Preseason 2005: A Look at the Sun Belt
The Sun Belt has belonged to North Texas in every year of its football existence. The Mean Green does nothing but wins conference titles and heads to the New Orleans Bowl. With the addition of Florida Atlantic and Florida International, the Sun Belt may get slightly more attention this season, but will still be considered the worst Divsion 1-A conference. If they could only pull off a couple of high profile upsets, then things would get better. Troy's win over Missouri last year was nice. Will this finally be the season that more upsets come?
1. Middle Tennessee (8-3, 6-1)- For the Blue Raiders, Clint Marks is the quarterback and the star. He threw for over 2700 yards a year ago in his first year as a starter. He also completed over 70 percent of his passes. Those sparkling numbers should continue. The offensive line returns three starters and has loads of talent at the other two positions. Chris Wright and Cleannord Saintil are both very solid receivers that give Marks some good targets. The key to the offense will be if the running game starts to produce. Eugene Gross is the returning starter, but he only had 412 yards a year ago. The defense will be lead by the stout defensive line. Jeff Littlejohn and Quinton Staton are two of the best defensive linemen in the conference. Marcel Horne, the team's leading tackler a year ago, returns at linebacker. Dennis Burke, a solid linebacker, also returns. The secondary is young, in particular at the corner spot. Bradley Robinson, Roy Polite and Damon Nickson are all only sophomores. The Raiders get North Texas at home on September 10 in the Sun Belt Game of the Year. They also get Vanderbilt on October 1, a team they have beaten the last two times they have played. Trips to Troy, North Carolina State and Alabama make for a very difficult schedule, but all it takes is beating North Texas and the Sun Belt title starts becoming more realistic. They won all four conference home games a year ago.
2. North Texas (7-4, 6-1)- For the first time in the history of college football, two individual NCAA rushing champs will be in the same backfield. Patrick Cobbs won it in 2003, but went down with a season ending injury very early last year. Jamario Thomas, only a freshman, came in and also won the rushing title. Now, with Cobbs back healthy, both will be running in the backfield. They will be running behind a very inexperienced offensive line. Just three players even won letters a year ago. Dylan Lineberry is the anchor to the line. Joey Byerly is the new starting quarterback. He threw just twelve passes a year ago. He will be throwing the ball to Johnny Quinn, who is a very talented wide receiver. The defensive line will be all new, but Eli Hutchinson has proven himself. The linebackers return all three starters. Brandon Monroe was the team's leading tackler a year ago. T.J. Covington is the only returning starter in the secondary. It also doesn't hurt any that Ja'Mel Branch returns at the other corner spot. He was out a year ago, but returns this year to help out. The Mean Green will be good if the offensive line can protect the quarterback and give Cobbs and Thomas time to run. It would also help if Byerly protected the football. Games at LSU and Kansas State highlight September, but the bigger game is the road date with Middle Tennessee on September 10. A home date with Troy on October 1 means that before this team has developed a lot of experience, they will have already played their two biggest Sun Belt games.
3. Louisiana-Monroe (5-6, 4-3)- The offense of the Indians needs to improve drastically over the 19.2 points per game that they scored a year ago to make any serious noise in the conference race. Steven Jyles returns at quarterback. He ran for 587 yards a year ago and threw for another 2322. He scored twenty total touchdowns. He could have an even bigger junior season. It certainly helps Jyles to have big wide receiver Drouzon Quillen to throw to. He is a 6'6" star who presents huge match up problems for other Sun Belt teams. The offensive line could be starting five sophomores, two of which are returning starters. That could be a real weak spot. The running game will be lead by Mason Denham, the returning starter. However, redshirt freshman Calvin Dawson emerged in the spring. He looks to be the back that best complements Jyles and Quillen and makes the offense a legitimate threat to put 30 points on the board every time out. The defense will be lead by Brandon Guillory on the defensive line. The senior had 5.5 sacks a year ago and looks to improve on those numbers. Jason Schule is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but Josh Alexander has played a lot. Harry Bradley may have passed Alexander on the depth chart this spring. The secondary is young but Chaz Williams is the team's leading returning tackler. Williams, the corner back, has the attitude of a premier defensive back. In 2003, the Indians went 1-11. Last year, they jumped to 5-6 and 4-3 in the Sun Belt. Road trips to Wyoming and Georgia early in the year could hurt the team's confidence, and battling Arkansas in October is not easy either. Road trips to Middle Tennessee and North Texas probably take winning the Sun Belt out of the question, but if they can beat Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette at home, then a third plac finish in the Sun Belt is a possibility.
