Athlon Sports Sun Belt Predictions

In two years, the Sun Belt Conference has yet to make much of an impact on the national scene, but North Texas certainly has made its mark on the fledgling league. The Mean Green have won back-to-back conference titles and sport an 11–1 record in league play, including a perfect 6–0 last season. Of course, UNT has to have the horses to get it done, and with seven departed all-conference players, one would think the Mean Green would be in for some lean times.

Projected Finish

1. North Texas
2. New Mexico State
3. Middle Tennessee
4. Arkansas State
5. UL-Lafayette
6. Idaho
7. Utah State
8. UL-Monroe

Not in this case, however. North Texas still has nine preseason all-conference players returning, including the Sun Belt Player of the Year in defensive tackle Brandon Kennedy. Darrell Dickey, who not long ago presided over a floundering program, now oversees the class of the league.

At New Mexico State, coach Tony Samuel has built a program that can go toe-to-toe with North Texas, but not quite eye-to-eye. The Aggies are stacked in the backfield, where Paul Dombrowski quarterbacks one of the nation's niftiest offenses.

After tying for first in 2001, Middle Tennessee was the biggest bust in the Belt a year ago. The Blue Raiders lost their first five and never got their footing. But gifted quarterback Andrico Hines did get a year of experience and is capable of hurting teams in a variety of ways. Look for coach Andy McCollum's players to show up with some massive chips on their shoulder pads.

Like Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State defied expectations, but in a good way. The Indians surprised everyone by winning six games overall and finishing third in their first year under coach Steve Roberts. The Indians must rebuild their offense, starting with the line. But the defense is stout with nine returning starters, including linemen Corey Williams and Jon Bradley.

There is a considerable drop-off between the top and bottom halves of the league. In the latter group, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle will break in a new offensive backfield. Idaho has yet to make its presence felt in the Sun Belt. The Vandals were last in the league and finished 2–10 overall. Utah State joins the fray this year, but in spite of its upset of New Mexico State last season, brings little to the table. It's no fault of the players, but Louisiana-Monroe has one of the nation's more dysfunctional programs. The Indians recently hired Charlie Weatherbie, their fourth coach in less than one calendar year.

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