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January 14, 2010

Sun Belt Breakdown: Bit of a ho-hum season

ALSO: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | C-USA | MAC | Mountain West | WAC

The Sun Belt acquitted itself well in the postseason, with Middle Tennessee upsetting Conference USA member Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl and league champ Troy falling in overtime to 12-win Central Michigan in the GMAC Bowl.

Levi Brown threw for 4,254 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2009.

Player of the year: Troy QB Levi Brown.
Brown was elevated to the starting role midway through the 2008 season because of an injury to Jamie Hampton. While Brown played well in relief of Hampton, no one expected the kind of numbers Brown put up this season as a senior. Brown, who began his career at FCS member Richmond before transferring, threw for 4,254 yards and 23 touchdowns. He completed 63.7 percent of his passes, and his yardage total was second in the nation. Brown helped Troy to a 9-4 record, including an 8-0 mark in league play. Troy averaged 41.3 points in conference games.

Rivals.com 2009 All-Sun Belt Team
The solid postseason, though, came on the heels of a ho-hum regular season. Sun Belt teams don't get much national notice unless they beat a Big Six opponent, and that happened twice this season: MTSU over Maryland and Louisiana-Lafayette over Kansas State. But neither opponent was that highly regarded, and that kept those wins from getting more attention.

Here's a final look at the Sun Belt season.

Coach of the year: Larry Blakeney, Troy. Blakeney has guided the Trojans to four consecutive conference titles. True, Troy had the most talent in the league this season. But having the best talent doesn't always equate to winning titles. Blakeney kept the Trojans focused and gave his coordinators some leeway as Troy won each of its eight league matchups by an average margin of 18 points per game.

Freshman of the year: Troy CB Bryan Willis. Willis, a redshirt freshman, had four interceptions and 12 pass breakups for the Trojans. He also made 71 tackles, forced a fumble and started every game.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Tony Franklin, Middle Tennessee. Franklin was unceremoniously dumped as Auburn's offensive coordinator midway through the 2008 season, but MTSU coach Rick Stockstill entrusted him with the Blue Raiders' offense - and it paid off handsomely. Franklin's work with QB Dwight Dasher paid off in a big way. MTSU led the league in rushing, was third in total offense and second in scoring offense. The Blue Raiders were seventh, sixth and seventh, respectively, in those categories in 2008, which showed Franklin's value.

Defensive coordinator of the year: Kevin Corless, Arkansas State. The Red Wolves had a disappointing season, but it wasn't the defense's fault. Arkansas State led the league in total defense and scoring defense and was second in rushing defense. The defensive performance was all the more impressive when considering that the offense finished seventh overall in the league and lacked consistency, putting a ton of pressure on the defense.

Biggest surprise: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders were thought to have too many holes on defense to be a league contender, but coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive unit finished second in the nation in tackles for loss and helped the Blue Raiders to a 10-3 finish. Dasher exceeded expectations, and the offense caught fire down the stretch as MTSU finished second in the league.

Biggest disappointment: Arkansas State. Going into the season, the Red Wolves were seen as Troy's biggest challenger for the league title. But they lost their first two conference games on the way to a 1-5 league start and finished 3-5. The offense had all sorts of problems in league play.

Best postseason performance: Middle Tennessee QB Dwight Dasher. He set an NCAA bowl record for quarterbacks by rushing for 201 yards in the Blue Raiders' 42-32 victory over Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl. His yardage total broke by 1 yard the bowls record set by Texas' Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Dasher ran for two scores and also threw two touchdown passes against Southern Miss; he accounted for 363 yards of offense.

Worst postseason performance: None. Troy's defense had problems with Central Michigan's offense in the GMAC Bowl, but that was to be expected. CMU outlasted the Trojans 44-41 in overtime.

Underclassmen liable to leave early: None.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Middle Tennessee RB D.D. Kyles. Kyles began this season as a backup, but an injury to starter Phillip Tanner thrust Kyles into an important role and he did a solid job, rushing for 857 yards. He has a chance to be among the league's top three rushers next season as a junior.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Arkansas State LB Demario Davis. As mentioned earlier, Arkansas State's defense did a solid job for most of the season, and Davis was the Red Wolves' leading tackler. Look for him to emerge as one of the Sun Belt's top defensive players next season as a junior. He has great size (6 feet 3/231 pounds) and was a high jumper in high school in Mississippi.

Player most on the spot next season: Middle Tennessee QB Dwight Dasher. Dasher had a solid season in 2007, slumped badly in '08, then bounced back in a big way this season. That must carry over to this fall. He has had some problems dealing with adversity in the past, but that looks to be behind him now. Dasher must be at his best if MTSU is to win the league crown.

Next season's conference champion: Middle Tennessee. Troy has owned the Sun Belt of late, but Dasher's return and Brown's departure makes MTSU the preseason favorite. MTSU also returns four starting offensive linemen. Linebacker looks to be the only potential trouble spot.

National title contender: None.

ALSO: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | C-USA | MAC | Mountain West | WAC

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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