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Golden Panthers start final season in Sun Belt against unpredictable Louisiana-Lafayette

The Sun Belt Conference’s preseason favorite sits at 1-3 and hopes it can rediscover its defense. Most of the national attention has gone to the team ranked sixth in the preseason poll, and perhaps the most impressive team so far got only one No. 1 vote in that poll — from its coach.

And it’s possible none of the three will emerge with the conference title or even a bowl berth.

This week’s trip to Louisiana-Lafayette starts FIU’s last journey through the Sun Belt, college football’s Wackyland. Just as the sign there warned Porky Pig, “It can happen here.”

In some ways, Lafayette’s an appropriate first Sun Belt opponent for anybody. You don’t know about the Ragin’ Cajuns. Last season, expected to struggle under first-year coach Mark Hudspeth, the Ragin’ Cajuns wound up scoring their way to second in the Sun Belt and a New Orleans Bowl win. Their offense exploded because they discovered running quarterback Blaine Gauthier actually could throw the ball pretty well. So, Gauthier wound up passing last season almost as much as he did throughout his high school career.

Now, nobody questions Louisiana’s offense and nobody knows how good its defense is.

What has happened in the Sun Belt over the first month of the season fits the usual lack of pattern.

Louisiana-Monroe upset then-No. 8 Arkansas, then forced Auburn to resort to a Hail Mary and a trick play to survive another Sun Belt upset bid. While Arkansas continues to search for the backup parachute on its season, ULM’s overtime loss to Auburn and shootout loss to Baylor last week showed the Arkansas win wasn’t a fluke.

“The national media’s played it as legitimizing us,” ULM coach Todd Berry said. “We look at ourselves as being 1-2. We need to get those wins. That’s kind of the expectation. I think the national media’s making a bigger deal out of it than our team is.”

Meanwhile, Western Kentucky followed up getting rolled 35-0 by the actual Alabama with wins over Southeastern Conference member Kentucky (32-31 in overtime) and defending Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi (42-17).

“I think what you’ve seen is our conference can compete with anyone on any given Saturday if we come out and play our best,” said Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, the Hilltoppers’ lone preseason vote as conference champs.

In a conference and era dominated by offense, Western Kentucky goes retro, like Alabama under Nick Saban: strong defense, pound the ball, keep the quarterback from messing it up. Western ranks No. 2 in rushing offense thanks to reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week Antonio Andrews, who averages 81.8 yards per game.

In fact, the Hilltoppers might have supplanted FIU as the Sun Belt favorite because, statistically, they lead Sun Belt teams in rushing defense and pass defense as FIU was expected to do.

Instead, so scorched has been the Panthers defense that the 28 points and 323 yards allowed to Louisville on Saturday rank as their best effort of the season, even without grading on the curve for playing a Top 25 opponent. The previously permissive pass defense held the Cardinals to 194 yards, 52.8 completion percentage and got two interceptions off a quarterback who hadn’t thrown one all season.

“Our last six quarters, there are a lot of things certainly going in the right direction,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “Every single week, we’ve improved on something. Now, we’re down to playoff football. Louisiana’s got a hell of a football team, and they’re really good at home.”

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