2008 Sun Belt Football Preview
The Sun Belt had a breakout year of sorts in 2007, defeating three BCS conference opponents and thrusting its way, albeit briefly, into the national limelight. Highlights included an early season shellacking of Oklahoma State by Troy and a stunning upset by UL-Monroe of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The other major drama included eventual conference champion Florida Atlantic beating Big Ten foe Minnesota during an early season matchup in Boca Raton, where the Owls jumped out to an enormous lead early and held on for the victory.
The Sun Belt looks to be a deeper conference in 2008 than it was last year, so if the multiple upsets don’t occur this fall, it could well be a result of the major conference teams taking notice of the fates of Alabama, Minnesota, and Oklahoma State and finally taking the conference seriously. The most dangerous team in the Sun Belt is prohibitive favorite Florida Atlantic, who (outside of Ohio State in the Big Ten and USC in the Pac Ten) might be the biggest conference favorite in all of Division One football. UL-Monroe is expected to have another excellent year and could challenge for the Sun Belt title. Other contenders include North Texas, where head coach Todd Dodge is expected to open the season with his son under center, last year’s runner up Troy, who faces an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, and UL-Lafayette, who is looking to rebound from a subpar 2007.Another quirk in the Sun Belt’s schedule this fall is the partial inclusion of Western Kentucky, who becomes a full member in 2009 upon successful transition from Division 1-AA. The Hilltoppers’ five games against conference opposition don’t count towards the conference standings, but they will allow WKU to get its proverbial feet wet in its new conference and should serve as notice to the opposition for 2009.
Florida Atlantic (Predicted Conference Record: 7-0)
The Owls capped off 2007 with the program’s first bowl victory in only their 6 th season playing any level of college football! Coach Howard Schnellenberger, the architect of another rags-to-riches football story in south Florida (ever hear of the Miami Hurricanes?), has done an excellent job of fashioning a talented and deep team. The Owls bring back 18 starters from last year’s conference champions and will look to repeat as the conference’s top team.
Junior Rusty Smith returns at quarterback to lead the Owl offense, which returns 10 of the 11 starters who averaged over 31 points per game in conference play last fall. Smith had an excellent season, passing for over 3,600 yards and 32 touchdowns. All the skill position players from 2007 are back as well, including 1000 yard receiver Cortez Grant. The only position of attrition was on the offensive line, which still returns 4 starters and a wealth of experience. FAU’s offense should be the league’s best and will be a huge strength for the Owls.
The defense will be paced by senior middle linebacker Frantz Joseph, who led the Owls in tackles last fall. Joseph will be given plenty of space to roam behind an experienced defensive line which should show a marked rise in production this fall. FAU also boasts the best secondary in the Sun Belt, led by senior cornerback Corey Small, who had 5 interceptions last season. The sum of all these parts is the best defense in the Sun Belt.
Florida Atlantic is also the beneficiary of a favorable conference schedule. Since they play a neutral site rivalry game every year with F.I.U. in their shared hometown of Miami, the Owls aren’t subjected to an unbalanced home and away schedule. The Owls host Troy, UL-Lafayette, and North Texas, giving them only 1 difficult road game at UL-Monroe. The schedule sets up very well for the Owls and it would not be surprising in the least to see them run the table. Florida Atlantic is the prohibitive favorite in the Sun Belt and it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t repeat as conference champions in 2008.
Biggest Games: Oct. 7th versus Troy, Oct. 25th @ UL-Monroe, Nov. 29th versus FIU
UL-Monroe (Predicted Conference Record: 5-2)
The Warhawks went through a wobbly 2007, losing their first 4 games of the season before getting back on track to finish 6-6. ULM notched the conference’s most high profile win, defeating Alabama on the road to stun the Tide. Returning from that team are 15 starters, which should help the Warhawks challenge for the Sun Belt crown in 2008.
UL-Monroe returns senior quarterback Kinsimon Lancaster to the fray in 2008. Lancaster had a solid, but unspectacular, 2007 season, passing for only 13 TDs and throwing 10 picks. Lancaster will have to shoulder more of the offensive burden this fall with the graduation of 1,500 yard rusher Calvin Dawson. He’ll have help from star TE Zeek Zacharie, who caught 6 TDs last year. UL-Monroe also has to replace 3 starters on the offensive line, but many of the backups have playing experience. Expect the Warhawk attack to improve this fall, but it won’t able to carry the team to a Sun Belt title on its own.
