Monday, June 30, 2008

2008 College Football Conference Predictions: Sun Belt

The Sun Belt has formed itself a niche as the worst conference in College Football. All of its small conference brethren have tossed out an undefeated BCS qualifier or a "hot team" over the years (Utah in the Mountain West, Marshall in the old MAC, Boise State and Hawaii in the WAC.) What separates the teams in the Sun Belt from the others, is that they are primarily located in the Deep South, and each team in the conference plays whipping boy for at least one SEC, ACC or Big 12 team each year. (In Troy's case, they usually do it for 3 or 4 teams, and end up beating at least one of them.) If a team ever gets out of the Sun Belt undefeated, or even with just 1 or 2 losses, you can rest assured that it would probably have whipped the piss out of any of the aforementioned BCS qualifiers of the past few years. This is one conference that makes you play through the schedule, unlike Hawaii last year and Utah under Urban Meyer.

A few years back, North Texas was considered the football powerhouse of the Sun Belt. Troy had a brief spell being widely considered as the "up and comer." Times have changed again, and there is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Howard Schnellenberger. Florida Atlantic is my choice to win the Sun Belt in 2008 for the 2nd straight season. Troy will be good again, although a notch below last season's team that beat Oklahoma State, and who gave national runner-up Georgia the tightest contest they played in their final 5 games of the season. Louisiana-Monroe, who beat Alabama in 2007, will push a .500 overall record. Everyone save Florida International will battle for the 4th spot in the Conference. But Florida Atlantic should be good enough this season to give the league some overdue notoriety.

1. Florida Atlantic (Predicted Conference Record: 7-0, Predicted Overall Record: 9-3)
The Owls return 18 starters from a team that finished 6-1 in the conference and scored over 30 points in 8 out of 13 games. Howard Schnellenberger's team gets Troy at home, and toughens up on the road early in the schedule against Texas and Michigan State. Look for the Owls to possibly pull a mild upset in the Metrodome against Minnesota on September 20. It would take a miracle for this high-powered offensive squad not to make it to the New Orleans Bowl. The defense will sport as solid a back 7 as you'll find in the Sun Belt. The Owls also sport the best QB in the league in Rusty Smith.

2. Troy Trojans (7-5, 5-2)
The Trojans finished 2007 on a disappointing note. After the big win over Oklahoma State in September sparked a 6 game winning streak before a close loss at Georgia, Troy barely squeaked by Western Kentucky, and lost the finale to Florida Atlantic at home. 14 starters return, but quarterback Omar Haugabrook graduated, and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin took his spread option to Auburn. The defense should be better, with former UGA commitment Brandon Lang back at DE. The Trojans go to LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, all in September, followed by a Thursday night tilt at Florida Atlantic that will probably decide the conference champion. Troy's strength in the trenches (both sides) might be enough to give the Owls all they want, but they will probably be beat all to hell going into that game. The schedule makers did the Trojans no favors.

3. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (5-7, 4-3)
This team won in Tuscaloosa last season. I can't say that enough, and I still have a hard time believing it. 15 starters return, but 2 new starting corners may spell doom against teams that love to throw the ball like FAU and Troy, although they do get those 2 at home. I would not be at all surprised to see them pull an upset against one of them (I'm picking them to beat Troy.) Monroe plays 3 more SEC teams this season (Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss), so they should be battle tested for the conference slate. The tough non-conference schedule will probably be the difference in weather or not the Warhawks find themselves in a bowl game postseason. Myself and every Crimson Tide fan in Alabama would gladly offer up a finger or toe to see them win in Jordan-Hare week 1. Gladly.

4. North Texas Mean Green (4-8, 3-4)
NT brings back 13 starters from a team that had a rough season in 2007, losing 10 games. The Mean Green should be much improved this season under 2nd year head coach Todd Dodge, who also brings in his son Riley to be the likely starting QB, although he'll compete with the reigning SBC Freshman of the Year in Giovanni Vizza. Riley was a highly recruited prospect, with offers from Texas and Missouri. He'll have a good set of receivers to sling it to. North Texas was known for years as having one of the best rushing offenses in NCAA Division 1, but this program under Dodge will throw the ball. Trips to Kansas State and LSU as well as a visit from Tulsa will get this team ready for SBC play.

5. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (3-9, 3-4)
14 starters returning would normally look like a good sign, but this is a team that lost by 3 TDs at home to McNeese State last September. They do sport a stud RB in Tyrell Fenroy, and the best set of LBs in the conference. Inexperience along the d-line, and a general inability to stop anybody's running game will be trouble. The offense will be tough to stop, especially with Fenroy toting the mail. He'll probably go for a minimum 1500 yards this season, although QB Mike Desormeaux can run it as well.

6. Arkansas State Red Wolves (4-8, 3-4)
The Wolves only return 11 starters and are breaking in 4 new starters on the OL. Tiny speedster Brandon Thompkins is probably their top returning skill guy, and he'll also return some punts. One thing that catches my eye about this team is how they played the powerhouses on the schedule last season. An 8 point loss at Texas week 1. Lost by 3 TDs at Tennessee but kept it close for a while. A 6 point loss at Southern Miss to close the season. This year the Wolves open up at Texas A&M, get Southern Miss at home (keep your eye on that one), and go to Alabama. You have to wonder how changing their mascot from the Indians to the politically correct Red Wolves will affect team psyche.

7. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (4-8, 3-4)
MTSU opened the season with a narrow loss to eventual conference champion FAU, then put 42 up on Louisville in a loss. After a 44-0 pounding in Baton Rouge, the Raiders lost at Western Kentucky. Inconsistency plagued them the rest of the season. 12 starters return in 2008, but top to bottom this team is very young, with almost 60 sophomores and freshman. The schedule is front-heavy, with Troy and Maryland opening up the season in Murfreesboro (not sure what Ralph Friedgen was thinking there), followed by a trip to Kentucky. A trip to Starkville, MS sits in the middle of the schedule for those Blue Raider students thinking about a swell road trip.

8. Florida International Golden Panthers (1-11, 0-7)
FIU brings back 18 starters, including all their skill players on offense. The problem is that they struggled mightily on offense last year, gaining less than 300 yards of total offense in 7 of 12 games last year. The schedule grants no favors early in the year, going to Kansas and Iowa, and bringing South Florida to FIU Stadium in Miami. Even getting Western Kentucky in the season finale isn't a gimme for this team. They'll be improved, but probably don't have a realistic shot at winning more than 1 or 2 games.


Bop said...

Add one of my fingers to the mix for the La-Monroe/Auburn game. Thx.

johnny said...

check out the WRs at MD this year...

BayouDawg said...

Yet again, we can't keep our boys out of the bighouse....

Nick in Mallory said...

Hey genius, there are 8 teams in the Sun Belt. Some expert.

JJ said...

First off, I never have claimed to be an "expert", or a "genius" for that matter. I'll be offering my previews for every conference at some point before the season, and I'm sure leaving North Texas out (my apologies to all Mean Green fans - I've edited it now) won't be my last mistake. I certainly wouldn't claim to be an "expert" on anything involving college football, if I was I would probably be doing something else for a living. These are all just opinions of a regular fellow that enjoys watching a game or two on Fall Saturdays.

But thanks for reading.

-Not a Sun Belt "expert"
-Not a genius

Anonymous said...

The Belt will win more OOC games than most people think this year. The Belt has owned conference USA two years in a roll now. Arkansas State and MTSU will win more than 4 games. I see ULM beating Ole Miss and Troy.

JJ said...

Anonymous.....I don't necessarily disagree with you. My initial comments about the SBC being the worst conference in football were somewhat tongue in cheek. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the OOC schedules that they all play, and I'd love to see one of them run the table one day (as long as it isn't at UGA's expense.) Like I said, I'd put the SBC champion up against any of the cupcake paper champs from the Mountain West or WAC, who play nobody all year and get to reap the benefits of a BCS berth.

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