Inside Scoop: Todd Berry on the strength of the Sun Belt and the "Unhappy Triad"

With six teams currently sitting at or above .500, the 10-team Sun Belt hopes to improve upon the success of a 2011 season that saw four teams reach seven or more wins. With Ohio State, Penn State and North Carolina ineligible for this postseason, the Sun Belt could be in line for its best bowl haul in the league's 12-year history.

The Sun Belt enjoyed three wins over BCS leagues in September - ULM's much-publicized 34-31 overtime win over Arkansas, Western Kentucky's 32-31 overtime defeat of Kentucky and Middle Tennessee's 49-28 demolition of Georgia Tech. Equally important to the Sun Belt is the league's 6-0 record against geographic rival Conference USA (the leagues share both have schools in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida). In fact, each of the league's top six teams won a head-to-head matchup versus C-USA foes, and often in dominant fashion. The average score of the Sun Belt's wins over Conference USA was 44-21. 

Todd Berry's Warhawks were college football's national darlings in September with a win over Arkansas and near misses against Auburn and Baylor. ULM's 34-31 overtime thriller over the then-No. 8 Razorbacks was the Sun Belt's first victory over a top 10 team. Instead of succumbing to a lack of depth like many other mid-majors hoping to pull an upset, the Warhawks outscored Arkansas and Auburn by a combined 28-0 in the fourth quarter. Berry's team ranks in the top 20 national in total offense and rushing defense; even FAU's "Unhappy Triad" couldn't stop ULM's offense. 

Under head coach Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky has quickly become one of the most underrated programs in the country. The Hilltoppers are 12-2 over their last 14 games; the only setbacks in that span came to No. 1 LSU in 2011 and No. 1 Alabama earlier this season. Western Kentucky played its first Sun Belt season in 2009 and didn't win its first FBS game until 2010. Taggart's squad toppled Kentucky on Sept. 15 and defeated Southern Miss 42-17 one week later. Oh, and by the way, had you had the foresight, you could have gotten rich off of Western's success.



Louisiana - Lafayette's last-second New Orleans Bowl win was one of the highlights of the 2011 bowl season. With a 4-1 (2-0 Sun Belt) start, Mark Hudsepth's team is on its way to creating more December magic. The Ragin Cajuns' 41-13 win over Tulane on Oct. 6 pushed their home winning streak to eight games, the sixth-longest streak in the country. ULL will look to push its overall winning streak to three and move one step closer to its second straight bowl bid tonight at North Texas (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

After suffering a season-opening upset to McNeese State, Middle Tennessee has won four of its last five while averaging more than 35 points per game during that span. Rick Stockstill's team will hope to continue the Sun Belt's string of upsets against the SEC at Mississippi State on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Defending conference champion Arkansas State stands at 2-1 in Sun Belt play and 4-3 overall. The Red Wolves defeated Memphis 33-28 in the second game under new head coach Gus Malzahn. Arkansas State's next game is next Tuesday at Louisiana - Lafayette (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). 

Larry Blakeney and Troy sit at sixth place in the league (3-3, 2-2 Sun Belt) but stand more than a puncher's chance at bowl eligibility. With games against co-leaders Western Kentucky and Louisiana - Lafayette behind them, and games against Florida International and Florida Atlantic (a combined 2-11 on the season) up next on the schedule, consecutive wins would give the Trojans four chances to become bowl eligible for the fifth time in seven seasons.


"Strength of schedule only matters if you're playing for the national title"

James Franklin made a strong case during his press conference yesterday for one of the toughest early season schedules in the country, noting that teams that they have lost to (South Carolina, Northwestern, Georgia and Florida) are a combined 23-3.

The Commodores lone FBS win was a 19-15 win over Missouri earlier this month, who is 3-4 and 0-4 in SEC play.

At the end of the day, Franklin believes the only people that the strength of schedule really applies to are the teams that are playing for the national championship.

"I think it's clearly obvious though when you look at our season and what we're doing. We've played really good people. We've been competitive every week except you could make an argument once (against Georgia). The combined record of the four teams we've lost to is 23-3."

"I went over that with my team yesterday, telling them that we need to keep everything in perspective. We're doing some nice things, but we need to get better. We lost to a good team this past week, but for us to get where we want to be as a program, you can't make the type of mistakes that we made against that type of opponent." Franklin said.

