The Sun Belt Conference, once dominated by North Texas, has become an evenly balanced league in which numerous teams are capable of stepping up and claiming the conference title and earning the league’s automatic berth to the New Orleans Bowl. The new leader of the pack looks to be a surging Troy program that won the 2006 championship, needing a one point victory over Middle Tennessee State to claim the title. The Trojans then earned a huge win for conference respectability by thrashing Rice 41-17 in the school’s second bowl appearance in its history.
Looking ahead to 2007, the Trojans of Troy look to again be the favorite, but they will receive a stiff challenge from an experienced Florida Atlantic team on the upswing, as well as Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and last year’s co-champion Middle Tennessee State. Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, and Florida International look to be in rebuilding mode and face an uphill battle to place in the upper tier of the conference.
Also of note is that North Texas and Florida International will have brand new collegiate head coaches this season, with Todd Dodge assuming the helm at UNT and Mario Cristobal taking over at FIU. Both coaches have deep roots around their school’s campus and look to be capable of rebuilding their programs into SBC challengers in the near future.
1. Key #1 in shaping the race in a wide open Sun Belt conference is to focus on teams with the greatest number of returning starters and players with experience. Leading the league in that category is a vastly improved Florida Atlantic program. The Owls have 19 starters back on offense and defense in addition to both kickers and 85% of last season’s lettermen. Florida Atlantic was in a tie for 3rd last year with Arkansas State, and with a favorable home schedule, the Owls are taking aim at a Sun Belt championship and the school’s first ever bowl bid. Returning the second most number of starters is Louisiana-Monroe with 17, including the entire starting offensive unit, also making the WarHawks a legitimate title threat.
2. Key #2 is focusing on the teams with strong quarterback play, a strategy that will likely lead to the teams who will be battling for conference supremacy. Of the projected top contenders, only Middle Tennessee State will be replacing their starting QB, while Troy (Omar Haugabook), Florida Atlantic (Rusty Smith), Louisiana-Monroe (Kinsmon Lancaster), and Arkansas State (Corey Leonard) all return their starters behind center, and all are capable of having big seasons and keeping their team in the title chase.
3. Key #3 is this year’s designated wild card in the conference, Louisiana-Monroe. The WarHawks will unleash the conference's most high-powered offensive attack, but they also have a defense that was the league’s worst and must be rebuilt enough to at least slow down opposing offenses. If ULM can find a few defensive playmakers, the offense will score enough points for this team to make a run at a conference title and the school’s first ever bowl bid.
OFFENSE: The Indians relied on a bruising running game led by SBC Freshman of the Year in Reggie Arnold, who dashed for 1,076 yards last season. Arnold will again be counted on to the lead the offense, but ASU will need additional production from QB Corey Leonard. Last year ASU ranked 109th in the nation in passing offense at 144.6 yards per game, but the aerial attack should improve as Leonard will be looking at one of the conferences strongest receiving corps, led by Kevin Jones. The offensive line must replace 3 starters and must improve after allowing 32 sacks last season.
DEFENSE: ASU will focus on generating additional pressure on opposing QB’s after only registering 13 sacks all of last season. The loss of LB Josh Williams hurts, as the Indians will need to utilize the LB corps to assist an inexperienced defensive front that lost 2 strong tackles from last season. The strength of this unit is the secondary, the SBC’s best unit, led by 3 returning starters. If ASU can find a way to pressure the QB, the secondary can play lock-down coverage, and this defense is capable of being the best in the conference.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Indians struggled on special teams last year and need improvement in 2007. Kicker Josh Arauco was accurate (12-16 FG’s), but leg strength is a major concern as he did not convert an attempt over 38 yards. Punting is also an area that requires an upgrade, as Brent Shrable ranked 8th in the conference, netting only 34.8 years per punt. The return game will be an area of focus, as ASU ranked last in punt returns and 5th in kickoff returns within the conference.
