Saturday, August 23, 2008

2008 Sun Belt Preview

Florida Atlantic
The Owls, in only their 3rd season of play in the Sun Belt, won the conference title last year and ran roughshod over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. Can Howard Schnellenberger lead the Owls to another conference title, and perhaps upset a few BCS-conference foes along the way?

The Owls emergence into a legitimate threat to win the conference coincided with the rise of quarterback Rusty Smith who improved substantially from his freshman to sophomore years. His passer rating last season was tops in the Sun Belt and 21st in the nation. In fact, as the following table shows, you can accurately say that Smith was the second best amateur quarterback in the state of Florida last season. Smith’s improvement helped the Owls more than double their point total from 15.1 points per game in 2006 to 31.2 points per game in 2007. Smith returns in 2008 along with 10 other starters on the offensive unit. The lone loss is at guard where four-year starter Jarrid Smith has departed. Still, with 4 starters back along the line, running back Charles Pierre stands a good chance at topping 1000 yards on the ground (775 last year) for the first time in his career and that would give the Owls their first ever 1000-yard back. Elsewhere on offense, every receiver who caught at least 5 passes is back, headlined by Cortez Gent who led the team with 1082 yards last season. The Owls were second in the Sun Belt to Troy in yards gained in conference play, and should make the leap to numero uno this season.

The Florida Atlantic defense was not nearly as heralded as the offense last season (primarily because they allowed over 33 points per game), but among Sun Belt teams they were quite solid. In conference play, they finished 3rd in yards allowed (behind Troy and Arkansas State). The Owls bring back 8 starters in 2008, but do lose 3 of their top-6 tacklers, including both starting safeties (Taheem Acevedo and Kris Bartels). However, the entire defensive line returns, so the Owls should improve upon the paltry 13 sacks they amassed in 2007 (111th in the nation). The defense will once again fail to match the elite level of the offense, but should remain one of the best in the Sun Belt.

Prediction: As is usually the case for Sun Belt teams, the non-conference slate is nightmarish. The Owls take road trips to Texas, Michigan State, and Minnesota in the season’s first 4 weeks. They also travel to Western Kentucky (Sun Belt member in 2009) in the middle of the year and host UAB. The Owls can certainly hope to beat the Hilltoppers and Blazers, and did knock off the Gophers last season. However, Minnesota should be much improved and the game is in the Metrodome, making an upset unlikely. Many are predicting a cakewalk for Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt, but the road to another league title will not be easy. The Owls were 4-1 in one-score games last season so they could be in for a reversal of fortune in that department. They also boasted an outstanding turnover margin of +18 (3rd in the nation), thanks to the fact that they only lost 4 of their 17 fumbles (fumble recoveries are random events) while also intercepting 19 passes (14th in the nation). With both starting safeties gone, those picks will likely fall and the lost fumbles should also rise. Still, no other team has as much offensive talent as the Owls, so while the road will be tough, a second league title should be their reward at the end.

Arkansas State
The newly christened Red Wolves have consistently fielded a competitive team under head coach Steve Roberts. In his 6 seasons at the helm, the Red Wolves have won 6 games 3 times, and at least 5 games 5 times. Before his arrival, Arkansas State had won 6 games just once since 1990. Can his charges attain bowl eligibility for the 3rd time in 4 seasons?

Against their Sun Belt brethren, Arkansas State was a bit below average offensively in 2007 (6th in yards gained in conference play). However, there is reason to expect them to improve in 2008. The quarterback, Corey Leonard, is a 3rd year starter who has shown steady improvement since his freshman season. Leonard completed less than half his passes as a freshman (49.1%), but improved that number to 52.1% last season. Leonard is also a threat on the ground, gaining over 300 yards as a freshman and over 500 yards last season. Leonard does lose his go-to receiver from last year (Levi Dejohnette had 701 yards through the air in 2007), but every other player who caught at least 10 balls is back (5 guys). Some more minor improvements could make Leonard second in the Sun Belt quarterback pecking order. Joining Leonard in the backfield is junior running back and fellow 3rd year starter Reggie Arnold. Arnold has topped 1000 yards on the ground in each of his first 2 seasons and averaged a robust 6.50 yards per carry last season. The only cause for concern is that the offense must replace 4 starters along the offensive line. However, 2 of the new starters are seniors, so the losses may not be as pronounced. All together, I would be very surprised if Arkansas State did not improve offensively in 2008.

