The Sun Belt continues to grow and develop and a new flagship program emerged to carry the conference banner last season in Florida Atlantic. The Owls also earned the league some much needed respect, securing the school's first ever win versus a BCS conference foe, a 42-39 triumph over Minnesota. FAU then went ahead and completed their fine season with a dominating performance over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. Fellow conference members worked hard not to be outdone by the conference champions, as Troy dominated Oklahoma State at home and Louisiana-Monroe earned a huge win, claiming a victory at Alabama late in the season. As this still relatively young football conference continues to upgrade its talent level, expect more big wins to come in the future.
Heading into the 2008 season Florida Atlantic remains the favorite as the Owls return the most experience, but expect stiff challenges from Troy and Louisiana-Monroe. The league is tightly bunched in the middle with Louisiana-Lafayette, Middle Tennessee, and Arkansas State all appearing to be evenly matched. North Texas and Florida International are still in rebuilding mode but look to be improved over last season while league newcomer Western Kentucky is not yet eligible for the conference championship, but the Hilltoppers do play five league games.
Another note of interest to keep in mind is out the nine teams in the conference, eight welcome back their starting quarterbacks from last season, with the one exclusion being league co-champion Troy. The best returner is Rusty Smith at Florida Atlantic, the reigning conference player of the year and he is the main reason why the Owls enter the season as the favorite to retain their league title. The Sun Belt has become more of a throwing conference in recent years, so experienced quarterback play is critical to a teams overall success and expect to see more of the league’s upgraded aerial attacks in 2008.
Three Keys | Team-by-Team Analysis
1. Key #1 is to try and find a team with the personnel capable of slowing down the Florida Atlantic express. The Owls went 6-1 in the league last season, trounced Memphis in the bowl game, and now return 19 starters on offense and defense. FAU is the clearly established favorite to repeat as champions with all-conference talent all throughout the starting line-up.
2. Key #2 is how quickly can Troy adjust to the losses of key skill position personnel in quarterback Omar Haugabook, running back Kenny Cattouse, wide receiver Gary Banks, and first round draft pick, cornerback Leodis McKelvin. The Trojans still have an abundance of talent, especially in both lines, but how soon new leaders emerge will decide how far this team can go in the Sun Belt championship race.
3. Key #3 is which of the tightly bunched middle of the pack teams will emerge to take a run at the last two champions, FAU and Troy. Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Arkansas State all return strong and experienced starting quarterbacks combined with powerful running games. Monroe looks to be in the best position for a run, especially after the Warhawks strong finish to the 2007 season.
OFFENSE: The Red Wolves offense is focused around the combination of quarterback Corey Leonard and running back Reggie Arnold. Leonard needs to cut down on his turnovers to take his game to the next level after throwing 15 interceptions last season. Leonard does have a strong receiving corps that he can rely on as five of the top six receivers from last season return. The key for this unit will be how well a rebuilt offensive line comes together, with the only returning starter being all league tackle Matt Mandich, a rock solid foundation who has started every game of his collegiate career.
DEFENSE: The ASU stop troops put together a strong 2007 season, finishing first in the conference in total defense. The key for this year’s unit is how an entirely rebuilt secondary performs after the loss of all four starters. The new faces in the backfield will rely on an experienced defensive line to get to the quarterback early and often to help ease the transition of the new secondary. Senior linebacker Ben Owens leads the unit and he is the Wolves leading returning tackler as he controls the middle of the field.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit is a major strength and can provide a critical edge in the expected tight battles within the Sun Belt. Punter Brett Shrable earned second team all conference honors last year after averaging 41.7 yards per punt while kicker Josh Arauco connected on 15 out of his 23 attempts and greatly improved his range after struggling during the 2006 season. The return game is in solid hands with Brandon Thompkins handling the kick returns and the extremely dangerous Kevin Jones taking care of punt return responsibilities. This is one of the best if not the best special teams units in the Sun Belt.
COACHING: Head coach Steve Roberts enters his seventh year at the helm of the program, compiling a 31-41 overall mark in his ASU career, while taking ASU to their only bowl appearance in program history. Roberts and his offensive staff converted the offense to a hurry-up no huddle attack last season and expect to see more of the same this year to best utilize the available talent. The key members of the staff have remained stable since Roberts arrived as the offensive coordinator, Doug Ruse, and the co-defensive coordinators, Kevin Corless and Jack Curtis, all enter their seventh year on the Red Wolves staff.
