Friday, August 11, 2006
2006 PREVIEW: THE SUN BELT
They're here, they're queer, get used to it
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Anonymous. Geographically vague. Sensitive. Defensive. Teetering on the edge of the vast chasm separating
divisions I-A and I-AAFootball Bowl Subdivision and NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in the abyss of obscurity, ridicule and shame. There is no explanation for the existence of this vagabond effort, for its members - currently at eight; by tomorrow, who knows? - to coalesce in order to subject the unsuspecting fan to its in-your-face inferiority.
And yet someone must stand up for the Sun Belt. Is it not a conference? If you buy a ticket, do its teams not play? Does its champion not attend a bowl? No, SMQ is not a Sun Belt fan - not that there's anything wrong with that - but that doesn't give him or anyone one license to treat it with any less dignity or respect, with any fewer rights, dammit, than any conference. It's easy to say, 'Let them play, I just don't want to know about it.' But it's time the college football world opens and realizes: the Sun Belt is not going away. And if SMQ has to be the one to set aside his prejudices and do what's fair and right by previewing the Sun Belt, by helping it emerge from the shadows and be proud of what it is, by helping fellow college football fans to learn that Sun Belt teams are just like our teams (and to learn which teams, exactly, those Sun Belt teams are), then it's a mission he bears solemnly and dutifully to fulfill:
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My father's a Sun Belt fan...Look, you wanna go to a Sun Belt game right now? Do want to go to a Sun Belt game with me right now? Let's go! C'mon, let's go baby! C'mon!
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
2. North Texas
3. Middle Tennessee State
5. Arkansas State
6. Florida International
8. Florida Atlantic
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2005: 6-5 (5-2 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 20-37 (16-17 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: Cajuns are good-natured folks, unafraid after centuries of political rebellion, forced migration, racial/cultural upheaval and relative isolation even to adopt a flaming tamale as an official symbol to the world, rather than the "ragin'" lunatics the surprisingly non-NCAA-sanctioned nickname would suggest. The football team, certainly, has displayed virtually no ill temper towards opponents since well before the school's name was changed from "Southwest Louisiana" - 2005 was ULL's first winning season since Brandon Stokley's dad Nelson was coach in 1995, the year after Jake Delhomme led the team to a pair of Big West titles.
Good At: Running over and over and over and over like a no-talent high school team that just wears you out. The Cajuns started 2005 1-5 (the one coming against I-AA Northwestern State), then virtually abandoned any pretense of throwing and won five straight in fairly impressive fashion. Collectively, various players ran on more than 77 percent of the team's snaps (about 57.5 times a game) over the last six games, allowing true freshman Tyrell Fenroy to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in school history and rotating quarterbacks Jerry Babb and Michael Desormeaux to pick up more than 400 on the ground apiece. And only mighty Texas, which gave up 72 yards on 2.1 per carry in the opener, really ever stopped them (season per carry average: 5.3 yards). The top five runners are back with three offensive lineman, two of whom, The Other Brandon Cox and Jesse Newman, are all-leaguers in the estimation of Phil Steele and The Sporting News.
Not So Good At: Passing in general. Babb, a formerly competent passer, and the inexperienced Desormeaux combined to throw for all of three touchdowns, every one of them by Babb in the Northwestern State win. So, yes, ULL won five league games without throwing a single touchdown in any of them. Bill Sampy, a one-time all-Sun Belt pick who slipped to a still-team-best 29 catches, is the only major departure. The whole contraption only averaged 132 yards a game, 110th in the country.
Will Be Better At: All things aerial; by the same token, Babb had thrown for almost 4,000 yards in two years entering last season, and still completed 62.2 percent of his passes when he played. This is the reason Babb figures to get most of the snaps over the athletic Desormeaux: it's much easier to hand off 50 times if there's a chance you might put a couple up every now and then.
