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August 13, 2011

Coaches change, top teams same in Sun Belt

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

This is a season of transition in the Sun Belt, as three new coaches come aboard and one holdover already has announced this will be his last season.

The new coaches are Dan McCarney at North Texas, Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana-Lafayette and Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State.

Each has been a head coach before, but only McCarney at the FBS level. He is a former Iowa State coach and was hired off the staff at Florida, where he had been Urban Meyer's defensive line coach. Hudspeth previously was coach at Division II North Alabama and most recently was wide receivers coach at Mississippi State for Dan Mullen. Freeze - perhaps best-known for being Michael Oher's high school coach - was coach at NAIA school Lambuth (Tenn.) for two seasons, and he spent last season as Arkansas State's offensive coordinator. It's not often a coach gets fired and an assistant from his staff replaces him, but that's what happened with Arkansas State. Steve Roberts was ushered out after nine seasons and Freeze was given the job.

The coach who already has announced he's retiring is Florida Atlantic's Howard Schnellenberger, at 77 the second-oldest coach in the FBS ranks. Schnellenberger is best-known as the coach of Miami's first national title team in 1983, and he helped birth the FAU program, serving as coach from the beginning. FAU's first season was 2001, and the Owls moved to FBS from FCS after the 2003 season. FAU was conference co-champs in 2007 and went to a bowl that season and in '08. This season, Schnellenberger's final go-round will come in a new on-campus stadium that, frankly, one day should bear his name.

On the field, though, there shouldn't be much change from last season. Florida International and Troy shared the league title last season, and they are the top two contenders again this season. Indeed, it would be a surprise if any other team mounted a serious challenge.

The Sun Belt had three teams in bowls last season, and league schools met MAC teams in each of the bowls. The Sun Belt more than held its own, going 2-1 against the MAC.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton. He's the reigning league player of the year and is electric with the ball in his hands. He scored 11 TDs last season - five as a receiver, four as a rusher and two as a kick returner. He is responsible for 29 TDs in his career: 17 as a receiver, six as a rusher, four as a kick returner (including one against Alabama in '09, when the Tide won the national title), one as a punt returner and one as a passer. His punt-return TD came on the first touch of his college career. If this guy played for a bigger program, he would be a household name among college fans.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Troy E Jonathan Massaquoi. The Trojans always seem to have a big-time pass rusher, and Massaquoi fills the bill this season. He led the Sun Belt and was fourth nationally with 13.5 sacks last season. He also had 76 tackles and four quarterback hurries.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Troy QB Corey Robinson. How can the best quarterback in the league be on the spot? It's because he doesn't have that much proven talent around him and is going to have to be razor-sharp in the big games. He threw for 3,726 yards and 28 TDs, and he completed 63.6 percent of his passes as a redshirt freshman last season. But he also threw 15 picks, and that number must be cut. Troy's receiving corps is a giant question mark and could keep the Trojans from winning the league title.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: FAU T Jarvis Givens. FAU was pitiful against the run last season, and that run defense was the main reason the Owls finished 4-8. They have gone to a 3-4 set, and Givens is going to be the nose tackle. He's a 300-pounder and has to hold up in the middle, or FAU is going to get run over again. Given that there's a new quarterback and a questionable passing attack, the defense must play a lot better than it did last season.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Louisiana-Monroe QB Kolton Browning. Browning had a good season in 2010 as a redshirt freshman, throwing for 2,552 yards and 18 TDs and rushing for 385 and four scores. Expect better numbers this fall, numbers that will have him potentially challenging for a spot on the all-league team. He has the league's best line in front of him and some good receivers with whom to work, most notably blazer Luther Ambrose. If ULM can find a decent tailback, Browning will be at the controls of quite a potent offense.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: FAU LB Cory Henry. Henry had five sacks in a reserve role as an end last season as a true freshman. This season, he has been moved to an outside linebacker spot and will be turned loose on the pass rush. He had 14 sacks as a high school senior at Miami Carol City and should flirt with a double-digit sack total this season at his new position.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Troy WR Corey Johnson. We mentioned Troy's questionable passing attack earlier, and Johnson is going to be a hugely important member of that attack. He's a JC transfer who enrolled in time for spring ball, and he had a solid showing. Troy's top five receivers from last season are gone, including two returnees who are academically ineligible (Jamel Johnson and Chip Reeves), and TB Shawn Southward is the leading returning receiver with 19 catches. Johnson has good size (6-1/185) and was productive last season at Garden City (Kan.) CC. His brother, Ronald, was a solid receiver at USC who graduated after last season.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: FIU LB Jordan Hunt. FIU lost LB Toronto Smith, who was second on the team with 91 tackles, and coaches say Hunt - a JC transfer who enrolled in time for spring ball - can help fill the void. Hunt (6-1/228) is a Mississippi native who played at Copiah-Lincoln CC in Wesson, Miss., last season. He will start alongside all-league candidate Winston Fraser.

