A PiRate look at the Sunbelt Conference

Well, here we are at last. The Sunbelt Conference kicks off the PiRate ratings previews for the 2006 NCAA football season. As it has for every year of its existence, the SBC enters the season as the lowest-rated league in Division I-A.

Even though this conference will not come close to having a member representative threatening to crash the BCS bowl party, it just may prove to have the most exciting race for the New Orleans Bowl.  Five teams begin the season within four points of each other, and the last place team begins the season a mere 10 points behind the top-rated team.


Last year, Arkansas State emerged as the surprise conference co-champ, earning the league's automatic New Orleans Bowl bid.  It marked the first time someone other than North Texas had won the title.  Arkansas State has the talent to repeat this year, but the Indians have a tough schedule in November.


The official pre-season poll taken at the league's meetings in the Crescent City a few weeks ago showed the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana Lafayette as the number one team, followed closely by Arkansas State and Troy in that order.  North Texas was picked fourth, while Louisiana Monroe was tabbed for fifth, picking up one first place vote.  Middle Tennessee was picked sixth just behind ULM, while Florida Atlantic and Florida International brought up the rear in that order.


So, what do the PiRates think about that poll?  They agree with the bottom two selections, but other than that, they have a differing opinion.


Following is a team-by-team PiRate-style preview.  Every PiRate rating has been rounded to the nearest whole number.  Since teams don't win games by fractions of a point, there is no need to tell you the team rated 100 is really 99.8.


1. Arkansas State

 PiRate: 86              National Ranking: 100                 HFA: 3


The Indians lost some key components from last year's conference co-championship and New Orleans Bowl team.  However, they return just enough talent to edge out four others for top preseason rating.  Replacing quarterback Nick Noce won't be easy, as he could run and pass well above average for the SBC.  Gone as well is 1,066-yard rusher Antonio Warren.  Replacing these two stars will be difficult, but not impossible.


The new starting quarterback, Travis Hewitt, will have another excellent tailback to hand off the ball.  Redshirt freshman Reggie Arnold ran a 4.38, 40-yard dash at a high school combine a couple years ago.  Whenever he gets into an open field, he will sprint for long gains, the type that wins ball games.  Highly rated fullback Oren O'Neal will be supplying his expert lead blocking giving Arnold a better chance of getting into open field.  You cannot ask for a better pass protector should a rushing defender break through.  O'Neal is like having a third guard on offense.


The receiving corps is a strength this year.  The top five receivers, in terms of yardage, return led by Levi Dejohnette.  Kevin Jones is a deep threat who will take away run support by forcing cornerbacks to go deep with him.


The starting offensive line is strong and should help Arnold increase the Indians' average yards per carry from 2005.  Center Tanner Jenkins is sure to hear his name called in the 2007 NFL draft, while tackle Matt Mandich could be even better in two more years.  ASU could easily average five yards per rush.  The pass protection could be a bit iffy, especially with an inexperienced quarterback who may need a little extra time in the pocket.  Depth is a concern, but that's the case with every team in this league.


The real strength of this Indians team will be the stop troops.  ASU should be stronger against the run and as good as last year against the pass.  The only reason the secondary and linebackers won't be any better against the pass is because you cannot get much better than best in the league.  Free safety Khayyam Burns and cornerback Dominique Williams will stick like glue to receivers and force opposing passers to look elsewhere. 


The 2005 defensive line was not up to par with the rest of the stop troops, as they surrendered 187 yards per game at a 4.2 yard average.  That will still be the way to beat ASU, but I don't think they will give up as much this year.  Ends Brian Flagg and Brandon Rollins will need to step up their games this year, or teams will run off-tackle and wider for big gains.


What will hurt ASU's chances to repeat is a brutal November schedule that finds them finishing at Auburn, hosting MTSU, and then going to Troy and UL-Lafayette.  How healthy they are after going to the Loveliest Village on the Plains will decide their fate.  My personal guess is they will come up short, but the PiRates says their the best to open the season.


2.  Middle Tennessee

PiRate: 86               National Ranking: 101(t)            HFA: 3


Arguably, the Blue Raiders have had the most talented team in the Sunbelt about three different times in the 21st century, yet they have never won the title.  It cost former coach Andy McCollum his job, even though he managed to beat neighborhood rival Vanderbilt three consecutive times.


New coach Rick Stockstill inherits an enviable position, as the Blue Raiders are loaded with talent at the skilled positions and could easily walk away with the league crown this season.  MTSU finished four-tenths of a point behind Arkansas State in the opening PiRate ratings.


