By Marc Lawrence
Be careful, FBS. We just may find a member of the Sun Belt Conference playing in a BCS bowl game sooner than later. And, no, we're not suffering from sun-spots.
If it can, the SBC champion will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if that team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or if that team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and its ranking is higher that that of a champion of a conference that has an automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
Just thought we'd clarify that given the fact that the last year's champion, Middle Tennessee State, concluded the season with 10 wins, the first Sun Belt Conference team in history to reach the 10-win mark.
Never shy about take on the big boys, Arkansas State defeated Texas A&M last year in a game which snapped the Aggies' 20-game winging streak in home openers and handed them just their fourth loss over their last 50 non-conference games. The following week, MTSU won its first-ever home game against a team from a BCS guaranteed conference with a win over Maryland. ‘
In previous season teams from the Sun Belt have defeated powers such as Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma State.
Sure, they may be hands-down the weakest of the 11 BCS conference affiliates, and it's league champ won't be guaranteed a BCS bowl, but don't tell them. They've having fun in the sun.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ARKANSAS STATE - 9 / 10
TEAM THEME: JONESING FOR MORE
HC Steve Roberts has led ASU to its most victories in an 8-year span since 1985-1992, but the Red Wolves only have one bowl appearance to show for it. While Roberts has big shoes to fill on offense with the departures of star QB Corey Leonard and leading rusher Reggie Arnold, he'll one again lean on ol' reliable - a defense that has ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the Sun Belt each of the last four seasons. And with 10 returning starters back on that side of the ball, why not! With seven road games sprinkled throughout the 2010 schedule, including five before the calendar hits mid-October, Roberts will once again need to rely on home cookin' if his Wolves hope to become bowl eligible this season. His solid 29-10 record at ASU Stadium in his nine seasons in Jonesboro should keep the home folks dancing.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Louisville (10/2)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC - 3 / 9
TEAM THEME: ‘X' MARKS THE SPOT
It's Year 10 for the Owls and their master architect, Howard Schnellenberger. Despite taking over a program from scratch, Howie probably didn't plan on designing a 53-55 record over the first nine years. Especially when you consider a portfolio that included three national championships in Alabama under Paul ‘Bear' Bryant and an unbeaten season in Miami under Don Shula. He also had his blueprint on the ‘U' during the start of their glory days. To keep the building from crumbling, Schnellenberger's hopes rest on the arm of QB Jeff Van Camp. Van Camp replaces four-year starter Rusty Smith, the first Owl ever drafted by the NFL. Eight road games and heavy graduation losses will put the program builder to task in 2010. It's a little too sketchy for our liking.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. La Monroe (10/9)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - 7 / 4
TEAM THEME: CAN YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
A disappointing 2009 season was capped off with a fourth straight loss to crosstown rival FAU. Making matters worse, the 2010 campaign started with the tragic stabbing death of starting RB Kendall Berry. After making gigantic strides with five wins in 2008, Mario's ‘Cristo-bal' probably didn't envision a 3-9 follow-up. However, when your defense gets torched for 492 YPG - the second worst in the country - it doesn't take Madame Cleo to predict the inevitable. A season that had high hopes, with some even whispering bowl, wilted in the Miami sun. With the senseless loss of Berry, the 2010 campaign doesn't hold much promise, either. The Panthers do return their best player, WR T.Y. Hilton, who caught 57 passes despite nagging injuries, but until he learns to play defense, we'll look for game and fortune elsewhere.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Rutgers (9/11)
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE - *5 / 8
TEAM THEME: CALL ME
The Cajuns have been bowl eligible four of their last five seasons, yet are still awaiting their first-ever FBS bowl bid. It's obvious a 6-6 season won't have Sun Belt coaches sitting by the phone. If HC Rickey Bustle expects to hear from Ma Bell this season, he'll have to retool an offense that slipped 88 YPG and 11 PPG. Bustle will call on QB Chris Masson to lead the way. Masson enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2009 with nine 200 yard-games on 222 completions. To their credit, the disciplined Cajuns do not beat themselves with penalties as they remain the least penalized team in the conference since Bustle's arrival nine years ago. Insiders say the Cajuns insist on being called Louisiana - not Louisiana Lafayette. With a schedule that includes seven road games and four non-conference bowlers, we think they'll be happy just being called.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. North Texas (10/2)