SCHEDULE: Highlighting the non-conference schedule are two road contests at Texas A&M in the opener and at Alabama in November. The remaining games in the out of conference slate are visits from Texas Southern and Southern Mississippi and a trip to Memphis, as the Red Wolves look to extend their two game winning streak over the Tigers. ASU does get to host league favorite Florida Atlantic and contender Louisiana-Monroe, but the Wolves only have three league home contests in the unbalanced schedule.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Joining the Red Wolves in the fall will be Junior College All-American cornerback, Codarious Mingo, who received attention from SEC schools before deciding on Arkansas State. Mingo will immediately step into a leadership role in a secondary that has to be rebuilt after being gutted due to graduation. How quickly the defensive backfield comes together as a unit may decide if ASU will be in the conference championship hunt or if they will be battling in the middle of the pack.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Corey Leonard reduces his interceptions and the Wolves offensive line comes together to pave the way for a powerful ground attack. ASU rides one of the leagues best offenses to a .500 mark overall and breaks through on the positive side of the ledger in Sun Belt competition.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The passing game is unable to keep pace with the ground attack and turnovers remain an issue as the offense is incapable of carrying a rebuilding defense. In a tightly bunched conference, the Red Wolves fall below .500 and finish in the bottom half of the league again.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener will have huge implications on the season when ASU hosts Middle Tennessee, a team that has beaten the Wolves on five consecutive occasions. A win in this one will get the Sun Belt season off on the right foot against one of ASU’s evenly matched opponents. Corey Leonard enters his third season as the starter as one of the top quarterbacks in the league and he is capable of taking this team on his back and making a serious run at the conference title.
OFFENSE: Say hello to what should be the top rated offense in the Sun Belt this season. Leading the way is the returning Sun Belt player of the year in quarterback, Rusty Smith, as he directs the conferences number one passing offense. Smith will work with the leagues deepest receiving corps that returns all of its key players, led by first team all conference selections in receiver Cortez Gent and tight end Jason Harmon. This unit should build on its 31.2 point per game scoring average from last season.
DEFENSE: The strength of the defensive unit is a secondary that lost its two starting safeties, but returns the best pair of cornerbacks in the league in Tavious Polo and Corey Small. In charge of shutting down the oppositions running game will be middle linebacker Frantz Joseph, a first team SBC defender, who racked up an impressive 131 tackles last season. This unit played a key role in the Owls being +18 in turnover margin last season so expect to see another aggressive and attacking group in Boca Raton in 2008.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The strong suit of this unit is the kick return game with Dilvory Edgecomb providing the spark for the league’s best group. On the other hand, the punt return game has been a disaster, as the Owls finished last in the league only averaging a miniscule 4.1 yards per return. Warley Leroy returns as the kicker and Keegan Peterson is back as the punter with the focus being on improving upon the league’s worst punting average. This is an area of concern for the Owls in 2008.
COACHING: Entering his eighth season at the helm of the Owl program is Howard Schnellenberger, the man responsible for building this surging program from scratch. Schnellenberger is a perfect 5-0 in bowl games in his coaching career, including last seasons 44-27 FAU win over Memphis, in the schools first ever appearance in the post-season. Offensive coordinator Gary Nord has been by Schnellenberger’s side through the years and he has built an excellent offense and been a key player in the Owls recent recruiting upgrade.
SCHEDULE: As is the case with most Sun Belt teams, the non-conference slate is a challenge, highlighted by the opening weekend trip to Texas. The Owls are on the road in four of their first five games, which include two trips into Big 10 territory to tackle Michigan State and Minnesota. FAU plays host to league challenger Troy, but they travel to Louisiana-Monroe and only have four home contests overall, with the final game of the season at Miami versus Florida International.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... FAU welcomes back defensive tackle Josh Savidge, who missed the remainder of the 2007 season, after he injured his knee in the fourth game. Savidge will provide much needed strength on the interior of the line and will help the Owl pass rush, which finished seventh in the Sun Belt last season in sacks generated.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Florida Atlantic repeats as the champion of the Sun Belt and make their second consecutive appearance in the New Orleans Bowl. The Owls have 19 returning starters from last years team and are the clear favorite entering the season, anything less than the league championship will be a disappointment for this program.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Owls are blown out in the opener at Texas, lose three out of their first four games and have their confidence shaken before heading into a tough conference opener at Middle Tennessee. The running game continues to struggle after ranking sixth in the conference last season and opposing defenses are able to line up and tee off on quarterback Rusty Smith, which limits the effectiveness of the FAU playmakers.