Leading the offensive charge this year are three returning stars.  It all starts with quarterback Clint Marks, who may be as good as Kelly Holcombe and Wes Counts.  Last year, Marks completed 66.1% of his passes (mostly quick strikes less than 10 yards across the line) for close to 200 yards per game.  Receiver Bobby Williams was suspended this spring, but he is sure to be back as the premier receiver this year.  Without his services, MTSU will drop from second to fifth in these ratings before they kick off the season.  Williams is the team's only legitimate playmaker when he catches the ball with some space.


Eugene Gross is a capable running back with excellent pass catching skills.  He can pick up crucial first downs running on 3rd and short and by catching the seven yard pass on 3rd and six.


The strength of the offensive line will be the two tackles.  Germayle Franklin and Franklin Dunbar can open holes and prevent pass rushers from getting by to Marks.  However, the rest of the line is not as highly rated, and MTSU will not run inside with that much success, while being vulnerable to stunts and blitzes up the middle.


Kicker Colby Smith slumped last year, connecting on only 2-10 field goals of 30 yards or more.  His punting skills were much better.


Defensively is where the Blue Raiders won games last year.  Unfortunately, they lost a lot of talent to graduation.  One star who does return is linebacker J.K. Sabb who registered 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and successfully defensed six passes.  Another stud is cornerback Bradley Robinson who defensed 12 passes, with five of those resulting in interceptions.


MTSU will be more vulnerable to the run with three new starting defensive linemen.  Like Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders will find it hard stopping off tackle and wide runs.  Don't look for MTSU to hold seven teams to 17 points or less like they did last year.


The Blue Raiders will contend for the SBC title due to an improved offense that should score at least 25 points a game, even if the defense yields five more points per game than last season.  My personal guess is MTSU will challenge for a .500 record overall, but games against Oklahoma and Louisville will leave them too battered and bruised to take the SBC crown.


3. Louisiana Lafayette

PiRate: 85               National Ranking: 103                 HFA: 3


The Ragin' Cajuns took their lumps in the season opener last year having to be fodder for eventual National Champ Texas.  The 60-3 beating they received took a month for them to recover.  Once they did, ULL blasted five consecutive opponents to finish the season in a three-way tie for first in the league.


This year, ULL could be the class of the league, but a questionable passing game could be the hole in the boat.  Jerry Babb is the second best running quarterback in the SBC, but he only threw for 859 yards a year ago.  Backup Michael Desormeaux is the best running quarterback in the league, but he doesn't scare anybody when he drops back to throw.  ULL averaged only 132 yards passing last year and three times in league play failed to get 100 yards through the air.


The Cajuns did their damage with the infantry last year, and they figure to do so once again.  The quarterbacks combined for 1,020 yards rushing when you remove sacks, and tailback Tyrell Fenroy rushed for 1,053 yards and 12 scores, as ULL led the league with almost 300 rushing yards per conference game.


Tackle Brandon Cox could easily star in the SEC.  The 6-7 giant will play for pay next year.  The rest of the offensive line is above average, so expect them to open some nice holes for Fenroy and contain the defense enough for the quarterbacks to get wide with momentum.


Defensively, ULL surrendered 28 points per game last year, so this stat must improve this year if they are to go bowling.  The Cajuns should fare better against both the run and pass, thanks to a stronger defensive line.  Ends Rodney Hardeway and Anthony Hills should give the defense a better pass rush this season.


Brenton Burkhalter and Mark Risher give ULL two excellent pursuing linebackers, but the secondary needs to improve.  Last year, ULL intercepted only six passes and defensed less than 30 for the season.  The 7.1 yards per pass attempt they surrendered was much weaker than MTSU, Arkansas State,  and Troy, three teams they will contend with for the title.


ULL must start the season on the road against LSU and Texas A&M.  Later in the season, they play at Houston.  Will they come out in good shape after playing those three powers?  If so, they could be playing in the Superdome in December.  If not, it looks like another five to six-win season and near miss.  My personal guess is ULL will be hosting Arkansas State for the title on November 25.


4. Troy Trojans

PiRate: 83               National Ranking: 108 (t)                  HFA: 3


The Trojans suffered a record reversal last year falling to 4-7 after posting a 7-4 record and earning an at-large Silicon Valley Bowl bid in 2004.  Troy's anemic offense kept a very good defense from being able to win several games.  The Trojans surrendered just nine points to conference co-champ Arkansas State but lost 9-3.  They held MTSU to 271 yards and lost 17-7.  All told, Troy scored 21 points or less in eight of their 11 games.


This year, the Troy offense should be improved and score more than the 15.9 points per game they did last year.  However, the defense took a shot from the bough by the graduation cannon, claiming four of their top five tacklers, including the top three tacklers for loss.


Any thought that Troy's defense will be substandard is wrong.  The Trojans still have a bevy of talent on that side of the ball.  The strongest unit is the secondary, where safeties Brannon Condren and Sherrod Martin return as starters.  The pair combined for 18 passes defensed and 136 total tackles.  Look for the Trojans to better their five pass interceptions of a year ago.