Defining Games: Oct. 7 at Houston, Oct. 28 vs. Middle Tennessee State, Nov. 4 at Troy, Nov. 11 vs. North Texas
The Goal: No less than the league title. The Cajuns shared it last year but lost out on a makeshift home bowl appearance not named for a local commodity (the shcool's two previous postseason games: the Oil Bowl, in 1944, and the Rice Bowl, in 1970) on a tiebreaker for the field goal loss to Arkansas State in October, its last defeat and, with a makes-me-sore-to-even-look-at 66 carries for 457 yards, the point they said to hell with the throwin'. ULL is the consensus league pick in the preseason and ought to be the favorite in every Sun Belt game - they might even beat a real Bowl Subdivision team, if Eastern Michigan deserves the distinction.
The Abyss: At LSU, at Texas A&M in the first two games might leave chunks of bruised Cajun flesh scattered across two states. Nobody pays any attention to the Sun Belt, so preseason projections are as sketchy as possible and utterly meaningless in every sense; North Texas, its demise often projected during a 259-game conference win streak, was finally the overwhelming championship pick here last year, went 2-9, and nobody batted an eye. So Lafayette, 11-24 under Rickey Bustle before last year, could easily be that bad.
The Reality: Play on, playa: you gone to the N'Awlins Bowl, dog, maybe even with a winning record. Assuming nobody's legs fall off from rampant overuse, that is. And it will actually involve a trip to New Orleans this time, as opposed to walking across the street after your Economics final.
2. NORTH TEXAS
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2005: 2-9 (2-5 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 31-30 (27-6 Sun Belt)
2006 Schedule (Do not click this link at work, in a public space such as a library or around small rodents unless you have first clicked 'Mute')
What Everyone Should Know: After four unabted years of running roughshod over everybody amidst a conference win streak spanning hundreds of games (actually, only 25, which is impressive enough), the Mean Green must consider themselves the true gatekeepers around these parts, and only on a brief hiatus in 2005 before reclaiming its rightful place in a sparsely-attended, oft-mocked December bowl game of little to no consequence.
Good At: The Green produced another 1,000-yard rusher in Patrick Cobbs, who hit 1,200 returning from injury last year. Back in the spotlight this fall steps Jamario Thomas, who led the nation in yards per game as a true freshman during the regular season in 2004 but dropped to 360 with no touchdowns behind Cobbs. Four starting lineman return to aid this effort.
Not So Good At: A once passable run defense was chewed up and spit out on a weekly basis last year, and not just by the LSUs and Kansas States on the slate: four Sun Belt opponents easily topped 200 yards rushing, and only Florida International (79 yards) failed to top 180. A lot of tackles return, and a good number of them are in the secondary.
Will Be Better At: UNT made a living of winning close games in its championship run, then proceeded to lose its last four in '05 by a combined 18 points. If a team is going to go an entire season without leading in any game by more than seven points, as the Green did in '05, a prerequisite for success is protecting the meager advantages. Which the Green did not do.
Defining Games: Sept. 9 vs. SMU, Sept. 30 vs. Middle Tennessee State, Nov. 4 at UL-Lafayette
The Goal: A year under sophomore QB Daniel Meager's belt ought to get the 4:8 INT ratio into line and complement the inevitably heavy doses of Thomas en route to reclaiming the league championship. They won't win a game outside the conference either way (even SMU is a nearly automatic loss in SMQ's mind), but judging from the littany of one-score losses last year, there's not enough of a gap to keep a more experienced bunch from challenging as usual.
The Abyss: Ding dong, the witch is dead. '05 was the new trend, not the aberration, and the losses will pile up again.
The Reality: SMQ sees no reason to give up on the league's poster child after a tough season in which it continued to play competitively even after all hope was lost by November. Call it a mulligan, and the gashing handoff-fest scheduled at Lafayette the de facto championship game.
3. MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
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2005: 4-7 (3-4 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 25-32 (15-17 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: The Blue Raiders were supposed to be the league's bellweather program when it started up in 2001, which should go to show that there's no bigger crapshoot in college football than the Sun Belt, because after a good start, the Blue Raiders are 9-16 against the rest of the Sun Belt the last four years. They were, however, the only SBC team to top a real I-A opponent in 2005, a 17-15 win over Vanderbilt that propelled Jay Cutler to the first round of the NFL Draft.
Good At: Defensively, the Raiders were pretty good all around in relative terms, allowing 30 only twice and holding Alabama (26), NC State (24) and the aforementioned Commodores each under 28. The unit took some graduation hits, but has two all-league type guys back in JK Sabb and Bradley Robinson.
