Welcome back to another preview series, and we begin 2010 with the Sun Belt, the Mid-American Conference, and the FBS Independent teams. These conferences have to be breathing a small sigh of relief as the realignment possibilities we discussed last month did not make a doomsday scenario for so-called non-major or non-BCS conferences. In the Sun Belt, Troy will try to win a third straight title against much tougher competition than the past two years. Meanwhile over in the MAC, Central Michigan will try to reload with a new coach and another title, while Ohio University will look to leap to a conference championship game again. For the independents, this looks to be a year of resurgence for Notre Dame, which also has a new coach and a former Central Michigan coach at that. Brian Kelly should bring championships back to South Bend if his prior track record is any indication, and things are looking better for the service academies as well. So let's jump in with the Sun Belt coming up first.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
MTSU never quite got into the conference title race last year after a humiliating defeat at Troy, but the Blue Raiders rebounded to a 10-3 record and a big bowl victory over Southern Miss. The Blue Raiders bring back 14 starters, including 8 on the offensive side of the ball from a unit that put up points in bunches last season. QB Dwight Dasher enters his senior year looking to improve upon outstanding stats in 2009 including 23 touchdowns. The Blue Raiders have added some junior college talent to a very experienced receiving core led by sophomore Tavarres Jefferson. On the defensive side of the ball, the Blue Raiders are anchored by two good defensive ends Jarrett Crittendon and Jamari Lattimore. One key could be special teams, and MTSU has the best kicker by far in the league with PK Alan Gendreau. Look for Gendreau to make a difference in a couple of games, leading the Blue Raiders to compete for their first conference crown.
Troy has been an an anchor of stability for the sun Belt since joining up in 2004, and now has two conference trophies to defend coming into 2010. Coach Larry Blakeney is entering his 20th year at the helm and will be looking to celebrate the ocassion with the first three-peat champion in SBC play since North Texas won the first four conference championships. Troy never seems to shy away from playing great opponents out of conference, and the slate this year includes roadtrips to Oklahoma State and South Carolina. Although Troy certainly has enough talent to win the league, they must travel to MTSU, UNT, and FAU, their primary rivals. The Trojans have a strong one-two punch at running back with senior DeJuan Harris and sophomore Shawn Southward each driving themselves to higher and higher numbers. Look for the rushing totals to rise behind a talented offensive line in 2010. Look for the Trojans to be much improved against the pass game as well with a strong backfield led by CB Jimmy Anderson and CB Bryan Willis. If Troy plays well on the road, there's no doubt who will bring home more hardware this December.
Florida Atlantic Owls
The Owls came into last season riding high after two straight bowl seasons and bowl wins, but an 0-4 start doomed any repeat plans for another bowl appearance. The key to whether FAU will compete in 2010 is all about filling in gaps from many departed starters, and most importantly, the entire offensive line. The offense has the best running back in the league in junior Alfred Morris, but we al know a running back is only as good as his offensive line. On the defensive side of the ball, nine starters come back from a unit that faced some very storng offenses including Nebraska and South Carolina. Although the Owls were minus nine in turnover margin in 2009, look for a strong defensive backfield to grab plenty of interceptions from pass-happy SBC quarterbacks. If enough turnovers are generated, FAU could find themselves in a tie for the league title.
IN THE MIX
North Texas Mean Green
Western Kentucky and Ball State were the only teams the Mean Green took down last season, although they were competitive in six other games. Despite being near the basement in 2009, the offense brings back 9 starters and the defense 8, and unlike some other SBC schools, North Texas has improving talent. The Mean Green will feature a wide-open passing attack with four wideouts including former quarterback Riley Dodge and all-conference senior Jamaal Jackson. FS DaWaylon Cook has transferred in to lead a defensive unit really having their third year together mostly. The defense made huge strides in 2009 keeping North Texas competitive, so this year look for that unit to thrive and give that wide-open offense more opportunities to shine. North Texas could be a league contender, but the schedule is tough on the road except for pulling Troy at home.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
A word of warning to Auburn fans: ASU knows how to play BCS schools tough, as proven by their close losses to Iowa last year and Texas three seasons ago. For some reason the Red Wolves never seem to translate these good performances into solid wins in the Sun Belt like one would expect, but perhaps this is the year the Red Wolves jump into the mix. One huge question mark is sophomore QB Ryan Aplin, who saw some playing time as a freshman due to injuries but suffered through shoulder surgery himself this spring. With the exception of sophomore Eric Allen, every offensive lineman is a senior and all five projected starters are returning. Thus, all the new skill position talent should have time to jell after the Auburn game, assuming they do not pull their first shocker. The back half of the schedule favors the Red Wolves nicely and could give them enough momentum to finish with a winning record and their first bowl appearance since 2005.
