NCF Nation: Sun Belt Conference

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. Offensive player of the year: Rusty Smith, QB, FAU -- Smith had a tough go last year, but said he's healthy and free of distractions this season. He has several weapons that could make the Owls one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.

2. Co-defensive players of the year: Brandon Lang, DE, Troy and Alex Carrington, DE, Arkansas State -- These players put up similar numbers as juniors last season and are in line to have similar success for their senior campaigns. Look for both players to be at the top of the conference in sacks and tackles for loss.

3. Newcomer of the year: Dudley LaPorte, TE, FIU -- It took awhile for LaPorte, a transfer from Santa Barbra City College, to find an FBS team, but he'll definitely help out an FIU offense that's looking for more playmakers. LaPorte was the nation's top junior college tight end last season.

4. Comeback player of the year: Jason Harmon, TE, Florida Atlantic -- Harmon was a first team all-conference selection in 2007 after amassing 63 catches for 825 yards and five touchdowns. But he suffered a knee injury during 2008 spring practice and missed all of last season.

5. Freshman of the year Josh Jarboe, WR, Troy -- Jarboe is still working his way up the depth chart, but teammates say he's putting in the work, coming along and should be a factor in the offense. If Jarboe lives up to the hype, he could be one of the most dangerous players in the league.

6. Most exciting player: T.Y. Hilton, WR, FIU -- Hilton opened eyes last year as a freshman with the first 1,000-yard receiving season in FIU history. He also was one of the top kick returners in the country.

7. Coach of the year: Larry Blakeney, Troy -- The Trojans could make Sun Belt history by winning their fourth consecutive conference title. Only North Texas can claim a similar feat. The Trojans return several of their key playmakers on both offense and defense.

8. Game of the year: Florida Atlantic at Troy, Nov. 21 --
This game should decide the Sun Belt title since both teams are poised to be tops in the conference. In the past two seasons, the winner has gone on to win the conference title.

9. Surprise team of the year: North Texas -- Coach Todd Dodge has yet to live up to the reputation he made in the high school ranks, but with his son Riley leading the team at quarterback, the Mean Green might be poised for a big season. All the team needs is some defense.

10. Team that will disappoint: Arkansas State -- Quarterback Corey Leonard has accomplished a lot during his time with the Red Wolves, but he's the lone heralded senior quarterback without a conference title. The Red Wolves have the players to vie for a conference championship, but they'll fall short against FAU and Troy.

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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt Conference learned a tough lesson last year -- win or stay home.

Last July, the Sun Belt Conference inked a secondary bowl agreement with the Independence, Papajohns.com and St. Petersburg bowls. But there was some confusion in the language. Commissioner Wright Waters said his intent was that if the secondary bowls couldn't fill their guarantee slots, then they'd pick the next eligible Sun Belt team at 7-5, and if they were no 7-5 teams, they'd pick a 6-6 team.

But the bowls read the agreement differently. If there were no 7-5 teams, the three bowls could choose a team from the nationwide pool of bowl-eligible teams. And that's what happened since only league champion Troy had a record better than 6-6.

"The problem we had last year was some terrible language that I am responsible for in the letter of agreement," Waters said.

While Florida Atlantic managed to lobby for an at-large spot, the conference received a major wake-up call about the perception of the league and the level of football it needed to play to earn respect from the bowls.

"The Sun Belt, and I hope our teams, have learned that they need to aspire to be winning teams," Waters said during the Sun Belt media days video conference call. "If you have winning teams and those bowl opportunities are available, there would have been opportunity."

Waters hopes to work out more bowl deals for his conference when the new contracts are negotiated for next season, but he knows his conference is going to have to show that it's better than managing just the bare minimum to get into a bowl game.

Teams such as Troy and Florida Atlantic are starting to receive consistent respect from leagues outside the Sun Belt, and some of the major guarantees Sun Belt schools are receiving are allowing Sun Belt teams to schedule more home games, increase attendance and generate more fan support.

All of which, Waters said, shows growth within his young conference.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Don't forget, today my colleagues Pat Forde, Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach will be cutting the FBS to 40 teams in a live draft at 1 p.m. ET.

I'm not hopeful that a lot of teams from the five nonautomatic qualifying conferences and independents will survive, but I've seen calls for Utah, BYU, TCU, Boise State and East Carolina to get in.

Remember, this is based on each drafter's preference, but money, stadium and facilities become a big deal. That makes this a tough call. It will be interesting to see what the drafters decide to do with the group of 54.