Last season, Arkansas State had the 2nd best defensive unit in the Sun Belt, behind only league overlord Troy. Amazingly, they were a solid defense despite being totally incompetent at getting to the opposing quarterback, totaling only 13 sacks all season (111th in the nation). Arkansas State returns only 5 starters in 2008 and loses 4 of their top-5 tacklers. The majority of the losses (4) are in the secondary. Thus it would stand to reason that with another year of seasoning, the front 7 should get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to take at least a portion of the heat off the inexperienced secondary. The Arkansas State defense should be in for a bit of a tumble in 2008, but should be far from the worst unit in the conference.

Prediction: Arkansas State’s non-conference slate includes Texas A&M, Texas Southern, Southern Miss, Memphis, and Alabama. The 2 BCS-conference foes should light up the Red Wolves and the Red Wolves should in turn light up Texas Southern (IAA). The games against Southern Miss and Memphis are very intriguing. Arkansas State only lost by 6 at Southern Miss last season and the game is in Jonesboro this year. The Red Wolves have also beaten Memphis 2 straight years, so although the game is in the Liberty Bowl, Arkansas State has a chance. Inside the league, Arkansas State hosts likely champion Florida Atlantic, as well as Middle Tennessee and Louisina-Monroe. The road trips are manageable with Troy the only certain loss (Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International, and North Texas are the others). The Red Wolves have never won fewer than 3 games in conference play under Roberts and that trend should continue in 2008.

A host of playmakers that formed the base of a team that won 12 of 14 Sun Belt games over the past 2 seasons is gone. Can the Trojans reload and remain at the top of the league or is this a rebuilding year?

Omar Haugabook, the maestro of an offense that led the Sun Belt on yards gained in conference play last season is gone. Haugabook was a JUCO transfer in 2006 and in his 2 years at quarterback, he threw for over 5000 yards and 39 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 900 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. Departing with Haugabook is the team’s leading rusher from last season, Kenny Cattouse (791 yards on the ground), as well as the top-2 receivers (Gary Banks and Josh Allen). The lone good news for the offense is that all 5 offensive linemen return and should provide solid protection for Haugabook’s replacement (likely sophomore Jamie Hampton) and generous holes for Cattouse’s understudy (likely JUCO transfer Maurice Greer). The offense will certainly concede their title as the Sun Belt’s most proficient unit, but with all 5 linemen back, they should still be respectable.

Troy was also the Sun Belt’s number one defense in 2007. They lose only 4 starters from last season’s unit, but they are heavy losses. Their dynamic cornerback tandem of Leodis McKelvin (1st round NFL Draft pick) and Elbert Mack (tied for the national lead with 8 interceptions) are both gone. Also matriculating is defensive end Shawn Todd who led the team with 5.5 sacks last season. Some regression is also in order for the defense in 2008, but like the offense, they should remain respectable.

Prediction: Troy has a rough go of it outside the Sun Belt. They must travel to both of last season’s title game participants (LSU and Ohio State) as well as Oklahoma State. They also host Alcorn State (IAA) and Western Kentucky, so they could have 2 wins waiting for them outside the league. In conference play, Troy begins the season with a road trip to Middle Tennessee (very tough with so many new skill players on offense) and must travel to Florida Atlantic. However, if Larry Blakeney has proven anything over his 17 seasons at Troy, it’s that he’s a winner (just 4 losing seasons). I can’t imagine Troy winning the league this year, but I also can’t picture them falling past the middle of the conference either.

Upon his arrival in Lafayette, Ricky Bustle’s teams steadily improved each season, peaking in 2005 as co-champs of the Sun Belt. The Ragin’ Cajuns slipped a bit in 2006, but still won 6 games. Then in 2007, the defense took the year off and the team won only 3 games, their lowest win total since Bustle’s first season in 2002. Can the defense show enough improvement to get the Cajuns back in the Sun Belt race?

How fitting is it that the Cajuns are quarterbacked by the very bayou-sounding Michael Desormeaux. Desormeaux was one of 2 Lafayette players to top 1000 yards on the ground last season as they averaged 252 rushing yards per game (7th in the nation). Desormeaux was also a competent passer in his first season as a starter, posting a passer rating of 109.11 (not in the top-100, but better than the 103.31 rating Jerry Babb posted as a starter in 2006). The other 1000-yard rusher was Tyrell Fenroy. He returns as do 4 starters along the offensive line. The running game should once again be one of the best in the nation. And while the passing game is not the focal point of the offense, it should improve as well with both starting wide receivers (Derrick Smith and Jason Cherry) back in the fold. Lafayette finished 3rd yards gained in conference play last season, behind Troy and Florida Atlantic. With the losses at Troy, the Cajuns may well have the second best offense on the league this season.