ULM’s defense struggled mightily against the pass last fall, allowing in excess of 260 yards passing per game. However, they improved down the stretch and return a secondary that boasts 3 returning starters. The pass defense should be further improved this fall. The Warhawks return their top 4 leading tacklers, led by senior linebacker Cardia Jackson. Up front, ULM must deal with the attrition of DT David Cooper, but should receive plenty of sacks from junior Alaric Coleman, who paced the team with 7.5 last fall. The ULM defense should be improved as a whole from last year and should be on of the Sun Belt’s top units.
ULM also has a great conference schedule, hosting FAU, Troy, North Texas AND UL-Lafeyette! That’s their expected top four competitors for the conference crown! However, the Warhawks face a tough stretch in late October, hosting North Texas, FAU, and Troy in consecutive weeks. UL-Monroe has improved its stock from last season, while the conference overall has taken a step back. If ULM can take advantage of some home cooking, it would only be mildly surprising if they ended up taking the Sun Belt.
Biggest Games: Oct. 4th versus ULL, Oct. 25th versus FAU, Nov. 1st versus Troy
North Texas (Predicted Conference Record: 4-3)
North Texas was the conference heavyweight during the first four years of its existence, winning every year. Since then they haven’t seen such success, suffering through a 2-10 season last year under first year coach Todd Dodge. However, the Mean Green averaged over 400 yards per game on offense amidst a transition to Dodge’s spread. The main culprit in NT’s abysmal year was the play of the defense, which gave up an NCAA-worst 45 points per game. North Texas returns 13 starters from last years team and should be vastly improved in Dodge’s second season.
North Texas returns last year’s starting QB, sophomore Giovanni Vizza, but he’s not expected to start this fall. Why? Because Riley Dodge, son of the coach and top 10 QB recruit last season (who was originally committed to play for Texas until he decided to play for his father), steps on campus with 3 years of experience running his dad’s spread system in high school and he is widely expected to be the starter for the bulk of the season. Dodge’s transition to the college level will be greatly aided by the return of senior wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald, who caught 12 TD passes last year. Running behind an offensive line that returns 4 starters, sophomore Micah Mosley should be the primary ball carrier for North Texas and should provide a measure of balance to the offense. North Texas should have an explosive offense with Dodge’s son under center in 2008.
However, North Texas won’t have any success this fall if their defense doesn’t improve in leaps and bounds. The Mean Green lose their top 5 tacklers from last fall, but after being the worst defense in college football, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Their D-Line is led by senior DT Joseph Miller, who is the team’s returning leading tackler. They should also receive a boost from junior JUCO DE transfer Alonzo Horton. At linebacker, the Mean Green return only one starter, sophomore Craig Robertson, who led NT with 5 interceptions last year. Alongside Robertson should be a young group that gained some experience on last year’s defense. In the secondary, three starters return from a unit which featured exactly zero players with more than a single interception. Sophomore safety Greg Garden could be the star of the group. As a whole, North Texas’ defense can only be improved from last fall, especially considering how young their defense was. Look for major improvements in 2008.
North Texas also has a favorable schedule, with 4 conference home games. The Mean Green are staring at a road trip to conference favorite FAU, but the other 2 road games (MTSU and FIU) are extremely winnable. Simply put, if North Texas improves at all on defense, the schedule sets up well for them to be a challenger in the Sun Belt this fall.
Biggest Games: Oct. 25 th versus Troy, Nov.8 th @ FAU, Nov. 29 th versus Ark. State
Troy (Predicted Conference Record: 4-3)
Troy was the third major headline-grabbing team from the Sun Belt last year, thanks to their upset victory over Oklahoma State. What was truly stunning about the upset was that they beat the Cowboys by 18 points! Troy was a win away from a Sun Belt title last fall, but was upset in what was a de facto title game by FAU and then didn’t even get invited to a bowl with an 8-4 record! Troy is hit hard by losses at the major skill positions and could be looking at a fall back into the middle of the pack.