THE COACHES

1. Troy [ Team Preview ]

2. Florida International [ Team Preview ]

3. Louisiana-Monroe [ Team Preview ]

4. Florida Atlantic [ Team Preview ]

5. North Texas [ Team Preview ]

6. Arkansas State [ Team Preview ]

7. Middle Tennessee [ Team Preview ]

8. Western Kentucky [ Team Preview ]

9. Louisiana-Lafayette [ Team Preview ]

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: FAU's Howard Schnellenberger. It's not really a hot seat, as Schnellenberger already has announced he is retiring after this season. But Schnellenberger wants to go out on a high note, so there is pressure on him, his staff and his players to put together a good season. Schnellenberger is the father of FAU football, and he doesn't want his last season to be a bad one.

BEST STAFF: Troy. The Trojans have won at least a share of each of the past five league titles, and that is a testament to the type of staff Larry Blakeney has put together. Bigger programs often raid his staff, but Blakeney finds solid assistants to plug in. Offensive line coach John Schlarman does a nice job, as do coordinators Kenny Edenfield (offense) and Jeremy Rowell (defense).

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Troy's Kenny Edenfield. Troy keeps putting up big offensive numbers, season after season. There were concerns at quarterback last season, but Robinson - who set a national high school record with 91 TD passes as a senior at Paducah (Ky.) Lone Oak - moved seamlessly into the job. There are questions all over the offense this season, most notably at receiver, but Edenfield will find a way to get the job done.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisiana-Monroe's Troy Reffett. Reffett is a Rocky Long disciple, so you know he loves to blitz. He employs a 3-3-5 set, which enables him to design some creative blitz packages. Reffett is a holdover from the old ULM staff and was kept on when Todd Berry became coach after the 2009 season. Reffett is a former coordinator at UTEP and New Mexico.

BEST POSITION COACH: Middle Tennessee DL coach John Palermo. Palermo is a coaching veteran of the highest order; he is entering his 37th season as a coach, and this will be his 30th on the college level. He was hired at MTSU after a stint as the Washington Redskins' line coach. Among Palermo's other stops are Miami and Wisconsin, where he was coordinator under Barry Alvarez. Palermo has a tough task this season, as the Blue Raiders graduated all four members of last season's starting line.

