By rule, if it can, the SBC champion will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if that team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or if that team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and its ranking is higher that that of a champion of a conference that has an automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
It was just two years ago Middle Tennessee State, concluded the season with 10 wins, marking the first Sun Belt Conference team in history to reach the 10-win mark.
To do so, though, they will need to begin knocking off more than fellow Sun Belt squads as the league has taken it on the chin in lined games outside the conference the past two seasons, going 10-61 SU and 28-41-2 ATS.
Still, they have never been shy about taking on the big boys, and this year is no exception as 22 of the league’s 32 non-conference FBS game are against teams that appeared in a bowl game last season. In fact, Florida Atlantic opens the 2011 campaign against bowlers in each of its first three games – all on the road, no less.
Granted, they may be hands-down the weakest of the 11 BCS conference affiliates, and it’s league champ won’t be guaranteed a BCS bowl, but don’t tell them. They’ve still having plenty of fun in the sun.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2011 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
TEAM THEME: DEEP FREEZE
Despite leading the Red Wolves to their most victories in an eight-year span since 1985-1992, a second straight eight-loss season put HC Steve Roberts on ice. Enter OC Hugh Freeze. The offense improved leaps and bounds in Freeze’s first year as offensive coordinator and should continue in that direction with QB Ryan Aplin returning for his junior season. Freeze was the high school coach of Michael Oher and the ‘Blind Side’ star raved about his former mentor. “He’s a player’s coach,” Oher said. “If he has anything, you can have it. That’s the kind of guy he is.” Judging by last year’s improved attack, it looks to us like Mr. Freeze HAS a plan.
Stat You Will Like: After ranking No. 95 in total offense in 2009, the Red Wolves’ spread offense ranked No. 43 last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Louisiana Monroe (10/8)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC – 7 / 5
TEAM THEME: HEADING HOME
A precipitous drop in offensive production last year (10 PPG, 129 YPG) found the Owls sleeping on the job in 2010 as they were outstatted in every game they played. The punishment is a season-opening five-game road trip (see ‘Stat’ below) as FAU awaits the opening of its brand, spanking new stadium. “The first five games demonstrates we will go anywhere to play the best teams in the nation,” contends veteran Howard Schnellenberger, the wily veteran head coach who announced he will be heading home to retirement at season’s end. We think what Howie’s really saying is ‘we’ll do anything necessary to help fill the coffers and pad my IRA.’ The upside to the early travel is that the Owls will close out the 2011 season in its new digs for five of the final seven games.
Stat You Will Like: Teams playing its 5th straight road game are 11-4 ATS since 1980, including 6-0 ATS when seeking revenge.
PLAY ON: at North Texas (10/8)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: PUT IT IN REVERSE
Off the best season in FIU’s short existence as an FBS school, it’s time for us to put our MISSION REVERSE theory to work. Simply put, we look to fade teams off a winning year if they were a loser each of the previous three seasons. With nary a winning season in its history until last year, the Panthers fit the M.O. tighter than O.J.’s glove. With road games in five of its final seven contests, FIU will need to take advantage of an early-season home slate. The problem with that is since 2005 the Panthers are riding an 18-game losing streak during the first three game of the season and we want no part of that. Like we said, if the glove fits…
Stat You Will Like: The Panthers are 0-6 SU and ATS with rest vs. conference opponents under Mario Cristobal.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arkansas State (10/18)
LOUISIANA LAFAYETTE - *5 / 7
TEAM THEME: MOVIN’ ON
The Cajuns hustled to find a replacement for HC Ricky Bustle after a 3-9 season lowered his bowl-less 10-year mark at Lafayette to 41-65. Enter Mark Hudspeth, most recently a WR coach at Mississippi State and former mentor at North Alabama for seven seasons, where he guided the Lions to five playoff appearances. Hudspeth will likely implement a two-quarterback offense, featuring classic passer Chris Masson (4,248 yards, 21 TD’s last two seasons) and dynamic runner Blaine Gautier. A very young offensive line and seven road games likely means a slow start to a new era and another trip home for the holidays.
Stat You Will Like: The Cajuns’ offensive line lost three seniors for the second straight season.
