FIU and Arkansas State are inching closer to the top, but the Sun Belt title still runs through Troy. The Trojans have shared or won five straight conference titles and appear to be in great shape to retain the crown once again.
Sophomore Corey Robinson can only get better in his second season under center, but the Trojans suffered a blow at receiver with the loss of Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson after spring practice. Even with eight new starters, the Trojans should be one of the Sun Belt’s top offenses. Defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi is one of the nation’s underrated players, collecting 13.5 sacks last year. Troy ranked near the bottom of the conference in total defense last season, but should finish higher in 2011 with six starters back.
FIU and Arkansas State aren’t too far behind the Trojans, with both teams bringing back key pieces from last year. FIU returns 12 starters, including playmaker T.Y. Hilton at receiver and five starters from one of the Sun Belt’s top defenses last season. Arkansas State is under the direction of a new coach – Hugh Freeze – who did a great job coordinating the offense last season. Freeze has plenty to work with in 2011, with quarterback Ryan Aplin and the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps returning.
UL Monroe and MTSU will likely battle for the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the standings. The Warhawks barely missed out on a bowl bid last year and return 14 starters, including promising sophomore quarterback Kolton Browning. MTSU has to replace quarterback Dwight Dasher, but after struggling mightily with turnovers last year, it could be addition by subtraction. A bigger concern for the Blue Raiders could be the defense, where eight starters must be replaced.
It will be a surprise if North Texas or Western Kentucky reaches a winning season, but these two teams feature a couple of nationally underrated running backs. North Texas’ Lance Dunbar rushed for 1,553 yards and 13 scores last year, while Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey amassed 1,649 yards on a whopping 340 carries. Both teams have solid coaches and should show improvement in 2011, before taking another step forward in 2012.
Louisiana and Florida Atlantic round out the projected Sun Belt standings. The Ragin’ Cajuns feature All-America tight end Ladarius Green and a promising new coach in Mark Hudspeth, but major improvement on defense is needed. Hudspeth will need some time before getting Louisiana back into the Sun Belt title race. The Owls will play 2011 in a new stadium, but that could be the extent of the excitement in Boca Raton this year.
Athlon's 2011 Sun Belt Team Previews
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