Monday, July 13, 2009

Sun Belt Review: 2005-2008

In addition to the SDPI posts, another offseason interest of mine has been to look at how each IA conference has shaken out since 2005. I chose 2005 as the starting point because that was the year the ACC expanded to 12 teams, the Big East added 3 new members and booted Temple, Conference USA added a championship game, the Mountain West added TCU, the WAC looted the Sun Belt after several of its members joined Conference USA, and the Sun Belt added 2 independents from Florida (FAU and FIU). Since 2005, there has only been one change in any IA conference. That was the expansion of the MAC by a single team with the addition of Temple. Our little sojourn concludes with a look at the Sun Belt, where Troy has done their best Boise State impression over the past three years. First here are the cummlative Sun Belt standings since 2005.Not surprisingly, the team that has won or shared three consecutive league titles also owns the best record in the conference over the past four seasons. Troy is 18-3 over the past three seasons and their three losses have come by 7, 6, and a single point. Six of the conference's eight teams have winning records in the league, meaning they have abused the league whipping boys (Florida International and North Texas) with great regularity. If we remove games against the Golden Panthers and Mean Green from the equation, the conference standings look like this. Middle Tennessee State has the worst record against those two squads at 5-3. Combined, the other six teams in the Sun Belt are 40-8 against Florida International and North Texas since 2005 (32-4 since 2006). Every team in the league save Florida International and North Texas has at least shared one conference crown. Troy of course has won three straight, but Florida Atlantic shared the title with Troy in 2007, Middle Tennessee State shared it with Troy in 2006, and Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette all split the title in 2005.

Now here is each team's home record in conference play since 2005.The Red Wolves from Arkansas State have set the pace for protecting their house in the Sun Belt. Troy is a close second at 11-3, just a single game behind. Only three teams have winning records at home (less than half the league). The biggest discrepancy between home and road record belongs to the Red Wolves. They are a fantastic 12-2 at home, but only 4-10 on the road, for a difference of 8 games.

Now here is how homefield advantage shakes out in the Sun Belt (in conference play only) with respect to the nation at large (with rank out of the 11 IA conferences in parentheses).Homefield advantage has become more pronounced in the past two seasons. Home teams in the Sun Belt have won at a 60% clip in league play since 2007, while leading the nation in home winning percentage in 2008. Contrast that with 2005-2006, when home teams won only 45% of the time. It remains to be seen if 2008 was an outlier or a sign of things to come.

Next up is how each Sun Belt team stacks up offensively for each season. This is the ranking of yards per game in conference play.The most consistently good offense in the Sun Belt has been the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette. Head coach Ricky Bustle, the former offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech, has seen his charges average over 250 yards per game on the ground in three of the past four seasons (lone exception was 2006). After finishing last in the Sun Belt in offense in 2005, Troy brought in offensive coordinator Tony Franklin to install one of those new fangled spread offenses and the results were pretty darn good. As you may have heard, Franklin headed across the state to Auburn where the spread didn't exactly take the league by storm. Part of that was personnel, part was attitude, and part was just plain bad luck. Franklin is now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, a team that just happened to finish last in the Sun Belt in offense in 2008. Could history, in its idiosyncratic way, be alligned to repeat itself? Florida Atlantic's rise from also-ran to contender alligns perfectly with the development of Rusty Smith-the best amateur quarterback in Florida not named Tebow.

And finally, here are the defensive rankings for each team. This is yards allowed per game in conference play.Aside from a hiccup in 2006, Troy has been the standard bearer for defense in the Sun Belt. Arkansas State has also consistently been near the top of the Sun Belt defensive rankings, netting the silver medal three seasons running. On the other end of the spectrum is North Texas. The Mean Green have yet to finish higher than sixth on defense the past four seasons.

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