MAKE OR BREAK: Circle October 7th on the calendar when FAU plays host to conference co-champion Troy and also October 25th when the Owls travel to Louisiana-Monroe, the only team to defeat FAU in the conference last season. Running back Charles Pierre needs to play an even greater role in the offense and if he is effective this offense will clearly be the best unit in the league.
OFFENSE: The Golden Panther offense was an absolute disaster last season, ranking last in scoring by a wide margin, averaging only 15.1 points per game. FIU will add plays to its spread offense this season in an effort to get their anemic passing game on track by opening up the field. The good news is that nine starters return to an offense that did begin to show more life towards the end of last season. The strength of the unit looks to be an offensive line that returns three starters and the Panthers do have two experienced quarterbacks in Wayne Younger and Paul McCall, but improvement must occur after the two tossed 18 interceptions versus only 14 touchdowns.
DEFENSE: Major improvement is expected from this group after last years unit finished seventh in the Sun Belt after allowing 447 yards per game. Leading the five returning starters is linebacker Scott Bryant, who is a tackling machine, and is the main line of defense against the run. The defensive line returns a great deal of experience, including six players who have started in the past. The front line will be relied on heavily to generate more of a pass rush after the team registered only 24 sacks all of last season. With the expected improvement in the offense, this unit will benefit from spending less time on the field.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Chris Cook had a strong season and got plenty of work, punting 75 times, finishing third in the conference in average. The kicking game is a different story with Chris Abed likely to get the call after hitting on five of eight field goals last season, but he should receive a stiff challenge from incoming junior college transfer Carlos Munera. Replacing the dual return threat of Lionel Singleton will be Anthony Gaitor handling punts and Jeremiah Weatherspoon returning kicks. The coverage units were disastrous and need plenty of work.
COACHING: Entering his second year in charge of the FIU program is Mario Cristobal. Mario knew he had a major challenge on his hands when he accepted the role last season and he is fiery competitor who will build this program into a Sun Belt challenger in the near future. The one big change in the off-season was the addition of new offensive coordinator Bill Legg, who spent the last two seasons at Purdue in the same role. Expect to see a more varied and wide-open offense this season in Miami.
SCHEDULE: Another team with a challenging slate of games, as FIU opens with four of their initial five contests on the road, including non-conference trips to Kansas, Iowa, and Toledo. The one home contest in the first month is Big East power South Florida heading to Miami on September 20th. The conference opener is a trip to North Texas, the school that FIU snapped their 23 game losing streak against in last season’s finale.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Quarterback Paul McCall came off the bench last season after starter Wayne Younger was injured and played great in the finale, throwing three touchdowns in the Panthers upset win over North Texas. The new offense will feature more of a passing game and McCall is a much more accurate passer who is a good student of the game. Expect to see McCall behind center to start the season and if he remains healthy, he will direct what looks to be a much-improved Panther offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The offense clicks behind McCall and the offense makes huge strides after finishing last in the nation in scoring offense and being outscored by 24 points per game. The non-conference slate is daunting for a still building program with the goal for this season being three or four wins within the conference and an overall more competitive team. A mid-level finish within the SBC will be a clear sign of a bright future.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The offense continues to struggle as the players learn a new system, keeping the defense on the field yet again for extended periods of time. The Panthers are overwhelmed in their non-conference games and find themselves battling to win two games and fighting just to stay out of the Sun Belt basement.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener versus North Texas will be a key game as the Mean Green look to be on the same level as the Panthers in their rebuilding program. A win over UNT could provide a nice shot of momentum heading into the SBC home opener against Middle Tennessee. Also worth mentioning is the November 29th battle with in-state rival Florida Atlantic. The Owls are FIU’s main recruiting challenge in the league and they need to show that they can be competitive with the league champions. Worthy of mention again is Paul McCall as without improvement behind center, this will be yet another long season for Coach Cristobal’s gang.
