by Robert Ferringo - 08/01/2005
The Sun Belt Conference in college football is pretty much akin to the NBDL in pro basketball. It's like the jayvee. This is the league that welcomes all of those Division I-AA schools that somehow blackmail and coerce school officials into letting them make The Jump to the Division I-A. What they end up looking like are a bunch of 18-year-old freshmen who used a fake ID to sneak into an upperclassmen bar. They huddle awkwardly together in the corner, everyone too afraid to make themselves at home because they know that at any minute they could be exposed as lepers and frauds and immediately laughed and/or forcibly removed from the premises.
Except that one guy who makes his move to the bar and gets a drink for himself, and ends up hooking up with some nasty senior sorority chick. That's pretty much what the New Orleans Bowl is. The Sun Belt's guaranteed slot in that bowl game against some Conference USA also-ran -- its reward for playing the role of pre-conference punching bag for the Miami's and the Michigan's. Just giving them a little taste of the Big Time. But hey, as long as the small schools don't play dirty, don't bitch about getting it run up on them, and don't mind going into the Big House or The Swamp to get sodomized in early September, then they can earn those fat paydays that got them into this lecherous business anyway.
Many casual gamblers look upon college football's outhouse as a No Fly Zone, preferring to wager a little hard-earned dough on their alma mater or a Top 10 school. However, a closer inspection shows that a league like the Sun Belt is ripe for action for anyone with the sand of the Dead Rabbits. Think about it. If you put a lot of time and energy into familiarizing yourself with the Sun Belt inhabitants, your odds of earning increase exponentially. Since odds makers are going to spend much more of their time focusing on where the top action is - the big-time conferences - and give the little guys a more cursory examination, you could actually find yourself a step ahead of your bookie. It will take time and preparation, but you would be in a position to capitalize on a missed line here or there. And then you'll find yourself sitting on one of those fat paydays that got you into this lecherous business anyway.
Here is how I predict the standings will look like in late December:
2005 Sun Belt Preview -- Projected Standings
|TEAM||Sun Belt Record||Overall Record|
The following is Doc's detailed analysis of each Sun Belt team highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and strength of schedule.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (8-3, 7-0)
The Blue Raiders really have a chance to put something special together in 2005. They return 18 starters and have 50 juniors and seniors on the roster. They have talent at the skill positions, and depth on an improving defense. The schedule is also favorable. They host North Texas, Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State, and the Blue Raiders have winnable non-conference games against Temple, Akron and Vanderbilt. They've had three straight losing seasons, and the pressure is on coach Andy McCollum, but I think Middle Tennessee can put it together and find a bowl bid.
Strengths: Quarterback Clint Marks finished second in the nation in passing accuracy last year, completing a ridiculous 70.4 percent of his throws. He was the conference passing leader and was second in total offense (2,862 yards). He needs to cut down on his interceptions (14). They have a strong offensive line, and return four of their top five receivers.
Weakness: With just one winning season in the past seven years (8-3 in 2001), stopping the culture of losing around this program will be difficult. There is experience and talent, but will that be enough? They lost their top receiver, Kerry Wright (Indianapolis Colts), and had one of the worst rushing attacks in the conference, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. Also, the secondary is a concern.
Key Game: Sept. 10, 2005 vs. North Texas. This is it. This game will determine their season. They open at Alabama and then face the defending champions, with the winner seizing the inside track for the conference title. If Middle Tennessee loses, they could go into a free fall, with Akron, Temple and Vanderbilt following. But if they beat North Texas, the momentum could carry them to maybe a 2-1 record vs. those three.
North Texas Mean Green (7-4, 6-1)
The Mean Green are the only champion that the Sun Belt has ever known, and coach Darrell Dickey is the only coach of the year the conference has ever crowned. They have become fixtures in the New Orleans Bowl, and will make reservations again this year until someone proves they can knock them out. They have only 10 starters coming back, but if they can steal a win at Middle Tennessee, I don't think anyone has the stones to knock the champs off their throne.
Strengths: This one is easy. North Texas' backfield will feature the nation's leading rusher from each of the past two seasons. In 2003 it was Cedric Cobb and in 2004 it was true freshman Jamario Thomas, who filled in when Cobb injured his knee in the second game of the year. Thomas (180 yards per game) put up five straight games of more than 200 yards. The only other backs to ever do that were Marcus Allen and Barry Sanders. With Sun Belt rookie of the year Dylan Lineberry anchoring a solid line, the Mean Green should have no trouble pounding other teams into submission.