Florida International Golden Panthers
FIU returns 11 starters total from a team that had ups and downs leading to a 5-6 finish last year. However, considering both Florida and Alabama were on the schedule, 5-6 may be misleading. Despite being positioned in Miami Florida, FIU struggles to get better talent than worse-positioned schools in the SBC, and this lack of talent has brought the program down except for 2008. Expect a little resurgence this year despite a tough out of conference schedule with 4 BCS conference schools. The star to watch is CB Anthony Gaitor who is certain to shut down the opposition's best wide receiver every week. As for the defense, it can only help to reload from a unit that did not get it done in 2009. Look for the Panthers to improve on the field but maybe not in record in 2010.
ALL THE REST
Louisiana Rajun Cajuns
Louisiana may be focused on an oil spill right now, but football is right around the corner and the fans have to be hopeful for each of the SBC schools to return to better days after a rough 2009. The Ragin Cajuns will try to exploit the middle of the field with throws from QB Chris Masson to TE LaDarius Green. Look for the defense to improve with 8 returning starters, including CB Dwight Bentley and DT Jordan Topp. The out of conference schedule is brutal this year with trips to Athens (Georgia and Ohio) as well as a primetime home game against Oklahoma State, who will not underestimate a SBC school after losing to one last year. Even if UL has a winning record in conference, they may not make it to bowl eligibility.
Louisiana Monroe Warhawks
ULM started 5-1 in the league last season and seemed poised for a second-place finish when disaster struck at their rival Louisiana and a following season-ending loss to MTSU. ULM has not had a winning record in FBS play but they have flirted numerous times with it. However, this team only brings back 10 starters and will be hard pressed to learn a new system under new head coach Todd Berry. Berry coaches at Army early this decade and thus has a bad record that does not indicate his coaching skill. However, this Warhawks team is a rebuilding project and one can only look forward to 2011 or more likely, 2012 for another conference championship hunt.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Everyone knew the transition to FBS would be tough for the Hilltoppers, but nobody could have guessed the depths that WKU fell to over the past two years winning two games in 2008 and none in 2009. On the positive side of the ledger, 18 starters return to get another crack at the SBC boys who beat up on them badly last season. New coach Willie Taggert trained Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, so expect a strong emphasis on a running game and ball control with a strong offensive line and junior RB Bobby Rainey. One will figure that the hilltoppers will steal a couple of games here and there this campaign, but that's all.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Hello Golden Domer fans, I know it must be rough to read your preview in the middle of the rest of these teams, but that's what you get when you choose independence over conference affiliation. In any event, things are coming up four-leaf clovers for the Irish now that Brian Kelly is in town and calling the shots after the firing of Charlie Weis. While Weis was able to reload the shelves with pro talent, Kelly will be able to mold that talent into a national championship contender likely in two years at a minimum. Look for new quarterback Dayne Crist to fit in nicely with Kelly's wide open outlook, although the Irish would be wise to not forget senior RB Armando Allen. A grand nine starters return on defense, which should help shore up the weakness that Brian Kelly's teams usually have (a poor defense, lots of shootouts). Notre Dame will have great special teams this year led by sophomore sensations P Ben Turk and K Nick Tausch. Even the backups are good on special teams as Notre Dame should win 10 assuming they survive the early big ten gauntlet with two wins.
Although it looks like the Golden Domers are coming back, they will have to overcome Navy for the title of best independent school. What was once unthinkable has now happened twice as Navy comes into this season defending a two-game winning streak against the Irish as well as a 15 game winning streak against other service academies. With a very talented senior QB Ricky Dobbs leading the option attack alongside a stable of talented running backs including Vince Murray and Marcus Curry, the offense should keep on rolling. In fact, 8 starters return from a unit that won ten games and made Ohio State and Pittsburgh sweat on the road. There's nobody as hard as either of these teams on the schedule this year, so the Midshipmen should roll to another double-digit win season and the Poinsettia Bowl assuming no crucial injuries hit a team that's always thin. Look for some improvement on the defense as well, led by CB Kevin Edwards. If things go well, Navy should be nationally ranked very high at the end of the season.