Last season, Troy QB Omar Haugabook was one of the nation’s more exciting players with his dual threat ability. However, Haugabook departs along with last year’s leading rusher and three of the top four receivers. Replacing Haugabook this fall will likely be last year’s backup, sophomore Jamie Hampton, who only registered 11 pass attempts. At tailback, no player returns from last season with more than 400 yards on the ground. Look for sophomore DuJuan Harris or junior JUCO transfer Maurice Greer to shoulder the load this fall. Luckily, Troy’s mass exodus at the skill positions is the complete opposite of their O-Line, which returns all five starters AND their backups from 2008, so expect the Trojans to at worst be able to run the ball this fall.
On defense, Troy returns a very veteran group. Their expected starting 11 is compromised entirely of upperclassmen! On the defensive line, the Trojans struggled with injuries and suspensions last fall and allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game. They actually allowed more rush yards per game than they did pass yards! That number should drop significantly this fall if they can stay on the field. At linebacker, junior Boris Lee is the team’s returning leading tackler and was a Sun Belt All-Conference pick. In the secondary, Troy has to replace both of the Sun Belt’s top corners from 2007 and their combined 10 interceptions, but their expected replacements are upperclassmen and have seen the field. Troy’s defense should see a bit of a drop off in pass defense but should improve measurably against the run. This should be one of the Sun Belt’s better defenses, but it likely won’t be stronger than the 2007 edition.
Troy also faces a tough schedule, having only 3 conference home games and the Trojans face trips to UL-Monroe, North Texas, and Florida Atlantic. The Trojans also are the only team in college football that have to face both of last season’s national title game participants, with trips to LSU and Ohio State on tap. Troy will have to look to avoid injuries in those games and their rematch in Stillwater with Oklahoma State if they have a hope of navigating their conference schedule. Troy should be a good team this fall, but it is unlikely that they’ll come close to sniffing at their 8 wins from a season ago.
Biggest Games: Oct. 7th @ FAU, Oct. 25th @ North Texas, Nov. 1st @ UL-Monroe
UL-Lafayette (Predicted Conference Record: 4-3)
The Ragin’ Cajuns had more than their share of struggles last fall, limping to a 3-9 final mark after starting 0-5. Included in that stretch was a loss to 1-AA McNeese State by three touchdowns! Injuries played a big part in their struggles and they did finish by winning 2 of their last 3 games, so there is hope. ULL returns 14 starters from last year’s team and should improve markedly this fall.
One of the biggest reasons that UL-Lafayette should improve is senior quarterback Michael Desormeaux, who was the team’s leading rusher last fall with over 1,200 yards! Supporting him in the backfield is senior Tyrell Fenroy, who also ran for over 1,000 yards last fall. The Ragin’ Cajun ground attack should be stellar, despite running behind an O-Line that only returns 2 starters. However, last year’s injuries provided a lot of playing time for the backup O-Linemen, so there should be plenty of experience on the line of scrimmage. Also returning is ULL’s top 4 receivers from last fall, so Desormeaux shouldn’t have trouble airing it out if need be. This is a very experienced offense, which could lead to an upset or two for ULL this fall.
The Ragin’ Cajun defense will look to improve upon its poor rush defense from last fall (nearly 230 yards per game against!) thanks to the return of its top 3 leading tacklers. The D-Line returns 3 starters and an extra year of experience should make a big difference. At linebacker, senior Antwyne Zanders should again anchor the defense and sophomore Grant Fleming should improve by leaps and bounds in his second season starting. The secondary is a big question mark for ULL, as last year’s unit was one of the worst in the NCAA with only 8 interceptions. Junior Gerren Blount will be a major part of any improvement in the air. If he succeeds, ULL’s defense could turn out to be a solid group.
ULL has the most difficult conference schedule in the Sun Belt. They face 4 conference road games and all 4 games are against the teams picked ahead of them in the conference! Particularly brutal is a back to back stretch at Florida Atlantic and at Troy. ULL needs to have some serious improvements on the defensive side of the football if they hope to have a chance at a .500 record this fall.
Biggest Games: Oct. 4th @ UL-Monroe, Nov. 15th @ FAU, Nov. 22nd @ Troy
Middle Tennessee (Predicted Conference Record: 3-4)
Middle Tennessee struggled last year to a 5-7 overall record in Coach Rick Stockstill’s 2 nd season in Murfreesboro despite having a veteran team. This year, the Blue Raiders return only 12 starters and are one of the youngest teams in college football.