Not So Good At: MTSU topped four yards per carry over a full game once, barely, against the should-be tackling dummies at Florida Atlantic. Everywhere else, it was handled pretty easily, and even if RB Eugene Gross got a little over 700 yards, he did it only four yards at a time.
Will Be Better At: QB Clint Marks will be in his fourth year as a starter, with 5,400-plus yards and a gaudy completion rate (68.2) to show for it, but he dipped last year and relied largely on the short game when he wasn't running for his life (37 sacks allowed). The receivers and linemen this time around have a tad more experience.
Defining Games: Sept. 30 at North Texas, Oct. 28 at UL-Lafayette, Nov. 25 vs. Troy
The Goal: The combination of defensive inexperience and past offensive impotence seems to preclude a serious conference title run, but one never know what's going to happen when a new coach (here, the legendary Rick Stockstill) is involved. Certainly MTSU is talking up a first-ever bowl bid, but they'd surpass SMQ's best case if they come in under two league losses.
The Abyss: And Lord, they're playing at Maryland, at Oklahoma, at South Carolina and hosting Louisville, all brutal, major beatdown games. Even matching the best conference record to date won't get them to .500, and the overall equality of ineptitude in the Sun Belt could land them somewhere around 3-9.
The Reality: Marks might be worth a couple wins, but the defense is going to suffer too much against the tough schedule to top 6-6.
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2005: 4-7 (3-4 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 28-30 (9-8 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: Troy has beaten two major conference programs in the last five years - Mississippi State in 2001 and Missouri in 2004 - and is the only non-champ from the Sun Belt to earn an at-large bowl bid. Which means absolutely zip to Florida State, Georgia Tech, Nebraska and probably even UAB, too, which happens to be the contingent scheduled to host the Trojans' September death tour following the opening tune up against Alabama A&M.
Good At: Defense in general, but especially against the pass, where quarterbacks not named Darrell Hackney or throwing to Sidney Rice from Steve Spurrier's system only averaged 162 yards against the Trojans' secondary. This came without much pressure on opposing quarterbacks (99th with just 17 sacks) or falling far behind against clock-grinders. The corners are both new, but based on names alone, Leodis McKelvin Jr. and Henry "Hank" Chubb earn passing grades from SMQ. They also combined for 40 tackles last year as backups, and McKelvin was all-Sun Belt as a return man.
Not So Good At: Carl Meadows and Julian Foster split time at quarterback last year, but will both sit this season behind JUCO savior Omar Haugabrook, and - barring extreme masochistic tendencies, not an impossibility - this is just fine with them because they had the living hell beat out of them: defenses averaged 3.5 sacks a game against Troy in '05, 111th in the country, and four of the five linemen responsible for allowing at least three takedowns in nine games return
Will Be Better At: Haugabrook is a top ten recruit among junior college quarterbacks, with good size (6-2, 220), good speed (4.6, according to Phil Steele, who counts the 40 times of Sun Belt Conference signal callers to fall asleep at night) and even a little familiarity (he was in for Spring practice). His presence alone, much less with the contributions of eight returning starters, ought to raise the offense from the dead, or at least from the bottom 20 of nearly every major stat category.
Defining Games: Sept. 30 at UAB, Nov. 4 vs. UL-Lafayette, Nov. 25 at Middle Tennessee
The Goal: Should they survive the first month, the Trojans have two weeks in October off (with only UL-Monroe in between, at home) with which to regroup and put themselves together for a conference run that gets SMQ's league favorites, UL-Lafayette and North Texas, at home, as well as last year's champs, Arkansas State, and Troy hadn't lost a Sun Belt game in its own stadium in three-year membership until last year's finale against Middle Tennessee. As likely a candidate to take the league as any, and managing a winning record will require it.
The Abyss: Larry Blakeney might have to turn to the intramural squads for depth by October, given the utter impossiblity of that early four-game road stretch, the kind of non-conference run much bigger and more successful would never dream of attempting. If there still is a Troy football team following those inevitable massacres, what's left could stagger into a another losing streak that knocks the train right off its tracks and into a fiery 2-10-type situation.
