As we look ahead to the 2011 college football season, we take with us the lessons we learned from seasons past. We calculate, scrutinize, dissect and digest schedules, returning starters, coaching changes, injuries, and yes, even hunches, and spew it back in the form of how we think each of the 11 Division 1 FBS conferences — and independents — will pan out by year’s end.
Of course, these are merely our opinions. Feel free, as we know you will, to disagree. We know that’s why you really come here anyway.
Here are our predictions for the Sun Belt:
Florida International coach Mario Cristobal has transformed the Golden Panthers from the Sun Belt’s doormat, which is about as low as you can get in Division 1-A (FBS), to a conference contender. With a thrilling bowl victory over Toledo to end 2010, FIU enters 2011 with a lot of momentum.
But Troy has been the class of the Sun Belt for the past five years, and it’s hard to imagine the Trojans not being in contention for their sixth straight conference title, shared or outright. Also, keep an eye out for Louisiana-Monroe, which returns a whopping 20 starters.
Beyond the top three, the Sun Belt evens out. Middle Tennessee loses productive quarterback Dwight Dasher (who will now have to deal with money problems on his own), and both Arkansas State and North Texas will be breaking in new coaches this year. And, amazingly, Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger could be on the way out if he doesn’t turn the Owls around quickly.
John Taylor’s take
The easy thing to do would be to slot Troy into the No. 1 slot once again and be done with it. As was the case in conference play last year, though, it won’t be that easy for the Alabama school in 2011 either.
FIU tied for the top spot in the Sun Belt last year with Troy, but received the conference’s automatic berth in the Little Caesars Bowl thanks to its 52-35 win — on the road — over the Trojans. This year, Troy will be forced to travel to Miami for a game that could once again decide the conference’s automatic bowl berth.
That’s no guarantee, however, as Arkansas State and possibly Louisiana-Monroe could find their way into the fight for the top spot, particularly the former as the Red Wolves get both FIU and Troy at home this season. Ironically, all four of those schools mentioned return their starting quarterback from a year ago, which is likely a big reason they’re all being projected to be in the hunt come November.
In the end, however, look for a repeat of last season, only this time FIU will get it done in outright fashion.