The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 10, 2010

2010 Sunbelt Conference Preview

2010 Sunbelt Conference Preview

Two teams have dominated this league since its inception as a football conference.  In the early years, North Texas repeatedly won conference championship after championship.  In recent years, Troy has dominated the league, while North Texas has fallen on rough times.

2010 could be a year of change.  Middle Tennessee has played second fiddle in this league for most of their existence as a Division 1-A (FBS) participant.  The Blue Raiders have been to two bowls as the conference runner-up.  With a load of talent returning from a 10-win season that included a bowl victory, Coach Rick Stockstill’s squad could be poised to become the new dominant team in the SBC.

As for Troy, this could be a small blip for the Trojans, as they face a major rebuilding season.  Troy graduated quarterback Levi Brown who threw for over 4,000 last year, and the Trojans lost six of their top seven tacklers.

Former conference power North Texas could be on the rise again.  With all-SBC running back Lance Dunbar returning (1,378 yards rushing), the top six pass catchers (includes Dunbar), and most of the two-deep in the offensive line, the Mean Green will post much better offensive numbers.  They scored 27 points per game last year, so that number could rise to 30+ this year.  A weak defense will prevent North Texas from winning the conference championship.

The Sunbelt is guaranteed two teams in bowl games once again this season.  With the two more teams getting bowl bids this year (addition of two bowls and elimination of one bowl), there is a chance a third team could receive an invitation, as other conferences fail to provide their allotted quota of teams to contracted bowl games.  Four teams could potentially reach seven or more wins this season, as the league appears to have great balance in the middle.  The fly in the ointment: except for Middle Tennessee, the rest of the league will all win zero or one of their non-conference games.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos. Team Conf. Overall
1 Middle Tennessee 7-1 10-2
2 North Texas 6-2 7-5
3 Troy 5-3 6-6
4 Florida Atlantic 5-3 5-7
5 Louisiana 5-3 5-7
6 Arkansas State 3-5 3-9
7 Florida International 3-5 3-9
8 Western Kentucky 2-6 2-10
9 La.-Monroe 0-8 1-11

 

G M A C Bowl: Middle Tennessee

New Orleans Bowl: North Texas

 

The Sunbelt Conference gets priority for filling a vacant spot in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl if there is a third team with seven wins.

 

The Sunbelt is also a backup for the St. Petersburg Bowl and a second tier backup for the Papa John’s Bowl.

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Arkansas State Red Wolves
               
Head Coach Steve Roberts
               
Colors Scarlet and Black
               
City Jonesboro, AK
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 76.9
               
National Rank 116

 

Offense: The Red Wolves lost five of their six starting skill position players.  New quarterback Ryan Applin could top the production of last year’s starter Cory Leonard, but Leonard only threw for 1,416 yards and seven TDs.  Applin’s shoulder will be a concern early after undergoing surgery in the spring.

Tight end Kedric Murry is the lone returning skill starter.  He caught just seven passes a year ago, so the receiving corps will be noticeably weaker.  At running back, 2009 top rusher Reggie Arnold is gone, but Derek Lawson should equal or top Arnold’s production this year.

The strength of this team is its offensive line.  Rarely does a Sunbelt team return an experienced two-deep unit like this year’s ASU OL.  They will open holes for the backs and give Applin plenty of time.

Even with all the new skill position players, we see Arkansas State’s offense faring better in 2010 than in 2009 when they averaged 23 points and 329 yards per game.  Look for 25-28 points and 350 yards per game.

Defense: The Red Wolves have fielded respectable defenses for the last five seasons, but ASU’s defensive line has been decimated due to graduation.  Even though the top four tacklers return, two of those four are defensive backs.  Gone is all-SBC end Alex Carrington and his 14 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage. 

ASU also lost their two starting cornerbacks and their nickel back.  The Red Wolves gave up 219 yards per game through the air and 61% completions, and that number could be worse this season.

We see ASU yielding 27-32 points per game and 350-380 total yards per game.

Schedule: Games at Auburn, Indiana, and Navy are not winnable.  A  homecoming game with Louisville could determine whether ASU can top last year’s four win total.  They get the two weakest conference foes at home, so three wins is about what to expect.  You can expect a coaching change in Jonesboro if three is all there is.

Team Florida Atlantic Owls
               
Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger
               
Colors Red, White, and Blue
               
City Boca Raton, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 78.1
               
National Rank 111

 

Offense: FAU had an explosive offense that scored more than 27 points per game and gained more than 430 yards per game last year, but the Owls still finished with a losing season due to a weak defense.  This year, the offense will be noticeably weaker.  Only two full-time starters return on offense, and neither one is a quarterback or offensive lineman. 

