Although many will write off the Division I-A Independents and both the Sun Belt and Mid-American Conferences, history shows that you never know where the non-BCS contenders will emerge. The college football is just as passionate even if there's not 100,000 people in the stands, so look for these conferences to try and make a statement of improvement this year. The likes of Troy, Central Michigan, Navy, and Notre Dame are not to be taken lightly in 2009. Of course never discount the chances of anyone else in these conferences, as Buffalo proved last season in storming to a surprise MAC title.
Troy has dominated the Sun Belt the past 3 years, and as usual, the Trojans invite all comers to try and knock them off the top perch in 2009. Unfortunately for the contenders, the Trojans are absolutely loaded. Troy has landed big defensive recruits by playing on big stages, and this year is no different as the great linebacking tandem of Bear Woods and Boris Lee will test themselves at the Swamp in September. Don't be surprised if the Troy defense keeps the Trojans in the game long enough to set upset alerts off all over college football land. Assuming the offensive line can reload like last year, Troy will be very tough to stop. Look for WR Jerrel Jernigan to be a national-caliber star after September.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
ASU may need to win the conference just to reach bowl eligibility, as the Red Wolves have not shied away from a touch schedule including road games at Nebraska, Iowa, and Louisville. QB Corey Leonard leads the offense and should be a top performer in Sun Belt play considering the defenses he gets to play against. The key will be replacing four starters on the offensive line and getting the running game going with talented RB Reggie Arnold. The defense will not be helped by the dismissal of CB Paul Stephens, but the unit is not expected to carry the team. Every road game will be tough, but one has to believe getting Troy in September after a bye week will favor the Red Wolves. Then it will become a matter of holding onto their 1 game conference lead, which I do not think will happen.
Florida Atlantic Owls
FAU had an offense good enough to win the conference last season, but the defense that had served them well enough in 2007 failed miserably. Though eight new starters are coming on defense, one would have to assume this group will be better than the 2008 version. The offense is the story for FAU, all behind QB Rusty Smith. Smith will not be stopped with all of his receivers back and weak defenses opposing the Owls, but questions linger about whether he can keep the defense off the field enough to overcome the Troy juggernaut. The Owls have a rough stretch in November with a road game at Troy sandwiched between home dates with Arkansas State and Western Kentucky, but they could be 6-2 before then.
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Florida International could sneak their way into the top echelon of the conference, but it still seems like coach Mario Cristobal's recruits are a year away from being there. If FIU competes, it will be because the offense overachieves again with most of the starters back, including QB Paul McCall. Western Kentucky will be a force in this conference, as proven by their highly superior recruiting class this offseason. However, the transition to FBS and conference play never comes easily, exspecially with a new quarterback, so expect WKU to take a couple years to take the conference by storm. Middle Tennessee State probably has the best chance to contend with the big three thanks to tons of veterans on both sides of the ball. The Blue Raiders need to improve at running the ball and special teams or else they will put themselves in holes all season.
As for the bottom of the conference, we have some familiar faces. North Texas dominated the Sun Belt only 4 years ago, but they have fallen into a rut the past couple years and need to improve significantly on defense to have a chance. UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe did a better job of competing last year, as the Ragin' Cajuns finished all alone in second place last season. Still, both teams have huge holes to fill on offense and will need to have youngsters step up quickly. Look for these three teams familiar with the SBC cellar back there in 2009.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Although Charlie Weis and Notre Dame have suffered from too high expectations the past two seasons, this year should be the year the program turns around if Weis will make a national title contender out of the Irish. The building blocks are in place on offense, as the running game should be much better with 5 linemen coming back with a lot of experience and a stable of 4 quality running backs. The defense has much more NFL quality talent in the secondary and linebacker core, so expect a much more aggressive defense than Weis's first four seasons. Although the defense will be solid, this team will sink or swim based on QB Jimmy Clausen and the offensive line protecting him long enough for him to make good decisions in his third season. The schedule is tougher in the first six games, and the key will be the USC game in the middle of the season. Notre Dame could steal that game from a rebuilding Trojan team, and that would almost certainly guarantee a BCS Bowl the fans are clamoring for.
Although this may be the most talented Navy team in the recent run of success for the service academy, the schedule is brutal enough to offset any gains in talent coach Ken Niumatalolo has made. The tricky thing about preparing for Navy the past half-decade has been the triple option rushing attack, and QB Ricky Dobbs will add a whole new dimension with a better passing arm than many of his predecessors. The defense is where this team will tick though, as Navy has legitimate FBC quality talent, especially in the linebacking core. While Ohio State is probably too talented to be caught off guard in week 1, every other team has to adjust to the triple option on defense and the 3-4 on offense in a single week, which is a challenge. Navy always shows a lot of effort, so don't expect the rough schedule to daunt them too much, and bowl eligibility will be a success even with this team.
