2011 Sun Belt Preseason Coaches Poll
2011 All-Sun Belt Preseason Team
Last season's 52-35 upset win by FIU at Troy on November 13 catapulted the Golden Panthers to their first conference title and first bowl appearance, which resulted in a 34-32 win over Toledo at Detroit's Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. Troy and FIU each finished 6-2 in league play to give the Trojans at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the 5th straight season.
FIU and Troy, along with Louisiana-Monroe, are projected to tie for the Sun Belt conference title this season with 7-1 records in league play. And with 1-1 records against each other, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation will get to pick one of those three teams to represent the conference in the New Orleans Bowl. We're forecasting FIU to receive that bid due to a higher ranking and better overall record (10-2 vs. 8-4 for the Trojans and Warhawks).
Part of the reason for the glowing expectations for FIU stem from a significant non-conference schedule downgrade. Rutgers, Texas A&M, Maryland and Pitt are replaced by Louisville, UCF, Duke and Akron. The computer lists FIU as a 0.09-point favorite at Louisville on September 9 and a 0.19-point underdog at home to UCF the following week.
Troy must visit Clemson and Arkansas, while Louisiana-Monroe heads to Florida State, TCU and Iowa.
Only the top three Sun Belt teams are projected to win more than 4 games overall. FAU, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State are each forecasted to go 4-8. Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns, under former Mississippi State assistant Mark Hudspeth (replaces Rickey Bustle), will pick up the rear with a dismal 1-11 record which would represent their worst finish since 2000.
Arkansas State and North Texas also welcome new head coaches. The Red Wolves promoted from within with the selection of offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to replace Steve Roberts, while the Mean Green hired Florida assistant and former Iowa State head coach (1995-2006) Dan McCarney to succeed Todd Dodge.
North Texas' 4-8 projection would be its best finish since 2005 when it went 6-5. However, each predicted victory is by a very thin margin - home vs. Indiana (0.06), home vs. FAU (0.68), at Louisiana-Lafayette (2.11) and home vs. MTSU (0.21). The Congrove Computer Rankings' preseason forecast has nailed the Mean Green's record in each of the last four seasons.
Legendary head coach Howard Schnellenberger has announced he will retire after this season. Schnellenberger, who led the Miami Hurricanes to the 1983 national title, was hired to start the FAU football program which began play in 2001. He has guided the Boca Raton school to a 10-year record of 57-63 (29-33 since becoming a fully qualified FBS member in 2006), including 2-0 in bowl games. He is 157-140-3 overall, but only 4 of his previous 26 campaigns have finished with his team ranked in the Coaches' or AP polls. His final campaign opens with consecutive road trips to Florida, Michigan State and Auburn.
MTSU plays Purdue, Georgia Tech (home) and Tennessee, but its SOS is drastically cut by the presence of a Memphis team that is expected to be one of the worst-performing teams ever in the FBS. Additionally, neither the Boilermakers, Yellow Jackets or Vols are projected to win more than 6 games this year.
Western Kentucky is picked to finish 4-8 after a compiling a meager 2-22 record in its first two seasons as a full-fledged Sun Belt member. The Hilltoppers are 2-19 vs. Sun Belt teams since 2008, but are favored this season over Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas.
The Sun Belt continues to be the weakest of the FBS conferences with six schools projected to rank 90th or worst among the 120 teams. And the league's nine members are forecasted to go a combined 11-25 in non-conference play.