Franklin noted that depending on how you approach the tough early season schedule with the team it, it could go one of two ways, depending on the mental make up of the team.

"It's interesting because it's all how you spin it and handle it with your team. If you still have really good chemistry and your kids still have a great attitude and they believe and they're passionate and excited about what the future holds, then I think it's a positive, and it's our job as coaches to explain that to them."

"To everybody else, I don't know. Last year we're 3-0 and the perception of Vanderbilt football last year compared to this year, I don't know how people perceive it. I don't think people really care. I think at the end of the season, people don't say, `well you were undefeated but you didn't beat a ranked opponent all year long.' No one cares because you were undefeated." he explained.

"I think the strength of scheduling only really counts if you're playing for the national championship. That's when it really figures in. Besides that, at the end of the year no one is going to say, `that was an ugly win versus Missouri.' Nobody's going to say, `but that win was against Presbyterian.' They're wins and they all count. Every single one of them count."

Franklin went on to explain that there are two perceptions of the program. There is the internal perception of the team, and how they handle everything during the course of a season, and the external perception and how people see the program and where they're at.

He added that the staff and everyone in the football building remain confident in the direction they're headed and the way that they're doing things. 




A few interesting notes on the game tonight

North Texas has struggled through the first part of the season, going 2-4 through their first six games , and 1-1 in Sun Belt play. Their match up tonight, in the first Tuesday night game of the year, against Louisiana-Lafayette (4-1, 2-0) will feature two teams on the opposite side of the win-loss spectrum, but with some interesting similarities.

For example, both defenses have shown that they are up to a challenge following a sudden change.

After committing a turnover, the North Texas defense has held opponents to just one score in seven opportunities. The one score that they allowed was after FAU had intercepted a pass on their 11 yard line, otherwise the Mean Green defense has not allowed an offense to get any points following their turnover. 

Louisiana's offense has has turned 13 turnovers into 53 points (five touchdowns and 6 field goals). They have only given the ball away four times this season, and their defense has responded following the sudden change, allowing just 10 points following a turnover.

The Ragin' Cajuns offense has done an excellent job of taking care of the ball, especially through the air, being one of only ten teams to have thrown just one interception.

Back on the defensive side of the ball, North Texas has yet to allow a fourth down conversion. Mean Green opponents have lined up to go for it five times, and have been denied each time. Only one other team (Rutgers) has not allowed a fourth down conversion this season.

The Ragin' Cagins have also been impressive on fourth down defensively. They have stopped opponents on six of their seven fourth down conversion attempts. Three of those stops have come inside of their 25, forcing teams to end the drive with no points.

With all the defensive strengths considered, it may be a race to 21 points. Under Dan McCarney, North Texas is 6-2 when scoring more than 21 points and 1-9 when being held to 21 points or less. Both of their losses when scoring more than 21 came last season (to Houston and Tulsa). 

One more interesting note. The Ragin' Cajuns are one of only 15 other teams (and the only team in the Sun Belt), to return all nine of their assistants. In addition, we also saw a note that they also bring back all four of the graduate assistants and administrative assistants, as well as all three of their strength and conditioning coaches.

Tune in tonight at 9pm ET on ESPN2 to catch the game.



"There may be one or two teams in the country who can win despite a bad week of practice"

Dan Mullen has Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0) among the handful of teams left in the country without a loss. This weekend they face a Middle Tennessee team that went into Atlanta and handily beat Georgia Tech 49-28.

Yesterday, a reporter asked Mullen if he viewed the game as a "trap game" and Mullen's response centered on focus, saying that in today's landscape of college football, if you don't focus on having quality practices all week, you're going to get beat.

"If you don't bring you focus to college football today, you're not going to win. If you don't have focus Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you're not going to have focus on Saturday. You're going to play like you prepare and so you have to have unbelievable focus all week."

"With the balance in college football today, it's evident that if your not focused, you're not going to win the game. There might be one or two teams in the country that can just roll the ball out there, have a bad week of practice and say 'We're going to play bad and sloppy and still win the game.'" Mullen said.

"You better be on your game if you want to win."

After this weekend's game against Middle Tennessee, they'll face Alabama on the road, followed by Texas A&M at home, and then LSU in Baton Rouge. Those three teams are a combined 17-2.

Tuesday TV - Tuesday night football is back

A Sun Belt match up is featured in this week's Tuesday night game.

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Louisiana-Lafayette at North Texas - 9 - ESPN2

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