Quarterback Jeff Van Camp started five games last year, and the Owls won three of those starts.  He averaged a very respectable 7.5 yards per attempt, but you can expect that number to fall this year.  With an entirely new offensive line and only one of the top six receivers from 2009 returning, FAU’s passing game will suffer, falling from 280 yards per game to as low as 180 this year.

The one bright spot on offense is the return of running back Alfred Morris.  Morris rushed for almost 1,400 yards and 11 scored last year, but those numbers will drop as well.

Look for FAU’s offense to ground to just 20-23 points per game and 300-330 total yards.

Defense: As much as the offense regresses this year, the defense could show signs of great progress this year.  The defensive line suffered some late losses in depth, but three starters (two juniors and a senior) return up front, including potential all-league end Kevin Cyrille.  Cyrille registered 11 ½ stops behind the line last year.

The back seven was as weak as the front four last year, but the good news is they can only improve.  FAU gave up 233 passing yards at a better than 67% completion rate for enemy quarterbacks.  The only reason the passing yardage number wasn’t 300+ per game is that the Owls gave up more than six yards per rushing attempt. 

We see the Owls giving up about 28 points and 400 yards per game this year, which unfortunately would be a vast improvement over last season.

Schedule: The Owls have just four home games this year, as well as a very tough out-of-conference slate.  FAU plays at UAB, Michigan State, South Florida, and Texas and should lose all four games.  They don’t face the league’s two best teams until after Thanksgiving, but those games will come back-to-back following the trip to face the Longhorns. 

Florida Atlantic could challenge for bowl eligibility, but they would have to pull off an upset at UAB and beat all six of the SBC teams they face before Thanksgiving.  We see them winning five of those first six league games, but that will lead to a repeat of last year’s 5-7 season.

Team Florida International Panthers
               
Head Coach Mario Cristobal
               
Colors Blue and Gold
               
City Miami, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 78.2
               
National Rank 110

 

Offense: The Golden Panthers have improved in total yardage for four consecutive seasons, and this year should make it five in a row.  Former Mississippi State starting quarterback Wesley Carroll takes over behind center.  Carroll was Miss. State’s starting quarterback in 2007 when the Bulldogs went to a bowl.

Carroll has a full house of returning receiver talent, as the top eight pass catchers return, including breakaway threat Greg Ellingson and possession receiver T.Y. Hilton.

FIU has never been a rushing power, averaging just 100 yards per game the last five years.  Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden will team with Darriet Perry to form the best tandem the Panthers have had.

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but the drop off shouldn’t be much.

We see FIU scoring 25 points per game and gaining about 340 yards per game this year.

Defense: This has been FIU’s Achilles heel since the program was established in 2002.  The Golden Panthers yielded 35+ points and almost 500 yards per game in 2009, and those numbers will not improve by much if any this year.

Up front, the line was decimated by graduation losses.  FIU couldn’t stop the run last year, giving up 230+ rushing yards per game, and opponents could match or better that this year.

While most of the leading players in the back seven return, it is misleading to think having these top tacklers returning will lead to much better defensive production.  These players made a lot of tackles because they did not prevent many passes from being completed.  One player who did contribute in the pass defense was cornerback Anthony Gaitor.  Gaitor knocked away seven passes and picked off two others.

We look for marginal improvement on this side of the ball, about 30-32 points per game and 430-450 yards per game.

Schedule: This is a killer schedule, and it will prevent FIU from breaking through with a winning season.  FIU will start 0-4 after facing Rutgers, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Pittsburgh, the latter three on the road.  Home games with the two weakest teams give them a slim chance at breaking even in the league, but it looks more like a repeat of last year—three wins.

Team Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
               
Head Coach Rickey Bustle
               
Colors Vermillion and White
               
City Lafayette, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-6
               
PiRate Rating 82.6
               
National Rank 102

 

Offense: The Ragin’ Cajuns always seem to do just enough on offense to stay competitive in conference games without ever looking flashy or producing gaudy statistics.  Last year, ULL scored just 22.2 points per game, which paved the way for four of their six wins being by four points or less.

Quarterback Chris Masson won’t win any all-league honors, but he won’t hurt his team’s chances either.  He should pass for about 200-240 yards per game and complete close to 60% of his tosses.

Masson has a couple of quality receivers to pass to, namely tight end Ladarius Green and wide out Marlin Miller.  At 6-6, Green is an inviting target.  He could be playing for pay in 2012.