Marcus Richardson could lead the team in total tackles this year from his Sam linebacker position.  Last year, he registered 59 tackles with seven being for loss, and he broke up five passes, while hurrying the passer six additional times.  There is still a battle for the other two vacant linebacker positions.  This will be the key to whether the defense stays as potent as last year.


The defensive line was hit hard by graduation, but the new group should be quite adequate.  End Kenny Mainor is the lone returning starter.  He has the potential to be a top-rate pass rusher.  End Shawn Todd should complement Mainor, giving the Trojans great bookends.


The Trojan offense is expected to improve by as much as 10 points a game this year thanks to JUCO quarterback Omar Haugabook.  Haugabook has a strong arm and quick feet and produced eye-popping stats last year in the JUCO ranks.  Three other quarterbacks who played last year return this year, so Troy has great depth here.


Kenny Cattouse inherits the vacant tailback spot after rushing for 314 yards a year ago.  Troy averaged only three yards per rush last year and 118.1 yards per game, so these stats can only get better.


The passing yardage will jump forward this season, especially since the Trojans intend to open up the playbook.  They have their best group of receivers in years as seven of the top eight receivers return.  Smokey Hampton and Gary Banks should combine for 1,200-1,500 receiving yards.  The emergence of Darius Williams could be the nail in the coffin for other SBC teams.  A year ago, Williams caught only three passes, but two of them went the distance leading to his averaging 43 yards per catch!


The Troy special teams could win a game or two.  Returner par excellence Leodis McKelvin returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last year.


Troy has the apparent best schedule of the contenders.  They get North Texas, UL-Lafayette, and Arkansas State at home, and only MTSU on the road among the five contenders.  The out-of-conference schedule could be their downfall.  They must make visits to Florida State, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and Alabama-Birmingham on four consecutive Saturdays.  They will most probably start the season 1-4, before opening conference play.  It will all come down to how banged up they are after September.  My personal guess is they will not have enough depth to overcome the likely injuries in that four-game stretch.


5. North Texas Mean Green

PiRate: 82               National Ranking: 112                 HFA: 3


After thoroughly dominating the league the first four years of its existence, North Texas fell all the way into a tie for last in 2005.  The Mean Green return the most starters and the highest percentage of lettermen in the conference.  Can an extra year of experience vault them back to the top?  It's possible, but not probable.  UNT will definitely jump up a few notches in the standings, but the days of them including the New Orleans Bowl on their printed schedule are over for now.


The season wasn't as bad as the record last year.  The Mean Green lost all five conference games by a touchdown or less.  They should be at least a touchdown better this season, so you could argue that the boys from Denton will run the table in the SBC if the other teams stagnate.


North Texas had problems completing passes last year, finishing with just 48.6% completions.  They averaged a paltry 5.1 yards per attempt and 129 yards passing per game.  Sophomores Daniel Meager and Matt Phillips may only slightly improve on those marks, but whoever is under center will spend a good part of each Saturday giving the ball to the star tailback and getting out of his way.


How often can a team in this league lose a back that rushed for 1,154 yards at a five yard per carry clip and consider themselves better off the next year?  North Texas can stake that claim.  After losing Patrick Cobbs, Jamario Thomas reclaims the starting job after overcoming an injurious 2005 season.  In 2004, Thomas led the nation with 1,801 yards and 17 touchdowns.  Thomas can explode through a hole and into the clear quickly.


The entire starting trio of receivers returns this year as well as the three backups.  Joel Nwigwe has deep threat potential and should help keep opposing defensive backs honest.


The experienced offensive line should keep Thomas among the nation's rushing leaders.  Three players, center Chad Rose, guard Dylan Lineberry, and tackle Josh Alexander could vie for all-SBC honors.


Defensively, UNT should improve on the 31.5 points per game allowed in 2005.  Safety Aaron Weathers recorded 113 tackles and intercepted three passes last year.  He's one of the top three safeties in the league. 


The real strength of the defense will be the linebackers.  Brandon Monroe, Maurice Holman, and rover Phillip Graves will make it much harder for running backs to get into the clear and should help the Mean Green chop off 25 or more yards off the 221 per game they surrendered last year.


Up front, end Jeremiah Chapman and tackle Sky Pruitt have the potential to make all-SBC.


North Texas has the hardest schedule of the five contenders.  They face the other four contenders on enemy ground.  Add to that non-conference games at Texas, Tulsa, and Akron, and you can just as easily pick UNT to finish with nine losses once again as they have of regaining the crown.  My personal guess is UNT will at least double their wins from last year, and all of them should come in conference play.  With a few breaks, they could find themselves playing for a trip to the Superdome when they face UL-Lafayette on November 11. 


