Scouting the Sunbelt Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser gives us an expert look at the nation's division I-A conferences starting with the Sunbelt Conference today.

Sunbelt Conference Preview

 

The Big 10 Conference used to be called the Big Two and Little Eight Conference because Ohio State and Michigan dominated the league for years.  The Sunbelt has been won by North Texas every season, so this conference could be called the Mean Green League.

 

That should change in 2005.  North Texas faces just enough of a rebuilding process, while one or two teams will be as good as better.

 

The Sunbelt undergoes some changes this year.  New Mexico State and Utah State leave to join the WAC, while Florida Atlantic and Florida International become official members.

 

The official 2005 preseason Sunbelt poll placed  North Texas, Troy, MTSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Monroe, Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, and Florida International in that order.  As you will see by my ratings, I disagree quite a bit.

 

This is a league where the home team wins more than the normal amount of times.  Much of that has come from long road trips.  With the two westernmost schools leaving for two schools in the East, the abnormal home field advantage should return to normal for this lower-tier conference.  All Sunbelt teams get a home field advantage of three points in 2005.

 

1. M T S U      PiRate: 98      HFA: 3

 

This should be the Blue Raiders best team under Coach Andy McCollum.  MTSU could easily go 7-0 in the league and win eight or nine games overall.  Quarterback Clint Marks rates as the top passer in the league.  Cleannord Saintil may be the next Tyrone Calico, while diminutive Chris Henry gives the Blue Raiders the best pair of receivers in the league.

The running game was weak last year, but with a dominant offensive line, MTSU should fare much better on the ground.  Tackles Willie Hall and Germayle Franklin both have legitimate shots at playing on Sunday.

 

Defensively, MTSU returns 10 starters from last season.  The stop troops improved by five points per game last year and should do so again this year if not better.

 

Opening at Alabama is cause for concern.  If the Tide rough up the Raiders, it could take away their advantage when they host North Texas a week later.  

 

2. North Texas           PiRate: 93      HFA: 3

 

The Mean Green are not about to concede the title to MTSU.  North Texas must break in a green quarterback.  Their running game is without a doubt the best in the league, as they become the first team in NCAA history to have to national champion rushing leaders on their roster at the same time!  Jamario Thomas led the NCAA last year with 1,801 yards, while Patrick Cobbs led the NCAA in 2003 with 1,680.  Coach Darrell Dickey could unleash a full-house backfield and put quite a fear in opposing defensive coordinators.

 

North Texas will not fare as well through the air.  Defenses will be able to put eight men in the box, and slow down the running game just enough to prevent the Mean Green from five-peating in the Sunbelt.  Opening at LSU could cause extra injury problems, and game two at MTSU is probably for all the marbles.

 

3. Louisiana Lafayette           PiRate: 91      HFA: 3

 

The Ragin' Cajuns haven't enjoyed a winning season since they were called Southwest Louisiana.  That could change this year.  ULL finished tied for second in 2003, but they lost four close games last year.  Coach Rickey Bustle's squad should make a move forward in 2005.  Quarterback Jerry Babb is Jay Cutler Lite.  If he stays healthy, and the defense can sustain their end-of-the-season hustle, The Cajuns could make a run for the title.  Unfortunately, they get both MTSU and North Texas on the road.

 

4. Troy            PiRate: 89      HFA: 3

 

The Trojans put the Sunbelt on the map last year by upsetting Missouri on national television and then garnering a rare at-large bowl bid.  This year, Troy could go from seven wins to seven losses.  Both sides of the line must be rebuilt.  Gone is star tailback DeWhitt Betterson and his 1,286 yards.  Gone is co-starting quarterback Aaron Leak.  Gone is deep receiving threat Jason Samples.  Gone is Troy's offense.  The Trojans will struggle to score points this year and will be lucky to average 17 per game.  The defense will be much weaker in the trenches, and opposing teams will be able to run the ball down their throat.  Combined with an offense that may go three and out several times, this will be poison to the Trojans chances.  Look for a middle of the pack finish in the Sunbelt and overall losing record.

 

5. Louisiana Monroe             PiRate: 88      HFA: 3

 

The Indians (oops, I guess this article will be banned by the NCAA) just missed out on a winning season.  Like ULL, their last winning season came when they were known as Northeast Louisiana.  UL-M quarterback Steven Jyles is the best Sunbelt signal caller not living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  He is a threat to pick up 10 yards running or throwing the ball.  

 

The Indians will have trouble stopping the opposition this year.  Their secondary is suspect, and they could give up 40 points more than once or twice.  Head Coach Charlie Weatherbie is good for an extra win, so La-Monroe should compete with Troy for fourth place.

 

6. Florida Atlantic                  PiRate: 86      HFA: 3

 

Owls Coach Howard Schnellenberger somehow produced nine wins in FAU's first season of I-A football.  I don't see him doing that again with this squad.  The Owls lost eight offensive and six defensive starters last year, including their quarterback, top rusher, and top pass catcher.  The FAU defense should be weaker in the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, so expect about 10-15 more points per game allowed.  FAU should escape the cellar, but not by much.  Assistant head Coach Kurt Van Valkenburg was a defensive assistant on the staff of George MacIntyre at Vanderbilt in the early 1980's.

 

7. Arkansas State                  PiRate: 85      HFA: 3

 

This is another school that may have to change their nickname, as they are also Indians.  In 2002 and 2003, the Indians were on the cusp of realizing winning seasons, but they regressed in 2004.  Coach Steve Roberts is starting his fourth season, and if he wants to see a fifth, he will have to improve on 3-8.  It could be difficult.  The offensive line is much weaker this year, and quarterback Nick Noce may look more like a fox at a hunt.

 

The ASU defense will not strike fear in any opponent, as the Indians should once again surrender more than 30 points per game.  Playing both of the Florida schools at home keeps them out of last place.

 

8. Florida International          PiRate: 84      HFA: 3

 

Head Coach Don Strock isn't used to losing.  The former Miami Dolphin quarterback saw his charges drop seven out of 10 games last year, and even with a stronger team in every department, the Panthers may not be able to top that mark this year.  The FIU offense should churn out yardage and score points.  I see them approaching 30 points and 400 total yards per game.  The only problem is they gave up 33 points and 480 yards per game last year to a much easier slate of opponents.

 

 

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

 

Team                            Conf.    Overall

M T S U                      7-0         8-3

North Texas                 6-1         7-4

Louisiana-Lafayette      4-3         7-4

Louisiana Monroe         4-3         5-6

Troy                             3-4         4-7

Florida Atlantic             2-5         2-9

Arkansas State             2-5         3-8

Florida International      1-6         2-9


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