Florida International is taking a different route to success than many football teams in the Sun Belt Conference, and the league's head coaches are apparently impressed with the direction the Panthers are taking.
FIU's defensive-minded squad is picked to win the Sun Belt football title in the poll of head coaches announced Monday during the league's Media Day activities at the New Orleans Marriott. If that happens, it will likely be because of defense, where the Panthers have the league's preseason Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Tourek Williams and three others named to the preseason all-league defensive unit.
"I like the fact that we're known for defense," said head coach Mario Cristobal, whose team finished 8-4 in the 2011 regular season and made its second straight bowl appearance. "I'm a former lineman so that's my mentality, but we expect to get after people on defense."
The Sun Belt has a plethora of notable skill players returning, especially at quarterback where every league team other than FIU returns its starting quarterback. But the Panthers won their final three regular-season games last year with solid defensive efforts and allowed only 13 points per game in their final four outings.
"Being good defensively is an advantage, as long as we still play good on offense and on special teams," Cristobal said. "We were able to do that at the end of the year last year."
FIU got five of the 10 first-place votes and finished with 92 points in the poll after setting a school record for wins last season. Arkansas State, the defending league champion after going 8-0 in Sun Belt play last season, was tabbed second with 85 points and had two first-place votes, while Louisiana-Lafayette was third with 81 points and two first-place votes after reaching and winning its first-ever Division I bowl game.
First-year ASU coach Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator at Auburn the past three years and one of two new head coaches in the Sun Belt, takes over a Red Wolves team that won nine straight to end the 2011 regular season and beat its final six opponents by an average of 21 points per game.
"We want to have high expectations," Malzahn said, "but this league's tough. There's no gimmes on that schedule. After they won 10 games last year and won the conference, we've got our work cut out for us. There's no way we're sneaking up on anybody."
In addition to Williams, FIU had six other players named to the preseason all-league team – defensive tackle Isame Faciane, linebacker Winston Fraser, defensive back Jonathan Cyprien, running back Kedrick Rhodes and offensive linemen Rupert Bryan and Caylin Hauptmann.
"Those guys don't pay a lot of attention to that, or to the polls," Cristobal said. "You make yourself a target if you spend your time reading the predictions. We tell our guys that anytime you look more at polls than at goals, you're not going to be successful."
ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin was tabbed as preseason Offensive Player of the Year after ranking in the national top 10 in total offense and guiding the Wolves to their first bowl game since 2005. ASU had four players named to the preseason first team, as did Louisiana-Lafayette after the Ragin' Cajuns finished 9-4 and won the New Orleans Bowl.
Sun Belt Conference 2012 Preseason Football Poll
As voted by the league's 10 head coaches, first place votes in parentheses
1. FIU (5) 92
2. Arkansas State (2) 85
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (2) 81
4. Western Kentucky (1) 70
5. Troy 60
6. Louisiana-Monroe 47
7. Middle Tennessee 42
8. North Texas 36
9. Florida Atlantic 23
10. South Alabama* 14
*first year in league, ineligible for conference title
Preseason All-Sun Belt Football Team
As voted by the league's 10 head coaches and selected media members
QB Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State Sr.
RB Kedrick Rhodes, FIU Jr.
RB Alonzo Harris, Louisiana-Lafayette So.
WR Josh Jarobe, Arkansas State Sr.
WR Javone Lawson, Louisiana-Lafayette Sr.
WR Eric Thomas, Troy Jr.
TE Jack Doyle, WKU Sr.
OL Zack McKnight, Arkansas State Sr.
OL Rupert Bryan, FIU Sr.
OL Caylin Hauptmann, FIU Sr.
OL Leonardo Bates, Louisiana-Lafayette Sr.
OL Cyril Lemon, North Texas So.
DL Isame Faciane, FIU Jr.
DL Tourek Williams, FIU Sr.
DL Tony Davis, Troy Sr.
DL Quanterus Smith, WKU Sr.
LB Winston Fraser, FIU Sr.
LB Andrew Jackson, WKU Jr.
LB Kanorris Davis, Troy Sr.
DB Don Jones, Arkansas State Sr.
DB Jonathan Cyprien, FIU Sr.
DB Melvin White, Louisiana-Lafayette Sr.
DB Brynden Trawick, Troy Sr.
PK Brett Baer, Louisiana-Lafayette Sr.
P Will Atterberry, North Texas Sr.
RS John Evans, WKU So.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – Tourek Williams, FIU
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