THE OTHER STUFF

UCF at FIU, Sept. 17

Indiana at North Texas, Sept. 24

Duke at FIU, Oct. 1

UAB at Troy, Oct. 1

Louisiana-Monroe at Troy, Oct. 15

FIU at Arkansas State, Oct. 18

Troy at FIU, Oct. 25

FAU at FIU, Nov. 12

FIU at Louisiana-Monroe, Nov. 19

Troy at Arkansas State, Dec. 3

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Louisiana-Monroe. The defense also is going to be an aggressive one under Reffett, and the Warhawks have some of the league's best defenders at each level of their defense - Es Troy Evans and Ken Dorsey, LBs Cameron Blakes and Jason Edwards and S Darius Prelow. This season, the offense should do its part, as well. Browning is a rising star in this league, and if the running game comes around, ULM should finish third.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Middle Tennessee. This would be the second season in a row MTSU will wear the "disappointing" tag. The Blue Raiders were picked to win the league last season, but an early-season suspension to QB Dwight Dasher got the season off on the wrong foot. When Dasher returned, he was a turnover machine - MTSU committed a nation-high 38 turnovers last season - and while the Blue Raiders went to a bowl, they finished third in the league and were 6-7 overall. This season, they have issues at quarterback, tailback, along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. An upper-division finish in the league would be an achievement.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Troy at FIU, Oct. 25. This Tuesday night game should be for the league title. FIU won 52-35 at Troy last season behind a virtuoso performance from Hilton. Can the Panthers make it two in a row?

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: FAU. This was tough because there were three "candidates." We went with FAU because the Owls open with five consecutive road games and don't get to play in their new stadium until Oct. 15. The first three games are road contests against Florida, Michigan State and Auburn. Louisiana-Monroe (road games against Florida State, TCU, Iowa and Troy) and North Texas (road games against Alabama, Tulsa, FIU and Troy and a home game against Houston) were the other teams considered.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Western Kentucky. "Easiest" is a relative term in this league. But the Hilltoppers have just five true road games (they play one at a neutral site) and get both FIU and Troy at home. They play at LSU, but the other non-conference games are Kentucky (in Nashville), Navy (home) and FCS member Indiana State (home).

SUN BELT EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the Sun Belt. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Troy
Tom Dienhart: Troy
David Fox: Troy
Mike Huguenin: Troy
Steve Megargee: Troy

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Middle Tennessee
Tom Dienhart: FAU
David Fox: Middle Tennessee
Mike Huguenin: Middle Tennessee
Steve Megargee: Middle Tennessee

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: 11th
Tom Dienhart: 11th
David Fox: 11th
Mike Huguenin: Ninth
Steve Megargee: 11th

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
Tom Dienhart: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
David Fox: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
Mike Huguenin: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
Steve Megargee: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: North Texas RB Lance Dunbar
Tom Dienhart: Western Kentucky RB Bobby Rainey
David Fox: North Texas RB Lance Dunbar
Mike Huguenin: Western Kentucky RB Bobby Rainey
Steve Megargee: North Texas RB Lance Dunbar

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Troy's Corey Robinson
Tom Dienhart: Troy's Corey Robinson
David Fox: Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin
Mike Huguenin: Troy's Corey Robinson
Steve Megargee: Troy's Corey Robinson
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
Tom Dienhart: FIU WR T.Y. Hilton
David Fox: Arkansas State WR Dwayne Frampton
Mike Huguenin: Arkansas State WR Dwayne Frampton
Steve Megargee: Arkansas State WR Dwayne Frampton

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: FAU FS Marcus Bartels
Tom Dienhart: FIU FS Jonathan Cyprien
David Fox: Troy LB Xavier Lamb
Mike Huguenin: FAU FS Marcus Bartels
Steve Megargee: North Texas LB Zach Orr

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: Middle Tennessee
Tom Dienhart: Middle Tennessee
David Fox: FAU
Mike Huguenin: Arkansas State
Steve Megargee: FIU

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Troy
Tom Dienhart: North Texas
David Fox: Troy
Mike Huguenin: FIU
Steve Megargee: Troy

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: Western Kentucky
Tom Dienhart: Louisiana-Monroe
David Fox: Louisiana-Monroe
Mike Huguenin: Arkansas State
Steve Megargee: Louisiana-Monroe