COACHING: Head Coach Steve Roberts is back for his 6th season at ASU and has a 26-34 career mark at the school. Roberts was named the SBC coach of the year in 2005 when he guided his team to the Sun Belt championship with an overall mark of 6-5. Roberts already ranks 5th all time in wins at ASU, out the schools 26 all-time coaches, with a key to his success being a relatively stable staff that followed him to Jonesboro from Northwestern State.
SCHEDULE: ASU opens the season on the road at Texas, but Memphis and Southern Methodist make the trek to Jonesboro, where ASU is extremely tough to play. A trip to Tennessee follows before SBC play begins with a trip to Louisiana-Monroe. Within conference play, ASU gets 4 home games, including hosting last year’s champion Troy on October 27th, after two key SBC games the weeks prior in a contest at Middle Tennessee (10/20) and at home with Louisiana-Lafayette (10/13). Another tough out-of-conference road trip completes the season in a visit to Hattiesburg to play Southern Mississippi.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... ASU clearly has the talent to win the conference championship and earn a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. An expected improvement in the passing game complemented with a strong ground game provides a well balanced offensive attack. The defensive front figures out how to make plays in the opponent’s backfield, allowing the talented secondary to roam free in coverage and severely limit offenses ability to attack down the field.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... A below .500 mark is possible in this evenly matched league. Leonard continues to struggle with his accuracy, and the rebuilt offensive line struggles to become a cohesive unit, limiting the effectiveness of the stable of running backs. ASU has a repeat performance of last year’s anemic pass rush, and QB’s facing the Indians have all day to toss the ball around the field.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key to this ASU team is the overall play of QB Corey Leonard, but in order for him to be effective, the offensive line must develop quickly. There are talented players in place, but the unit needs to become a cohesive unit. Otherwise the Indian offense will have a repeat of last season, when they only scored 15.2 points per game, ranking 109th in the nation. The SCB title could be decided in a 3 game stretch as ASU hosts Louisiana-Lafayette (10/13), then travels to Middle Tennessee (10/20), before returning home versus preseason league favorite Troy on October 27th.
OFFENSE: The focus for the Owls will be on improving a rushing offense that only generated 109.5 yards per game, ranking 95th in the nation. The key will be overall improvement from an offensive line that only averages 271 pounds per man, slight by Division I standards. QB Rusty Smith took over last year, settled into the starting role, and now appears to be a fixture for years to come as he has a big arm and good size to further develop.
DEFENSE: The Owls will look to unleash a stifling pass defense that will rely heavily on the play of the safety combination of Kris Bartels and Taheem Acevedo, both 2nd team Sun Belt team members from last season. The return of a veteran defensive line will be critical to generating a pass rush that will be led by 1st team Sun Belt performer Josh Pinnick.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game looks to be an issue with Warley Leroy handling the place kicking duties after hitting on 9 of 14 kicks last season, but missing on 5 out of his 9 attempts from beyond 30 yards and hitting a season long kick of 41 yards. Mike O’Neill returns, but after averaging 37.2 yards per kick, he will need to improve, and he could receive a stiff challenge from freshman Mickey Groody. The return game appears to be solid and will be led again by Frantz Simeon as the punt returner and Kris Bartels as a kickoff returner.
COACHING: Entering his 7th season at the helm of the Owl program and 9th on the Boca Raton campus is Howard Schnellenberger. Coach has built this program from scratch and compiled a solid 33-37 record in 6 full seasons of competition. Schnellenberger’s overall coaching resume is sterling, as he won a national championship at Miami in 1983 and is undefeated in bowls with a 4-0 mark.
SCHEDULE: The Owls open their slate with a huge home contest versus league contender Middle Tennessee State, with FAU looking for revenge after last year’s 35-14 loss at MTSU. Like most Sun Belt programs, the non-conference schedule is extremely tough with road trips to Oklahoma State, Kentucky, and Florida in addition to home contests with Minnesota and South Florida. The Sun Belt title could very well be decided on December 1st, when FAU visits Troy to end their season.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The talent is in place for a run at the SBC championship trophy. The offense gains consistency in the running game, and QB Rusty Smith steps up and excels now that he is clearly the main man behind center. The defense looks strong and deep, and combined with a solid offense, the folks in Boca Raton are thinking postseason.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The offensive line continues to struggle, no running game is evident, and Rusty Smith spends more time running for his life on a regular basis. FAU only averaged 15.1 points per game last year, ranking 110th in the nation, and will need to generate more scoring punch. Otherwise the defense will wear down late, and FAU will likely fall short in the close games.