The Ragin’ Cajuns used to be a predominately running team, but they only averaged 137 yards per game last year.  2010 should see similar results.

The offensive line lost three starters to graduation, but the entire second five returns.  There should be little or no drop in production this year.

Louisiana should average about 23-26 points and 375-400 yards per game this year.

Defense: This is where great progress must be made if ULL is to contend for a bowl bid this year.  The last three years have been poor for the stop troops in Lafayette.  ULL has given up more than 30 points and 400 yards all three seasons.  Things are looking up in 2010.  The improvement may be subtle due to a schedule that has them playing two SEC opponents, but the Cajuns will be tougher on this side of the ball.

The front seven should see the bulk of the improvement, as opponents will find it harder to run the ball, and quarterbacks will see more pressure than they have the last three seasons.

Schedule: Yet another team that will more than likely lose all four non-conference games, Louisiana faces a tough slate of opponents.  It starts with a visit between the hedges to face Georgia.  A Friday night home game with Oklahoma State will give the Cajuns a chance to pull off a big upset.  Road games in consecutive weeks at Ohio U and Ole Miss should produce two rough losses.  ULL gets a week off prior to hosting Middle Tennessee, and this could be the upset of the year in the Sunbelt.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have enough talent to threaten in the league if 6-2 is good enough to win the conference.  We think they will fall short by just a bit.  5-3 will lead to a 5-7 mark overall unless ULL can upset Oklahoma State.

Team Louisiana Monroe Warhawks
               
Head Coach Todd Berry
               
Colors Red and Gold
               
City Monroe, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 6-6
               
PiRate Rating 74.8
               
National Rank 117

 

Offense: UL-Monroe fired former Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie and hired former Army coach Todd Berry.  Expect a drop from a typical Navy season to a typical Army season.  Don’t blame it on Berry; blame it on a loss of talent.

On the offensive side of the ball, ULM has enough talent to move the ball on the middle of the pack and weaker conference defenses.  It starts in the running game, where Frank Goodin returns to tote the pigskin.  Goodin rushed for 1,126 yards and 13 scores last year, while topping five yards per carry.

Quarterback Trey Revell returns after tossing for 1,739 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the four hands that caught 78 of his passes and nine of those scores are gone.  Throw in an inexperienced offensive line, and the passing game will suffer this year.

Look for about 175 rushing yards and 175 passing yards for 21-25 points per game.

Defense: Only four starters return on this side of the ball.  The Warhawks were a competent defensive team last year, but that is going to change.  Three of the four linebackers (actually ULM used a 3-3-5, but the Hawk back was more of a linebacker) from last year are gone, and two of the three starters in the trenches are gone as well.

The two returning defensive backs are among the best in the league, but they may be called on to stop more running plays this year.  Darius Prelow and Nate Brown combined for 18 passes batted away last year.

We look for ULM to give up 400+ total yards and 30-35 points per game this year.

Schedule: The Warhawks have a winnable game out of the league this year, as they host FCS rival Southeast Louisiana.  Who do they play in the other three games?  How about Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU, all on the road?  Because they must face Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, we do not see ULM winning a conference game this season.  1-11 looks possible.

Team Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
               
Head Coach Rick Stockstill
               
Colors Blue and Gray
               
City Murfreesboro, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 88.8
               
National Rank 90

 

Offense: The Blue Raiders appear to be the class of the league this year thanks to a dominant offense that could threaten 40 points per game this year.  Middle is coming off its first 10-win season and bowl victory since moving up to the big time.

Quarterback Dwight Dasher may be too small to become a legitimate NFL prospect, but he could be a star in the Canadian Football League.  Last year, the 5-10 speedster gained more than 1,150 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns, while passing for almost 2,800 yards and 23 more touchdowns!

Dasher has one of the league’s best set of receivers.  Garrett Andrews is a threat to go the distance on any catch.  Three newcomers could contribute immediately.

As if those riches weren’t enough, The Blue Raiders have two backs besides Dasher capable of rushing for 100+ yards in a game.  Phillip Tanner and D.D. Kyles could combine with Dasher to rush for 225-250 yards per game.

The offensive line returns four of five starters.  Expect the sacks allowed total to drop from 19 to as low as 10 this year.

MTSU is capable of topping 40 points and 500 yards per game this season, and we expect at least 35 points and 450 yards.

Defense: Middle Tennessee’s defense won’t get much credit, but if the Blue Raiders are to win their first SBC title this year, the defense will have to continue to shine in anonymity.  This side has yielded about 24 points and 350 yards per game the last two years, and they could be poised to kick it up a notch in 2010.

