Sun Belt Day One Recap: North Texas coach knows he has work ahead

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The Sun Belt coach with arguably the toughest job ahead of him couldn't be happier to be where he is.

"We have a long way to go. The program has been down for a long time," said Dan McCarney, the new coach at North Texas, during his first appearance Monday as part of the Sun Belt's Media Days.

McCarney is taking over a program that had gone 8-40 in the last four years.

McCarney is getting a second chance as head coach, as he spent 11 seasons at Iowa State, where he had a record of 56-85 from 1995 to 2006.

"I couldn't wait to be a head coach again," said McCarney, who was an assistant at Florida when North Texas hired him. "I am glad for this opportunity. There are only 120 Division I coaches. I am really lucky and really blessed."

North Texas, which was 3-9 last season, its best record since 2006, was picked to finish sixth in the conference in the coaches' poll that was released Monday.

Four other coaches participated in Monday's Media Day event, along with players from each team.


McCarney is hoping he can follow the lead of Mario Cristobal, who took Florida International from last place to first in four seasons.

And FIU was picked to finish at the top again this season in the coaches' poll, and Cristobal said his job is now to teach his team how to going from the hunter to the hunted.

That is a brand new role for FIU, which had never had a winning season until last year, when they also made their first bowl appearance.

"You are battling human nature," said Cristobal, who is starting his fifth season with the Golden Panthers. "Our senior leaders, do a very good job making sure we stay grounded, we stay focused."

Cristobal is hoping that the first taste of success will have is players looking for more. "Our mentality is to get hungrier," Cristobal said.

Helping FIU get to the top of the Sun Belt has been wide receiver and kick returner T.Y. Hilton, who returns for his senior season.

Hilton, who was the Sun Belt's Player of the Year, was 12th in the country last season with 156.6 all-purpose yards per game. "We are looking forward to great things," Hilton said.


Like McCarney and Cristobal, Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart is trying to reverse the fortunes of a team that had grown accustomed to losing.

The Hilltoppers were 0-12 in 2009 and ended a 22-game losing streak last season, Taggart's first, on their way to a 2-10 record.

"You look at last year and what we were up against, we had to exorcise some demons," Taggart said. "We also needed to work on trust. I think we got through that part. We are not getting emotionally hijacked."

Taggart has had two solid recruiting classes, and WKU was picked to finish seventh in the coaches' poll.

The Hilltoppers did get one first place vote, and Taggart admitted that came from him.

"We are making steady progress. We are improving in every aspect, and that is important," Taggart said.

WKU will once again rely on running back Bobby Rainey, who was the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year last season after rushing for 1,649 yards, a Hilltoppers' single-season record. His average of 137.4 yards per game was third best in the country.


Middle Tennessee's 2010 season got off to a bad start with starting quarterback Dwight Dasher was suspended for the first four games.

The Blue Raiders were 3-6 before winning their final three regular season games and earn a spot in bowl, their third bowl game in Stockstill's first five seasons.

MTSU also had to overcome a mistake-prone offense that had 38 turnovers, something that Stockstill is making sure his team if focused on.

"That is how you win games, by protecting the ball and getting it. We had been very good at it until last year. It was terrible, embarrassing, and I was sick to my stomach about that," Stockstill said.

The Blue Raiders lost Dasher and need to replace several other key players, but Stockstill likes his chances.

"The past success that we have had gives these players confidence they can play against anyone on our schedule. They know what it is like to play in bowl games and they want to go back to a bowl game," Stockstill said.


With a starting lineup filled with freshmen and other first-year players, Louisiana-Monroe finished 5-7 last year and with 19 starters returning, the expectations are high for the Warhawks.

"They worked extremely hard in the off season. There are a lot of reasons to be positive," said Todd Berry, who is starting his second season at ULM. "We have a lot of answers this year, last year at this time we had a lot of questions."

One of those answers is quarterback Kolton Browning, who was a big reason for ULM's success.

As a redshirt freshman, Browning passed for 2,552 yards and 18 touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback fit perfectly into Berry's spread-option offense, and Browning ran the ball a team-high 171 times for 385 yards.

"I felt like we got a lot stronger and better as a team," Browning said. "With most everybody coming back, our chemistry has grown."

The Sun Belt Media Days concludes tomorrow, with Howard Schnellenberger of Florida Atlantic, Hugh Freeze of Arkansas State, Larry Blakeney of Troy and Mark Hudspeth of Louisiana-Monroe scheduled to speak.

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