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Sun Belt Preview 2006

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 9, 2006


Preview 2006 CollegeFootballNews.com Sun Belt Preview

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK
For good and bad, the Sun Belt will be the most even conference in the nation from one through eight. The dead even league will have weekly battles with no such thing as a shocking upset thanks to so much parity and so few sure things to count on among the contenders. North Texas should bounce back from last year’s disaster to be in the hunt again, but UL Lafayette is the class of the conference with a ground game that should be enough to lead the way to the New Orleans Bowl. Florida International should be this year’s high-riser after a strong end to the 2005 season. Arkansas State, Troy and Middle Tennessee will have good enough defenses to stay in the title hunt all year long.

3 THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. After losing 26 of 27 games against other D-I teams last year, the Sun Belt will go winless outside of the league except for the D-IAA layups.

2. The best thing about the 2006 UL Monroe season will be the nickname change from Indians to Warhawks.

3. North Texas RB Jamario Thomas will be a threat for 2,000 yards behind an improved line and with all the carries coming his way.

GAME OF THE YEAR
Nov. 25th Arkansas State at UL Lafayette. There might not be a closer contested series of games over the last ten years than the ones played by the Indians and the Ragin' Cajuns. Since 1997, these two have played seven times with ULL holding a 4-3 advantage with the four wins coming by a total of 11 points. ASU's wins have been by four, six and three. The winner of this year's showdown will likely win the conference title.

1. UL Lafayette
Predicted record: 7-5  Conf. record: 6-1
Best Player: OT Brandon Cox, Sr.
Offense - Expect more of the same from the nation's seventh best rushing team with running, running and more running. The passing attack will produce a bit more if QB Jerry Babb doesn't miss time like last year, but there won't be too much fun 'n' gun with Tyrell Fenroy leading a loaded backfield that gets to run behind Brandon Cox and one of the Sun Belt's best lines. The passing game is a question mark with the top two receivers gone from an attack that cranked out a mere three touchdown passes. Depth on the offensive line will be a concern early on.
Defense - Eight starters return to one of the Sun Belt's better defenses. There isn't a lot of size, but there's plenty of production in the front seven with linebackers Mark Risher and Brenton Burkhalter each on the verge of all-star honors. Corner Michael Adams might only be 5-8 and 170 pounds, but he's one of the league's best all-around corners. Being stronger against the run will be the major area of improvement, while preventing sharp passers from dinking and dunking will also be a priority.
This season will be a success if … UL Lafayette wins eight games and the Sun Belt title. No one will stop a ground game that has to be good enough to overcome the rest of the team's holes. This appears to be a program about to come of age.

2. Florida International
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 5-2
Best Player: LB Keyonvis Bouie, Soph.
Offense - There are a lot of ifs all over the place hoping for several promising young prospects to become major factors all over the place. One area that's not a problem is quarterback where Josh Padrick is primed for an All-Sun Belt season while backups Tavares Kendrick and Jamie Burke could be the best reserves in the league. There are several good, speedy backs to count on behind a huge offensive line that should be fine by midseason. The receiving corps needs a second wide receiver to emerge to help out Chandler Williams and tight end Samuel Smith.
Defense - It's a good-looking young defense with great players to build around. Keyonvis Bouie is one of the nation's most productive linebackers and will be on the short list for Sun Belt Player of the Year. Antwan Barnes is a tremendous pass rusher who'll be the key to the success of the front line, while huge Jonas Murrell is growing into a great prospect in the middle. The secondary has to be far better at breaking up plays and can't get picked apart on short passes like it did last season.
This season will be a success if … FIU finishes second in the Sun Belt race. It'll go into the season dreaming of winning the title, but there's not enough depth and there's still a D-IAA level of overall talent that'll keep the promising team from falling just short of its goal.

T3. MTSU
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 4-3
Best Player: QB Clint Marks, Sr.
Offense - The offense wasn't consistent and struggled mightily to get the running game going. Expect more balance and more pop all the way around after averaging a mere 308 yards and 19 points per game. The goal will be to use several different formations in a wide-open attack relying on the decision making abilities of the quarterback. That's a positive considering Clint Marks is back for his third year under center. Eugene Gross leads a decent group of small, quick backs who should do better behind an improved line.
Defense - Only four starters return to the Sun Belt's best defense, but the cupboard is hardly bare. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's biggest issue is finding a tackle to replace Jeff Littlejohn along with linebackers Dennis Burks and Jonathan Bonner. The linebackers will be fine if J.K. Sabb is as good as he was last season, and the line will be fine if Sean Mosley and Erik Walden can generate consistent pressure on the ends. The secondary will be the strength with Bradley Robinson about to be hailed as one of the Sun Belt's top corners.
This season will be a success if … MTSU wins the Sun Belt title. Finishing second means nothing in this league. It needs to get by a nasty conference draw and has to survive three two-game road trips.

