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Summer Vacation: The Sun Belt Conference

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I figured it would be beneficial to throw together conference-specific Summer Vacation pages as I wrap up a given conference.  Only one is finished so far (the mid-major previews will be MAC-specific for the foreseeable future, then we'll weave back to Tulsa to finish up Conference USA; instead of worst-to-first, we're basically using "road trip" order for the mid-majors), but let's wrap up the Sun Belt and pick some winners at the bottom.

From the Florida International preview linked below:

[R]eally, there's a lot to like about the Sun Belt as a whole. Sure, they're still the weakest overall conference (we're speaking relatively here, after all), but the depth is infinitely more impressive than it was a few years ago.  Troy is still Troy, FIU is surging, Middle Tennessee has built a level of sustained success, Arkansas State has an intriguing offense, UL-Monroe is perfectly executing underdog strategies, Western Kentucky is recruiting well, North Texas has a solid coach and probably the best facilities in the conference.  Granted, Florida Atlantic is spinning its wheels right now, and UL-Lafayette is still a year or two away from potentially gaining traction, but this is the most the Sun Belt has had going for it in a while, and as long as the coaching roster remains intact, a lot of the growth seems rather sustainable.

This is an increasingly interesting conference.  It's probably not ready to overtake the MAC and WAC (as currently constituted) just yet, but it's getting there.  And there are two legitimately solid teams at the top.

Arkansas State

The Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Most Interesting Coach in the World

Steve Roberts left Hugh Freeze with quite a few interesting pieces.  Arkansas State has been trending upward for a number of seasons, even if their record did not really shot it.  With skill position players and interesting components of an odd defense returning, Freeze could hit the ground running with a nice first season.  With likely conference favorites Troy and Florida International both coming to Jonesboro (FIU on ESPN2!), the Red Wolves could be a couple of upsets away from a semi-unexpected conference title run.  Or, with another handful of tight losses, they could squander the same type of golden opportunity that they let slip away last season.  One thing is certain: they, like their coach, should be interesting.

Florida Atlantic

Mustaches, Ground Games and the Florida Atlantic Owls

No matter my admiration for weird old Coach Schnellenberger, it's hard to be too tremendously optimistic about Florida Atlantic's prospects in 2011.  Their YPP margin shows they were quite unlucky, and it's possible that the 3-4 could lead to a few more turnovers along the way, but with a passing game completely starting from scratch and a run game that was dreadful in 2010, one can only see minimal improvement (if any at all) on that side of the ball.  That puts a lot of pressure on a defense that is learning a new scheme.

It appears that FAU has a few solid athletes around which they can build -- Cory Henry, DeAndre Richardson, etc. -- but in an ever-improving Sun Belt conference, where Florida International is surging, Arkansas State is explosive, Troy is Troy, and even the UL-Monroe's of the world might be getting their stuff together, it's unlikely that FAU has enough in the tank to make too much of a run this year.

Uh oh ... I think I just underestimated Coach Schnellenberger.  Pencil them into the New Orleans Bowl.

Florida International

The Florida International Golden Panthers and the Best Trip to Detroit ... Ever!

In general, F/+ projections are pre-disposed to predicting a drop-off the year after a surge.  A team's four-year history is as good a predictor of future success as last year's numbers, and to be sure, FIU still has a ways to go when it comes to sustaining the success they built.  There are obviously some positive signs here -- their recruiting averages place them in the upper half of the Sun Belt when it comes to their base of talent (being based in Miami, there really isn't an excuse not to be in the upper half of the Sun Belt in this regard), their turnover margin actually suggests they were a tad unlucky when it comes to recovering fumbles last year, and they return a very healthy amount of starters.  Because of four-year history, it is relatively certain that Troy will be projected as the stronger team this year, but there's certainly a lot to like about both FIU and the job Mario Cristobal continues to do.

Middle Tennessee

Rambler, Gambler and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

The good news: there is skill on offense, and there's almost no way in hell Kilgore will throw as many picks as Dasher over the course of the season, at least not without a lot more touchdowns as well.

The bad news: YPP margin suggests that, even with the horrific turnover margin, MTSU wasn't particularly unlucky last year.

The good news: MTSU has been near or above average for a Sun Belt team for four seasons now, and if they could survive (sort of -- they did still go bowling) the loss of Diaz in the coaching staff, they can survive the loss of players like Dwight Dasher and Jamari Lattimore on the field.

The bad news: three returning defensive starters! A completely rebuilt defensive line! And not much of a recruiting base from which to draw replacements.