OFFENSE: Run, run, run, and then run some more, that is the theme of the Ragin Cajun offensive game plan. La-Lafayette features the league’s best rushing quarterback in Michael Desmoreaux in tandem with one of the league’s best running backs in Tyrell Fenroy. If Fenroy can run for over 1,000 yards again this season, it will be his fourth consecutive year to do so, becoming only the seventh player in NCAA history to achieve that milestone. The receiving corps is experienced and will provide Desmoreaux with more and improved options as he looks to use his arm to a much greater extent in 2008.
DEFENSE: For Lafayette to become a serious challenger in the Sun Belt the rush defense must improve, after the Cajuns ranked seventh in the league last season, allowing 228 yards per game. The strength of the unit will be a linebacking corps anchored by Antwyne Zanders, a second team SBC performer last season. However, for the unit to make significant progress a rebuilt defensive line must occupy blockers to provide the linebacking corps with room to roam. A leaky secondary that returns only one starter has to tighten up in pass coverage after being way to generous last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: One area in which there is no question is at place kicker as Drew Edmiston returns after connecting on 11 out of his 14 attempts last season. On the other side of the coin, punting is a major concern with Spencer Ortego returning after he finished seventh in the league in net punting. The return game also needs work as the Cajuns again finished seventh in the league in both punt and kick-off returns.
COACHING: Entering his seventh season in charge is Ricky Bustle after compiling a 26-44 record during his first six years at the helm. Lafayette was supposed to figure into the Sun Belt race the past two seasons so Bustle could start feeling heat if this season does not measure up to expectations. New to the staff last season and a key ingredient to this years team is defensive coordinator Kevin Fouquier, who needs to find answers to last year’s dismal defensive performance after he arrived on the Lafayette campus with a strong resume.
SCHEDULE: Like most teams in the SBC, the Cajuns will spend a great deal of time in the early going on the road, beginning with trips to Southern Mississippi and Illinois to start the season. Lafayette only has three conference home games and must travel to league favorites, Florida Atlantic, Troy, and Louisiana-Monroe in a challenging slate.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....All eyes will be on Desmoreaux and Fenroy as the stars of this team, but the answer to a successful season will be provided by how well or how poorly the defense performs. The key will be the two defensive tackles, LaQuincy Williams and Seth Adams, as these two must occupy blockers to slow down the opposition’s running attack. The potential and size are there for these two players, and if they are able to step up and play big, the Cajun defense will be vastly improved.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The talent is in place for this team to win six or seven games and be bowl eligible. The running game is powerful and with the experience returning at wide receiver, the offense is capable of being the best in the league. The defensive line emerges and reaches its potential as the defense rebound from a disastrous 2007 season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The run defense remains a sieve and although the offense is loaded with talent the lack of defense yet again ruins a potential strong season. With a tough non-conference schedule and without major improvement on the defensive side of the ball, a three to four overall win season is a distinct possibility.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener on October 4th is a huge game for the Cajuns as they head to in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe. Lafayette has lost five of the past six to Monroe and a loss in the opener will make the conference title an uphill battle with games at Florida Atlantic and Troy lurking in November. For the team to reach its full potential, one of the best linebacking corps in the league will need to fly to the football and lead a defense that is inexperienced in the other units.
OFFENSE: The Warhawks look to have one of the better-balanced offenses in the league, with dangerous weapons across the field. Leading the way is quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster, a multi-faceted weapon who welcomes back his top three receivers from last season. Keep an eye on tight end Zeek Zacharie, a great target who has a knack for finding open space in the middle of the field. Replacing ULM’s all-time leading rusher Calvin Dawson, will be sophomore Frank Goodin, who rumbled for almost 600 yards last season in a back-up role. Expect Goodin to make a name for himself as one of the top backs in the Sun Belt.
DEFENSE: ULM returns the core of what looks to be a strong defense after last years unit placed third in the conference in total defense. The Warhawks are loaded in the front seven, led by Alaric Coleman who became a star at defensive end and run stuffing linebacker, Cardia Jackson, a second team Sun Belt performer. The safety tandem of James Truxillo and Greg James is the best in the league and they will need to be on top of their game, as two new cornerbacks will be starting on the outside.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The league’s best punter calls Monroe home in Scott Love, who averaged 42.1 yards per kick, leading the league. There are questions in the kicking game as redshirt freshman Radi Jabour takes over. Jabour has a big leg but his consistency has come into question and improved accuracy is required if the Hawks hope to make a run at the conference crown. The return game is solid, with Goodin handling the kickoffs and Darrell McNeal taking care of the punt returns.