The defensive front seven is a small concern this season, and if the Blue Raiders fail to take the league title, and they aren’t torn apart by numerous injuries, it will be the lack of pass rush and coverage in the short zones that may do them in.

The secondary is the class of the league, and in a league known for its passing, that is important.  Rod Issac, Kevin Brown, and Jeremy Kellem teamed up to intercept seven passes and knock down 15 others.

Schedule: The Blue Raiders have the best non-conference schedule in the Sunbelt Conference.  An opening game at home on Thursday night against a beatable Minnesota team precedes a breather against former Ohio Valley Conference rival Austin Peay.  A visit to a weak Memphis team the week after could leave the Blue Raiders at 3-0 and poised to crack the Top 25.  The final non-league tilt comes in October against Georgia Tech.  MTSU hosts Troy on October 5, and the winner of that game should take the conference flag.  A September 25 visit to Lafayette to take on Louisiana could be a big trap game.  If they can win that game and knock off Troy, then the Yellow Jackets could be all that stops the Blue Raiders from running the table.

Team North Texas Mean Green
               
Head Coach Todd Dodge
               
Colors Green and White
               
City Denton, TX
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 81.7
               
National Rank 105

 

Offense: The Mean Green scored 27 points per game last year, but they only won twice.  Expect both numbers to head north this season as this team returns a lot of talent.  Last year’s starting quarterback, Riley Dodge (son of the coach), returns.  However, he suffered a shoulder injury and has been moved to a wide out position.  Dodge is a true athlete, so it wouldn’t surprise us if he caught 50 passes this season and still see a few snaps at his old position.

Nathan Tune and Derek Thompson will vie for the starting quarterback job.  Tune saw considerable action last year, while Thompson was forced to burn a redshirt in the middle of the final game last year.  Neither can run the ball the way Dodge did, but both can hum the ball down the field.

Whoever is throwing the ball will have the conference’s elite group of receivers.  Besides Dodge, Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford joins the squad that returns its top six pass catchers from 2009.

Those receivers will find the going easier than normal because defenses will have to stop the running game first.  North Texas returns the league’s number two rusher in Lance Dunbar, who gained 1,378 yards and scored 17 touchdowns last season.

Making this offense lethal this year is a very experienced and capable offensive line featuring tackle Esteban Santiago.

We believe North Texas will average better than 30 points and 425 yards per game this year, and they could top 200 yards rushing and passing in more than half their games.

Defense: Normally, when a team surrenders 36 points per game, it would be considered pathetic.  However, in Denton last year, this represented a 12-point improvement over the year before.  Expect another 12-point improvement this year.

The defensive line is in much better shape this year with three starters returning up front.  End Brandon Akpunku recorded six sacks and 5 ½ other tackles for loss.  The second four provide excellent depth here with three upperclassmen backing up the starters.

The second line of defense features a potential All-SBC linebacker in Craig Robertson.  Robertson led the Mean Green in tackles last season, but he will need to make more of those closer to the line of scrimmage this year if UNT expects to contend for the conference championship.

This should be the best secondary in Denton in years.  With a better pass rush, look for the back unit to defend more passes. 

We believe North Texas will chop another 8-12 points off their defensive yield and give up about 24-28 points and 375 yards per game.

Schedule: North Texas has a chance to win two or three of their non-conference games, but it isn’t a given.  A home game with Rice on September 11 and a visit to Army the following week will determine if the Mean Green will go to a bowl this season.  An opener at Clemson could be ugly.  The season finale is at home with a Kansas State squad that could need one win to become bowl-eligible.  Kansas State lost to Louisiana in Lafayette last year.

In the conference, North Texas hosts Troy and plays at Middle Tennessee in back-to-back weeks at the start of November.  We think they will split those games.  If they can win at Florida Atlantic, they have a chance to sneak through and win or share for the Sunbelt title as the surprise team.  Even if they fall short, we think the Mean Green will play a 13th game in December.

Team Troy Trojans
               
Head Coach Larry Blakeney
               
Colors Red and Gray
               
City Troy, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 86.9
               
National Rank 94

 

Offense: How do you replace the best quarterback in school history?  Levi Brown completed 64% of his passes for 4,254 yards last year.  New quarterback Jamie Hampton has six career starts under his belt, so he isn’t entirely raw.

Hampton has the league’s best returning trio of receivers.  Jerrel Jernigan, Tebarius Gill, and Chip Reeves teamed for 140 catches and 2,045 yards, with Jernigan accounting for better than half of that amount.

Troy used a running back by committee approach last year, but starter DuJuan Harris is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards if he returns to his 2008 form.