MAKE OR BREAK: The season opener at home versus Middle Tennessee is a huge game in terms of league play and getting the year off to a strong start. A win in that one, and FAU puts itself on the map in the Sun Belt championship race. Rusty Smith has a huge challenge on his shoulders, and he showed flashes late last season but needs to be more consistent and be able to provide opposing defenses with a threat to allow RB Charles Pierre to be a legitimate factor in the offensive game plan.
OFFENSE: After being shutout 3 times last season, scoring a touchdown or less in 4 more contests, and finishing dead last in the nation at 9.6 points per game, FIU is looking for a total overhaul. The first key is finding a new QB to replace Josh Padrick, and it appears that Paul McCall is emerging as the leader at the completion of spring ball. McCall only tossed 18 pass attempts last year, and he could end up being in a battle for the starting role with talented newcomer Bryan Mann, one of Coach Cristobal’s top incoming recruits. The entire offensive line returns and needs to give leading rusher A’mod Ned some room to work.
DEFENSE: The loss of star defenders DL Antwan Barnes, LB Alexander Bostic, and LB Keyonvis Bouie (all SBC 1st team) likely will cause this unit’s production to slip in 2007. The strength of the unit will be a secondary where all 4 starters return to a group that only allowed 147.7 yards per game through the air. The linebacking corps needs to be rebuilt, and opponents will look to expose the inexperienced group with a powerful running game, thus avoiding the talented Panther secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit had major struggles last season, as K Dustin Rivest only hit on 5 out of his 10 field goals, with a 37 yarder being his longest, and he missed on 3 out of 11 extra points attempts. The Panther punting unit finished dead last in the conference, netting only 32.0 yards per kick. Major improvement is needed in this group if FIU is looking to emerge victorious in close contests. On a positive note, the return game was strong, as the Panthers finished 2nd in the conference in both punting and kick returns, and more of the same is expected this season.
COACHING: New head coach Mario Cristobal, the 2nd in the history of FIU football, takes over for Don Strock who resigned with 3 games left in the 2006 season. Cristobal arrives from Miami, Florida where he was an assistant since the 2004 season. He is a Miami native and has many local connections to rebuild this program, as he is a relentless recruiter and energetic young head coach.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is absolutely brutal with a season opening trip to Penn State followed by a visit from Maryland, then back on the road for battles at Miami and Kansas. The final non-conference game is a mid-season visit to Arkansas. FIU has 7 of its first 9 games on the road, but finishes with 3 straight in Miami as UL-Lafayette, Florida Atlantic, and North Texas pay visits.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... FIU is capable of winning a couple of conference games and restoring confidence to a young program that is in need of a positive jolt. Gaining offensive consistency is key as the starting unit is likely to feature only one senior as it builds for the future. The defense should be strong, and with a little bit of help from the offense, this team is capable of making huge improvements.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The brutal non-conference schedule to begin the season ruins the confidence of this young team before Sun Belt play even begins. The QB situation remains unsettled half-way through the season, and the young WR corps does not develop as expected, as opposing defenses overwhelm the offensive unit. The kicking and punting game continue to have major problems, FIU loses games due to the inability to convert field goal attempts, and another winless season becomes possible.
MAKE OR BREAK: FIU has a nice stable of running backs in A’mod Ned and Julian Reams, and if these guys can receive the ball in space, they can make things happen and keep opposing defenses from teeing off on QB McCall. The season can be made by making it through the non-conference slate healthy and focused on getting wins in conference play. With 12 straight losses heading into this year, earning a couple of wins can get this program refocused and back on the right track.
OFFENSE: The Ragin Cajuns will rely on the running of QB Michael Desmoreaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy and Deon Wallace. The question remains, can Desmoreaux direct an adequate passing game that provides a legitimate threat to opposing defenses? It would not be a surprise if Desmoreaux would be end up moving from QB to RB/WR, allowing John Hundley to start. In either scenario, the running game remains the focus of the offensive game plan.