You can still go on SportsNation and pick your 40 teams and I still welcome nominations from the five-conference coalition.

I'll be back to discuss the picks later this afternoon.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

If you think the members of the nonautomatic qualifying schools get no respect under the current BCS system, my colleagues at ESPN have a solution -- do away with them altogether.

That's right, in a live draft at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Pat Forde, Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach will turn the FBS into a 40-team affair and eliminate the haves from the have-nots.

That means goodbye Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference and probably most of the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West. And independents, you're probably out the door, too. My guess is that three, maybe four schools from the five conferences and independents survive this purge.

According to Forde:

We'll be drafting the most successful programs in the nation, based on whatever criteria each of us chooses to bring to the situation room. There is no set formula for this. Wins and losses matter most -- and what you've done in the 21st century is more important than what happened in the 1930s -- but fan following and overall prestige count, too.

It won't be pretty for the non-AQs. Heck, it will be downright ugly, but it will give us all something to talk about during the next week. And, of course, we're not going to deny you your say. SportsNation wants to hear your 40 teams, and I want to know which members of the five-conference coalition you'd keep in the mix?

We'll see who makes the cut tomorrow.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt Conference is next on the list for fall camp dates. This is the Sun Belt's ninth season. Its first camp begins Aug. 2, but players begin to report Thursday. The conference's final camp begins on Aug. 10.

Here are some bullet points for the Sun Belt Conference:

• Western Kentucky begins its first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

• Troy won its first outright Sun Belt title in 2008 and shared the title in 2006 and 2007.

• The Sun Belt Conference defeated two BCS teams last season -- Middle Tennessee defeated Maryland and Arkansas State defeated Texas A&M.

• Louisiana-Lafayette ranked No. 13 in total offense last season and it ranked seventh in the country in rushing offense.

• Florida International receiver T.Y. Hilton became the first FIU receiver to have a 1,000-yard season. He ranked No. 3 in the country in all-purpose yards and ninth in punt returns.

• The conference loses the nation's No. 1 receiver in terms of receptions per game (UNT's Casey Fitzgerald), the No. 2 tackler in the country (FAU's Frantz Joseph), and the No. 9 rusher in the country (ULL's Tyrell Fenroy).

• Arkansas State defensive end Alex Carrington ranked No. 7 in the country with 1.58 tackles for loss per game. He was also No. 14 in the country in sacks.

SUN BELT CONFERENCE FALL CAMP START DATES

Aug. 2
Troy

Aug. 5
Louisiana-Lafayette

Aug. 6
FIU
Louisiana-Monroe

Aug. 7
Arkansas State
North Texas

Aug. 9
Florida Atlantic
Western Kentucky

Aug. 10
Middle Tennessee

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Since the Sun Belt Conference formed in 2001, its members have traditionally played some of the tougher nonconference schedules in the country. Overmatched Sun Belt teams often schedule games with SEC and Big 12 schools in return for large guarantee money that can help keep a program afloat.

 
  Joel Auerbach-US PRESSWIRE
  Mario Cristobal is mentally preparing his team to expect to upset one of its nonconference opponents.

But just because these games are set up to be easy wins for the nation's six BCS conferences doesn't mean Sun Belt teams don't look at them as an opportunity to put their programs on the map.

In 2004, Troy convinced Missouri to come to Alabama and handed the Tigers a 24-14 loss. In 2007, Louisiana-Monroe went into Alabama and beat the Crimson Tide 21-14. And last year, Middle Tennessee defeated Maryland 24-14 and Arkansas State defeated Texas A&M 18-14.

So it's no surprise that Florida International coach Mario Cristobal, who arguably has the toughest nonconference schedule of any of the Sun Belt teams, has his team preparing for their nonconference as if an upset was not only possible, but likely.

"God forbid the day we ever approach a game thinking, 'Well, it might not be a good day for us.'" Cristobal said during last week's Sun Belt media day. "Everyone in the building and I know everyone in the conference feels the same way. We take and sign on to every playing opportunity as a chance to have a victory and fully believing that we're going to win that football game. Players are going to take on the personality of their coach and our personality is to play anyone in the country. And we're going to keep along those lines."

The Panthers play at Alabama and at Rutgers to begin the season and play at Florida in the second-to-last game of the year.

Since the FIU joined the Sun Belt in 2005, it has never defeated a team from the six BCS conferences. It was close against Maryland and South Florida, but has lost by an average of 28 points to SEC opponents and hasn't scored more than nine points against one.