T3. Arkansas State
Predicted record: 5-7  Conf. record: 4-3
Best Player: LB Josh Williams, Jr.
Offense - ASU's offense needs some revamping in the backfield losing starting QB Nick Noce along with over 1,700 yards of rushing production in backs Antonio Warren and Shermar Bracey. On the plus side, the receiving corps is loaded with experience and the line should challenge to be the best in the Sun Belt. The quarterback situation is up in the air with Travis Hewitt and Corey Leonard each getting their chance to take control.
Defense - It'll be a surprise if this isn't one of the Sun Belt's best defenses thanks to a tremendous back seven led by All-Sun Belt safeties Tyrell Johnson and Khyyam Burns. The linebacking corps goes from being experienced and decent to experienced and tremendous thanks to the return of star Josh Williams in the middle after being suspended last year. The run defense has to be far more effective, and that'll start up front where the tackles have to be more consistent. A pass rush has to be found from the ends with starters Brian Flagg and Jonathan Najm nursing knee injuries.
This season will be a success if … ASU wins the Sun Belt title again. It'll be hard with the killer league road slate late, but there's no turning down the expectations after last year. This team should be able to beat anyone in the conference, but it needs everything to come together early on to make it happen.

T3. North Texas
Predicted record: 4-8  Conf. record: 4-3
Best Player: RB Jamario Thomas, Jr.
Offense - The offense went into the tank last year with no production from the quarterbacks and a young, inexperienced line having all kinds of problems with its consistency. However, the running game wasn't bad and the pass protection wasn't horrible. Things should be better this year with Johnny Quinn leading a veteran receiving corps, Jamario Thomas ready to be one of the NCAA's top rushers again with a veteran line to work behind, and experienced quarterbacks that can't be any worse than they were last season.
Defense - Last year was a disaster, especially against the run, and now adjustments have been made to fit the personnel. With few good linemen to work with and several great linebacker prospects, the D will go to a 3-4 with the strength at outside linebacker thanks to Maurice Holman and Phillip Graves. Safety will also be a positive with Aaron Weathers and Steve Warren returning, but there are major concerns at corner. The front three has to be much, much stronger against the run after allowing 221 yards per game.
This season will be a success if … North Texas wins the Sun Belt title. It'll be a major, major accomplishment considering the conference road schedule, but after the past success, nothing else but a trip to the New Orleans Bowl will do.

6. Troy
Predicted record: 4-8  Conf. record: 3-4
Best Player: FS Sherrod Martin, Jr.
Offense - The Trojans are going to spread things out with four receivers in an attempt to do something, anything, to generate more than 15.9 points and 285 yards per game. JUCO transfer QB Omar Haugabook will look to resuscitate the passing game with a good group of receivers to work with. Kenny Cattouse leads a quick group of running backs working behind a big line that has to be more consistent in all phases.
Defense - Troy has consistently cranked out solid defenses and should be among the best in the Sun Belt once again despite some major production losses. The biggest question mark early on will be at linebacker after losing Bernard Davis and Leverne Johnson. Marcus Richardson is an all-star caliber playmaker on the strongside, but he'll need help. The safeties and ends should be tremendous, and there's surprisingly good depth just about everywhere for a team that needs to replace seven starters.
This season will be a success if … Troy wins the Sun Belt title. Just about every team is coming into the season thinking it can be the Sun Belt champs, but Troy really has a shot if the offense is a little better and with the favorable conference schedule.

7. UL Monroe
Predicted record: 2-10  Conf. record: 1-6
Best Player: FS Kenny Payne, Sr.
Offense - The offense has some major holes to fill needing to replace star quarterback Steven Jyles and top targets Drouzon Quillen and Joey Trappey from the Sun Belt's top passing game. The line will be the strength with tackle Kyle Cunningham and guard Aaron Schutz leading the way. Calvin Dawson is a solid back who should be the workhorse of the attack early on, but there's little proven help behind him. The spotlight will be on new starting quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster. While he has the athleticism of Jyles and a big arm, he needs time.
Defense - This was hardly a rock of a defense last year, and now the 4-2-5 needs an infusion of talent among the front six. Ricky Williams is a nice tackle to build around, but star end Brandon Guillory is gone and there's not a pass rusher to immediately step in and take over. The secondary will be a major plus with four All-Sun Belt candidates and two superstars in corner Chaz Williams and safety Kevin Payne. Teams will try to run, run, and run some more to avoid this group.

This season will be a success if … UL Monroe wins six games. This isn't as good as last year's team, and it's still a year away from big-time success, but it's good enough to beat Alcorn State, Florida Atlantic, and come up with a few big home wins.

8. Florida Atlantic
Predicted record: 1-11  Conf. record: 0-7
Best Player: RB Dilvory Edgecomb, Soph.
Offense - The offense had a nightmare of a time putting points on the board with no running game and inconsistency just about everywhere. It'll be a work in progress to come up with a little improvement with a line that'll take at least a month before it comes together, a new quarterback, likely Sean Clayton, taking over with two new starting receivers to work with. On the plus side, there's speed in the backfield and the receiving corps should grow into a strength.
Defense - There might not be a younger, more inexperienced defense in all of college football with eight underclassmen likely to starter and a few upperclassmen with little or no playing time. There are decent athletes and good potential at linebacker and the safeties should be great, but it's going to be ugly until all the pieces are in place. The biggest issue is the pass rush after generating only six sacks last season.
This season will be a success if … FAU wins four games. Forget about a win until October, but that's not to say the Owls can't pull off a few road wins in conference play and win a few home games to double last year's victory total.