DEFENSE: There are concerns on a defensive unit that returns only 5 starters from a group that yielded 24.7 points per game last year (73rd in the nation). The Cajuns were solid versus the run last season and will have to be again as the pass defense has some issues. The new cornerbacks will step into the line-up and will need to tighten up a passing defense that gave up yardage in large chunks last year. ULL only intercepted 6 passes all of last season, and teams will clearly look to expose this backfield again.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The key player on this unit is K Drew Edmiston, who connected on 11 out of 14 attempts as a freshman, including a 51 yarder vesus Houston. Tyler Albrecht will handle the punting duties after averaging over 40 yards per kick in high school and taking a redshirt season last year as a freshman. ULL struggled on kickoff returns, averaging 18.7 yards per return and ranking 7th in the league. The loss of punt returner Michael Adams could hurt this unit, as Phillip Nevels is expected to handle his duties after averaging only 4.1 yards per return last year, making this an area of concern.
COACHING: Before coming to the Bayou, Rick Bustle was the offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech from 1995 to 2001. Bustle has improved the program in each year as head coach taking the Cajuns from 3-9 in his 1st year to a 6-5 record in 2005 and 6-6 in 2006. The 12 wins of the past two seasons are the most in a two year period for this program since 1994-95.
SCHEDULE: The schedule lines up nicely for ULL with winnable non-conference games versus Ohio, McNeese State, and a trip to Central Florida. The other two non-conference battles are likely to be lost causes with visits to South Carolina and Tennessee. A huge game opens SBC play, as Troy visits ULL on September 22nd. The toughest stretch looks to be from 10/13 through 11/17 with 4 out of 5 games on the road.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... A winning season will be a good result for a ULL program that is looking for its 3rd consecutive record of .500 or better and only returns 12 starters from last season. The potential switch of Desmoreaux to WR pays off, and ULL has big play weapons all over the field as the offense will need to put points on the score board.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Cajuns drop below .500 as the offense is unable to develop any consistency in the passing game, and neither Desmoreaux or Hundley are accurate enough to pose concerns for the opponent’s defensive game plans. The defense struggles as the new corner backs continue to allow the opponents to dominate the clock with the same ball control passing game that chewed up yardage against ULL last season.
MAKE OR BREAK: In order to have a legitimate shot at the SBC title, earning a win over Troy in the conference opener is huge. The QB situation must be resolved quickly with Michael Desmoreaux either returning as the starter or being shifted on a permanent basis to WR, but letting the situation linger into the season will cause issues in developing an offensive game plan. Tyrell Fenroy is critical to the team’s success after rushing for 1,197 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and he will be leaned on heavily again in 2007.
OFFENSE: The War Hawks will unleash one of the top, if not the best, offenses in the league as all 11 starters return. The offensive line looks to be the league’s best unit, and it will pave the way for 1st team Sun Belt RB Calvin Dawson, who is looking to better his 1,210 yard and 11 touchdown season of a year ago. There is also good experience in a deep and talented WR corps that will help QB Kinsmon Lancaster continue to develop.
DEFENSE: It is good news for ULM that the offense will be able to score a lot of points as the defense remains suspect. The rush defense is a major concern as the unit ranked 84th in the nation last season, so major improvement is needed to slow opposing offenses. The War Hawks also struggled to generate a pass rush, which left the secondary with way too much time to cover down the field. There is more experience in the defensive line, but the question remains on how much additional pressure this unit will be able to generate.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Cole Wilson is back and looks to build on an excellent season in which he converted on 14 out of 15 attempts, with his only miss being from 50 yards. P Scott Love takes over as the starter for the graduated Kevin Payne, after Love averaged 36.8 yards on his 5 attempts. The punt return game had major struggles, finishing 7th in the SBC at 4.6 yards per return, while kickoff returns are strong with Darrell McNeal and Calvin Dawson forming an explosive duo.
