The Sun Belt Conference reached new heights in 2009. Troy became just the second team to go undefeated in conference, while Middle Tennessee State became the first Sun Belt squad in history to reach double-digit wins after a 42-32 victory over Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl.
The poster boy for the 2010 Sun Belt campaign will be Dwight Dasher, the multi-talented quarterback for Middle Tennessee State. Dasher led the Blue Raiders in both passing and rushing last year on his way to accumulating nearly 4,000 total yards. He found the end zone 36 times, as well. Although he'll have his third offensive coordinator in three seasons this year, Dasher still figures to be the most pivotal player for the Blue Raiders -- and perhaps the entire league.
Middle Tennessee State will be the favorite, but don't count out the Troy Trojans. The biggest question coming into this season for the defending champs will be at quarterback. Sun Belt Player of the Year Levi Brown is off to the NFL, but junior Jamie Hampton will step in with some experience. Hampton actually started at QB for the Trojans during his freshman year before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2008. He'll also be pushed by freshman gunslinger Corey Robinson, who had a dynamic spring. Troy will have no shortage of playmakers, though, with running backs DuJuan Harris and Shawn Southward sharing the load in the backfield and one of the best receivers nobody knows about in Jerrel Jernigan lining up on the outside, as well as returning kicks. Should Hampton or Robinson perform well off the bat, there may be no drop off for the "other" Men of Troy.
The talent is growing in the Sun Belt, but no other team posted an overall record above .500 in 2009. Although it will prove difficult for the Ragin' Cajuns, WarHawks, Red Wolves, Owls, Hilltoppers, Golden Panthers or Mean Green to challenge for the Sun Belt title, at least they've got great nicknames to tide them over. And keep an eye on North Texas's Lance Dunbar, who could quietly challenge for the NCAA rushing crown.
Players to Target
Dwight Dasher, QB, Middle Tennessee State
Dasher's been labeled "The One-Man Show" due to carrying the Blue Raiders offense on his back during the 2009 campaign. Dasher passed for almost 2,800 yards while rushing for 1,154 more en route to 36 total touchdowns. Since he'll no longer surprise his opponents, Dasher may have a tougher time in the Sun Belt conference this season; but the fact remains, he should still be among the most productive QBs in the land in 2010.
Chris Masson, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette
Although his TD:INT ratio wasn't fantastic (5-to-4), Masson still accumulated 2,406 yards through the air and completed 59.5 percent of his throws in 2009. He also showed a nose for the end zone, rushing for six touchdowns out of the QB slot. The junior from Miami started every game for the Ragin' Cajuns last year, and should yet again be a steadying influence for Louisiana-Lafayette in 2010.
Alfred Morris, RB, FAU
Morris averaged 5.3 YPC en route to 1,392 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Owls. With virtually every other offensive weapon from last season graduating (QB Rusty Smith and TEs Jason Harmon and Jamari Grant), Morris will be fed the ball an inordinate amount of time. If he can deal with teams sticking an extra man or two in the box to try to stop him, he should gain 1,000 yards once again.
Lance Dunbar, RB, North Texas
On a terrible team, Dunbar averaged nearly 6.9 yards per carry on his way to 1,378 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns as a sophomore. He also proved himself an extremely capable receiver out of the backfield, catching 28 passes for another 300 yards and two more scores. Dunbar has exceptional vision and quickness, but it remains to be seen whether he can take the continued punishment at his size. However, with the North Texas quarterback job in flux, Dunbar should be relied upon even more in 2010.
DuJuan Harris, RB, Troy
Although Harris averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season, he still accumulated 10 touchdowns for the Trojans. Freshman Shawn Southward sliced into his carries and ended up with more yards and touchdowns overall than the 5-7, 195-pounder, but Harris should still be the starting back due to his history with the Trojans. And with QB Levi Brown gone, the running game should be a much-needed crutch for the Troy offense.
Frank Goodin, RB, ULM
Goodin has shown improvement in each of his first three seasons with the Warhawks, including gaining 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2009. He found the end zone 13 times while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The fourth-leading rusher in the Sun Belt last season, Goodin will have a tough task ahead of him with non-conference games against Arkansas, Auburn and LSU. Still, he remains the focus of the Warhawk charge.
Bobby Rainey, RB, WKU
A bowling ball of a running back, the 5-7, 203, rusher has never averaged less than six yards per carry in his career. Rainey was one of the lone bright spots on a Hilltopper squad that went 0-12 last season, gaining nearly 1,000 yards in what was otherwise a lost year. It can't get any worse for Western Kentucky, right? Rainey should at least provide some semblance of hope for the struggling program in 2010.