MTSU will likely have to deal a quarterback controversy for the bulk of the season. Senior Joe Craddock and sophomore Dwight Dasher both put up very good touchdown to interception ratios last fall, combining for 21 TDs versus only 8 picks. Dasher is more athletic than Craddock, but having two experienced players competing over the course of the season could divide the locker room. The Blue Raiders only return one of their top 6 receiving options last fall, thanks to 4 graduations and a position change for junior Desmond McGee, who is expected to start at tailback this fall. MTSU’s biggest weakness on offense will be the O-Line, which only returns two starters from last year’s unit and could be compromised of all underclassmen. If the O-Line struggles, then the Blue Raiders could have a tough time scoring a lot of points.
On the other side of the ball, MTSU has the makings of a pretty decent defense. The Blue Raiders didn’t have a dominant leading tackler last fall, with eight different players recording over 40 takedowns. On the defensive line, MTSU has to deal with losing their top two linemen from last year and could see a drop off. At linebacker, the entire group returns from last season and should be vastly improved. Look for junior Danny Carmichael to lead the way this fall. MTSU’s secondary will be a question mark, considering that the Blue Raiders lost their top 2 corners from last season. While the secondary should be decent, it won’t compare to last year’s unit, which was one of the Sun Belt’s best. Look for the experienced defense (6 seniors are expected to start) to be a strength for the Blue Raiders this fall.
MTSU has a good schedule this fall, drawing 4 home games in the last year of the unbalanced schedule. Their only road trips are to ULL, Arkansas State, and FIU, so their biggest conference games should be on home turf. If the Blue Raiders can get consistent play on their offensive line, if they can replace their best defensive linemen and, most importantly, if a quarterback can emerge, MTSU could finish better than 6 th in the conference. However, there is a lot of ‘ifs’ surrounding this team, so look for MTSU to finish with a sub .500 record.
Biggest Games: Aug. 28th versus Troy, Sept. 30th versus FAU, Nov. 8 versus ULM
Florida International (Predicted Conference Record: 1-6)
Florida International enters only its 7 th season as a football school in 2008. The Golden Panthers struggled through their 2 nd consecutive difficult season last year and are a combined 1-23 (though much of 2006 was marred by tons of suspensions due to the infamous brawl with Miami) over the last 2 years! However, the Golden Panthers should begin to show improvement this fall, returning 18 starters from last year’s team.
FIU could have a quarterback controversy on their hands this fall, as junior Paul McCall led the Golden Panthers to their only victory of the season last year after sophomore Wayne Younger was injured. Younger had a 2-1 interception to touchdown ratio, so it is very possible that the less mobile McCall could start based on his ability to protect the football alone. At tailback, senior A’mod Ned will look to help alleviate the pressure on either QB while running behind an O-Line that returns 4 starters. With all the top receivers returning, FIU could have a decent offense this fall if one of the quarterbacks steps up.
On defense, the Golden Panthers return a lot of experience on the defensive line and at linebacker. An extra year of experience playing together should really help FIU improve against the run (over 5 yards per rush in 2007) this fall. Leading the way will be junior linebacker Scott Bryant, who paced the team in tackles in 2007. The secondary should also be significantly improved as well. If the FIU defense produces to its potential, the Golden Panthers could win a couple of conference games.
Florida International has an even schedule, since it plays FAU at a neutral site. The home schedule has a couple winnable games, especially homecoming against Arkansas State in November. The Golden Panthers have enough returning players and a fair enough schedule that it is entirely possible that they’ll win a few conference games this fall. I fully expect them to finish out of the basement for the first time in 3 seasons.
Biggest Games: Oct. 4 th @ North Texas, Nov. 8 th versus ASU, Dec. 6 th versus FAU
Arkansas State (Predicted Conference Record: 1-6)
The Redskins, pardon me, the Red Wolves (name change!) battled their way to a 3-4 conference record last fall, including a 52-21 win over ULL in which they racked up over 400 yards rushing. So, why does poor ASU get picked at the bottom of the league? Well, first of all they only return 11 starters from last year and lose 4 of their top 5 tacklers and their leader in sacks! That is a lot of lost production! Secondly, they only have one starter returning on the offensive line and the replacements hardly played last year. I know that picking ASU last is a little out on a limb, but they have some serious losses at key positions which could really hurt them this fall.