COACHING: Entering his 5th year in charge of the UL-Monroe program is Charlie Weatherbie. The program has made huge strides in recent years, going from 1 win in 2003 to winning a conference title in 2005. Weatherbie had the same type of success at his prior coaching stints in which he rebuilt the Utah State and Navy programs, taking both to bowls during his tenure.
SCHEDULE: ULM opens at home with an interesting contest, as Tulsa pays a visit to Monroe. A win in the opener would be a huge confidence boost before 3 straight road trips to Clemson, Texas A&M, and then to league favorite Troy. The season ends as tough as it begins with games at Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette to complete the slate. Overall, the War Hawks have 7 road games, a typical difficult Sun Belt type of schedule.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... A winning season is possible, even with a brutal non-conference schedule and 7 road games. If the offense continues to play as it ended last season, scoring 34.3 points per game in their last 4 contests, the War Hawks are capable of making a run at the conference title. This is the best collection of talent at ULM in the Weatherbie era.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... ULM is dismantled in their first 3 games and head into conference action beat up and lacking confidence. The Hawks continue to struggle against the run and fail to generate a pass rush as the defense remains porous, and ULM falls short in a lot of high scoring games.
MAKE OR BREAK: A key stretch for ULM takes place from October 6th through the 20th when the Hawks host Arkansas State, then travel to North Texas, before returning home to tackle Florida International. ULM will likely have to sweep those 3 games to have a shot at the SBC title. Expect the Hawks to ride RB Calvin Dawson even more this season, but they will need QB Kinsmon Lancaster to improve on his TD/INT ratio to become a legitimate 2nd threat and this offense will be tough to stop.
OFFENSE: The key for MTSU will be replacing the graduated QB Clint Marks and RB Eugene Gross, both 2nd team SBC performers last season. QB Joe Craddock will get the call, after only attempting 24 passes last season, while DeMarco McNair takes over at RB after rushing for 632 yards in 2006. The strength of this unit is a receiving corps that returns its top 4 pass catchers and should help ease the transition from Marks to Craddock.
DEFENSE: One of the SBC’s strongest units is led by the conference’s best defensive front four, directed by a pair of 1st team SBC defenders in DL Erik Walden and Tavares Jones. Walden recorded a school record 11.5 sacks last season and is now the schools all-time sack leader with 20.5. The Blue Raiders need to replace all 3 starting linebackers, including 1st team SBC defender JK Sabb, and to do so, the staff added two highly regarded junior college transfers in Andrew Harrington and Ivon Hickman, both of whom are expected to see significant action.
SPECIAL TEAMS: MTSU lost its punter and kicker in Colby Smith, who graduated as the conference’s 1st team punter and averaged 41.0 yards per kick. Kicking duty will belong to junior Matt King and punting responsibility now shifts to David DeFatta, a transfer from Marshall. The Raiders led the SBC in kick returning at 23.1 yards per return, and Damon Nickson returns to continue that strong level of production.
COACHING: It looks to be a difficult encore season for 2nd year coach Rick Stockstill, who took MTSU to a conference championship and its 1st bowl game since the school’s move to Division 1-A. After last year’s Motor City Bowl season, Stockstill was named the SBC Coach of the Year in his 1st year as head coach after 24 years as an assistant, including the last 2 seasons under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.
SCHEDULE: No time to ease into conference action as the season opens on the road at SBC conference challenger Florida Atlantic, immediately followed by two non-conference heavyweights with games at Louisville and LSU. The season ends with a 3 game stretch with huge conference title implications with games at LA-Monroe, home versus LA-Lafayette, and then at Troy in a Tuesday night clash.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Blue Raiders reach the postseason for the 2nd consecutive season and are right in the middle of the SBC title chase. Joe Craddock develops into a solid starter, and RB DeMarco McNair steps in for Gross and continues the strong running game established last season. MTSU only needs a solid offense that limits mistakes as the defensive front is good enough to overwhelm conference foes, wreaking havoc in the backfield and being an overall disruptive force.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... A drop to the middle of the league standings is likely as MTSU returns only 12 starters and will struggle with growing pains at key positions. The new offensive skill players do not click, and the unit struggles to develop consistency and has trouble denting the scoreboard. The inexperience at linebacker outweighs the talent and production of the defensive line and the unit slips a few notches after a strong 2006 season.
