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Sun Belt: A conference on the rise

Teams from the Sun Belt Conference garnered just two straight-up victories over Bowl Championship Series (BCS) competition the last two years combined.

Heading into Week 4 of the 2012 season the league already has two upset victories over BCS squads. Western Kentucky topped Kentucky by one point in overtime this past Saturday just one week after ULM defeated then-eighth-ranked Arkansas by three points in Little Rock.

Not only are Sun Belt clubs knocking off Southeastern Conference teams, they are dominating the entire landscape of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) college football.

Eight of the 10 league teams covered their games this past Saturday, including all four clubs that played SEC challengers. The once-downtrodden league is a healthy 14-5 against-the-spread in non-conference FBS play.

This coming off the heels of the league's first season above the .500 ATS mark versus other FBS teams since 2007. Going back to last season, teams in the Sun Belt have now covered 33 of their 54 FBS games, good for a 61 percent winning percentage. Of course that number doesn't come anywhere close to this year's 74 percent, but when it is judged against the 44 percent between 2008 and 2010, it sure sounds sweet.

Overall, the 10 Sun Belt squads have combined to go 10-3 ATS (77 percent) against teams from the six BCS conferences this year. That winning percentage should not come as a shock since the nine teams in the league a year ago covered 12 of 19 versus those clubs. And if South Alabama's 2011 contest against North Carolina State is counted, the 2011 ATS winning percentage jumps to 65 percent.

Given the fact the league covered just 39 percent of its games against BCS opponents in 2009 and 2010, the Sun Belt's recent success is an unbelievable accomplishment.

LOOKING AHEAD TO WEEK 4

The key question that must be asked is, can the league continue its winning ways?

There are five matchups versus FBS competition this week beginning Friday night when ULM hosts Baylor. The Warhawks have been the most impressive of all the Sun Belt clubs, knocking off Arkansas in Week 2 and then taking Auburn to overtime before falling by a field goal.

Coach Todd Berry's squad could have been the unluckiest team in the conference last year as only one team (league champion Arkansas State) outgained its league opponents by more yards than ULM and yet the Warhawks won just three of the eight contests.

Baylor struggled mightily with Sam Houston State this past weekend, but the Bears have one of the top receivers in the country in Terrance Williams, and quarterback Nick Florence already has thrown seven touchdown passes in just two games. Expect a close game between two underrated squads.

The Saturday slate features two contests that will be on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the line. Top-ranked Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic in a game that could have one of the largest spreads between two FBS schools.

Almost due north of Tuscaloosa is Bowling Green, Ky., and that's where Southern Miss will be taking on Western Kentucky. Willie Taggart's club must bounce back very quickly from its upset victory over in-state rival Kentucky, but catches a break as the Golden Eagles are a shell of their former self at 0-2.

The two other non-conference matchups have FIU hosting Louisville less than one year after the Golden Panthers upset the Cardinals, and South Alabama at Mississippi State. Can the Jaguars give the Sun Belt another cover against a team from the SEC? We'll find out by Saturday night.

AFTER THREE WEEKS

Only three teams getting more than a touchdown gained outright wins last week and two of them were my five-star plays. Rutgers and Stanford dominated in the second half of their contests and both remained undefeated after three games.

On the negative side, my overall record took a bit of a tumble after a 4-7 week. I am now 19-18 overall. The breakdown is as follows: 7-1 in the all- important five-star plays, 1-6 in three-star selections, 7-7 in two-star picks and 4-4 in one-star plays.

As a reminder, the five-star plays are when my personal plays coincide with my power rating plays (games with at least a five-point differential between my line and the actual line). The three-star choices are my personal picks, the two-star plays are the games the power rating system picks and the one-star plays are my personal secondary selections.

THIS WEEK'S JEFF FRANK "DIRTY DOZEN"

1) Alabama, 107; 2) LSU, 103.5; 3) Florida State, 102; 4) USC, 101; 5) Georgia, 100.5; 6) Oregon, 99; 7) Oklahoma, 98.5; 8-T) South Carolina and Texas, 97.5; 10) Stanford, 95.5; 11-T) Florida, Nebraska and Oklahoma State, 94.5

(The Top 12 is not a reflection of a given team's won-loss record. It is based on power ratings used to predict spreads for the upcoming week. At the beginning of the season, all 124 FBS teams are assigned a power number, which changes on a week-to-week basis depending on the results of the previous week.)