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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: Florida Atlantic; Troy
There's a very real possibility of Florida Atlantic outgrowing the Sun Belt before long. Ten years ago, they were an announcement. Last year they went to — and won — a bowl game in record time. Similar results are in order this time from a quick defense with shutdown corners and a talent base that is beyond their conference rivals. QB Rusty Smith threw for 3690 yards and 32 TDs last season and returns. FAU will roll the Sun Belt — maybe 8–0 — so the more interesting measuring stick will be non–conference foes Texas, UAB, Michigan State and Minnesota. They could win a couple of those. Any more than that, and ever–growing FAU better find a bigger belt.
Troy is the only Sun Belt team still in the same conversation as FAU. With a 1–4 record against them (beaten by the Owls for the first time last year), the Trojans must be considered the other main contender here. Everything FAU can claim about their defense — good up front and in the secondary — is equally true for Troy, but they certainly don't have a QB of the same caliber. Omar Haugabook managed almost 3000 yards and 18 TDs in 2007 as well as 11 scores on the floor, but he's gone. Jamie Hampton, who threw 11 balls in 2008, is next up. Troy's non–conference route is a little more suicidal: LSU and Ohio State are September road trips. With Oklahoma State to follow (the Trojans beat them in 2007), Troy will go into their visit with FAU battle–hardened and prepared to pull an upset. After that, the season's a breeze.
Tier 2: Louisiana Lafayette; Middle Tennessee
Only in the Sun Belt would La–La and Middle Tennessee be considered 'Tier 2'. But there are spots of talent here, and some players worth keeping an eye on, even if the teams don't register on the national radar. Lousiana–Lafayette RB Tyrell Fenroy has three 1000–yard seasons, and together with QB Michael Desormeaux, who also rushed for 1100 last season, the Ragin' Cajuns will run teams ragged. When it comes to passing, they're less sure, and getting blown in early games against Southern Miss and Illinois seems an inevitability. Late dates against FAU and Troy are both on the road, and the margin between Tier 2 and 1 will seem might large this year. Middle Tennessee sophomore QB Dwight Dasher is less of a rushing threat than Desormeaux, but true to his name, ran for 530 yards and 3 scores. But 1,150 yards and 9 TDs passing must be built on (only 4 interceptions in his debut season was notable, however). The Blue Raiders have a better defense than the Cajuns, and they get Troy and FAU at home, but neither is headed for a level record.
Tier 3: Arkansas State, Louisiana Monroe, North Texas
North Texas and Arkansas State lack defense, but Louisiana Monroe lacks the offense to take advantage and move out of the pack. Don't expect La–Monroe to surprise anybody like Alabama this year without RB Calvin Dawson. Most of the offensive line also needs replacing, and that is similarly true of Arkansas State. When it comes to passing, the experience of Warhawks QB Kinsmon Lancaster is equalled by Arkansas State's Corey Leonard, but both may spend the season running for their lives if the new lines don't gel. North Texas a very different story. Coach Todd Dodge arrived last season with a wide–open passing offense notable for its turnovers. This year, Dodge turns to his son Riley to QB the team. The family connection grants the Mean Green a better QB prospect than would normally grace the Sun Belt — he was originally headed to Texas. Don't expect miracles from North Texas this year, but there will be flashes of things to come.
Tier 4: Florida International
At some point, even Florida's talent pool has to run dry. It doesn't help when FAU blazes past on the recruiting trail, leaving you spinning its wake. The best things on FIU are to be found on defense, where the Golden Panthers have tools to restrict opposing passing games. All the same, they won just one game last season, and that was against North Texas in the season–ender. This year they may find themselves eyeing up the finale with Western Kentucky in a similar way.