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Sun Belt gives players a chance

Growing up in Tecumseh, Okla., just east of Norman, Patrick Cobbs had a choice to make: OU or Okie State?

"It's hard to be in Oklahoma and not be a fan of either one, but my family was OU all the way, so I was against them. I always liked the underdog," Cobbs said.

"And they were all Dallas fans, so whoever Dallas was playing -- that's who I was for. That's kind of how I was, the odd kid in the family."

Naturally, Cobbs' choice of colleges didn't follow the normal path -- or the path to Norman.

Playing at the University of North Texas, in the Sun Belt Conference, deep in the shadows of Longhorns and the Big 12, may not sound like college football nirvana.

For Cobbs, and other top players in the league, it fits like a new pair of socks. They're the ones who didn't get offers from larger schools coming out of high school, but now have distinguished themselves as worthy at any level.

"I don't spend time wondering what it would be like playing in a bigger conference or for a bigger school," said Cobbs, who led the nation in rushing with 1,570 yards and 17 touchdowns last year as a Mean Green junior. "North Texas is the right spot for me. I'm happy I'm here."

Away from college football's beaten path, the Sun Belt provides an alternative to grander stages, and equal access to the NFL.

"We're not battling the University of Texas and LSU for recruits. We're working with a different athlete from that standpoint," said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle, who helped build Virginia Tech into a BCS power, then opted to downsize two years ago for a head coaching opportunity.

"A lot of the kids we bring in flourish here," Bustle said. "There are recruiting success stories everywhere, but one thing we offer is that they're going to have a chance to play earlier, that type of athlete."

In recent years, Louisiana-Lafayette has sent its share of players to the NFL, including Charles Tillman (Bears), Ike Taylor (Steelers), Brad Franklin (Seahawks) and Brandon Stokely (Colts).

Bustle is as likely to mention former Ragin' Cajun Jake Delhomme during recruiting pitches as Michael Vick, whom Bustle coached at Virginia Tech.

Often, it's a matter of getting recruits to take a closer look at what Lafayette and the Sun Belt offer. And sometimes it's not just the recruits.

Bustle had to convince his 14-year-old son, Brad, not to have a closed mind about life in Louisiana. Now Brad's a thriving, and happy, senior at Lafayette High, his dad reports.

"When you get into recruiting, everybody has that dream of playing for this school and that," Bustle said. "You have to wade through that. But it was that way at Virginia Tech, too, when I first went there. The kids all realize they can get to the NFL from here."

Bustle's decision to leave the then-Big East-member Hokies wasn't about stepping out of the spotlight, but about pulling up well-established family roots.

He remembers, and often recites to recruits, the far-from-glamorous building process that took place in the early Frank Beamer days at Virginia Tech when the Hokies trained in far-from-glamorous buildings.

"We had pictures that were turning yellow," he said, recalling photographic images of antiquated facilities in Blacksburg that coaches showed to recruits.

For sure, Louisiana-Lafayette and other league members get their day in the sun.

Bustle's team plays at Kansas State and has a conference showdown with North Texas scheduled for a prime time broadcast on ESPN2 on Friday, Nov. 5.

Middle Tennessee-Florida, Louisiana Monroe-Auburn, New Mexico State-Arkansas, Utah State-Alabama and North Texas-Colorado are some of the other opportunities against BCS-affiliated conferences.

On occasion, the BCS schools will do the traveling (Missouri at Troy, Thursday, Sept. 9 on ESPN2).

"I watch those big games like Oklahoma-Texas and I always feel like I can compete with anybody else out there," Cobbs said. "But I don't say, 'I wish I was there playing with that team.'"

There are other advantages to playing in Denton, instead of Austin, like not having to be bothered by Heisman Trophy hype.

"Coming from a smaller school, you'd just wreck your brain thinking about stuff like that," Cobbs said of the Heisman.

On Sept. 4, North Texas opens its season at Texas. It's a chance for Cobbs and his teammates to prove something -- that they belong.

Of course, he said it's the biggest game on the schedule. Why? "Because it's our first game," Cobbs said. "We'll play hard and then we'll go on to the next game. When you're in this situation, you're always gonna have to prove yourself.

"If I get to the NFL, it's going to be the same way. There will be people saying, "Well, he played in the Sun Belt.'"

Doug Carlson covers college football for the Tampa Tribune.