LOUISIANA-MONROE - *6 / 4
TEAM THEME: BERRY INTERESTING
Despite improving an offense by 54 YPG, a defense by 96 YPG and adding a couple of check marks to the win column, Charlie Weatherbie was let go after seven seasons in Monroe. With no bowl appearances and no winning seasons along the way, we can't argue with the firing. But we can question the hiring of Todd Berry. UNLV's offensive coordinator the past three years, Berry had a four-stint as Army head coach from 2000-2003. While his Cadets set 25 team records during his tenure, Berry marched out of West Point with a somber 5-42 mark and a 15-game losing streak. With just a combined 10 starters back, it may take some time before Berry has the Monroe band playing Dixie. One thing is certain: Berry will need to improve on his 0-22 SU and 6-16 ATS mark in games off a win or loss of 17 or fewer points if he hopes to finally taste a winning season.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE - *8 / 6
TEAM THEME: BLUE BY YOU
We'll be the first to admit that we're big fans of Blue Raiders HC Rick Stockstill. His team has won 20 of its 29 conference games under his guidance and was the first Sun Belt team to win 10 games in a season last year. A victory in the New Orleans Bowl capped off that successful 2009 campaign and the present looks anything but blue for the men from Murfreesboro. SR QB Dwight Dasher, a 2nd team all-SBC performer and MVP of the New Orleans Bowl, returns to lead an offense that ranked No. 7 in the nation in total offense. There's plenty more to like about this team, especially a schedule that includes only two winning teams on the docket. It looks like ‘Blue' skies ahead for Stockstill and his potent Raiders.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Florida Atlantic (11/27)
NORTH TEXAS - *10 / 8
TEAM THEME: GREEN WITH ENVY
Despite winning only two games last year, the Eagles showed marked improvement on both sides of the ball and with 18 starters back, should be flying higher than they have in a long time. It's been six years since the ‘Green' has showed any sort of ‘Mean', but that should change behind a vastly improved offensive line led by tackle Victor Gill that returns four starters. HC Todd Dodge handed the reins to his son Riley last year and the freshman QB responded by leading the conference with a 67.7 completion percentage - a NTSU record. Lance Dunbar is also back to help carry the load. Dunbar led the Sun Belt in rushing and scoring, despite starting only eight games in 2009. With a career 5-31 record, we wouldn't blame the 4th-year HC for allowing his team to get downright nasty this season. He also won't have to ‘Dodge' a schedule that finds only three winning foes.
PLAY ON: vs. Florida International (10/16)
TROY - 6 / 3
TEAM THEME: BYE, BYE LEVI BROWN
The fur-time defending conference champions, and the first team to go undefeated in Sun Belt play since 2004, will have their work cut out for them in 2010. An offense that carried the load last season returns only six starters - and that doesn't include record-setting QB Levi Brown. It will also feature a new offensive coordinator for the third time in five years. It gets worse on defense, much worse. Only three starters and no linemen are back from a defense that was torched for 425 yards per game, including 287 through the air. Even the schedule doesn't protect these Trojans as they're on the road for seven games. HC Larry Blakeney's 21st-year at the Troy helm (only Paterno and Beamer have more tenure), may be his toughest yet and he'll have to do his usual home cooking (83-12-1) to ensure a 5th straight winning season. This bunch will be ‘up' for the challenge.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. South Carolina (11/20)
WESTERN KENTUCKY - *9 / 9
TEAM THEME: QUINCY, M.E.
An 8-year run under David Elson came to a crashing halt last season when a winless campaign sealed his fate. Enter Willie Taggart, RB coach at Stanford the last three seasons. Prior to that stint, Taggart served an 8-year tenure as an assistant with the Hilltoppers. "WKU is in my DNA... I've always bled red since day one and I know what it takes to win here. I know what type of direction we want to go," says Taggart. It better be up, as these stiffs have lost 20 games in a row while compiling a 2-22 record since attaining FBS status two years ago. Returning is QB Kawaun Jakes, who started nine games last season, and RB Bobby Rainey, a 2nd team all-SBC selection who rushed for 939 yards in 2009. Forensics experts are standing by.