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January 19, 2011

Sun Belt: No marquee Big Six wins


Observers who deride the Sun Belt Conference as the worst of the 11 FBS leagues may need to change their tune after the conference's postseason performance.

While there were no non-conference wins of note during 2010, the league was 2-1 in the postseason, with all three games against MAC schools.

Florida International and Troy, which tied for the Sun Belt title, beat Toledo and Ohio, respectively, in their bowl games; Toledo and Ohio were second-place finishers in their MAC divisions. The loss was by Middle Tennessee, which fell to MAC champ Miami (Ohio) by 14 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. But that game was tied late in the third quarter, and if not for five MTSU turnovers, the outcome may have been different.

Still, the lack of marquee non-conference wins hurts. There is no better way for the Sun Belt to garner attention than to beat a Big Six team -- or at least hold their own against Conference USA. That didn't happen in 2010.

There will be three new coaches in the Sun Belt next season. Arkansas State axed Steve Roberts, Louisiana-Lafayette let go of Rickey Bustle and North Texas fired Todd Dodge. Arkansas State promoted offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze -- perhaps best known for being Michael Oher's high school coach -- to replace Roberts, ULL hired Mississippi State wide receiver coach Mark Hudspeth to replace Bustle, and North Texas named Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney as Dodge's replacement. Before going to Mississippi State, Hudspeth was coach at Division II powerhouse North Alabama, while McCarney is a former Iowa State head coach.

Biggest surprise: FIU. The Panthers were winless in 2006, won once in '07, then jumped to five wins in '08. That led to some predicting that 2009 would be a breakthrough season. Instead, FIU slid back to three wins, and the general consensus was that the Panthers would struggle again in 2010. Instead, they tied for the league title with Troy, and by virtue of a rout of Troy, FIU received the league's "automatic" bowl bid. The Panthers capped off the season by beating Toledo on a last-play field goal in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Biggest disappointment: Middle Tennessee. This was supposed to be MTSU's year; indeed, coach Rick Stockstill turned down entreaties from East Carolina after the 2009 season to remain with the Blue Raiders. But star QB Dwight Dasher was suspended for the first four games of the season for receiving illegal benefits, and MTSU never could find its stride. The Blue Raiders did reach a bowl, but they finished third in the league and finished 6-7. That wasn't the season anyone expected. Expect MTSU to take at least a half-step back next season, when it will have seven new defensive starters and a new starting offensive backfield.

Best postseason performance: Troy. The Trojans pounded Ohio 48-21 in the New Orleans Bowl. Troy scored 24 second-quarter points on the way to a 38-7 halftime lead and cruised home from there. The Trojans had way too much speed for the Bobcats and rolled up 602 yards, including 382 in the air.

Worst postseason performance: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders really didn't play all that poorly in their GoDaddy.com Bowl loss to Miami (Ohio), but they were the only league team to lose their postseason game. Dasher capped off his career by tossing four picks, giving him 18 for the season (against just six TD passes).

Underclassmen leaving early: None.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Louisiana-Monroe TB Jyruss Edwards. Edwards received a lot of work late in the season, and he should go into next season as the starting tailback for the Warhawks. ULM was anemic on the ground this season, rushing for just 120.3 yards per game, and that put too much pressure on QB Kolton Browning and the passing attack. Edwards is not going to lead the league in rushing, but he has the talent -- not to mention the line -- to reach the 1,000-yard plateau.

Next season's breakout defensive player: FIU LB Winston Fraser. FIU runs a 4-2-5 set and four of the front six return. Look for Fraser to make the jump from solid player to all-league guy next fall. He was the Panthers' No. 3 tackler this season with 72, and that number should jump by at least 20 next season. FIU's defensive strength was its secondary this season; that should change next season to the front six, and Fraser is a major reason for that.

Player most on the spot next season: FIU QB Wesley Carroll. For a guy who transferred down after starting in the SEC, Carroll -- who began his career at Mississippi State -- certainly wasn't anything special. He threw for 2,623 yards, with 16 TDs and 14 picks. And those numbers came on a team that ran the ball well. He simply must become a better passer, especially when it comes to limiting interceptions. That FIU tied for the league lead with Carroll at quarterback says more about the league than about Carroll. If he becomes more consistent, FIU has the potential to cruise to finish unbeaten in league play.

Next season's conference champion: FIU. The Panthers got a taste of the good life this season, and they should be in no hurry to move from the league penthouse. Eight starters return on offense and seven are returning on defense. Coach Mario Cristobal and his staff have done yeoman work turning FIU from a laughingstock into a league contender. FIU, which is located in Miami, is smack dab in the middle of a recruiting mother lode, and there's no reason to think the Panthers are going to take a step back anytime soon.

National title contenders: None.

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

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