Nine hyper-specific predictions for the Sun Belt. Part of Mid-Major Week.
• Florida International will win its second consecutive Sun Belt title. The Golden Panthers were 6-2 in conference play a year ago and could have won or shared the conference title had it not been for a slip against Middle Tennessee in the final game of the regular season. Fresh from the momentum of its first winning season, complete with a win over Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl, FIU returns its top two offensive threats in quarterback Wesley Carroll and receiver T.Y. Hilton and seven starters from last year's top SBC defense. It also gets the top challenger, Troy, in Miami on Oct. 25.
• Troy will lead the conference in passing again despite losing its top five receivers either to graduation or academic ineligibility. The Trojans have led the SBC in passing offense each of the past two seasons, and used 17 different receivers last year, so should be able to find some suitable replacements.
• Louisiana-Monroe will set a school record for conference wins and post a winning overall record for the first time since moving up from Division I-AA in 1995, but will miss out on its first bowl game when the Beef 'O' Brady's, BBVA Compass and Independence bowls all fulfill their obligations with 6-6 stragglers from other conferences at the last second.
• North Texas will lose at least one key conference game because of kicking woes. That's part of what led to new head coach Dan McCarney being fired from his previous head coaching stint at Iowa State — twice in consecutive seasons Bret Culbertson missed field goals against Missouri that would have given Iowa State the North Division title in 2004 and 2005. Instead, Colorado went on to play in the Big 12 championship game and McCarney was shown the door. North Texas kicker Zach Olen was first-team All-SBC after hitting 13 of 15 field goals with a long of 53 as a true freshman, but he can't fight fate.
• Arkansas State will fail to break the four-win barrier for the second year in a row thanks to the revamped offensive line. ASU had the No. 2 passing and total offense in the Sun Belt last year, and new head coach Hugh Freeze will continue to call the plays after his promotion from offensive coordinator, but the Red Wolves return just one starter (center Tom Castilaw) up front, making theirs the greenest line in the league.
• Upping the ante on last year's series of fourth quarter choke jobs, Western Kentucky will lose a game in dramatic fashion when officials take a late, go-ahead touchdown off the board under the new celebration rule for an improbable penalty involving the Hilltopper mascot, Big Red.
• Middle Tennessee will finish last in the conference in turnover margin for the second year in a row. Turnover machine Dwight Dasher, who threw 18 interceptions in 2010, may gone, but the two players vying for his spot won't be much better: Logan Kilgore threw five interceptions in relief and Jeff Murphy threw one with zero touchdowns. The team also lost 14 fumbles and won't have the steady hands of top tailback Phillip Tanner to rely upon in the backfield.
• Louisiana-Lafayette tight end Ladarius Green will lead all tight ends nationally in yards per catch and touchdown receptions, and will eventually be the first tight end off the board in the 2012 NFL Draft. But he won't appear above the "Honorable Mention" section on any All-America team in December or on the short list of finalists for the John Mackey Award.
• After going winless over the course of a five-game, six-week road stand to start the season, Florida Atlantic will come home on Oct. 15 to beat Western Kentucky in the first game in its new on-campus stadium in Boca Raton. Later on, the Owls will send coach Howard Schenellenberger out with a home win over UL-Monroe on Dec. 3, but won't win any games in between.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.