COACHING: Head coach Charlie Weatherbie is entering his sixth season in charge and he looks to have assembled his best collection of talent during his tenure as he looks to guide the Warhawks into the post-season for the first time in their history. A key change in the coaching staff is on the defensive side as Manny Michel and Phil Elmassian take over as co-defensive coordinators after Kim Dameron left for Mississippi.
SCHEDULE: The conference schedule sets up nicely for a run at the SBC crown as the Warhawks welcome Troy, Florida Atlantic, and Louisiana-Lafayette to Malone Stadium. The non-conference slate is weighted with SEC foes as ULM travels to Auburn, Arkansas, and Mississippi, while a trip to Tulane and a visit from Alabama A&M complete the out of conference battles.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Frank Goodin steps into the huge shoes left behind by Calvin Dawson and he immediately becomes a key cog in the ULM offensive machine. Goodin averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season in a back-up role and earned honorable mention Sun Belt conference honors. He is also a good receiver out of the backfield and is excellent in space, which should ease the burden of Dawson’s departure.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The excellent play at the tail end of the 2007 season continues into 2008 and the Warhawks take advantage of their home schedule to earn a Sun Belt conference championship. The returning talent is in place and ULM was the only conference team to defeat Florida Atlantic last season so this group is ready to challenge for league supremacy.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The new cornerbacks struggle in a league that has vastly improved passing games and the Warhawks are unable to improve upon their last place standing in the league in pass defense. ULM loses four non-conference games and starts the season slowly, continuing a recent trend, and the Hawks finish in the mid tier of the SBC while falling just shy of a .500 record.
MAKE OR BREAK: Nothing like the conference opener at home versus your in-state rival and another challenger in the SBC race. If ULM is serious about making a championship run, they need to get off to a good start and this means a win over Louisiana-Lafayette on October 4th. Cornerbacks Nate Brown and Tay Ogletree need to step up and play big if the league’s worst pass defense is going to improve.
OFFENSE: The Blue Raiders have a nice situation at quarterback with two experienced signal callers back in Joe Craddock and Dwight Dasher. The two QB’s had amazing similar statistics last season and expect to see them both earn playing time again in 2008. The spark plug of this attack will be wide receiver/running back Desmond Gee, who will be asked to increase his workload as an all-purpose player. A major area of concern is the offensive line, an inexperienced unit to begin with that has now lost its best and most experienced player for the season due to injury in Mark Fisher.
DEFENSE: The focus for Middle Tennessee will be improving on a rush defense that ranked fifth in the conference last year and yielded 200 yards per game. Defensive tackle Trevor Jenkins is needed to control the middle of the line as the new defensive ends gain much needed experience. The strength of this unit is the secondary, led by cornerback Alex Suber and safety Anthony Glover as these two will lead a group looking to better last season’s third rated SBC pass defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game was troublesome last season as the Blue Raiders connected on only six out of thirteen attempts. Expect to see freshman Alan Gendreau to step right into the starting role soon after he arrives at the Murfreesboro campus. Entrenched at punter is David DeFatta, who led MTSU to second in the conference in net punting average. Desmond Gee will handle both return duties after his first team Sun Belt Conference (all-purpose) performance of a season ago.
COACHING: Head coach Rick Stockstill returns for his third season in charge of MTSU after leading his team to their first ever league championship and bowl appearance in his debut season. After a successful first season for Stockstill, last year turned into a major disappointment with injuries decimating his team. With a stable and vastly experienced coaching staff, returning (142 years of combined coaching), the Raiders have the potential to be a surprise team in 2008.