D.D. Kyles, RB, Middle Tennessee State
Kyles was Robin to Dwight Dasher's Batman in 2009, averaging a stellar 6.2 yards per rush on his way to 857 yards. He also was no slouch catching the ball out of the backfield, hauling in 14 passes for an additional 182 yards and a touchdown. With opponents focused on stopping Dasher, Kyles should be able to accumulate 1,000 total yards once again; the question will be if he can improve on just four total touchdowns from 2009.
Shawn Southward, RB, Troy
It was supposed to be The DuJuan Harris Show in 2009 for the Trojans, but Southward stole the spotlight to the tune of 5.5 yards per carry, along with team highs in rushing yards (602) and rushing touchdowns (12). With quarterback Levi Brown out of the picture, Troy should rely even more on the two-headed monster of Harris and Southward, giving both backs a chance to improve their numbers from a year ago.
Derek Lawson, RB, Arkansas State
As a backup last season, the 5-11, 216, Lawson averaged 4.4 yards per carry and reached the end zone twice. However, he'll shoulder the bulk of the rushing load for the Red Wolves in 2010 as the featured back with the graduation of Reggie Arnold. With Arkansas State featuring a running-based attack with quarterback Ryan Aplin leading the way, expect Lawson to approach 750 yards rushing and perhaps double-digit touchdowns as well.
Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy
The only thing holding Jernigan back as a receiver is his touchdown total. He caught 148 passes the last two seasons, posting 1,101 yards last year, but he scored just five touchdowns in 2008 and only four last season. Troy also must find a new quarterback this season after the departure of Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Levi Brown. But Jernigan earns his ranking with his all-purpose play. Jernigan posted 897 kickoff return yards last season and 266 rushing yards with one rushing touchdown. His 174.2 all-purpose yards ranked 10th in the nation. For leagues that count return yards, Jernigan is a safe bet.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International
A training-camp quarterback battle and only two returning starters on the offensive line don't do much for our confidence in Hilton. But FIU hired former Toledo offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield this offseason, so hopefully FIU will start capitalizing more on Hiltonís obvious talents. If Satterfield can do for FIU what he did for Toledo, Hilton and the Golden Panthers offense are in for some major upgrades. Hilton totaled just 632 yards last season after posting 1,013 in 2008. Expect a bounce-back campaign.
Jamaal Jackson, WR, North Texas
Despite the Mean Green's dismal 2-10 record, North Texas had some standout skill players last season who totaled solid individual numbers. Among them is Jackson, who caught 71 passes for 701 yards and six touchdowns. The slight receiver (5-10, 163) will have to contend with a new quarterback (either senior Nathan Tune or sophomore Derek Thompson, as incumbent Riley Dodge moved to wideout), but if North Texas can get the ball in Jackson's hands, he can make some plays.
Jeff Vancamp, QB, FAU
Rusty Smith is gone, leaving Vancamp as the man for the Owls. Vancamp has a big frame at 6-5, 222, and the senior tossed 12 touchdowns in Smith's place the last five games of 2009. He averaged 235 yards passing per game over that stretch, giving the Owls hope that he can further succeed in 2010.
Yobes Walker, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette
Walker received the most carries out of the backfield for the Ragin' Cajuns in 2009, even though senior Undrea Sails may have been a bit more productive. Sails is gone, though, and that leaves Walker to improve on his freshman totals of 412 yards and two TDs. Despite the presence of QB Chris Masson, Louisiana-Lafeyette would prefer to run, furthering the sophomore Walker's chances for a breakout season.
Trey Revell, QB, ULM
Revell struggled with consistency in 2009, completing less than 58 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also split time with neophyte Cody Wells, who displayed a better arm and is a more conventional quarterback than Revell, who rushed for 354 yards and five touchdowns last year. Revell will also lose his top two receivers, and the WarHawks figure to rely more than ever on 1,000-yard back Frank Goodin. As a result, Revell must make his throws count or risk losing his job.
Corey Robinson, QB, Troy
With uncertainty at quarterback for the Trojans, Robinson could make his mark sooner rather than later. Robinson is a former Mr. Football in Kentucky. Are you ready for these stats? As a senior, he threw a record 91 touchdown passes. He completed nearly 74 percent of his passes for 5,872 yards. If Jamie Hampton falters, Robinson could get the call.
Jeremiah Harden, RB, FIU
Harden is an elusive back who will finally get his chance to shine after sitting last season due to a transfer from Syracuse. He had a great spring for the Golden Panthers, and though he still may share the load with junior Darriet Perry, he remains a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. He'll still have to prove he's tough enough to take a beating week after week, but he has quick feet and could give FIU the playmaker it's been craving.