6. Louisiana Monroe Warhawks

PiRate: 77               National Ranking: 113 (t)                      HFA: 3


ULM finished in a three-way tie for first last year and could have won the league by defeating ULL in the season finale.  The Warhawks couldn't stop ULL's running game and fell 54-21.


This year, ULM should tumble toward the basement.  After giving up 4.6 yards per rush last year, this year's defense against the run could be even worse.  No starters return to the defensive line.  Nose tackle Ricky Williams will lead the new quartet.


The top member of the second line of defense should be rover Josh Thompson.  He plays both the run and pass quite well.  Harry Bradley is adequate, but the two linebackers will need help.  Making 160 tackles between them won't amount to a hill of beans if those tackles are mostly five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.


The secondary should be among the best in the league, but one reason for this may be because opponents won't need to throw the ball to beat them.  Safety Kevin Payne led the Warhawks with 87 tackles in 2005.  Cornerbacks Chaz Williams and Quintez Secka defensed 16 passes last year.  When you consider opposing teams ran the ball 60% of the time last year, that stat looks more impressive.


While more starters return on offense than defense, one position where a new starter must play is at quarterback.  ULM didn't set the woods on fire through the air last year, but they did manage to top 200 yards in six games.  New starter Kinsmon Lancaster proved he can run in limited action last year, but he completed just 29.2% of his passes for only 54 yards at 2.3 yards per attempt.


Leading rusher Calvin Dawson returns, and he should top the 666 yards he produced a year ago.  Dawson averaged almost five yards per carry.


The Warhawks lost their big-play receiver last year, so Marty Humphrey will have to step up and star this season.  He caught 20 balls for 269 yards last year.


The ULM offensive line may be the best in the entire league.  Both guards, Adam Hill and Aaron Schutz could make all-SBC, while tackles Larry Shipley and Kyle Cunningham are not far behind the two guards in talent.


ULM must play Kansas, Alabama, and Arkansas on the road this year and then get Arkansas State, Troy, and UL-Lafayette on the road in league play.  My personal opinion is they will lose all six of these games.  Throw in home losses to MTSU and North Texas, and it adds up to more losses than last year.


7. Florida Atlantic Owls

PiRate: 77               National Ranking: 115                 HFA: 3


Florida Atlantic trails ULM by a mere two-tenths of a point.  The Owls return the second most starters this year, but they don't have enough talent to challenge for a winning record.  The season finale against rival Florida International could be one to avoid last place.


The offense will have to rely more on the run than in past years.  Charles Pierre should do better than his 517 yards rushing and 3.6 average of last year.  Having excellent blockers ahead of him, like tackle Nello Faulk should make that statement true.


Defensively, the Owls were thin on the line last year and thin once again this season.  End Robert St. Clair barely tops 200 pounds.  Opponents rushed for 218.1 yards and 4.9 yards per try.


While the defense gave up 176.6 yards per game, opponents completed little better than half their passes against FAU.  With the loss of star defenders Lawrence Gordon and Willie Hughley, the numbers should be worse this year.


FAU's first five games are on the road, and the first four come against Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and South Carolina.  They should open conference play at 0-4 with at least three of those losses being quite lopsided.


The negative momentum should send the Owls reeling to a nine or 10-loss season.  Even with legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger on the sidelines, FAU should finish among the weakest 10 teams in the nation.


8. Florida International Golden Panthers

PiRate: 76               National Ranking 116 (t)                      HFA: 3


Former Miami Dolphin quarterback Don Strock finds his team rated last in the SBC to start the season.  After narrowly missing out on a winning season last year, FIU shouldn't match 2005's five wins. 


The offense will fall several notches this season as the unit was decimated by graduation.  The offensive line is green, and they won't protect quarterback Josh Padrick as well as they did last year.  The 2005 sack total of 16 could easily double this season.  Padrick will have to keep one eye on Chandler Williams, as this connection should be their chief weapon.


Defensively, the Panthers have a middle linebacker capable of being drafted in the latter rounds of next year's NFL draft.  Keyonvis Bouie made 118 tackles last year with 11 behind the line of scrimmage.  He caught three enemy passes as well.


Defensive end Antwan Barnes is the other prime player on this side of the ball.  Last year, he made 15.5 stops for loss.


The secondary has holes, and FIU could actually fare worse against the pass than last season, when they surrendered 211.8 yards per game and allowed enemy passers to complete close to 70% of their passes.


To make matters worse than they should be, FIU has to play on the road at Maryland, Miami, and Alabama.  They may score less than 10 total points in these three blowout losses.  Playing at South Florida and hosting Bowling Green should give them an 0-5 non-conference record.  This could be ugly in Miami; FIU could lose 10 games or even more.


Sources: The Sunbelt Conference and all eight member websites.


Next Up:  The Mid American Conference.  Can Akron repeat after shocking the MAC last year?

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