Still, Cristobal said the allure of playing an SEC school in front of 100,000 people is something that helps him on the recruiting trail and something that has allowed him to pick up better recruits during each of his three recruiting seasons. Just this year, Cristobal signed his first four-star recruit in linebacker Larvez Mars and tight end Dudley LaPorte, who is considered one of the best tight end prospects in the country.

And this year, FIU goes into these games as the most seasoned team in the country. According to Phil Steele, FIU leads the nation with 412 career starts between its players. Florida ranks sixth on that list, Alabama ranks 51st and Rutgers ranks 75th.

"It builds confidence," Cristobal said. "We came to FIU to build a championship football program and we've come a long way and we have a long way to go ... . The types of young men that we are recruiting are the types that want to play on that big stage, that want that challenge and want a chance to knock off a top 10, Top 25 football team."

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

For the first time in the conference's nine-year history, the Sun Belt Conference is offering its own full-color preview magazine. Troy receiver Jerrel Jernigan is on the cover.

Conference USA also has a preseason magazine with the same company -- All Points Sports Publishing. East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney is on the cover of the Conference USA magazine.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

There's no doubt that one of the biggest disservices of the current BCS system is the
payout structure for the nonautomatic qualifying conferences, and it's something Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson addressed during his address Wednesday during media days.

"We're never going to stop the challenge because of the revenue piece," Thompson said.

Thompson's biggest gripe was the nonautomatic qualifying conferences sharing revenue from a team going to a BCS bowl and sharing the overall chunk of BCS money that's given to every conference for its participation.

Utah's appearance in the Sugar Bowl netted $9.6 million for the five-conference coalition. About $6 million of that went to the Mountain West for having the participant while the rest was split into shares for the other conferences.

The five conferences also split another $9.6 million for their participation in the BCS. That number works out to roughly 9 percent of the BCS' total revenue. That BCS revenue share is split in half and each of the five conferences is given an equal portion of one of the halves. The other half is split into 15 shares and handed out based on performance. I outlined this process in an earlier post in June.

So, overall the Mountain West netted about $9.7 million this year (though it earned about $8.5 million after sharing the agreement). The WAC came in second with about $3.2 million.

That's pocket change compared to the $23.1 million the Big 10, SEC and Big 12 each made last season according to the NCAA. The Pac-10, ACC and Big East each made 18.6 million. Notre Dame made $1.3 million for going 7-6.

Obviously, the biggest reason for the huge deficit is access to BCS bowl games and the sharing. Not to mention that the five non-AQ schools are sharing 9 percent of the BCS' $148 million revenue.

This is what prompted Thompson to say on Wednesday that he'd like to adopt the winner-take-all approach to BCS revenue. In 2004, when Utah became the first BCS buster, the Mountain West earned $14.6 million. That number was just $1.6 million less than the Pac-10, ACC and Big East made that same year. That was also before the five non-AQ conferences had to share the BCS bowl money.

"I can see those other four leagues getting some for participation, but the best for us would be when a conference gets a team in the BCS, the other 9 percent goes totally to that conference," Thompson said.

Since 2004, the Mountain West has earned $32.67 million in BCS revenue, according to a document published by the NCAA. The WAC, which has had two BCS participants in that time, has made $23.5 million. It's also interesting to note that the Mountain West earned about $780,800 more for its BCS appearance than the WAC did in 2006 and about $618,800 more than the WAC earned in 2007 (again, before the money was shared with the other four conferences).

Thompson will have his chance to pitch going back to the old way of revenue distribution when the five conferences revisit the matter for the 2010 season. The current revenue distribution system has been in place for three seasons and is in its final season.

However, it's highly probable that Thompson will meet resistance on going back to the old style because BCS revenue for conferences such as Conference USA, the Mid-American and Sun Belt have nearly doubled since 2004. In 2004, Conference USA and the MAC made just over $1 million and the Sun Belt made $720,000. This year, Conference USA earned $2.6 million, the MAC earned about $2 million and the Sun Belt nabbed $1.5 million in BCS revenue.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The first day of the Sun Belt videoconferencing media days is in the books, and I thought I would share my thoughts about the format and the first day of the event.

First, let me say that I thought it went well. Although the Sun Belt Conference didn't have a firm count of how many people were actually on the videoconference, more than 50 had registered, which was more than had registered for last year's in-person event in New Orleans. While most of the beat writers were registered for media days, the Sun Belt also had questions from several national writers, which will help the conference grow its brand.

But the event was not without its glitches.