Weakness: Only four defensive starters return from the 2004 unit. They lost five first- or second-team all-conference players, and all four of their starting down linemen. The Mean Green also took a big hit in the secondary, where they lost three of their top cover men. Also, quarterback Scott Hall moved on, taking his leadership and savvy with him.
Key Game: Nov. 5, 2005 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette. Entering this season North Texas has a 25-game conference winning streak. If they get by Middle Tennessee, then this game against the Rajin' Cajuns may be the only game left that would put that streak in jeopardy.
Louisiana Lafayette Rajin' Cajuns (6-5, 5-2)
The Rajin Cajuns won three of their first four contests in 2004, only to finish 1-6 the rest of the way. However, the 4-7 mark was their second straight season of four wins. C'mon, you gotta take whatever hope you can get when you're 19-60 over the last seven years (and yes, that includes the two four-win seasons). Sixteen starters and three specialists are back, giving coach Rickey Bustle a chance to compete this year.
Strengths: UL-L lost four games by a combined 13 points. They're a competitive lot, and when your leading passer, rusher and receiver are back you have a shot at turning some of those close games in your favor. Jerry Babb (58 percent, 2,345 yards, 16 total TD's) is said to be the best Cajun QB since Jake Delhomme, and he'll be protected by a line that gets back four of its top five players.
Weakness: They did lose their top three tacklers, including NFL draft pick C.C. Brown (Houston Texans). Also, the front line got pushed around quite a bit in 2004, allowing 5.2 yards per carry. Babb was the leading rusher for the team, and senior RB Chester Johnson (489 yards, 2 TD's) needs to contribute more. They also have a tough schedule, drawing North Texas, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee on the road.
Key Game: Oct. 15, 2005 at Arkansas State. They play Middle Tennessee the following week, but they don't want to get caught looking ahead. UL-L could steal this conference, but in order to set up the key matchup with Middle Tenn., they have to first get past the potential-laden Indians.
Arkansas State Indians (5-6, 4-3)
Narrow losses to Memphis and Ole Miss suggested that Arkansas State would be hitting its stride just in time to be a conference player. Yeah, that didn't happen. The Indians won two conference games. For financial reasons, this team played only four games in its home state. They improved to five home games this year. There is some talent on this squad, but enough to compete for a league title?
Strengths: The four starters that return this year include quarterback Nick Noce and leading rusher Antonio Warren. The defense, which gave up 33 points per game last year, returns seven starters and coach Steve Roberts has decided to abandon the old 4-2-5 scheme they had run for a more traditional 4-3 base.
Weakness: The offensive line is a mess. Center Tanner Jenkins is the only returning starter. Sophomore linebacker Josh Williams was the leading freshman tackler in the country and an all-league player in 2004, but he has been dismissed for violating team rules.
Key Game: Nov. 19, 2005 at Army. After a conference schedule full of disappointment, it would be nice for Arkansas State to end with a big win over a "name" program like Army. Always good to end the season on a positive note, if they can.
Louisiana Monroe Indians (5-6, 3-4)
Finishing 5-6 would make for a pretty nondescript season for most programs, but coming off a 1-11 debacle in 2003, it marked major progress. Head coach Charlie Weatherbie has gone to bowl games with Utah State and Navy, and now in his third season he trying to keep his charges headed in that direction. History isn't completely on his side though. The Indians haven't had a winning season since 1993.
Strengths: Seventeen returning starters is a nice base to work with. Leading the way is the multitalented Steven Jyles. The quarterback led the conference in all-purpose yards (2,909) and was a one-man gang for an offense that only managed 19 points a game. He scored 20 of their 24 total touchdowns. All-league defensive end Brandon Guillory was given another year of eligibility, which should strengthen the front seven.
Weakness: The offensive line is comprised of four sophomores and a freshman. That's a problem. They lost Chris Harris, a DB that was drafted by the Chicago Bears. L-M gave up under 37 points a game for only the second time in five years. I guess that's progress. It certainly was considered so for defensive coordinator Bob Trott, who is now an assistant with the Cleveland Browns.
Key Game: Sept. 1, 2005 vs. Northwestern State. After the home opener the Indians are getting kicked off their land. They play three straight road games and don't return to Malone Stadium until Oct. 1. Wins will be hard to come by for L-M in the first half of the season (they play Wyoming, Georgia, and Arkansas in their first six games) so they better get this one.
Troy Trojans (2-8, 2-5)
The Trojans made the most of their first season in the Sun Belt, going 4-2 in the conference and finishing in second place. Their efforts earned them a spot in the Silicon Valley Bowl, which they dropped 34-21 to Northern Illinois. Not bad for a team entering only its fifth year of Division I-A play. This season they open with four non-conference games that should toughen them up before they make another run at the league title. However, the loss of first-round draft pick Demarcus Ware (Dallas Cowboys) makes that run a bit longer.
