Sun Belt Conference showdown - Troy vs. Middle Tennessee
By Jeff Frank, Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Troy has either won or shared the Sun Belt football title the last four years, but that string could end in 2010 as Middle Tennessee is primed to take over the top spot. Regardless of which team wins the title, the upward ATS trend that the conference took in recent years fell flat last season.
The league's ATS record in out-of-conference play plummeted below the .500 mark (13-20-1) for the first time since 2006. Similar poor numbers existed against BCS teams as the nine clubs combined to go 7-15 ATS after a 13-9 mark the year before.
Within league play, favorites came out on the winning side by a 19-16 margin helping to produce a 53-37 record over the last three seasons - a solid 59- percent winning percentage.
The race for the Sun Belt title should be decided Oct. 5 when Troy travels to Middle Tennessee. Which club will take the crown? Let's look deeper into the league and find out from worst to first, with predicted SU overall and conference records for those wagering on over/unders for total victories.
9) WESTERN KENTUCKY - The Hilltoppers were 6-5 ATS in '09, but 4-0 in their last four. They were 5-0 ATS in games that went under the total, but 1-5 in the overs.
Offense - Western Kentucky averaged 24.5 ppg versus the rest of the league last season, a huge jump from the 16 ppg in the five contests the year before. The ground game picked up with a 5.0-yard mark in league action, and the club might have found a solid quarterback in junior-college transfer Matt Pelesasa. Four starters return on the offensive line, so continued improvement is expected.
Defense - Last season was a transition year with only three returning starters. Still, the defense picked up as the season moved along, giving up just 25 ppg in the final three games after allowing 45 ppg in the first nine. Two of those three contests came on the road at ULM and Florida Atlantic. With 10 of the top 12 tacklers back, this unit will be surprisingly better.
Prediction - Even though their record might not show it, the Hilltoppers will be more competitive week in and week out, so keep an eye on them ATS, especially early in the season. (1-11, 1-7)
8) ULM - The Warhawks were 5-6 ATS in '09, 0-3 in their last three contests. They are 24-12 ATS in conference play the last five years.
Offense - This side of the ball will be altered in 2010 as new head coach Todd Berry installs an offense that is heavily quarterback-driven. Unfortunately, this year might not be the best season for change after the club lost its top two receivers. In addition, only two offensive line starters return. Expect a drop off in production.
Defense - The Warhawks turned their defense around last year, leading the league versus the run after coming in last place the season prior. Nevertheless, look for a return to '08 numbers as seven of the top 10 tacklers depart. Moreover, only three starts were lost to injury last year.
Prediction - This looks to be a down year, so don't wager too much money on ULM. (3-9, 2-6)
7) LOUISIANA - The Ragin' Cajuns were 5-6 ATS last season and 4-1 to the under in their last five games. They are 9-4 ATS as favorites the last three years.
Offense - The offense stumbled last year, dropping from first to sixth in scoring against the rest of the league. The offensive line is in rebuilding mode minus three longtime starters, which could dampen an uninspired ground attack.
Defense - Louisiana has allowed 30 ppg or more each of the last three years. In order for the Cajuns to make any inroads, they must improve their line play as the team has recorded an average of just 17 sacks per season since '07, and last year's top three sack leaders all departed.
Prediction - Bet on the Ragin' Cajuns in week two vs. Arkansas State, but against them the rest of the way. (3-9, 3-5)
6) FAU - The Owls were 4-8 ATS last year and are just 7-15 as road underdogs the last four years.
Offense - The Owls return only two starters on this side of the ball and the last time that scenario took place the club averaged just 13.5 ppg after going for 25 the year before. The troubles begin with an offensive line that brings back a grand total of zero career starts and end with five of last season's top six receivers gone from the program.
Defense - The defensive outlook is brighter with 11 of the top 13 tacklers coming back. However, those players allowed 6.1 yards per carry, good for 119th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. If the offense struggles to maintain drives, look for the "D" to be on the field a lot more than last year's 775 plays, when the unit allowed a league-worst seven yards per play.
Prediction - It will take a while for the offense to click so bet against the Owls early and often. (3-9, 3-5)
5) NORTH TEXAS - The Mean Green went 5-7 ATS in '09. The club is 7-15 ATS in Sun Belt play the last three years.