MAKE OR BREAK: Any time a league opener against a title challenger is your 1st game of the season, it becomes a make or break game. A trip to Florida Atlantic on Labor Day weekend looms large and can put MTSU right back into the conference race this season. Junior college transfer Andrew Harrington takes over at linebacker and must play a key role in stabilizing a group that will be looking for a leader to emerge. If MTSU finds LB’s to step up, this can be the best unit in the league.
OFFENSE: There can only be improvement in a unit that struggled in all aspects of the game last season. The Mean Green averaged only 12.8 points per game, passing for a total of 1,382 yards, which ranked 117th in the nation. UNT will transition to a spread offense to open the field, allowing their QB’s to work on the move. Three QB’s saw extensive playing time last season return, which is the good news, but the bad news is that the 3 combined for 9 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The strength of this unit are clearly the RB’s with Jamario Thomas leading the way after a 668 yard season.
DEFENSE: North Texas will convert to a 4-3 defense this season under new coordinator Ron Mendoza. The Mean Green return 10 starters from last year’s unit and will be led by a strong corps of linebackers, with senior Maurice Holman the best of the bunch. The focus from the coaching staff will be getting this group to generate turnovers after forcing only 14 last season. With an offense that is likely to struggle for a period learning a new system this group must carry the load.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The strength of this unit is returning punter Truman Spencer, who averaged 40.8 yards per punt as UNT finished 2nd in the league. Steve Woodward steps into the kicking duties as a redshirt freshman, taking over for the graduated Dennis Hopovac, making this an area of concern as Woodward lacks the same range. UNT will look for improvement in both return games as the Mean Green finished 7th in the league in kickoff returns and 5th in punt returns. Also of note is that UNT led the league last season with 5 blocked kicks.
COACHING: Making his debut in 2007 will be Todd Dodge, who arrives at UNT from Carroll High School where he compiled a career mark of 79-1. This will be Dodge’s 2nd stint at the Denton campus as he previously served as offensive coordinator in 1992-93, a timeframe that saw UNT average 26 points per game. Dodge should have a cohesive transition as a good portion of his Carroll HS staff has followed him to UNT.
SCHEDULE: It cannot get much tougher to start the season as the Mean Green head to Oklahoma in week #1 and have 4 of their first 5 contests on the road. A key non-conference game is in week #7 with a road game at Southern Methodist, a game that UNT won 24-6 last season. Also, UNT will play Navy for the 1st time ever in one their 5 home contests. A tough break is having 4 road games out of their 7 Sun Belt contests.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... This still appears to be a rebuilding season, and if UNT can reach 4 or 5 wins, the year should be considered a success. The development of a QB is critical, and if Daniel Meager can continue his play from the spring game where he threw for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns, UNT may have a legitimate passing threat to combine with what looks to be a strong running game. The experienced defense adjusts quickly to the new alignment, and its excellent linebacking corp wreaks havoc on opposing offenses.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... UNT has a repeat of the 2006 season and battles just to stay out of the SBC basement. The transition from a pounding run-first attack to a spread offense takes much longer than anticipated as the Mean Green struggle to fit into a new system. With an offensive line that returns two starters and is relatively inexperienced, the running attack is unable to get on track, and the offense cannot sustain any drives. With only 3 receivers on scholarship in the spring semester, this looks like an offense that will need a full season to adjust to a new system.
MAKE OR BREAK: The key player is clearly QB Daniel Meager who started last year and then was benched at mid-season. Meager is the established starter now and will be expected to pass the ball all over the field instead of just managing a game and handing off to Jamario Thomas. Also of note, the offensive line must improve for the 117th ranked offense to show any substantial improvement. A critical game for UNT is their conference opener on September 22nd when they play host to Florida Atlantic, a team that the Mean Green has not defeated in any of their 3 meetings.