Rick Stockstill is a good coach, and I think this is still a squad that can get to another bowl, but the ten-win season of 2009 might have been the highpoint for the Stockstill era.  Reaching those heights again might be difficult.

North Texas

Video Game Underdogs and the North Texas Mean Green

The YPP Margin suggests that UNT was a bit unlucky -- again, their F/+ from last season reflects a perfectly average Sun Belt team, only with a record (winless at home!) that suggests something far below average.  The level of talent here doesn't necessarily reflect what you would think for a team based in, well, north Texas, but McCarney was probably a good hire.  There is very little predictability when it comes to the background of incoming coaches, but hiring coaches with a modicum of success at the BCS level is as safe a bet as you can make.  With a new stadium and a back capable of going for 2,000 yards (okay, 1,700), the Mean Green should make for an interesting team this coming fall ... if not a particularly good one.  If only there were a 6'11, 400-pound fullback lying around somewhere...


The Troy Trojans, Jim Croce and a Celebration

With potential steps backward in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, I'm not sure this will be Blakeney's best team in Troy.  But I also don't bet on streaks; if a team wins or shares five straight conference titles, it's probably smart to bet on them to continue until they give you a reason not to.  (See also: Kansas Basketball.)  In Robinson, Reeves, Southward and others, there is still infinite potential on the offensive side of the ball, and experience should at least make a dent in last year's poorer-than-average defensive showing.

This is a fun, dangerous and entertaining team.  While they might not have enough to take down Clemson or Arkansas in the opening weeks of the season, here's to betting they at least come close against one or the other.  And it's a pretty good bet that the October 25 Troy-FIU game on ESPN2 will be for the Sun Belt title.


Structuralism, the New Coach Crapshoot, and the UL(L) Ragin' Cajuns

For much of Bustle's tenure, UL(L) was a league-average Sun Belt team, but they slipped the last couple of seasons.  The Ragin' Cajuns have the second-worst recruiting average in the country, and they only return ten starters.  It's almost a bad thing that so much of the talent Hudspeth inherits seems to come at the quarterback position, unless he is such an offensive innovator that he figures out how to play two quarterbacks simultaneously.  The winner of the quarterbacks derby should be a good one, though, and with a weapon like Green and a great offensive mind like Hudspeth, one has to assume the offense will improve.  But "improving" in this case just means recovering the team's status as an average Sun Belt team.  In other words, 2011 will likely be a baby steps year for Hudspeth and UL(L).


Underdog Strategies and the ULM Warhawks

Eighteen returning starters and one of the highest 2010 YPP margins in the country suggests that ULM's 2011 ceiling could be rather high ... for ULM, at least.  The Warhawks' overall record is still only going to be so good with the three aforementioned sacrifices built-in losses to Florida State, TCU and Iowa.  But all five home games (yes, five ... be thankful you root for a major conference team and continue to take your 6-8 tailgate opportunities home games for granted) are winnable, as are road trips to North Texas, UL-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic.  The Sun Belt has improved in recent years (five of the conference's seven best teams from 2005-10 played in the last two seasons), but ULM might be able to do some damage.  The margin for error will always be thin, but there are some interesting pieces -- and well-utilized underdog strategies -- here.

Western Kentucky

Standard Downs, Big Red Blobs and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

It's funny how bad teams always return so many starters, eh?  There seems to be a process where the experienced players on a bad offense/defense are overtaken by youngsters ... those youngsters might or might not be any better, but it's a fun cycle.  Western Kentucky returned 18 starters last year, and they return another 15 this time around.  With the way they've been recruiting the last couple of years, that might continue.  Their five year averages are still atrocious, obviously (they haven't been in FBS that long), but they've pulled in the Sun Belt's best recruiting class each of the last two years, and if the youngsters are good enough, they should be able to see plenty of action in the next couple of years.

When you start your FBS tenure this poorly, it might take a long time to move toward respectability.  But Taggart's first season in charge represented a clear step forward even if the win column barely changed.  Another step forward this year, and the Hilltoppers could at least move toward "Sun Belt league average" territory in 2011.

Predicted Order Of Finish

NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 predictions still under construction -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews.  It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules.  And it will change 17 times between now and when the season starts.

1. Troy
2. Florida International
3. Arkansas State
4. UL-Monroe
5. Middle Tennessee

6. UL-Lafayette
7. North Texas
8. Western Kentucky
9. Florida Atlantic