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBCorey Robinson, Troy (6-1/216, Soph.)
RBLance Dunbar, North Texas (5-9/203, Sr.)
RBBobby Rainey, Western Kentucky (5-8/205, Sr.)
WRDwayne Frampton, Arkansas State (5-9/180, Sr.)
WRT.Y. Hilton, FIU (5-10/183, Sr.)
TELadarius Green, La.-Lafayette (6-6/236, Sr.)
TJames Brown, Troy (6-4/312, Sr.)
TWes Jeffries, Western Kentucky (6-4/298, Sr.)
GJonathan Gill, La.-Monroe (6-3/302, Jr.)
GKyle Wilborn, Troy (6-4/311, Jr.)
CTom Castilaw, Arkansas State (6-3/280, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EJonathan Massaquoi, Troy (6-2/250, Jr.)
TEmmanuel Dudley, Troy (6-1/305, Sr.)
EDorvus Woods, Arkansas State (6-3/265, Sr.)
LBCameron Blakes, La.-Monroe (6-1/218, Jr.)
LBDemario Davis, Arkansas State (6-3/230, Sr.)
LBWinston Fraser, FIU (6-2/227, Jr.)
LBXavier Lamb, Troy (5-9/222, Sr.)
CBDwight Bentley, La.-Lafayette (5-11/179, Sr.)
CBDarron Edwards, Arkansas State (5-11/175, Sr.)
FSJonathan Cyprien, FIU (6-0/205, Jr.)
SSDarius Prelow, La.-Monroe (6-0/204, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KAlan Gendreau, Middle Tenn. (5-10/175, Sr.)
PMickey Groody, FAU (5-11/170, Sr.)
KRT.Y. Hilton, FIU (5-10/183, Sr.)
PRTravis Jones, FAU (5-11/175, Soph.)

Offensive backfield

1. FIU: QB Wesley Carroll - who began his career at Mississippi State - is adequate, and the Panthers have a deep group of tailbacks headed by Darriet Perry.

2. Tory

3. Arkansas State

4. Western Kentucky

5. North Texas

6. FAU

7. Louisiana-Monroe

8. Middle Tennessee

9. Louisiana-Lafayette

Receivers/Tight ends

1. FIU: Senior WR T.Y. Hilton is the best player in the league, and there is some solid complementary talent, too.

2. Arkansas State

3. Middle Tennessee

4. Louisiana-Monroe

5. Troy

6. North Texas

7. Louisiana-Lafayette

8. Western Kentucky

9. FAU

Offensive line

1. Louisiana-Monroe: All five starters are back, and the Warhawks look especially good in the interior.

2. FAU

3. Middle Tennessee

4. FIU

5. Western Kentucky

6. Troy

7. North Texas

8. Arkansas State

9. Louisiana-Lafayette

Defensive line

1. Troy: E Jonathan Massaquoi is the latest in a long line of top-flight Trojans pass rushers. But the tackles need to be tougher against the run.

2. FIU

3. Louisiana-Monroe

4. Arkansas State

5. Louisiana-Lafayette

6. Western Kentucky

7. FAU

8. North Texas

9. Middle Tennessee

Linebackers

1. Louisiana-Monroe: Cameron Blakes is a big-play guy, and Jason Edwards led ULM in tackles last season.

2. Arkansas State

3. Troy

4. FIU

5. FAU

6. Louisiana-Lafayette

7. Middle Tennessee

8. North Texas

9. Western Kentucky

Secondary

1. FIU: The Panthers will miss CB Anthony Gaitor, who was drafted, but this remains a deep unit. FS Jonathan Cyprien might be the best defensive player in the league.

2. Louisiana-Monroe

3. North Texas

4. Troy

5. Arkansas State

6. North Texas

7. FAU

8. Middle Tennessee

9. Louisiana-Lafayette

Special teams

1. Middle Tennessee: K Alan Gendreau is steady and has a strong leg, and P Josh Davis is coming off a good freshman season. The return men have talent, too.

2. North Texas

3. Troy

4. FIU

5. Arkansas State

6. FAU

7. Louisiana-Monroe

8. Western Kentucky

9. Louisiana-Lafayette

Coaching staff

1. Troy: The Trojans have won at least a portion of the Sun Belt title in each of the past five seasons. This is, by far, the most consistent program in the league.

2. FIU

3. Middle Tennessee

4. FAU

5. North Texas

6. Louisiana-Monroe

7. Western Kentucky

8. Louisiana-Lafayette

9. Arkansas State

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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