4. Louisiana-Lafayette (5-6, 4-3)- Jerry Babb has done it all for the Ragin' Cajuns. He is the team's quarterback and also was the team's leading rusher a year ago. He set a school record a year ago for completion percentage (57.9). Bill Sampy is Babb's best target at wide receiver, but his status is still up in the air after a drug arrest this offseason. All other returning receivers caught five passes a year ago. The running game never got rolling last year, and Chester Johnson is the returning starter. However, Abdule Levier, Josh Harrison, and Caleb Rubin all could figure into the equation. The offensive line returns four starters and should be more solid than they were a year ago, when they gave up 23 sacks. The defense needs to show continued improvement, especially against the run, where they ranked 107 in the country a year ago. The secondary is very experienced. Michael Adams will return at corner, and while his height is a handicap, he makes up for it with energy and athleticism. Tyler Norman and Tre Green have potential to be very talented linebackers. They are undersized, but are always playing at full speed. The defensive line returns Anthony Hills as the key player. Marshall Delesdernier and Eugene Kwarteng also return on the line and need to step up in order to get the running defense to improve. The road game at Texas will not be a walk in the park to open the season. Road dates with Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, and Louisiana-Monroe makes this a challenging, but not impossible schedule. This team has potential for a fast 4-1 start if they recover from the Texas loss quickly. A road game at Eastern Michigan is followed by home games with Northwestern State, UCF and Florida Atlantic. It is far from a guarantee, but it would be a very nice start.
5. Troy (5-6, 4-3)- The quarterback position has never been more important for Troy, as they recover from the loss of all-time leading rusher, DeWhitt Betterson. D.T. McDowell started the final six games a year ago. He has a gun of an arm, but is wildly inaccurate, completing just over 40 percent of his passes a year ago. He also is a solid runner and very athletic. Carl Meadows got a long look in the spring, but he is not as athletic and not as good of a running threat. Zarah Yisrael is the only returning starter on the offensive line, but there is depth there for the Trojans. The receivers pose no deep threat, and James Earl Cray is the best returning receiver. He is solid on the short routes, but fails to open up the field. Kenny Cattouse appears to be the player that will be turned to first to try to replace Betterson. The defensive line was the strength of the team a year ago, but not this year. Every starter must be replaced. Torre Lankford must become the leader on the defensive line. Bernard Davis and Leverne Johnson are the best linebacker duo in the Sun Belt. Johnny Faulk developed into one of the Sun Belt's better corners last year, but stands only 5'10", which could be trouble against taller receivers. Sherrod Martin really came into his own last year and should have an even bigger sophomore year at the safety spot. September is an interesting month for the Trojans. They open against Cal Poly, and then host UAB. They will then travel to Missouri and South Carolina, followed by a date at North Texas on October 1. Middle Tennessee comes calling on November 19, and road dates with Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette litter October. The experience level is just not there this year to contend for the conference title, but they should be building for a strong run next year.