Army Golden Knights
Welcome to the new promising era for the service academy that has seriously lagged behind in recent years: at least that's the message sent with the hiring of Cal Poly coach Rich Ellerson. Ellerson dominated statistically in FBS offenses last season, and his aggressive defensive playcalling will fit well with the talent Army can get in football. It may take a year or two to get going, but one should see some improvement this season as long as the quarterback situation sorts itself out. The defensive line is the best strength on the team, and Army should stick around in a lot of games if the line pushes around the weak offensive lines on the schedule (of which there are a lot). The future looks promising, but will the future be now?
Central Michigan Chippewas
Central Michigan just continues to be the most recent dominant football factory in this conference, and even though the Chippewas fell short last season of a third consecutive conference title, look for the Chippewas to come back with a vengeance. CMU has a ton of returning starters back, including the best player in the league in QB Dan LeFevour. The defense has been awful the past three seasons, but there are 10 returning starters and hopefully the offense will not sputter and put much pressure on them. In any event, the defensive line is one of the best in the conference. The only thing that could stop this talented team is a brutal schedule, including 5 road games in the first seven and a road game at Western Michigan.
Western Michigan Broncos
The Broncos have struggled to take the next step in MAC play, despite having enough talent to compete for league titles for a few consecutive years. Last year Western Michigan had more talent than they have now, but there is plenty of experience in key spots to believe that WMU is again a favorite. The best athlete is QB Tim Hiller, who will make his new receivers look great in their first starting roles. The defense has a solid set of linebackers led by Mitch Zajac, but the key to getting the offense back on the field will be improvement in the secondary. It's hard to imagine replacing a couple of NFL-caliber defensive backs will allow the Bronco defense to improve, but transfer safety Doug Wiggins will help. The key will be beating CMU on the home field in October for a league title chance.
Northern Illinois Huskies
Coach Jerry Kill came within a few heartbreaks of turning a 2-10 season in 2007 to a bowl game last year. With another year of star talent in the wings and more experience growing in the ranks, the Huskies are set up for a title run in 2010. However, if there's one thing this unpredictable conference and college football has taught us, it's that sometime teams come to fruition much earlier than expected. The reason NIU is in the contender pile is because they have better offensive and defensive lines than their competitors from Michigan in the West, and this could make up for the deficiencies in skill position talent. Look for the defense to be the best shut-down defense towards the end of the year, which is right when rough back to back road games at Ohio and CMU will likely determine the season's fate.
Well there has to be a contender in the East, but nobody really knows who will get hot, overachieve, and come to Detroit for the championship game like Buffalo did last year. Ohio features one of the best coaches in the league in Frank Solich, one of the better quarterbacks in Boo Jackson, and a solid defense. While Ohio went 4-8 last season, there were a few heartbreakers where the experience will help them pull through this season. The best part is missing Central and Western Michigan and getting NIU at home for senior day. Look for the only problem to be developing good line play, which basically makes OU the exact opposite case study of Northern Illinois. However, line play came come together, and if it does, Ohio will win the division for the first time in three seasons.
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The West division is a hard place to sink or swim, and the bottom three will definitely be looking forward to matchups outside the division in 2009. Ball State was the undefeated darling for much of last season, but a new head coach and a slew of new starters will make the program take a huge step back. Look for the Cardinals to show off a good running game in attempting to ball control their way back into the MAC title mix. Toledo actually has a team full of talent, but a new coaching regime comes in to replace the underachieving Tom Amastutz. It will be interesting to see if the Rockets live up to that potential or continue to have mental lapses. Eastern Michigan is the sole team in the division that is truly worse than most of the teams in the East, and new coach Ron English will have to bring some winner mentality from his days at Michigan to get this program turned around. Toledo has the best chance to break out and surprise in this bunch.
As mentioned above, the East division will be so wide-open and unpredictable, it could honestly be the most compelling storyline in college football even if the teams cannot win out of their own division. Akron features an unconventional spread offense and a 3-3-5 defense, but the Zips need to overcome thier underachieving ways in the weak East this year. Bowling Green should be a contender alongside Ohio, but the Falcons need to adjust to a new coach and play calling scheme. Buffalo is a defending champion, but it is hard to believe a new quarterback and an inexperienced defensive front will be so lucky again. Kent State is relatively inexperienced this season and could be rebuilding if things don't go well now with a new QB Giorgio Morgan. Miami was shockingly awful last season and lost a lot of the veterans that carried them to the 2007 division crown, and it's doubtful that new coach Mike Haywood can get things back on track this year. Temple could finish the turnaround from purgatory and get to a winning record, as they have more talent than the program has possibly ever had. It's going to be a wild one.
So with that, we close our first preview article for the 2009 season. While everyone will be trying to knock off Troy in the Sun Belt, the MAC will be a story of Central Michigan trying to regain their perch at the top. While these conferences may struggle early on, don't ignore the hotly contested conferences races, as they will be two of the best. The service academies will be closer to each other than ever before, but bowl eligibility will be a problem for both. Notre Dame will be in the serious mix for a BCS bowl game again, and that is something to truly look forward to. Stay with SCS as we continue to make our way through the conferences each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next three weeks.