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Thursday, August 20, 2009
Five things to watch in the Sun Belt Conference


Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. The return of Rusty Smith: The FAU senior quarterback came into last season with a slew of hype, but he was injured early, struggled and the offense struggled right along with him. He said he's healthy and has gotten rid of outside distractions. Also, the experience and wisdom of quarterback coach Jeff Brohm should help restore Smith to his 2007 self.

2. Bowling for bids: The conference's teams were put on notice last year that winning the bare minimum six games for bowl eligibility was not going to help the conference's cause when it comes to at-large bids. The conference has to suffer with just one guaranteed bowl for one more season, but teams have to show that they're good enough to make at-large bowls on merit.

3. Beware the Panthers: Florida International was the sleeper team last season and came away with five wins, three in conference play. This year, teams will be more aware of FIU, but the Golden Panthers are also putting a better product on the field, which should make for an exciting season for both the league and FIU fans.

4. Green giant: Could North Texas be a sleeping giant? That's what folks in Denton, Texas, are hoping for this year behind first-year starting quarterback Riley Dodge. The big question is the defense and whether the Mean Green have improved in that area. If they have, UNT could be the team that sneaks up on the rest of the conference.

5. Quarterbacking conference: The Sun Belt has always had a slew of quarterbacking talent, but this year offers a lot of upper-tier talent, including Smith, Arkansas State's Corey Leonard and Troy's Levi Brown. Brown is relatively new to the scene, starting the final eight games of last season, but he did win a conference title. Of the three, only Leonard doesn't have a conference championship and he'll be gunning for that this year.