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Debriefing: The Sun Belt braces for the fall of Troy

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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The least you need to know about the Sun Belt Conference in 2011. Kicking off Mid-Major Week.

Trojan Panthers? When the Sun Belt championship finds a home, it tends to settle in for the long haul: Since the league was cobbled together from former Southland Conference refugees in 2001, nine of ten championships have been won outright or shared by just two mini-dynasties, North Texas (four straight SBC titles from 2001-04) and Troy (five straight from 2006-10, and counting). But first-place finish notwithstanding, 2010 also brought a few chinks in the mighty Trojans' armor, beginning with the end of their 2 ½
-year, 14-game conference winning streak
in late October. Two weeks later, Florida International bombed the Trojans for 668 yards in a 52-35 shellacking in Troy that put FIU in the conference driver's seat, and it felt like a passing of the torch.

From there, the Golden Panthers closed out the year with a share of the first conference championship in school history and a dramatic win in the first bowl game in school history to clinch the first winning season in school history. Still barely three years removed from a 23-game losing streak, FIU is back for year five under coach Mario Cristobal with 90 percent of its total offense, seven returning starters from the SBC's best defense and the most electric player in the league, receiver/return man T.Y. Hilton — and, for good measure, with Troy coming to Miami for a nationally televised, mid-week showdown on Oct. 25 that ought to settle the battle of succession.

I used to be a terror, but now I am a tired man. No one in Division I shouldered a heavier load last year than Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey, who somehow handled just shy of 31 offensive touches per game en route to 1,879 total yards — half of the Hilltoppers' season total by himself. (I would add that the offensive line helped, but honestly, I kind of doubt it.)

In one three-week span in November, Rainey handled the ball 125 times with six touchdowns in games decided by a grand total of three points: He had 36 touches in a one-point loss to Florida Atlantic, 40 touches in a one-point win at Arkansas State (the last one producing the winning two-point conversion in overtime) and a Division I-high 49 touches in a one-point loss against Middle Tennessee State. For his sake, I hope he spent the last six months alternating between a hot tub and the attentions of a comely masseuse.{YSP:MORE}

For entertainment only. For the gamblers whose insatiable appetite for preseason action has already led them into the murky, quixotic search for a Sun Belt dark horse, might I direct their hard-earned money in the direction of Louisiana-Monroe. That may sound a little strange, even to SBC fans: ULM has yet to produce a winning season since moving up to the I-A ranks in 1994, back when it was still Northeast Louisiana. But the 2011 edition brings back a league-high 18 starters from a group that beat Troy, took FIU to overtime and otherwise broke even in SBC play with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Kolton Browning, and a first-year head coach. If a there's a team in the conference's lower class with some upward mobility, for the moment it looks like the Warhawks.

You'd be angry, too. Under pressure from the NCAA, a pair of Sun Belt teams over the past decade, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe, opted to drop the political incorrect nickname "Indians" to become the "Red Wolves" and "Warhawks," respectively. (It goes without saying that the cultural sensitivities of carnivorous poachers and birds of prey that facilitate death and destruction for political ends are nigh unimpeachable.) But lobbying groups have remained inexcusably silent on the stereotypical scourge of the bayou, the "Ragin' Cajuns" of Louisiana-Lafayette, outrageously personified these days by a demonic cayenne pepper meant to represent the allegedly quick-tempered, "ragin'" Cajun people:

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"Ragin' Cajuns" has twice been voted the best nickname in the country by major national outlets, but the NCAA cannot and should not rest until all vaguely ethnic mascots are represented by amorphous red blobs.

It's a work in progress. Since its formation in 2001, the SBC has a losing record against every other I-A/FBS conference. Of 13 upsets over "Big Six" conference schools in that span, three have come against teams that finished with winning records: Troy over 7-6 Oklahoma State and Louisiana-Monroe over 7-6 Alabama in 2007, and Middle Tennessee over 8-5 Maryland in 2008.

The closest the conference came to a "Big Six" upset in 2010 was a pair of fourth quarter leads by Florida International against Rutgers and Texas A&M in September, both of which evaporated in the final minutes.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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