6. Florida Atlantic (2-9, 2-5)- Howard Schnellenberger has built another team, and this one may have been his biggest project. Starting from scratch, this team has gone from not existing to being in Division 1-A in less than ten years, which is unheard of. Danny Embick will be the quarterback. He got a lot of experience last year backing up Jared Allen. He should be a solid fit into the offense. The receiving corps were decimated by graduation, but Cortez Gent is expected to make a huge impact as a true freshman. The offensive line returns just two starters, and is due for some major reshuffling. The running game will be lead by B.J. Manley, but another true freshman, Roderick Ferguson, could be the starter by the season's end. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Willie Hughley had six interceptions a year ago at one corner, and Lawrence Gordon had 63 tackles last year. This is a very solid secondary. Shomari Earls leads the inexperienced linebacking unit. Earls is the undoubted team leader. Josh Pinnick is the lone returning starter on the defensive line that needs to develop quickly to hold everything together. The schedule opens with road dates against Kansas and Minnesota and a home date with Oklahoma State. Welcome to Division 1-A! A trip to Louisville follows on October 1. Ouch. This program may take a step back this year, but expect Schnellenberger's program to continue it's ascent over the next several years.
7. Florida International (FIU) (3-8, 1-6)-Josh Padrick is just beginning to come into his own at the quarterback spot for the Golden Panthers. He will be a junior and the offense is starting to make more sense to him. It certainly helps that Cory McKinney and Chandler Williams are out there catching passes. The offensive line returns every single starter, led by Victor Cernius at center. This is a solid group on the line. Of course, the running game has little or no experience. Julian Reams, the redshirt freshman, was very impressive in the spring. This offense has a chance to be very good this year. The defense could not stop the run a year ago, and that has to start changing. Brandon Higdon is the best player on the defensive line. The linebackers return three starters and have junior Keyonvis Bouie to help things out. Bouie has the tools to be the star at linebacker. The secondary will be lead by Nick Turnbull, who is converting from safety to cornerback. He was a preseason Division 1-AA All American a year ago. The schedule opens at Kansas State and at Texas Tech. The schedule is not particularly easy. The defense must step up, but until it does, the offense could outscore a few teams. That means that Texas Tech and Florida International on September 10 could be a fun game with a lot of points.
8. Arkansas State (2-9, 1-6)- The offense has been decimated with losses except in the backfield. The offensive line was not particularly good a year ago, and now only Tanner Jenkins returns to the line. Levi Dejohnette is the biggest returning receiver, with 25 catches a year ago. But no receiver has ever started a game for the Indians. Antonio Warren is the team's best offensive threat at running back. He averaged 5.3 yards per rush a year ago. Nick Noce is a solid quarterback. He threw 16 interceptions a year ago, but if that improves he could become one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt. Myron Anderson and Jamarrow James return to the defensive line to try to shore up the defense against the run. Brian Flagg and Elias Ellis lead a linebacker unit that may be the strength of the defense. The secondary is lead by Tyrell Johnson, who intercepted four passes a year ago. Montis Harrison is the lock down corner that the Indians so desperately need. The Indians open the season against Missouri and at Oklahoma State in two of their first three games. If the offensive line comes together, there is a chance this team could make a run at a winning record. If it doesn't, this team will have to rely on the defense to keep them in football games.
ALL SUN BELT
QB Clint Marks, Middle Tennessee
RB Patrick Cobbs, North Texas
RB Jamario Thomas, North Texas
WR Johnny Quinn, North Texas
WR Drouzon Quillen, Louisiana-Monroe
TE Stephen Chicola, Middle Tennessee
OL Tanner Jenkins, Arkansas State
OL Justom Ernest, Louisiana-Lafayette
OL Brandon Cox, Louisiana-Lafayette
OL Jason May, North Texas
OL Germayle Franklin, Middle Tennessee
DL Jeff Littlejohn, Middle Tennessee
DL Brandon Guillory, Louisiana-Monroe
DL Tony Hills, Louisiana-Lafayette
DL Jeremiah Chapman, North Texas
LB Bernard Davis, Troy
LB Leverne Jackson, Troy
LB Shomari Earls, Florida Atlantic
DB Willie Hughley, Florida Atlantic
DB T.J. Covington, North Texas
DB Johnny Faulk, Troy
DB Tyrell Covington, Arkansas State
K Colby Smith, Middle Tennessee
P Joel Stelly, Louisiana-Monroe
KR Darren Toney, Arkansas State
PR Leodis McKelvin, Troy