Early look at the Sun Belt bowl picture

The Sun Belt Conference is moving up in the bowl world.

After being the only conference with just one automatic tie-in for the past nine years, the Sun Belt secured two for the next four seasons with the New Orleans and GMAC bowls. The conference also has three secondary tie-ins.

So there are more opportunities for the Sun Belt, which will make for a more interesting race to the postseason.

Here’s a look at where I see the Sun Belt’s bowl bids going:

Count on it

Troy: The Trojans lost star quarterback Levi Brown to graduation, but they had a great competition this spring and should pick up right where they left off. Almost all of the key pieces of the offense return. The questions are on defense. The Trojans are still deciding between a 3-4 and a 4-3 and will tailor to their personnel.

Middle Tennessee: There are some folks out there who are predicting a down year for the Blue Raiders. I’m not one of them. Yes, they have two new coordinators, but I think the ideas will stay the same. Quarterback Dwight Dasher will have some help with the return of Phillip Tanner, and the defense should be strong once again.

Outside shot

Louisiana-Lafayette: In four of the past five years, the Ragin’ Cajuns have achieved the six-win bowl threshold only to be denied a postseason berth. That ends this year. With more bowl opportunities for the Belt, the Ragin’ Cajuns finally get to the postseason and keep coach Rickey Bustle’s job.

Arkansas State: I expected Arkansas State to not only be in the bowl picture a year ago, but also challenge for a conference title. That didn’t happen and the Red Wolves managed just four wins. But this spring was productive, especially on offense, and Arkansas State could make a surprising run to the postseason.

Florida Atlantic: Last season was a surprise considering the Owls were picked to challenge for the conference title. They lost six of their first eight and then lost quarterback Rusty Smith. A lot of the talent from last year returns and quarterback Jeff VanCamp will be better for his playing experience a year ago. I’d expect the Owls to give Troy and Middle Tennessee a run for their money.

Louisiana-Monroe: Todd Berry spent much of the spring assessing talent, teaching his system and trying to make his team tougher, and all of that might pay off in the end. This ULM team won six games last year and returns a lot of the talent from a year ago. It’s possible that they could make another run to six wins, but will it be enough for a bowl game?

Better luck next year

Florida International: Last season, I thought the Golden Panthers were going to turn a corner after their five-win season in 2008, but they actually regressed, which makes me a little gun-shy this year. FIU will be playing with a lot of emotion this season, but I’m not sure whether that will help or hurt in the long run.

North Texas: This is the decisive year for head coach Todd Dodge and it doesn’t help that his starting quarterback is now a receiver. Since Dodge took over, the problem has been with the defense more than the offense and that’s not going to change overnight. UNT will be better, but not yet good enough to make a bowl.

Western Kentucky: First-year head coach Willie Taggart has been charged with turning the Hilltoppers around, but it's going to take some time. He doesn’t quite have the players to contend with the top teams in the conference, and right now the Hilltoppers just need to know what it's like to win a game.