Army Black Knights
Turning to the Black Knights, all is not doom and gloom for the first time since 1996, Army's last bowl appearance. Led by rookie coach Rich Ellerson, Army only needed to catch one more break for bowl eligibility with five wins last season after not winning more than four since 1996. The Black Knights return 8 starters on each side of the ball, which bodes well considering their second season of running the option will likely be much smoother with a group of guys who know the system. The regime change started at the top last year with a freshman quarterback Trent Steelman, who will now be one of only two underclassmen starting for the Black Knights. However, Steelman had a nice split of 637 passing and 706 rushing in 2009. On the defense, the entire linebacker corps comes back including the three leading tacklers for the Black Knights. With the exception of a switch from Ball State to Kent State, the schedule remains the same group that it was last year. This looks like the perfect storm for a bowl season.
The Owls started last season looking like the same old losing squad with losses to Villanova and Penn State. However, Temple then ripped off nine straight wins and were not held below 24 points at all until the finale at Athens, where the division title was lost to the Bobcats in a heartbreaker. Despite a bowl loss, Temple is riding high off their first winning season in two decades and their first bowl appearance in 30 years, with an amazing 16 starters back. The offense is led by RB Bernard Pierce, who had 1361 yards despite missing 2 games with injury as a freshman last year. On defense look for DE Adrian Robinson to add to his 13 sacks from last season and he should be complented well by linebackers Amara Kamara and Elijah Joseph. Coach Al Golden should roll to a division title this year assuming the Owls take care of OU at home in November.
Western Michigan Broncos
The door seemed open for the Broncos to step up and challenge Central Michigan last season, but it just fell apart. Now Bill Cubit has another golden opportunity as Central Michigan is going to take a step back and open the door for a new battle out west. However, this team is an enigma as their best two offensive players and their top two tacklers are gone. Nevertheless, the talent on both lines is very strong and should win the trenches in most games. Furthermore, Northern Illinois comes to Kalamazoo, which gives the slightest edge in a tight race to the Broncos. It will be interesting to see is new QB Alex Cander can take full advantage of a stocked lot at receiver: Juan Nunez, Jordan White, and Robert Arnheim. The special teams should also be fun to watch, and not in a bad way. Look for punter Ben Armer to flip the field on some weaker MAC opponents.
Northern Illinois Huskies
Northern Illinois is the consensus pick to dethrone Central Michigan from the longtime MAC West crown, but that trip to Kalamazoo in October will likely determine the division. NIU will play 4 out of their first 5 on the road which will be challenging, but then the schedule is very nice in the MAC overall. The offense will be driven by the passing game, which will be led by recievers Nathan Palmer and Landon Cox. The defense needs to reload in the middle, but overall will be better than they were last season. Considering the Huskies only had defensive breakdowns in their final two games against Ohio and CMU, expect western Michigan to be the only team that can stop NIU from a division title in 2010.
The defending MAC East Champs should be right back where they were last season in November, that being playing meaningful games to try and win a conference title. Unfortunately, the Bobcats draw their primary competition in Temple and Kent State on the road at the end of the year and have to break in many new starters on both sides of the ball. Frank Solich's offense was very inconsistent last year, but perhaps new QB Phil Gates and RB Kenny Ashley can thrive behind a proven offensive line. Even if this does not happen, the defense should again be rock solid. Despite losing most the of the defensive backfield, look for the defensive line to create lots of pressure, especially up the middle with Marcellis Williamson, Ernie Hodge, and LB Noah Keller. Keller will be the key to success, and if the defense comes together as Solich likes it, Ohio may be back in the MAC Championship for another crack.
IN THE MIX
Kent State Golden Flashes
The Golden Flashes surprised in the middle of the season in 2009 to rock division-leader Ohio and run to 5-4 before losing three games to end the year with another losing record. However, one would have to figure that this year is Coach Martin's first real shot in seven seasons to take a division crown. The offense should be solid as long as the new linemen come together quickly, as QB Spencer Keith and RB Eugene Jarvis are some of the better athletes in the league. The defensive backfield is loaded as well, which could make the Golden Flashes tough against some of the more pass-happy teams in the MAC. One thing about darkhorse contenders is special teams, and Kent State has the right kind of talent to steal a game or two. Look for a chance at their first bowl since 1972.
Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals managed to go from 12-0 to losing their last 2 in 2008 and 10 of 12 in 2009 in coach Stan Parrish's first season. Parrish has 19 startersback though including the entire offense and that means big things in a close division in 2010. The offense will be driven by the running game with RB MiQuale Lewis finding lots of holes behind perhaps the best offensive line in the conference. The only possible weakness (other than still building up in talent and experience overall) is the defensive line, which may give up some big holes for opposing runners. The Cardinals should be able to shorten games and play a lot of close games, which were nearly all lost in 2009. Expect that to change in 2010, thereby leading to a conference championship chase if enough breaks go right.
Central Michigan Chippewas
After a dominant run to the GMAC Bowl and MAc title, CMU loses star QB Dan LeFevour and rising star coach Butch Jones. Even with 12 returning starters, the coaching staff will have a stiff learning curve in the FBS and the MAC West will be only too happy to teach the new coaches with some lumps. The new quarterback is Ryan Radcliff, a sophomore who learned a lot from LeFevour and should be very good in 2011 and 2012. The defense does have a pair of senior linebackers in Nick Bellore and Matt Berning, but they will have to be the leaders of many inexperienced players. Unless a lot of football intuition shows up in unexpected places, CMU will be forced to come from behind a lot in this rebuilding or reloading year.
Mike Haywood left a tumultuous situation at Notre Dame before the ship sunk to take over a rebuilding project in Oxford, Ohio. Even after the two season opening shutout losses, Miami kept working and eventually got one win against Toledo and nearly found a way to get Temple down the following week. 19 starters return but that's kind of misleading since most of the original starters last year lost their jobs halfway through the season. Nevertheless, the experience can only help highly talented youth like QB Zac Dysert, OL Matt Kennedy, and LB Evan Harris. After a tough opener at Florida, Miami gets their easiest home game against Eastern Michigan and one hopes a 1-1 start could get Miami going to more than the 1 win they had last year. Still tough times, but Miami will be better and you never know when a team like this jumps into the mix.
Bowling Green Falcons
Coach Dave Clawson nearly stole the MAC East last year in his first year, but 6-2 was not good enough as BGSU fell one game short of Ohio and Temple. The Falcons only have 8 total returnign starters, and while most of these are now sophomores who will make a monster squad in the next two seasons, it is hard to imagine the Falcons being competitive this year. The strongest unit of the team is the defensive line, led by Angelo Magnone and Kevin Alvarado. The schedule is reasonable in November for a little momentum-building going into 2011, so look forward to that.
The Bulls were MAC East champs two years ago but coach Turner Gill bailed to Kansas after last year, bringing in Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn. While Quinn may not have the same caliber of athletes he had at UC, he was the main man behind Brian Kelly's offensive juggernauts at CMU and UC. Buffalo has 14 starters back but unfrotunately the quarterback and receivers are totally new with the spread offense replacing a run-heavy attack. This will put a lot of pressure on the defense, and I suspect the strong defensive backfield will not hold up all year long.
Toledo moved to an even more wide-open attack last season and outside a shocking loss to Miami, the season was a step in the right direction. coach Tim Beckman brought in a slew of good talent that should put Toledo back near the top of the league in the next coupel of seasons. For this year the goal has to be continued improvement and that menas bowl eligibility. WR Eric Page should put up more great numbers leading the receivers as well as burning up on special teams returns again. The offense will need to be great though as the defense is looking very rough. There are new starters plugging in at each level of the defense, so coach Beckman has a challenge on his hands to keep with the better MAC West schools.
The Zips come into this season with a new coach Rob Ianello and a new scheme to learn on both sides of the ball. The Louisville transfer RB Alex Allen should improve a terrible running game, while the defensive front should defend against the run better than they did last year. However, the passing lanes should be open against this team and in the MAC, that is bad news. Look for another losing season in Akron.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Ron English enters his second season in Ypsilanti looking for his first head coaching victory. One would figure the Eagles could make that happen this season, even though EMU will likely not be favored in any game. The offensive line will be better, and it will be interesting to see how improved Alex Gillet and Devontae Payne will be behind center in their second season of the program. The defensive front seven is mostly returning, and English is a defensive coordinator at heart, but this team has a long road to climb in recruiting before they are taken truly seriously in the MAC.
And just like that, we're off on 2010 previews. This season is a dawn of a new horizon in each of these conferences and the independents, as there's a lot of improvement all around except for returning champions Troy and Central Michigan. Thus, both division races in the MAC and the Sun Belt title chase will be interesting, as will Navy and Notre Dame's shot at 10 wins and Army's try for bowl eligibility. If the MAC comes down to Temple and Western Michigan, you have to like how Temple matches up there. Nonetheless, look for many of these teams to get close to major upsets of BCS conference teams in 2010.