Several schools had trouble working the videoconferencing tool initially, which led to a lot of dead air. Also, the coaches were the only ones videoconferencing. Although several reporters -- myself included -- had webcams up and running, none of us turned on our feed. It was more of a voyeuristic deal with a teleconference. You were watching the coaches, but they weren't watching you.

I also had trouble getting my sound to work for the videoconferencing, so I ended up watching the coaches and listening and talking on the teleconference (through the phone). I'm pretty sure that problem was specific to me and my ineptitude with videoconferencing in general.

The moderator also struggled a bit pronouncing the names of the reporters and some of the names of the outlets. She referred to the Jonesboro Sun as the Jonas Brothers Sun several times. In her defense, she probably didn't know much about the Sun Belt Conference or the media outlets that cover it. She also had to listen to a recording of the reporter saying his or her name and outlet and then relay it to the group. Sometimes that could be difficult to hear.

Of course the biggest thing for me was simply being able to be a part of the Sun Belt media day. Had it been an in-person media day, I wouldn't have been able to participate. I bet several of the other national outlets felt the same way.

I think the idea was neat and the format was fun. It seemed like the coaches and players enjoyed it, and for the most part everyone was personable. Some coaches and players were better interviews than others, but that goes along with the territory. It was casual and it seemed like the coaches appreciated being able to do their videoconference and get back to work.

Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts was probably the only one with a gripe:

"Two things: One, I'm going to miss the food," Roberts said jokingly. "Two, I'm glad that we're able to knock this out here and save time and the trip. Obviously, this is a very busy time for everybody involved in college football. So, it does save us the time of going down and spending a couple days coming back. Hopefully it will work out well for all the media. We'll still be able to get the coverage around the conference that we get from media days in New Orleans.

"But I was looking forward to taking [defensive end] Alex [Carrington] down there and taking him out to eat and seeing what he could put away. It might have broke the bank, but overall I'm pleased with the way things have gone so far."

The Sun Media videoconferencing experience wraps up Tuesday with the final three coaches and commissioner Wright Waters.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt Conference has released its preseason poll for the 2009 season. The league's nine head coaches voted.

School, Points
Troy 72 (5)
Arkansas State 69
Florida Atlantic 61 (1)
Middle Tennessee 52
FIU 43 (1)
Louisiana-Lafayette 39 (1)
ULM 34 (1)
North Texas 18
WKU 17

My Sun Belt poll is pretty similar, though I like Florida Atlantic above Arkansas State. My Sun Belt Conference poll is below.

Troy
Florida Atlantic
Arkansas State
Middle Tennessee
FIU
Louisiana-Lafayette
ULM
North Texas
WKU

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Sun Belt media days are in full swing.

Florida Atlantic and Florida International have already gone and the new video teleconferencing has had mixed results. It's probably because I don't really know how to use it. I'll give you guys my thoughts when the day's event is over.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Below is the preseason All-Sun Belt team as voted on by the league's coaches and select media members (I'm not one of them).

Arkansas State quarterback Corey Leonard and Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith shared preseason Offensive Player of the Year honors and Arkansas State defensive end Alex Carrington was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.

I think this is pretty accurate, though I'd be surprised if Troy quarterback Levi Brown didn't give the two preseason players of the year a run for their money.

It's also important to note that there are no representatives from North Texas or Western Kentucky on the list.

Offense
Corey Leonard (Arkansas State, QB, Sr.)
Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic, QB, Sr.)
Reggie Arnold (Arkansas State, RB, Sr.)
DuJuan Harris (Troy, RB, Jr.)
T.Y. Hilton (FIU, WR, So.)
Jerrel Jernigan (Troy, WR, Jr.)
Jamari Grant (Florida Atlantic, TE, Sr.)
Drew Hilton (Arkansas State, OL, Jr.)
Brad Serini (FIU, OL, Jr.)
Brad Bustle (Louisiana-Lafayette, OL, Sr.)
Chris Fisher (Louisiana-Lafayette, OL, Sr.)
Danny Franks (Troy, C, Sr.)

Defense
Alex Carrington (Arkansas State, DL, Sr.)
Aaron Morgan (ULM, DL, Sr.)
Brandon Lang (Troy, DL, Sr.)
Cameron Sheffield (Troy, DL, Sr.)
Cardia Jackson (ULM, LB, Sr.)
Boris Lee (Troy, LB Sr.)
Bear Woods (Troy, LB Sr.)
Anthony Gaitor (FIU, DB, Jr.)
Jeremy Kellem (Middle Tennessee, DB, Sr.)
Greg James (ULM, DB, Sr.)
Jorrick Calvin (Troy, DB Sr.)