The offensive line returns three starters, and the two new starters are experienced upperclassmen. 

Troy averaged 34 points and 486 yards per game last year.  Expect a drop in those gaudy numbers, but the Trojans will still be a potent offensive machine.  28 points and 400 yards would still lead to a good season.

Defense: Welcome to troubles!  Troy was decimated by graduation losses on this side of the ball.  Six of the top seven tacklers are gone including three defensive linemen who are on NFL preseason rosters.

Four new DL starters will be in the trenches, and even though Coach Blakeney has recruited well, this quartet will not come close to matching last year’s numbers of 138 rushing yards allowed and 33 sacks.

Two linebackers have moved on, leaving Daniel Sheffield as the lone returnee in the front seven.  New middle linebacker Xavier Lamb should emerge as the leading tackler this year.

The last line of defense returns two starters, including the best pass defender in the league.  Cover corner Bryan Willis is a shutdown defender, but we don’t believe he will match last year’s total of 4 interceptions and 12 knockdowns.  Passers will have an extra half-second or more to locate open receivers on most plays.

Troy gave up 30 points and 425 yards per game last year, and those numbers will be worse this year.  Look for 35 points and 450 yards out of this rebuilding defense.

Schedule: Road games at South Carolina and Oklahoma State are sure losses.  A home game with Bowling Green is very winnable.  A trip to UAB on September 18 could determine whether Troy can get to seven victories and earn a bowl bid.  Middle Tennessee hosts Troy on Tuesday, October 5, in a nationally televised game.  We expect the Blue Raiders to exact revenge on the Trojans and end their reign of supremacy.  A road game at Florida Atlantic on December 4 could be a must-win game for bowl-eligibility and a possible third bid from the league. 

Team Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
               
Head Coach Willie Taggart
               
Colors Red and White
               
City Bowling Green, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 0-12
               
PiRate Rating 72.7
               
National Rank 118

 

Offense: Things are looking up for the Hilltoppers this year, but when you go 0-12, things can’t look much worse.  New coach Willie Taggart comes from Stanford, and he will install a pro-style offense using 1st team All-SBC running back Bobby Rainey the same way Toby Gerhart was used in Palo Alto.  Expect Rainey to get 300 rushing attempts this year, if WKU can stay in games and not have to resort to throwing the ball 85% of the time in the second half.  Rainey could easily lead the nation in rushing if he gets 300 attempts.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes did a lot of running himself last year—running for his life after a helpless group of pass blockers played like matadors.  Jakes has the potential to be the third best passer in the league if he gets just average protection up front.

Unfortunately, Jakes has little in talent on the other end of his passes.  The seven returning receivers from last year all failed to average 10 yards per catch.  A lot of that had to do with Jakes having to throw quickly to avoid the rush, but yards after the catch is not where this group excels.

The aforementioned offensive line will make strides toward improvement, but don’t expect a major transformation.  If they can allow 10 fewer sacks, WKU will move the ball and eat the clock this year.

Western scored 20 points per game last year and 25 in league play.  Expect the ‘Toppers to approach 24-26 points and 350-375 yards this year.  The big plus will be a ball-controlled rushing game that is capable of reducing total plays per game by as much as 10

Defense: WKU surrendered 40 points and almost 480 yards per game last year, and even with nominal improvement on this side of the ball, we expect the offense to keep this unit on the sidelines for a couple minutes more per game this year.

Taggart will switch Western to a 4-3 defense this year, and the new DL should improve on the 245 rushing yards allowed.   All players who contributed significantly last year in the two-deep return this season.

The second line of defense welcomes back all three of its four top players, and the trio of returning starters should be much improved this year.  Thomas Majors could earn 1st team all-conference honors.

The back line of defense was the weakest in all of FBS football last year, giving up 67.8% completions and 28 touchdowns!  Three starters return, and this unit must improve some, but it will still be a major liability.

We expect WKU to chip off as much as a touchdown from the points allowed this year, but 33-35 points per game is still too much for the Hilltoppers to turn things around.

Schedule: WKU has guaranteed themselves an 0-4 start prior to getting a week off on October 2.  The Hilltoppers open at Nebraska, at Kentucky, home versus Indiana, and at South Florida.  They will be banged up and need that week off before starting conference play.  Their first two conference games come at FIU and home with ULM.  If they don’t win one of those two games, it could lead to a repeat 0-12 season.  We think they will win one of those games and maybe pick up another upset in the second half.  2-10 would be a beginning toward becoming competitive in the future.

Coming Tomorrow: The Mid-American Conference Preview.  Will the Owls fly high in the MAC sky?

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