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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 10:00 AM

It's been a long and winding road through the national landscape of college football. Talk about a summer trip!

Back in July we devoted Saturdays and Sundays to preview of all the major conferences. The Big 10 and Pac 12 have new looks this year. The Big 12 is down to 10 teams, and may be swapping Texas A&M for SMU before too long. The SEC is still loaded…but you have to be concerned about daily developments on the police blotter. Please check the archives if you missed those earlier reports. Remember that some of the information is dated now because those were written in July before various suspensions and injuries.

When the calendar turned to August, we moved to the mid majors. Boise State is in the Mountain West this year…for a one-year dance with TCU before the Horned Frogs inexplicably bolt for the Big East. Hey, if the Dallas Cowboys can play in the NFC East, why not? We've hopscotched our way through Conference USA and the MAC on Saturdays and Sundays (again, check the archives), and now come to the end of our journey.

Today: Sun Belt
Sunday: Independents (including Notre Dame, Navy, and BYU)

This Thursday, the regular season begins! Interestingly enough, the first conference game on the 2011 calendar will be a Sun Belt meeting between North Texas and Florida International. Note that Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt will get some TV exposure on ESPNU Thursday Night as they host state power Kentucky of the SEC.

And you were wondering why we're looking at the Sun Belt this weekend. You'll be picking Sun Belt games in a matter of hours!

Let's crunch the numbers…

Athlon Ranking: 89th
2010 Total Offense: 17th
2010 Total Defense: 89th
Strength: Pass Offense (11th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (100th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Larry Blakeney
Notebook: The Trojans are often the default pick for Preseason favorite in the Sun Belt, particularly if they return their quarterback. Corey Robinson does return this year. But, he's only one of three starters on that side of the ball. And, we're talking about a team that lost twice in league play last year when they were more experienced. Their biggest rival for the crown this year looks to be Florida International. Troy lost at home to FIU last year 52-35, and will have to go on the road this year. We'll watch road trips to Clemson and Arkansas very closely. Tough to play well at those sites with an inexperienced offense. If Troy can hang tough, we'll go along with the current bandwagon that has them on the top rung of the Sun Belt ladder.

Athlon Ranking: 90th
2010 Total Offense: 46th
2010 Total Defense: 61st
Strength: Rush Offense (27th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (77th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Mario Cristobal
Notebook: FIU would have won the Sun Belt with a 7-1 record last year if they hadn't gagged their regular season finale at home against Middle Tennessee as a five-point favorite. They did recover emotionally to beat Toledo in the Little Caesar's Bowl…in a matchup only Las Vegas gamblers could watch. There is talent back, but quarterback Wesley Carroll is not a sure thing to impress when the chips are down. This was a running team rather than a passing team last season. As we mentioned earlier, FIU jumps right into frying pan with a conference opener against North Texas this Thursday.

Athlon Ranking: 97th
2010 Total Offense: 40th
2010 Total Defense: 105th
Strength: Pass Offense (31st)
Weakness: Run Defense (110th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Hugh Freeze
Notebook: The Red Wolves can certainly jump into the conference race this year, catching both Troy and FIU from behind. They were 4-4 last year, with road losses of exactly a touchdown to the teams currently in front of them in the Athlon rankings. That means both meetings will be at home this year. Quarterback Ryan Aplin moved the ball well through the air, as you can see in the Pass Offense ranking above. An interesting first month sees road trips to Illinois and Virginia Tech. If this team matures in those challenge games…they become a very legitimate darkhorse in our view. Hugh Freeze was an assistant at Connecticut. Maybe a new coach is what's needed to push this team to the top.

Athlon Ranking: 102nd
2010 Total Offense: 85th
2010 Total Defense: 67th
Strength: Pass Offense (56th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (96th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Todd Berry
Notebook: Four teams, and four returning quarterbacks. That streak will end with this team. Kolton Browning wasn't bad for a freshman last year. The fact that he's one of eight returning starters on the offensive side suggests that good things could be ahead this year. These guys caught Troy napping last year, and hope to surprise a few more teams in 2011. A brutal September takes the Warhawks to Florida State, TCU, and Iowa. That's not just a gauntlet, but a very physical gauntlet that's sure to take it's toll on this undersized squad. We'll probably pick our spots with this team in league play if the price is right. It depends on who's still healthy in October and November.

Athlon Ranking: 105th
2010 Total Offense: 69th
2010 Total Defense: 72nd
Strength: Pass Defense (30th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (94th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 3 on defense
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill
Notebook: The Blue Raiders may have been one of the worst teams to ever play in a bowl last year. We're talking about a team that lost regular season games to Minnesota, Memphis, and North Texas managing to sneak into the postseason…where they lost by two touchdowns to Miami of Ohio. Ugh! Hardly anyone is back on defense this year. These guys couldn't stop the run last year against a weak schedule. That's bad news for the September 10th home game against the option attack of Georgia Tech. Problems at quarterback and that inexperience on defense makes it hard to be enthusiastic about MTSU this season.

Athlon Ranking: 109th
2010 Total Offense: 64th
2010 Total Defense: 77th
Strength: Rush Offense (19th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (96th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Dan McCarney
Notebook: New coach Dan McCarney more than held his own when he was at Iowa State. With all due respect to other Sun Belt coaches…McCarney has a chance to come in and have an immediate impact with the Mean Green. Maybe it will take a year. But, North Texas is going to be a much better team under his leadership. They don't return a quarterback. They don't even return anybody who knows what it's like to win. Growing pains may get ugly with early meetings against Houston and Alabama. We'll be looking for spots to back this team in the second half of the season if McCarney gets them moving in the right direction.

Athlon Ranking: 110th
2010 Total Offense: 98th
2010 Total Defense: 68th
Strength: Rush Offense (33rd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (115th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Willie Taggart
Notebook: There are only 120 board teams in college football. Athlon has four Sun Belt teams ranked from 109-120th. Tough to even call it 'major college football' when you get down to this level. Western Kentucky does have a lot of experience back, and returns starting quarterback Kawaun Jakes. The Hilltopppers lost four league games by a touchdown or less in 2010. That gives them real hope to improve on their 2-6 Sun Belt record, 2-10 overall.

Athlon Ranking: 114th
2010 Total Offense: 83rd
2010 Total Defense: 82nd
Strength: Pass Offense (37th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (111th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Mark Hudspeth
Notebook: Sometimes a new head coach can kick a team up 20-30 spots on the national ladder just by enforcing fundamentals and getting his team to play smarter. Other times…the program doesn't go anywhere, and a new guy takes his shot 3-4 years later. No way to know what the future holds for Hudspeth until some games are played. This team was 3-9 last year and had two wins by exactly one point. They were almost 1-11! They'll take a beating in a season opener at Oklahoma State…then try to get off the mat and build a program.

Athlon Ranking: 120th
2010 Total Offense: 107th
2010 Total Defense: 85th
Strength: Pass Defense (29th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (115th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 3 on defense
Head Coach: Howard Schnellenberger
Notebook: The highlight this season will be a new stadium. The Owls won't get to play there until they suffer through FIVE road games! The slate includes Florida, Michigan State, and Auburn. Well, consider that a fundraising trip for the program before Schnellenberger calls it a career. Rebuilding starts NEXT year, which is why Athlon ranks this as the worst team in the country in 2011.

That wraps up our look at the Sun Belt. Don't forget that JIM HURLEY'S NFL PRESEASON GAME OF THE YEAR goes this weekend! You can purchase it right here at the website with your credit card. See you again Sunday with a rundown of major college Independents.

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