SCHEDULE: In a rare occurrence within the Sub Belt, the Blue Raiders open the season with two home games, the opener against league challenger Troy, and then a visit from Maryland. The remaining non-conference battles are road trips to Kentucky, Louisville, and Mississippi State. The Raiders do catch a break as they also host both Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Monroe.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....All purpose player Desmond Gee will be asked to do much more this season. In addition to his punt/kick return duties, Gee is expected to play a much greater role in the running game after he carried the ball 39 times last season in back-up duty. Desmond will also see plenty of passes headed his way in a variety of formations, as he is a dynamic playmaker that needs to be the focus of the Raider offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Raiders are one of the younger teams in the Sun Belt that still looks to be a year away from challenging for the conference championship. If Gee is able to handle the increased workload and the dual quarterback situation works out, a six-win season would be a good stepping-stone for a potential championship run in 2009.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The injury bug bites the Raiders again and the rebuilt offensive line continues to struggle as the Raider offense cannot get off the ground. In a well-balanced conference like the Sun Belt, this team could quickly drop into the bottom tier and end the season with only three or four wins.
MAKE OR BREAK: When the season opener is a conference game, immediately it becomes a make or break game, especially with the opponent being one of the league heavyweights in Troy. Also worth noting is the first ever nationally televised game at Floyd Stadium when the Raiders host league favorite Florida Atlantic on September 30th. Desmond Gee has to be a star performer for this team to reach its potential in 2008, if he is unable to handle the increased workload, the offense will sputter.
OFFENSE: Offense was not the problem for the Mean Green last season in their two-win campaign. UNT ranked fourth in the league, putting nearly 25 points on the board per game and the offense was really picking up steam at the end of last season. Keep an eye on the quarterback situation as SBC freshman of the year Giovanni Vizza is back, but he will have to fend off the stiff challenge of the coach’s son, Riley Dodge. Dodge is a highly rated prospect who ran the same offense in high school and turned down high-level offers to play for his father. Whoever starts behind center will have the top wide out in the league to throw to in Casey Fitzgerald, who reeled in 111 receptions last season. This offense is set to challenge for the top unit in the SBC.
DEFENSE: Here lies the problem for UNT as the program tries to return to the conference championship chase. The Mean Green had the worst unit in the league last year, allowing over 45 points per game and finishing dead last in rushing defense. The focus in the spring was on overhauling a front seven that was manhandled and lost its best player in Jeremiah Chapman. The new star in the front line is Joseph Miller, the units leading returning tackler who will be heavily relied upon to improve the rush defense. The secondary brings back three players, led by Antoine Bush, and will be improved after allowing 250 yards in the air per game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The punting is in fine shape with Truman Spencer and his 42-yard average back for his final season. On the other hand, the kicking game needs improvement after Thomas Moreland connected on only eight out of his fifteen attempts. Keep an eye on junior college transfer Jeremy Knott, who could take over the lead role in the kicking game. The kick-off return game ranked last in the league and Micah Mosley will be looked upon to improve on his 19.9-yard average of a year ago. The protection unit was a focus in the spring after the Mean Green had three punts blocked last season.
COACHING: Texas high school coaching legend Todd Dodge stepped into a major rebuilding project last season as he guided his UNT team to a 2-10 overall finish. Dodge is an offensive mind and as the season progressed, the Mean Green offense started to take off as the players became more accustomed to the system. A major change will be on the defensive side of the ball as coordinator Ray Mendoza was let go and Gary DeLoach was brought in to shore up a porous defense. DeLoach was the coordinator from 2000-2002, when UNT had the top rated defense in the Sun Belt in both 2001 and 2002.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference slate is loaded, beginning with trips to Kansas State and LSU being the main challenges, followed by a visit from a strong Tulsa team. Completing the out of conference action is a trip to Rice, as these in-state foes will tangle for only the second time in school history. Within conference play, UNT has a chance to get off to a good start as they host Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette before taking to the road against league challenger, Louisiana-Monroe.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Quarterback Riley Dodge spurned an offer from powerhouse Texas to join his father and he immediately steps into a battle for the starting nod with sophomore Giovanni Vizza. Expect Dodge to assume the starting role earlier rather than later in the season as he is already quite familiar with the offense as he ran the same system in high school at Southlake Carroll. Dodge should make an already strong passing game lethal, and the Mean Green will need as many points as possible to offset a still developing defense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The defense slows down opposing offenses just enough to allow its powerful offense to put on a show. A victory in one non-conference game and winning three or four games within the conference to place in the mid level of teams would be a strong showing for the program. This is still a rebuilding season as the Mean Green works to get back on track to its winning ways during the earlier days of the Sun Belt.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The defense offers a repeat performance and the Mean Green yet again lose week after week in high scoring affairs. UNT loses all four of its out of conference games and only matches their two wins within the SBC, showing no progress in the second year of the Todd Dodge regime.