The Reality: Haugabrook had better to live up to every shred of hype to get the offense in balance with the defense, which kept it all somewhat hanging together last season despite complete ineptitude from their offensive counterparts.
5. ARKANSAS STATE
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2005: 6-6 (5-2 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 22-37 (17-15 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: ASU lost to Middle Tennessee and Army by a combined 66 points in '05, and still came away as league co-champion and "New Orleans" Bowl representative. For a program that hadn't attended a bowl in its relatively long life, this was viewed as a major accomplishment.
Good At: The league's unapologetic Representations of Centuries-Old Native American Primitivism (see below) were very sporadically awesome at generating pressure, racking up 27 total sacks in a couple of three-game bursts and now returning 23 of the those takedowns. Record in games with rampant sacking? 5-3. Without? 1-3.
Not So Good At: This is another team that also gave up a lot of sacks, though, part of the reason it was only a serviceable passing team at best (the other part of the reason being that, based on the bowl game, departed quarterback Nick Noce was apparently little more than a gritter - a completely impoverished man's Craig Krenzel - even by Sun Belt standards).
Will Be Better At: The defense was solid (it was torched by Missouri in the opener but held Oklahoma State under 300 yards two weeks later) and ought to be better with eight of the top ten tacklers back. Strong safety Tyrell Johnson had 25 tackles in one game, against North Texas, and is drawing most of the league's early defensive player of the year nods so far.
Defining Games: Sept. 9 vs. Oklahoma State (in Little Rock), Oct. 21 vs. North Texas, Nov. 25 at UL-Lafayette
The Goal: The Indians were as far from a dominant champion as a team could be last year, and losing essential components like Noce and two-time 1,000-yard grinder Antonio Warren probably preclude another title run. If it's still up in the air going into the last two weeks at Troy and Lafayette, the season ought to be considered basically a success - though ASU is not likely to win both of those games. The non-conference schedule (there's Auburn in November, but Oklahoma State's as tough as it gets before that) isn't as insane as the rest of the SBC's trying to deal with in the least injurious possible manner.
The Abyss: As with every other team around these parts, the possibility for complete and utter collapse is never far away. This team was 19 points over four games away from a 1-6 conference record last year, and are a couple turnovers - with a new, eyes-barely-opened backfield - away from last place.
The Reality: The defending quasi-champs deserve some respect - but not that much. All told, ASU will break the bank's reserves of good fortune to eclipse five wins.
6. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
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2005: 5-6 (3-4 Sun Belt) / Last
FiveThree Years: 15-29 (3-4 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: SMQ counts exactly three players on the Panthers' 100-or-so-man roster who even hail from outside of the state of Florida, much less some other God forsaken country. None of the incoming recruits are from a state other than Florida. "International," indeed - what is that, some sort of euphemism for endoctrination in advocacy for the worldwide Zionist/free mason conspiracy?
Good At: Quarterback Josh Padrick has 7,200-plus yards in three years as a starter - he's the school's all-time leading passer over a career that spans 75 percent of FIU's entire football history! - and returns Chandler Williams, who only had two touchdowns but hauled in 61 total passes last year. Both were second team all-Sun Belt, and they're not all diva about it so just shut up.
Not So Good At: Take away games against full-time I-AA teams Florida A&M and Western Kentucky, along with fellow "reclassifying/provisional" member Florida Atlantic, and the Panthers averaged a little under 84 yards on about 3 yards a carry against I-A teams. Mostly really awful I-A teams, like Troy and UL-Monroe, which combined to hold FIU to 88 total rushing yards in back-to-back games last October. Four line starters and leading rusher Ben West have departed the grisly scene.
Will Be Better At: Noting that middle linebacker Keyonvis Bouie had a fantastic stat line - 118 total tackles, 9 for loss, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions - and end Antwan Barnes is back with his 11 sacks (and, Steele breathlessly notes, a "Sch record 55m!"), the experienced defense is in good shape to improve on its 29.4 points allowed average.
Defining Games: Aug. 31 at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 30 vs. Arkansas State, Oct. 7 at North Texas
The Goal: Riding last year's three-game win streak to close the season, the Panthers can make themselves a force for the league championship with wins in its first three Sun Belt games, mentioned above. Three of the last four are at home, the fourth a neutral site down in Miami, so if FIU can't win the league, it can eke out a winning conference record.
