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2011 Sun Belt conference report

Sun Belt 2011 Conference Report
Can Troy recapture the conference throne? Will Dan McCarney work wonders at North Texas? Is there anything T.Y. Hilton can't do? Ben Glicksman tackles that and more in his 2011 Sun Belt preview.
 
How They'll Finish
 
 ConferenceOverall
FIU6-28-4
Troy6-27-5
Arkansas-State5-36-6
Middle Tenn.5-36-6
La.-Monroe4-45-7
 
 ConferenceOverall
North Texas4-44-8
Western Kentucky2-63-9
Florida Atlantic2-63-9
La.-Lafayette2-62-10
 
Offensive MVP
 
WR
T.Y. Hilton
2010 stats: 848 rec yds, 5 TD; 300 rush yds, 4 TD; 959 ret yds, 2 TD
2011 projection: 950 yds, 7 TD; 275 yds, 4 TD; 1,100 yds, 3 TD
One of the nation's most dynamic players, Hilton can take over a game at any time. He piled up 848 receiving yards, 282 rushing yards, 959 return yards and 11 total touchdowns last season, capping his campaign with a heroic performance in the Little Caesars Bowl against Toledo (210 all-purpose yards, two touchdowns and a game-saving hook-and-ladder reception in the final minute). Hilton earned Sun Belt Player of the Year honors in 2010. This year should be no different.
 
Defensive MVP
 
DE
Jonathan Massaquoi
2010 stats: 76 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 1 FF
2011 projection: 80 tackles, 22 TFL, 14 sacks, 2 FF
At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, Massaquoi lacks the size of a prototypical defensive end. That hasn't stopped him from blowing by opposing linemen. The sophomore totaled 13.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2010 -- fourth and ninth in the FBS -- and has developed a reputation as the conference's elite sack master. That perception is starting to spread nationwide. Massaquoi was named to the preseason Walter Camp, Lombardi, Nagurksi and Bednarik Award watch lists in July.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Troy at Arkansas
Saturday, Sept. 17
7:30 p.m. ET
Troy has been dreadful against SEC competition dating back to 2002, going 0-11 with a 20.6 point average margin of defeat. Though daunting, this September showdown may be its best chance to win. Quarterback Corey Robinson returns to lead last year's 11th ranked passing attack, while Arkansas will be without Ryan Mallett, Knile Davis and three starting offensive linemen.
 
Central Florida at FIU
Saturday, Sept. 17
6 p.m. ET
Over the past few seasons, UCF and FIU have followed very similar trajectories. Both were bottom feeders in 2008, going a combined 9-15. Both captured upstart bowl victories last year. Now both enter 2011 as conference favorites, looking to transform last year's success from rare to recurring. The matchup also features two promising up-and-comers, UCF quarterback Jeff Godfrey and FIU defensive end Tourek Williams.
 
Houston at North Texas
Saturday, Oct. 1
7 p.m. ET
A one-sided affair at a glance, this early October tussle is actually packed with intrigue. It's Houston quarterback Case Keenum's second game back, potentially revealing much about his ACL recovery. It's a chance to watch North Texas tailback Lance Dunbar, who raced for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Perhaps most significantly, it's an opportunity for newly hired North Texas coach Dan McCarney to win his first home game. He resurrected Iowa State's program in the early 2000s, and will look to do the same as leader of the Mean Green.
 
Key Conference Game
 
FIU at Troy
Tuesday, Oct. 25
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
A rare nationally televised showcase, this late October contest could go a long way toward determining the conference champion. The Golden Panthers and Trojans are both built around high-powered offenses and little else, and they'll likely top the standings again in 2011. If Troy wants to regain its Sun Belt stronghold, it'll have to sure up the run defense. The Trojans allowed an embarrassing 448 rushing yards -- including three 100-yard rushers -- in last year's 52-35 beatdown.
 
Three Key Questions
 
More magic for Mario Cristobal? Perhaps no bowl victory meant more to a school than FIU's dramatic 34-32 victory in last year's Little Caesars Bowl. As confetti, fans and players poured onto the field, an emotional Mario Cristobal told an ESPN sideline reporter, "That is awesome." The same can be said about his job as FIU's coach, leading a 1-11 program to it first winning season. He'll look to continue that success this year, bolstered by the return of quarterback Wesley Carroll, tailback Dariet Perry and do-it-all receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Can Corey Robinson keep maturing? Despite throwing for a nearly unfathomable 91 touchdowns his senior season at Lone Oaks (Ky.) High, quarterback Corey Robinson received offers from just Troy, Murray State and Eastern Kentucky entering college. That seems like an error in judgment. Robinson threw for 3,726 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2010, both tops among freshmen, and dissected Ohio in last year's New Orleans Bowl. He'll look to continue disproving doubters this year while minimizing interceptions (15) and sacks (23).
Will a new nest save the owls? Florida Atlantic begins the season with five consecutive road games, including three in a row at Florida, Michigan State and Auburn. It doesn't get much more difficult. Their brand new $70 million stadium is scheduled to open Oct. 15, which is a potential turning point for a team that could be winless.
 

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