MAKE OR BREAK: The opening two conference games, Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette are huge for this team’s confidence in 2008. UNT is capable of winning both games and if they can secure two victories, the team will head into the remaining conference games sky high. However, a loss in these two is likely to lock UNT into a return trip to the league basement. The passing game is a known quantity, where UNT can really make a statement is in the ground game and talented Micah Mosley will look to make a name for himself to provide a nice level of balance and to keep opposing defenses guessing.
OFFENSE: The Trojans are looking to rebuild after losing significant talent from last year’s co-championship ball club. Sophomore quarterback Jamie Hampton has the biggest shoes to fill as he takes over for the graduated two-time Sun Belt offensive player of the year, Omar Haugabook. Hampton is a good fit for the no-huddle, up-tempo offense that Troy runs as he is a versatile athlete than can work the entire field. The clear strength of this group is an offensive line that returns six players with starting experience, so Hampton should have plenty of time to survey the field working behind the SBC’s best unit. Keep an eye on running back Maurice Greer, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Colorado, as he looks to establish himself in the Trojan backfield.
DEFENSE: The Trojan defense is highlighted by the best line in the Sun Belt, anchored by defensive end Kenny Mainor on the outside and Dion Gales controlling the inside. An area of concern is the loss of two star cornerbacks, including NFL first round pick, Leodis McKelvin, from the league’s top-rated passing defense. Helping to ease the transition will be two stars at the safety position in Sherrod Martin and Tavares Williams, who will need to play a key role as the new cornerbacks gain experience. Expect Troy to play a good deal of nickel defense again this season as they are loaded at the safety position and are inexperienced at linebacker as the coaching staff looks to get their eleven best athletes on the field. There are enough star athletes on this side of the ball to keep Troy in the top two in total defense in the league again this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This will be by far the most inexperienced unit with this Troy team and is an area of concern if the Trojans are going to make a championship run. The Trojans lose the top-notch return skills of Leodis McKelvin, who returned three punts for touchdowns last season and was one of the best return men in the nation. Expect Jerrel Jernigan to take over for McKelvin on punt returns and for DuJuan Harris to handle the kick return responsibilities after returning six last season. Two redshirt freshmen should handle the kicking duties with Michael Taylor doing the placekicking and Will Goggans taking care of the punting.
COACHING: Larry Blakeney looks to continue his successful run at Troy heading into his 18th season in charge. He has rung up 136 wins during his tenure and has built the Trojans into a perennial contender within the Sun Belt. The big loss in the staff occurred when offensive coordinator Tony Franklin left to accept the same role at Auburn. His replacement is Neal Brown, the youngest coordinator in the NCAA at the age of 27. Brown will employ the same up-tempo offense as Franklin, so do not expect to see any significant changes in the overall game plan.
SCHEDULE: Do not ever accuse Troy of backing down from a challenge as one needs to only glance at their non-conference slate to confirm that fact. The Trojans will head to LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State and have only one breather when they welcome Alcorn State to Movie Gallery Veterans Stadium. In league play, Troy travels to Florida Atlantic for a Tuesday night battle and must head to Louisiana-Monroe in a challenging league set-up. The game versus FAU is the fifth away game in the first six contests for this team, with the good news being that Troy ends the season with three consecutive home games.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Expected to play a huge role in the offensive game plan this season is sophomore wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan, as the top two receivers from 2007 have departed. Jernigan will be expected to double his receptions as the number one target in the Trojans wide-open passing attack. In addition to his role as the top target, Jernigan also will assume the role of punt returner.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The powerful lines on both sides of the football establish dominance within the trenches for the Trojans, allowing the new skill position talent to make a smooth transition. The program is talented and deep enough to earn yet another conference championship, but a win at Florida Atlantic will likely be needed if the Trojans want to claim the league bid to the New Orleans Bowl.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The quarterback situation remains unsettled as the inexperienced Jamie Hampton needs time to adjust to the new skill position talent and the Trojan offense is not nearly as effective as 2007. The brutal non-conference schedule wears out Troy and the Trojans drop to a .500 overall record after two consecutive eight-win campaigns.