The Abyss: Another nuclear out-of-league lineup here: at Miami, at Alabama, at Maryland, with Bowling Green and South Florida thrown in. At least they're not back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back in one block, like Troy has to face, but the next step up to .500 overall is a fantasy. Another team that could wind up in the cellar as soon as it's look at ya. Whatever that means.
The Reality: FIU closed 2005 with some momentum, but that's not going to last past a virtually certain three-game losing streak in Games Two-Four, and unless there's some way for a new line and ineffectual running game to keep the hordes away from Padrick, he might not either.
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2005: 5-6 (5-2 Sun Belt) / Last Five Years: 16-41 (15-17 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know: The War Hawks, nee Indians, buckled under the NCAA's PC pressure this offseason, when they declared birds of prey in deadly battle fueled by political motives to be far less offensive. This sensitive transition required a logo change, as well, or about seven of them, to be exact:
Which are nothing at all like:
ULM's last logo, of course, was a virtual carbon copy of Florida State's arrow, so we can surmise that creativity is not exactly the university's strong suit.
Good At: Part of it was the athleticism of departed QB Steven Jyles to avoid rushers, but the offensive line returns intact after allowing only nine sacks in a little over 400 pass attempts last year, definitely one of the best rates anywhere. More than half of those came against Georgia and Arkansas - and this from a line made up exclusively of freshmen and sophomores. The same five ought to be back next year, too.
Not So Good At: Minus Jyles and all-SBC receiver Drouzon Quillen, the just OK passin game's on its way to "dead upon arrival" territory. New QB Kinsmon Lancaster had one start last year as a redshirt freshman - as a wide receiver.
Will Be Better At: Running, perhaps, if not swallowed up by an inability to keep nine men out of the box, but certainly not stopping the run. ULM was below average in that regard again in '05, and lost all four of its front line starters. New guys have done zip.
Defining Games: Oct. 7 at Arkansas State, Nov. 11 at Florida International, Dec. at UL-Lafayette
The Goal: Any team that finishes as close as ULM did to an outright league title last year enters the season expecting to be right back in the hunt, but Jyles' exit puts those dreams a bit out of reach. A break-even season overall would be a triumph.
The Abyss: The
IndiansHawks of War aren't going to lose to a truly awful Alcorn State team in the opener, but that's the only "very likely" win. Like every other team in this hopeless conference, the potential feast is every bit as likely to wind up in a dusty, famine-stricken field in the middle of nowhere, with no way back.
The Reality: SMQ has no clue whatsoever. But ULM is one of the few Sun Belt teams that lost its undisputed best player, and not enough else returns to stop a serious fall after as a result.
8. FLORIDA ATLANTIC
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2005: 2-9 (2-5 Sun Belt) / Last
FiveFour Years: 28-30 (2-5 Sun Belt)
What Everyone Should Know:Florida Atlantic is an actual school with an actual football program that has been around for five years, all coached by
The Wizard of OzHoward Schnellenberger and the last two in the same "reclassifying/provisional" boat as Florida Internatonal. Very, very bored Phil Steele fans might note that the team did go 9-3 in 2004, its first season in "the big time" (a year after going 11-3 as a full-fledged I-AA team), and beat Hawaii and future colleagues North Texas and Middle Tennessee State in the first three weeks of the season. They didn't beat another I-A team, went on to lose nine last year and fielded possibly one of the worst offenses of all time.
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Pay no attention to that team at the bottom of the standings
Good At: Not much. Charles Pierre and D'Brickashaw Onyenegecha Watch List candidate Dilvory Edgecomb could conceivably be a serviceable running back combo.
Not So Good At: SMQ is only judging by statistics here, but 13.5 points per game is pretty futile, especially when you're also giving up about 31. A brand new quarterback (Sean Clayton) isn't going to get you much further without major, unforeseeable improvement from everyone else, even if he is a Michigan State transfer (he is).
Will Be Better At: With all four defensive linemen back, plus both the outside linebackers, there is no way the Owls can finish another entire season in the range of 6 sacks. That's one every other game. The whole front four was comprised of freshmen last year, who are no sophomores an