Special Teams
Scott Love (ULM, P, Sr.)
Josh Arauco (Arkansas State, K, Sr.)
T.Y. Hilton (FIU, WR, So.)

Co-Preseason Offensive Players of the Year
Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic, QB, Sr.)
Corey Leonard (Arkansas State, QB, Sr.)

Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Alex Carrington (Arkansas State, DE, Sr.)

Media days start today

July, 20, 2009
7/20/09
9:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Media days are finally upon us, which I liken to the start of the college football season.

The Sun Belt Conference is on tap Monday and Tuesday, and I'll have all the coverage of Monday's event. The fun thing about today is that the Sun Belt is doing video conferencing, so it will be the first look at whether the new technology is the way for other conferences to go in an effort to save money.

Today, six schools will take the stage -- Florida Atlantic, FIU, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas -- and both coaches and players will be available. I've included the list of players and coaches at the bottom of this post.

On Tuesday, I'll be at my first and only live media day when I travel to Las Vegas for about 36 hours for the Mountain West Conference's media event. It begins Tuesday and ends early Wednesday.

Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference and the WAC media days are all next week.

So this should be a fun couple weeks as we get ever closer to the beginning of the college football season.

SUN BELT MEDIA DAY ONE

Florida Atlantic
Head coach -- Howard Schnellenberger
Student-athlete -- QB Rusty Smith

FIU
Head coach -- Mario Cristobal
Student-athlete -- WR T.Y. Hilton

Arkansas State
Head coach -- Steve Roberts
Student-athlete -- DE Alex Carrington

Louisiana-Lafayette
Head coach -- Rickey Bustle
Student-athlete -- C Chris Fisher

ULM
Head coach -- Charlie Weatherbie
Student-athlete -- SS James Truxillo

North Texas
Head coach -- Todd Dodge
Student-athlete -- LB Tobe Nwigwe

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

While some college football conferences have been fighting over access, the college football media has been waging a fight over access of information.

Save the media guide.

I know, lame. But it's a fundamental part of college football and one that if removed will have a trickle down effect that will ultimately hurt the type of stories you're reading every day.

For me, it's the not the individual team guides that hurt -- most of those are recruiting blather anyway. It's the conference guides, which are almost exclusively going online. The conference guide is a one-stop shop for everything anyone would want to know about a conference from a numbers perspective and general information about a team. It's the easiest thing to carry on a road trip and a valuable source of information when looking up a random stat on deadline.

Have you ever read a fact or figure in a story and thought it was the most interesting part of the entire piece? Yeah, that's gone because it likely came from a media guide that was pulled out of a bag from the floor of the press box.

Why am I even talking about this? Well, it's two things. As you've probably noticed this week, we at ESPN.com have been looking at the economics of college athletics and the dire straits with which some programs are contending. There are more stories coming, including one about what cost-cutting measures are really worth the effort.

Also, the Football Writers Association of America -- sort of the college football writer governing body -- announced Tuesday that it's fighting to save the media guide. It's backing the SEC -- one of the few conferences keeping all of its media guides intact -- to combat an NCAA proposal by the Pac-10 to do away with media guides altogether.

Among the nonautomatic qualifying conferences, the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA aren't printing league guides.

The following nonautomatic schools aren't printing media guides: Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, Marshall, Rice, SMU, Ball State, Bowling Green, Florida International, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas, and Arkansas State. New Mexico and Tulane are printing a limited number of guides for their media days.

Speaking of media days, those are something else that's slowly disappearing. The Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA have opted to do online media conferences this year and both conferences say they've received interest from other conferences about doing the same in the future.

Personally, I'm OK with this. I'm attending one media day this year -- Mountain West next week. But unlike last year, I'll actually be able to provide content from both the Sun Belt and Conference USA media days because I'll be on their online conferences. To me, that's a tool that's helping the media instead of hampering it.

Really, I'm just looking out for you guys.

In the grand scheme of things, these cuts represent less than 7 percent of a school's overall athletic budget and cutting these things isn't going to make or break the bottom line. But as schools are looking for ways to make sure they don't have to cut teams or personnel, tools that can be provided online are often the first to go.

So, this season is kind of an experiment. We'll learn if this is a better way to operate for both athletic departments and reporters and perhaps this will be the beginning of a dramatic change in college athletics altogether.

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