MT’s Dwight Dasher will throw at least 15 interceptions. … At least three teams will have new coaches next year at this time.

Five Best NFL Prospects

1. WR/KR Jerrel Jernigan, Sr. Troy

2. TE Rob Housler, Sr. Florida Atlantic

3. TE Ladarius Green, Jr. Louisiana

4. DE Jamari Lattimore, Sr. MT

5. RB Alfred Morris, Soph. FAU

Five Biggest Shoes to Fill

1. QB Jamie Hampton for Levi Brown, Troy

2. LB Jason Edwards for Cardia Jackson, ULM

3. DE Emmanuel Perez for Riley Nelson for Chris McCoy, MT

4. C Ian Burks for John Chris Fisher, Louisiana

5. LB Xavier Lamb for Boris Lee, Troy