PLAY ON: vs. Florida Atlantic (10/1)
LOUISIANA MONROE - *11 / 8
TEAM THEME: BERRY CLOSE
Three losses to SEC powers by a combined 104-10 count denied Todd Berry a winning debut with the Warhawks last season. Replacing that triumvirate in 2011 will be Florida State, Iowa and TCU so they’ll need to take care of business once the conference bell sounds. QB Kolton Browning, responsible for nearly 3,000 yards of total offense as a freshman last year and primary pitch-and-catch partner, WR Luther Ambrose headline an offense that welcomes back all 11 starters. The return of eight starters should bolster a defense that slipped in 2010. The key will be avoiding an early knockout as the Warhawks close out the campaign against six sub .500 opponents.
Stat You Will Like: The Warhawks are 17-3 ATS as conference dogs off an ATS loss.
PLAY ON: at LA-Lafayette (11/5)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE – 7 / 3
TEAM THEME: OVER KILL
After going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time ever in school history, Rick’s ‘Stock’ has risen even faster than Barrack Obama’s after the Bin Laden kill. However, for a second straight season there will a change in offensive and defensive coordinators. And for good reason as both the offense and defense took a step back last year. That won’t be the only new components in Murfreesboro this season. According to their head coach, the Raiders will be looking for baby-sitters. “We are going to be a young team at nearly every position,” said Stockstill. While another soft schedule could help the Raiders hit the alleys for a third straight ‘campaign’, we’re not quite ready to cast a vote.
Stat You Will Like: For the second straight season, the Blue Raiders will face only two teams that owned a winning record last year.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Western Kentucky (10/6)
NORTH TEXAS – 6 / 7
TEAM THEME: OUT OF DODGE(S)
An injury-ravaged season – especially at the quarterback position – spelled the inevitable in Denton. When the final dust settled, the Dodge era had come to a complete end as QB Riley put in his walking papers after his father, Todd, was canned seven games into the season, thanks to a lean 6-37 mark. Enter Dan McCarney, former 12-year head coach at Iowa State (56-85) and most recent defensive line coach at Florida. While McCarney inherits a strong running game, spearheaded by Lance Dunbar (1,553 yards, 13 TD’s), his defensive prowess will be tested early with powerful offenses Houston, Alabama and Tulsa on the non-conference slate. It may be a good thing that Dodge got out of town.
Stat You Will Like: McCarney is 3-17 ATS as a conference road dog of 13 or more points.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Western Kentucky (11/19)
TROY - *6 / 8
TEAM THEME: LARRY THE ABLE GUY
The five-time defending Sun Belt champions will know early what kind of season is in store for 2011. Troy opens the season with a pair of roadies at Clemson and Arkansas, before hosting an annual grudge match with conference rival MTSU. Fourteen starters are back to ‘protect’ the Trojans title, including QB Corey Robinson, who threw for an impressive 3,707 yards as a freshman last season. Should the Trojans get through September unscathed, a less lubricating schedule awaits with only two squads owning winning records from last season. Meanwhile, HC Larry Blakeney enters his 22nd year on the Troy sidelines, currently the third longest tenure in the nation. And God knows we all trust the ‘Trojan Man’.
Stat You Will Like: The Trojans are 87-13-1 at home under Blakeney.
PLAY ON: vs. UAB (10/1)
WESTERN KENTUCKY - *7 / 10
Team Theme: TAG, YOU’RE IT
When the Hilltoppers hired Willie Taggert to stop the bleeding last year, he proclaimed that Western Kentucky was in his DNA. While a meager pair of wins by the former 8-year WKU assistant might not look like much, a deeper look inside the numbers confirms the team's progress. The Hilltoppers’ defense improved nearly 100 YPG and 7 PPG, and they actually outstatted three opponents, snapping a 20-game stat losing skein. On offense, RB Bobby Rainey is back after rushing for 1,649 yards and 15 TD’s. Taggert’s success in Year Two will likely depend on the success of Rainey’s legs but we think they're headed in the right direction.
Stat You Will Like: The Hilltoppers are 3-34 SU from Game Three out.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Louisiana-Monroe (10/29)
Be sure to check back here next Monday, August 22nd for Marc’s WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE Football Preview!