Offense - North Texas averaged a touchdown more per game last year (27 ppg) than in '08, and that number should improve once again. Nine starters return, including Lance Dunbar, who rushed for 1,378 yards on 6.9 yards per carry. Riley Dodge moves to wide receiver, giving new offensive coordinator Mike Canales another option in a very experienced offensive set.
Defense - This unit was the major reason North Texas wasn't blown out every week (six losses by a touchdown or less). Still, there is work left to be done as opposing league squads gained over 5.0 yards per carry for the second straight year.
Prediction - The Mean Green has not had a winning ATS season since 2004. This year will break that streak. (4-8, 4-4)
4) FIU - The Golden Panthers were 4-8 ATS in '09, a major disappointment after an 8-4 mark in 2008. They are 7-13 ATS in their last 20 games as road underdogs.
Offense - Wesley Carroll takes over at quarterback and Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden has a chance to shine at running back. The O-line returns fewer than 20 career starts, but the predecessors allowed an average of 31 sacks the last four years while the running backs have failed to gain more than 3.3 yards per carry since �05. Star wideout T.Y Hilton should rebound after an injury-plagued season to spark the once-moribund offense.
Defense - The one area of concern remains the defensive line, especially after finishing 116th nationally against the run. However, look for the hire of new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (from UCF) to pay immediate dividends. The Panthers have one of the top linebacker crews in the conference, and if safety Ashlyn Parker can stay healthy this season, the defense will look more like the one that roamed the field in '08 (28 ppg) than in '09 (35 ppg).
Prediction - FIU will rebound in 2010 with a much-improved ATS record over last year's 5-7 mark. (4-8, 4-4)
3) ARKANSAS STATE - The Red Wolves finished '09 at 2-9 ATS for a two-year 5-17 ATS total. They are 0-7 in their last seven games as road favorites.
Offense - The no-huddle spread offense arrives in Jonesboro after 2009's last- place finish in both scoring and total offense in Sun Belt play. This year's O-line is the most experienced the Red Wolves have had in years and the replacements for the departed running backs and wide receivers will put up huge numbers in the new offense.
Defense - Arkansas State ranked first in total defense versus the eight other league squads last season after finishing second the prior three years. The only question mark is at cornerback as the Red Wolves must break in two new starters.
Prediction - This is a team that could fly under the radar after a disappointing season a year ago. Hit them hard and often in the second half of the year. (6-6, 5-3)
2) TROY - The Trojans were 8-4-1 ATS last season and 7-1 to the over in their final eight games. They are 15-6 ATS in conference play the last three years as favorites.
Offense - Not much will change even with Jamie Hampton replacing Levi Brown at quarterback. Hampton engineered road wins over Middle Tennessee and FAU before an injury sidelined him two seasons ago. The Trojans, who averaged over 40 ppg in league play last year, are lethal enough to do so once again.
Defense - Last year's defense allowed 8.5 more ppg than in 2008, primarily because seven starters, including the entire secondary, were not with the club. This year, only three starters return, including just one of the top seven tacklers. Troy usually rebuilds with JC transfers, so don't expect a depleted unit. However, the "D" will not dominate as it had in the past.
Prediction - The Trojans will have their first losing ATS conference record in five years. (9-3, 7-1)
1) MIDDLE TENNESSEE - The Blue Raiders were 10-3 ATS last year and 7-0 in their final seven games. They are 6-1 ATS as a road favorite the last four years.
Offense - Middle Tennessee erupted last season for 32 ppg, a nine-point increase from the year before, and that was with '08 leading rusher Phillip Tanner missing the last 11 games. On the other hand, quarterback Dwight Dasher must cut down on his interceptions (14 a year ago). If he does, look for the offense to post monstrous numbers in 2010.
Defense - The offense was not the only area of improvement as the defense finished first in league play, allowing just 21 ppg after giving up 26 ppg in '08. The unit was also second nationally in tackles for loss with 113. Unfortunately, over one half of that total will not be back.
Prediction - It's doubtful the Blue Raiders will reproduce their 10-3 ATS record of a year ago, especially since they were 44-46 the previous eight years combined. (10-2, 7-1)
07/16 13:15:48 ET