- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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They haven't appeared in New York as Heisman Trophy finalists or led their teams to lucrative Bowl Championship Series games.
They might not be as well known as quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow, but a trio of Sun Belt Conference passers have helped put the league back on college football's map heading into their senior seasons in 2009.
Florida Atlantic's Rusty Smith led the Owls to back-to-back bowl victories. Arkansas State's Corey Leonard led the Red Wolves to a memorable 18-14 upset at Texas A&M in the 2008 opener, and Troy's Levi Brown nearly guided the Trojans to an improbable upset of defending national champion LSU last season (Troy led 31-3 in the third quarter before the Tigers rallied for a 40-31 victory.)
Did anyone outside the Sun Belt even notice?
"I think as a realist, you have to expect what we do to be overlooked," Leonard said. "But we're just like the next guy; we watch "College GameDay" and see all those quarterbacks on TV. You get a little jealous and think, 'Man, I can do that!'"
Brown, Leonard and Smith certainly played well for their teams last season.
Brown, who transferred to Troy from Richmond after the 2006 season, didn't start for the Trojans until the sixth game of the 2008 season. He was the team's third-string quarterback during the first five games, until starter Jamie Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 30-17 victory over Florida Atlantic.
Brown, from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., started the following week in a 33-23 win over Florida International. The next week at North Texas, Brown completed 40 of 50 passes for 391 yards with two touchdowns in a 45-17 victory. He seemed to get better every week, completing 34 of 72 passes for 316 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the near-upset at LSU.
"I wasn't really happy last year, honestly," Brown said. "My plan wasn't to come to Troy and sit on the bench, but it looked like that was what was going to happen. I just continued to persevere and practiced hard so if I ever got a chance I'd be ready for it."
By the time Brown was finished in 2008, he had led the Trojans to an 8-5 record and their third consecutive Sun Belt championship. The Trojans lost to Southern Mississippi 30-27 in overtime in the New Orleans Bowl.
Brown was named Sun Belt Conference Newcomer of the Year, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Troy coach Larry Blakeney said he wasn't too surprised by Brown's performance.
"It's just hard to see a true picture until you get under the lights," Blakeney said. "When he got that opportunity, he took advantage of it. We've got some good quarterbacks in this league. There are some other guys making names for themselves, but we're proud of our guy."
Perhaps no player in the Sun Belt has been more recognized recently than Smith, who was the league's player of the year in 2007. He set school records with 3,688 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2007, leading the Owls to an 8-5 record and their first bowl game. Florida Atlantic, which didn't start playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level until 2006, beat Memphis 44-27 in the 2007 New Orleans Bowl.
Last season, Florida Atlantic played road games at Texas, Michigan State and Michigan and started 1-5. Smith injured his left shoulder in a 52-10 loss at Texas, which took several weeks to heal. But the Owls won five of their last six games to finish the regular season at 6-6, and then beat Central Michigan 24-21 in the 2008 Motor City Bowl. Florida Atlantic became the first Sun Belt team to win consecutive bowl games.
"I thought he showed a great deal of poise and leadership bringing our team back and getting us to a bowl game last season," Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "I was maybe more proud of him last year than I was the year before."
Schnellenberger, who guided Miami to the 1983 national championship and coached future NFL quarterbacks Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde there, said Smith is as good as anyone he's ever coached in college.
"I'd put him in the same class with them," Schnellenberger said. "I know Rusty Smith has the same type of demeanor, leadership, arm strength and tools as those other quarterbacks did."
Leonard, from Covington, La., has dreams of playing in the NFL, too. Last season, Leonard broke his own school record for total offense, throwing for 2,347 yards and running for 516. He needs 1,804 passing yards to break Cleo Lemon's career passing record at Arkansas State and needs nine touchdown passes to break Lemon's record for career touchdown passes.
Leonard has come up big in many of the Red Wolves' biggest games. He beat rival Memphis twice and threw the winning touchdown with only 4:39 left in the memorable upset of Texas A&M last season.
"He's very smart," Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said. "He's very competitive in everything he does, on and off the field. He has all the physical tools you're looking for, and he can make all the throws and has a very live arm."
Leonard and the other Sun Belt quarterbacks will soon have opportunities to showcase their talent. The Red Wolves play at Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville. Troy plays at Florida and Arkansas. Florida Atlantic plays at Nebraska and South Carolina.
"Our quarterbacks have been good in the past," Roberts said of the Sun Belt. "I thought it was a heck of a group last year. With three of them coming back this season with another year of experience under their belts, I think that position should continue to shine in our league."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.