OFFENSE: The Trojans utilize a spread offense, and the unit clearly was the best offense in the SBC last year, averaging 25.3 points per game, and this group looks to be at the top of the league again. The leader of the unit is QB Omar Haugabook, the conference player of the year who threw for 2,401 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. What has the Troy faithful even more excited is the return of their top receiver in Gary Banks and running back Ken Cattouse. The only question mark looks to be an offensive line that returns only one starter.
DEFENSE: The Troy offense is good, but the defense has the potential to be lethal. The Trojans have 8 returning starters and will be led by a LB corps that looks to be the league’s best unit. The defensive backfield will have to replace 1st team SBC safety Brannan Condren, but they still have 4 players returning with significant starting experience, as this group should make considerable improvement over last year’s that finished last in the conference in passing yardage allowed.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Troy will need improved accuracy out of kicker Greg Whibbs, who connected on only 11 out of his 19 attempts this past season, including hitting 2 out of 5 from beyond 40 yards. Transferring in from Texas Southern is punter Adrian Vera, who only punted once at TSU, so the overall kicking game does remain as an area of concern. Not concerning is the return game, as Leodis McKelvin is the league’s best return man, and he is the reason Troy was tops in the league last year in punt returns and 2nd in kickoff returns.
COACHING: Entering his 17th year at the helm of the Troy program and with a career mark of 128-64-1 is Larry Blakeney. Blakeney has taken this program from Division II to its 1st year in Division 1-A in 2001 and is the school’s longest serving and winningest coach. His career highlight occurred last season as he guided the Trojans to the schools 1st Sun Belt title and then winning its 1st bowl game ever, a 41-17 rout of Rice. One major change in this year’s staff is the loss of co-defensive coordinator Mike Pelton who left for Iowa State, and Jeremy Rowell now assumes total control of the defensive unit.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is tough as usual, as the Trojans go on the road to battle 3 SEC heavyweights in Arkansas (9/1), Florida (9/8), and Georgia (11/3), in addition to hosting Oklahoma State. Troy does get a nice break in hosting conference contenders Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee, and Florida Alantic, with the toughest road game being a trip to Arkansas State.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Trojans will earn a repeat of their conference crown. The non-conference schedule will hurt Troy’s overall record, but this team clearly has the returning talent required for back-to-back championships. The offensive trio of QB Haugabook, WR Banks, and RB Cattouse continue to run wild and the Troy offense takes over as the league’s best unit. The experienced defense looks to be improved, and if this unit does reach it’s potential, the Trojans may also have the league’s best group of stop troops.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Trojans get pounded in their 1st 3 games before heading into their conference opener, a dangerous road trip to pesky UL-Lafayette. A rebuilt offensive line struggles to become a cohesive unit and, the playmakers do not have the time or the space to showcase their ability as the offense struggles to move the football. The result is a defense that spends the majority of the game on the field and wears down as the games and season wear on.
MAKE OR BREAK: QB Omar Haugabook is the catalyst that makes the entire offense run. He led the league in passing yardage and total offense and is a dual threat with his legs also as he rushed for 313 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. Haugabook’s partner is WR Gary Banks, also a 1st team all conference player, and these two form the most dangerous combination in the league. The season finale on December 1st could decide the league champion when FAU comes to Troy, a game that the Trojans won last year in a good one, 24-17.
The Sun Belt Conference has Troy to thank for breaking through last season and earning the league a much needed bowl win, its 1st since North Texas in 2002. Now the rest of the conference needs to follow Troy’s lead, as the league continues to look for respect on the national stage. Last year, Sun Belt members were only 4-31 in Division 1 non-conference games, and all teams again have put together extremely tough out-of-conference schedules. The key in past conference races has seen teams who return significant starting experience end the season in a race for the conference crown. In 2007, the teams with the highest number of returning starters are Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Monroe, and both squads have the talent to be the main challengers to the defending league co-champions, Troy and Middle Tennessee. Arkansas State cannot be overlooked either in this well balanced and highly competitive league. The season will be a success if the conference can again push two teams into the postseason, and earn a win in bowl competition.