MAKE OR BREAK: Clearly Jamie Hampton will have to play at a high level as he directs the up-tempo Troy offense that needs a leader to take charge of the game plan. The opener at Middle Tennessee is a critical game as road games with LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, and Florida Atlantic loom by the first week in October. The Trojans must earn a win in their first game if they harbor any championship hopes on the season.
OFFENSE: The Hilltoppers have good experience returning on offense with seven starters back, led by star running back Tyrell Hayden, who was the main cog in the WKU offensive game plan last year. Expect to see both quarterbacks David Wolke and KJ Black seeing time again this year as the two split time in 2007. The quarterback combination will have to work without WKU’s all-time leading receiver in Curtis Hamilton, but there is talent waiting in the wings to step up, led by Jake Gaebler. The offensive line returns three players with starting experience, but this unit will need to perform better for this offense to reach its potential.
DEFENSE: The Hilltopper defense welcomes back six starters after allowing 20.8 points per game, but against a schedule that featured six teams below the Division 1 level, the overall strength of the unit is hard to gauge. The leader of the defense is linebacker Blake Boyd, who missed the final three games of last season with an injury but he is back and ready to take over as the Hilltoppers leading tackler. The strength of this unit is a secondary that features six players that have starting experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The best player in this unit is clearly punt returner Jake Gaebler, who averaged 14.5 yards per return in his eleven attempts last season. Punter Jeremy Moore took over last season and had a strong showing, averaging 41.7 yards per kick, while the place kicking duties belong to Zac Minturn, whose experience consists of kicking six extra points in 2007. Quinterrance Cooper will assume the kicking duties from star returner Curtis Hamilton, after averaging 19.5 yards per return last season.
COACHING: David Elson is heading into his sixth year in charge of the WKU program as he leads this program in the transition to the Division One level. Elson is 37-22 in his career and has been at WKU for twelve years, also serving as the defensive back coach and the defensive coordinator before assuming the top position. Both coordinators enter their second year at their respective positions with Kevin Wright leading the offense and Dennis Springer being in charge of the defense.
SCHEDULE: The Hilltoppers take a huge step up in competition this season, their last year transitioning into the Sun Belt. The non-conference slate is especially loaded and highlighted with trips to Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and Virginia Tech, and a home visit from dangerous Ball State. WKU does not play a full conference slate this season but do host Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, and North Texas in addition to visits to Troy and Florida International.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The loss of star receiver Curtis Hamilton opens up the field for a new emerging star in Jake Gaebler. Jake is the Hilltoppers leading returning receiver after catching 35 passes last season and he will be looked upon to keep the WKU passing game in tune as the top option for the dual quarterbacks. Gaebler is also a star punt returner and has the potential to be a difference maker in the return game.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....With the huge upgrade in competition a five win season would be a tremendous success for this building program. WKU played Sun Belt foes close last season, winning at Middle Tennessee and losing tight battles to Troy and North Texas, so the talent is there to be immediately competitive with conference opposition.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....Opening the season on the road in five out of six games, including a brutal non-conference slate wears out WKU. The Toppers end of the season with only two wins as they gear up for their first shot at the conference championship next season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key game for this team is their November 1st meeting with North Texas, a team in a rebuilding mode but one that should be much improved this season. WKU lost 27-26 to UNT last season in the season finale on the road and earning a win in this game this season will ensure that the Hilltoppers are ready to officially join the Sun Belt and be competitive right out of the gate. The dual quarterback system with Black and Wolke looks to be in place again this season, although coach Elson would not be against a clear starter emerging to lead the Topper offense.
The Sun Belt has become a much more balanced league recently with three different programs earning the conference championship in the past three seasons. Although all signs point to a repeat championship for Florida Atlantic, the Owls had numerous close contests last season including a win over Louisiana-Lafayette in overtime, and their only league loss to Louisiana-Monroe, also in overtime. The wildcard in the conference races looks to be Louisiana-Monroe as the Warhawks ended last season on a roll and now welcome back 15 starters to their best team in years. Troy has been built into a perennial league contender, but the loss of skill personnel across the board makes it likely that the Trojans will take a minor step back this season. A key for this league is the development of the bottom of the conference and both North Texas and Florida International look to have made significant talent upgrades heading into 2008. Although the upgrades may not show in the win-loss column, these two programs look to be heading in the right direction after major struggles last season. Next season the Sun Belt will have nine full time members as Western Kentucky completes their transition period and should become a solid member of this conference in the future.