One position which will be a strength for ASU will be quarterback, where junior Corey Leonard is a dual threat demon who combined for over 3,000 yards last fall. If Leonard can cut down on turnovers (15 interceptions last fall), then the Red Wolves could do some damage. At tailback, junior Reggie Arnold returns after rushing for over 1,000 yards and 9 TDs last fall. As was previously mentioned, only 2007 All-Sun Belt tackle Matt Mandich returns on the offensive line for the Red Wolves, so there could be some serious early growing pains on the line of scrimmage. The Red Wolves have talent at the skill positions, but the very inexperienced O-Line will define 2008’s offensive production for ASU.
On defense, the Red Wolves are very green, especially in the back seven. Senior Ben Owens returns after making 96 tackles last year from the middle linebacker position, but ASU has to replace leading tackler Koby McKinnon, who was a force last year. The secondary also loses its top 3 corners and the starting free safety from last year’s squad. Among those losses were two All-Sun Belt players. The secondary has a lot of questions to answer for the Red Wolves. However, ASU has a solid returning D-Line with 3 upperclassman starters returning. They will have to improve from last season’s showing to give the rest of the defense a chance to succeed. ASU’s defense could be one of the Sun Belt’s worst units.
If all the graduation losses weren’t enough, ASU also has to go on the road for 4 conference games this fall. Their 3 home games also feature 3 of the Sun Belt’s top offenses, so the Red Wolves could be hard-pressed, especially early. In short, it could be a long season in Jonesboro.
Biggest Games: Oct. 11th versus ULM, Nov. 8th @ FIU, Nov. 22nd versus FAU
Western Kentucky (Officially joins in 2009)
While the Hilltoppers aren’t officially full members of the Sun Belt until 2009, I felt it appropriate to preview them with their future conference brethren. WKU sported a 7-5 mark last fall against a schedule that was half D-1A schools, three of which were members of the Sun Belt. The transition will be nearly completed this fall, as only two of the Hilltoppers’ games will be against D-1AA teams. The Hilltoppers return 13 starters for their final season outside of conference play.
Last year the Hilltoppers rotated two quarterbacks for most of the season and it worked fairly well. However, with a true D-1A schedule for the first time in their history, it is expected that WKU will name a full time starter. Senior Notre Dame transfer David Wolke and sophomore KJ Black are the two candidates for the job. Junior Tyrell Hayden ran for nearly 1,200 yards last fall and will be counted on to repeat that effort this fall. It helps that WKU returns 3 starting offensive linemen to what should be a pretty decent offense in 2008.
On defense, the Hilltoppers lose 4 of their top 6 tacklers from last season. WKU plays a 3-4 defense and 3 of their starting linebackers return to what should be an improved group. The defensive line has to find a nose tackle, something that isn’t easy to do, but the returning defensive ends should be steady. In the secondary, WKU returns both staring corners and should continue to improve. Overall, the WKU defense is solid, if unspectacular, and should help WKU win a few games this fall.
The Hilltoppers play 5 Sun Belt teams this fall, hosting FAU, North Texas, and MTSU. Road trips to Troy and FIU are also on the schedule. It would not be surprising for WKU to win 2 or 3 of their Sun Belt games. However, it is unlikely that WKU will top last season’s 7 win total, as they have early season trips to Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and Virginia Tech! They also host MAC favorite Ball State, so Western Kentucky could be looking at the school’s first losing season in a decade. Welcome to D1-A football, gentlemen.
Sun Belt Games: Oct. 18th versus FAU, Nov. 1st versus North Texas, Nov. 8th @ Troy, Nov. 15th versus MTSU, Dec. 6th @ FIU
The Bottom Line for the Sun Belt in 2008
From a publicity standpoint, the Sun Belt should benefit from the three big upsets of 2007. While it is unlikely that they will repeat that feat, some potential upsets could be FAU’s season opener @ Texas, UL-Monroe’s September 6 th trip to Arkansas, and North Texas’ August 30 th opener at Kansas State. Sun Belt schools are slowly making their way into the weeknight game rotation and having a potential 8-9 win team like FAU will really help the conference’s image. Florida Atlantic is the most talented and experienced team in the conference and is the odds on favorite to represent the conference in the New Orleans Bowl for the second straight season. The conference, as a whole, probably isn’t as deep as last season, but expect some inspired play. This is the last year before Western Kentucky joins the conference as a full member, making it also the last year that teams will have unbalanced conference schedules, a change that will only help improve the league’s competitive balance.
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