While Florida International and North Texas were worse overall in total defense, no team allowed more yards to Sun Belt foes than did Lafayette. 3 of their Sun Belt foes topped 500 yards (Troy, North Texas, and Arkansas State) and only 2 (Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe) were held under 300 yards. Not surprisingly, that was their undoing. The Cajuns lose 5 starters from last season, including defensive end Rodney Hardeway, who led the team with 7 sacks last season. However, the top-3 tacklers from last year’s team are back and the Cajuns should see better luck in forcing turnovers (only 17 forced last season—106th in the nation). They won’t be world beaters on defense, but they should show some slight improvement.

Prediction: The non-conference slate is treacherous to say the least. Southern Miss, Illinois, Kent State, Kansas State, and UTEP are their 5 opponents outside the league. Their best chance for a win looks to be in the home-opener against Kent State, in a game that could feature 600 combined yards on the ground. However, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Cajuns lose each non-conference game. In Sun Belt action, the Cajuns have only 3 home games, but with the slight defensive improvements and continuity on offense, they should move up in the standings.

The upset of Alabama was certainly the highlight of the year, but Louisiana-Monroe has quietly been a solid Sun Belt program for the past 4 seasons. Charlie Weatherbie has already taken 2 other perennial doormats (Utah State and Navy) to bowl wins, and will look to do the same with the Warhawks in 2008.

The Warhawks were 4th in yards gained in conference play last season. The bulk of those yards were accumulated by the now departed Calvin Dawson. Dawson topped 1400 yards rushing last season and also scored 12 touchdowns on the ground. He will be sorely missed. The offensive line also loses 3 starters, so the running game may struggle in 2008, especially in the early going. The passing game on the other hand, should be better. Quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster returns for his senior season and 3rd year as a starter. Lancaster threw only 7 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2006, but improved those numbers to 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. With his top-3 pass catchers from last season back, he should post even better numbers in 2008.

The Warhawks were 5th in yards allowed in Sun Belt play last season. The defense should now be the strength of the team in 2008 as 8 starters, including the top-4 tacklers are back. 6 starters in the front 7 are back so the run defense should be especially strong.

Prediction: No, it only seems like Monroe is in the SEC West, They face road trips to Auburn, Arkansas, and Ole Miss this season. They also host Alabama A&M and travel to Tulane in their other non-conference games. The Warhawks should beat A&M (IAA) and have a real shot at knocking off Tulane. In conference play, the Warhawks do have 4 home games, but unfortunately 2 of them are against Florida Atlantic and Troy. They will once again be a solid team, capable of beating any Sun Belt foe. However, they don’t appear to be strong enough on either side of the ball to contend for the Sun Belt title.

North Texas
High school coaching legend Todd Dodge made his debut in Denton, Texas last season, and while the won/loss record did not improve (it actually got worse), the team may be set up for good things in the near future. How much improvement will there be in 2008; enough to get the Mean Green bowl eligible?

Last season, with neither the personnel nor time to implement his desired passing attack, Dodge insisted on trying anyway. The results were decent. The Mean Green were 5th in Sun Belt play in yards gained, and the passing attack improved from piss-poor to below average (see table below). While both of last season’s starting quarterbacks return (Giovanni Vizza and Daniel Meager), the reigns to the offense will likely be handed to Dodge’s son Riley. He ran the exact same offense in high school and was named Texas Offensive Player of the Year twice. Whomever wins the starting quarterback job should have improved protection in 2008 (allowed 36 sacks in 2007—108th in the nation) as 4 starting offensive linemen return. The Mean Green also return last season’s leading receiver, Casey Fitzgerald. In his first 2 seasons in Denton, Fitzgerald caught a whopping 5 passes for 92 yards. In 2007, he hauled in 111 passes for 1322 yards. He may not match those sensational numbers, but the offense, with another year in Dodge’s system, should see substantial gains.

Defense was hardly a strength for the Mean Green last season, but they were also far from the worst unit in the Sun Belt. Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette both allowed more yards in conference play. The Mean Green bring back 6 starters in 2008, but unfortunately the 5 players they lose were also their leading tacklers. Losses are pretty evenly spaced out. The defensive line loses 2 starters as do the linebackers, while the secondary has only a single loss. The defense may take a step back in 2008, and could conceivably fall to the bottom of the conference.

Prediction: 4 non-conference road games (Kansas State, LSU, Rice, and Western Kentucky) is not a recipe for a healthy start. While the games against Rice and Western Kentucky are winnable, the odds would be much better if those games were in Denton. The lone home game comes against Tulsa, in a likely shootout that could see over 100 combined points and 1000 combined yards. The Mean Green fare a little better in conference play where they host 4 of 7 games. North Texas had a turnover margin of -11 last season (110th in the nation) and should see that number trend upward. Combine that with improvement in the second year of Dodge’s offensive system, and the team could triple last season’s conference win total.