Strengths: Although Ware was clearly the top player on last year's defense, the top four tacklers from that squad are back. The group of linebackers, led by seniors Leverne Johnson and Bernard Davis, are two of those tacklers and should provide stability for the interior. Also, the Trojans proved opportunistic last season by leading the country with 25 interceptions.
Weakness: Troy lost 15 starters from 2004's successful run, bringing back only three offensive starters and four defensive ones. Not only did they lose Ware on D, but defensive coordinator Vic Koenning left for Clemson. They lost their top passer, runner and receiver. And the offense wasn't even that good last year.
Key Game: Oct. 15, 2005 at Louisiana-Monroe. Figuring that the Trojans beat the two Florida teams, this may represent their best chance for another conference victory.
Florida Atlantic Owls (1-10, 1-6)
The Owls are making the jump from the Division I-AA level. They picked a bad time to make the jump, as only three offensive and four defensive starters return from last season's 9-3 club. To add insult to injury, there are rumors that the faculty and student body aren't behind the team, believing instead that the football program is a drain on the school's resources. Regardless, three of their first four games are against Kansas, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Louisville. Welcome to the Big Time.
Strengths: Coach Howard Schnellenberger likes to employ a wide-open, spread attack on opposing defenses. Even though he doesn't have any talent, don't expect him to change his philosophy. Also, he knows how to take fear out of his charges. They went on the road and shocked Hawaii as 25.5-point underdogs to open 2004, winning 35-28.
Weakness: Where do we begin? They lost their quarterback, three of the top four rushers and their top for receivers. Defensively they were tough last year, but all of those players are gone. The team lost 26 seniors in all. Eventually this may be a sound program, but out of 119 Div.-I college teams in 2005, they should be one of the three worst ones.
Key Game: Nov. 26, 2005 at Florida International. Last game of the season for the Owls. This is for bragging rights (I guess) and could be the only game they win all year.
Florida International Golden Panthers (2-9, 0-7)
Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Don Strock is focused on building a contender down in the swamp. Like Florida Atlantic, FIU is trying to make the jump from Div. I-AA. Unlike Atlantic, International was terrible last year (3-9), but they do return 18 of 22 starters, nine on each side of the ball.
Strengths: The Golden Panthers return the key components to what was a pretty productive offense. The scored over 30 points in half of their games. Quarterback Josh Padrick (57 percent, 2,269 yards, 12 TD's) is back, as is 6-foot-3, 217-pound wideout Cory McKinney. McKinney (58 catches, 675 yards) was the team's receiving leader last year. Also, they have OT John Shanahan (6-6, 315) and G Ronny Silva (6-2, 340) anchoring the offensive line.
Weakness: The defense got hit for 50 points in back-to-back games last year. They return a decent secondary and a core of linebackers that has potential. However, they most likely will get manhandled at the point of attack by teams that are bigger and more physical than they are.
Key Game: Oct. 1, 2005 vs. Florida A&M. After getting devastated by Kansas State and Texas Tech, and probably losing to Arkansas State, FIU will go back to its D-IAA roots to scrounge for a win.
The Sun Belt is in the unique position of having most of its top playmakers returning. Five of the eight teams will be using the same signal caller this fall, including the three top rated QB's in the conference in 2004. There are also enough running backs and receivers to ensure that conference games will have less mistakes and more exciting finishes throughout the season.
North Texas is still the odds-on favorite to earn their fifth straight league title, but they will be tested. Middle Tennessee has the talent, but like you see in so many of the larger conferences, that mental advantage that a team like North Texas has over its foes can't be quantified. The Mean Green are sitting on 25 straight in the Sun Belt, and if they topple the Blue Raiders in the squad's conference opener that number could get into the 30's before you know it. Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette can put up a fight and could stun one of the top two, but they probably won't.
In the end, the primary purpose of these teams is to be tackling dummies for the big boys. They're the under card for the Main Event, and it's a role that they gladly accept. It's possible that two of these teams could earn bowl bids (the New Orleans automatic and perhaps an at-large) but I don't see any of the clubs in this division beating any serious squads in the major conferences. Unlike in college basketball, where Cinderella shows up from time to time to crash the party, in college football the best that these small schools can hope for is to hook up with a nasty sorority chick.
Best of luck.
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 Sun Belt preview, check back throughout the week for more college football conference previews.
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