- Graham Watson, College Football
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It’s always going to be difficult for the Sun Belt Conference to draw as much attention and praise as some of the other non-AQ conferences get simply because of the nonconference schedules its teams play.
Florida, Alabama and LSU are mainstays on nonconference schedules and make pulling off the undefeated season almost impossible. But the Sun Belt Conference is good for at least one upset of a major conference school every year. This season, Middle Tennessee defeated Maryland for the second consecutive year and Louisiana-Lafayette defeated Kansas State.
While Troy didn’t pull off any big upsets, it did manage to run through the conference season undefeated and claim its fourth consecutive Sun Belt title, matching North Texas as the only teams to accomplish that feat.
For the third time in the past four seasons, the Sun Belt is sending two teams to bowl games, which also has helped them secure two guaranteed bowls for the upcoming bowl cycle. Previously, the Sun Belt had just one guaranteed bowl.
This is the first time in conference history that the Sun Belt has boasted two nine-win teams in Troy and Middle Tennessee. Prior to this season, the conference had only one team ever win nine games (North Texas in 2003).
But the Sun Belt Conference is also the youngest conference in the FBS and is still working toward better schedules, better rosters and better access. The achievements Troy and Middle Tennessee have made this year will only help the conference down that path.
Offensive MVP: Troy quarterback Levi Brown
Brown became the all-time single-season passing yardage leader in Sun Belt Conference history and won the Player of the Week award a record six times. In his first full season of starting, Brown set Troy and Sun Belt Conference single-season records for passing yards (3,868) and total offense (3,887).
Defensive MVP: Middle Tennessee defensive end Chris McCoy
McCoy had 59 tackles, 20 for loss, seven sacks, three pass breakups, a blocked kick and two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned 68 yards for a touchdown. He anchored a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss.
Newcomer of the Year: Troy running back Shawn Southward
Southward didn’t really catch fire until late in the season, but he had two 100-yard rushing games and scored a school record four touchdowns against Western Kentucky. He was the Trojans leading rusher with 574 yards on just 100 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per rush.
Coach of the Year: Troy’s Larry Blakeney
In the latter half of this decade, Blakeney has made Troy a powerhouse in the Sun Belt Conference. The team has won four consecutive conference titles and two consecutive outright titles. This year’s 8-0 campaign was Troy’s first undefeated conference season since joining the Sun Belt and a win in a bowl game would set the single-season record by a Sun Belt team.
Biggest Surprise: Middle Tennessee
To think that Middle Tennessee would be able to win nine games, the most since becoming an FBS school, and challenge for the conference championship with a new quarterback, offense and offensive coordinator is almost unfathomable. But Middle Tennessee pulled off several big wins to become the most improved team in the conference.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic
Both of these teams had several top seniors returning and both were supposed to challenge Troy for the Sun Belt title. But Florida Atlantic lost its first four and six of its first eight and Arkansas State lost eight of its first 10 to notch some of the worst seasons both teams have seen in quite some time.
Game of the Year: Louisiana-Lafayette 17, Kansas State 15 (Sept. 12)
Junior kicker Tyler Albrecht made a 42-yard field goal with 32 seconds left to give the Ragin’ Cajuns an upset victory over the Wildcats and their first 2-0 start since 1990. The kick was Albrecht’s first-ever collegiate attempt.