Middle Tennessee State
In his 2 seasons at the helm of the Blue Raiders, Rick Stockstill has guided Middle Tennessee to its first ever bowl game, won 12 games overall (outstanding 10-4 in Sun Belt play), and shared a conference title. Can Stockstill keep it going in Year 3, and get the Blue Raiders back to a bowl game?

Despite the presence of a pair of solid quarterbacks (Dwight Dasher and Joe Craddock helped the Blue Raiders tally a team passer rating of 136.42—27th in the nation), the Blue Raiders were actually below average offensively in 2007. Only lowly Florida International gained fewer yards in Sun Belt play. The major issue for the Blue Raiders was their lack of a running game. The Blue Raiders averaged only 3.50 yards per rush (90th in the nation). The aptly named Dwight Dasher led the team in rushing with 530 yards. However, the fact that a quarterback led the team with only 530 yards on the ground highlights the point that the running attack was stuck in neutral. Quarterbacks Dasher and Craddock return in 2008, but the team loses 2 starting offensive linemen, their top running back (DeMarco McNair), and top receiver (Taron Henry). The offense will have a tough time surpassing last year’s numbers and should again be near the bottom of the league.

The defense was relatively solid last season, finishing 4th in yards allowed in Sun Belt play. However, that unit loses 5 starters in 2008, including defensive end Tavares Jones. Jones led the Blue Raiders in tackles and sacks last season and will be sorely missed. The Blue Raiders will also be without their top-cornerback, Bradley Robinson, who led the team with 5 interceptions last season. Middle Tennessee should see their defense take a step back in 2008.

Prediction: 4 of the 5 non-conference games are against BCS-conference foes (Maryland, Kentucky, Louisville, and Mississippi State). The Blue Raiders should be heavy underdogs in all those games. The final non-conference clash is against future Sun Belt member Western Kentucky. In conference play, Middle Tennessee has 4 home games, but 2 of those are against the league’s power players—Florida Atlantic and Troy. The Blue Raiders were very fortunate to finish with a winning record in conference play based on their performance last season. The 30 turnovers they forced in 2007 (16th in the nation) is unlikely to be recreated in 2008, and with their declining turnover fortunes, their record should follow suit.

Florida International
Is it possible to get worse after going 0-12? The Golden Panthers may have answered that question with a resounding ‘Yes’ in 2007. Despite winning a game for the first time since the 2005 finale, Florida International was outgained by 177 yards per game last season. That’s nearly 110 yards worse than their numbers for their winless campaign in 2006 (outgained by 68 yards per game). Scoring margin also reflects this fact. In 2006, Florida International lost 5 games by 5 points or fewer, including a pair of 1-point defeats and an overtime loss. The other 7 losses all game by double digits. In 2007, only one of their 11 defeats was by fewer than 10 points. Can the program regain some traction in 2008 or are the Panthers once again destined for the cellar?

Despite nearly doubling their scoring output in 2007 (averaged 15.1 points per game versus 9.6 per game in 2006), the Panthers still fielded the worst offense in the Sun Belt. They gained the fewest yards in conference play, averaging a measly 308 yards per game against Sun Belt foes. The good news is that 9 starters are back in 2008. The likely starter at quarterback is Paul McCall, who did not see significant action until the final 2 games when Wayne Younger went down with an injury. Beware the small sample size (only 63 pass attempts all year), but McCall’s passer rating of 133.65 was much higher than Younger’s 87.06. Whomever is tabbed the starter will have last season’s leading rusher (A’mod Ned) and all of last season’s receivers back. The lone losses on offense are along the offensive line (one guard and one tackle). The offense should improve, but it’s hard to envision them climbing very high in the league’s offensive hierarchy.

Only Louisiana-Lafayette allowed more yards to Sun Belt foes than Florida International did last season. The Golden Panthers bring back 9 starters in 2008, including 8 of their top-9 tacklers. However, one of the losses is defensive end Audric Adger who led the team in sacks last season with 6. The defense should also see some improvement and could actually become a mediocre unit.

Prediction: Very few opportunities exist for wins outside the league (Kansas, Iowa, South Florida, Toledo, and Western Kentucky dot the schedule), so their fortune will rest on how they perform in the Sun Belt. If recent history is any indication, that does not bode well for the Panthers. Florida International has a long way to go to catch up to their Sun Belt brethren.

Predicted Records:

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