2007 CFN Sun Belt Preview

Posted Jul 24, 2007

Will Troy pull off another big season, or is this the year Middle Tennessee finally, finally, finally wins the Sun Belt title. The league is almost dead even across the board with a race that should be even more exciting than last year. Check out the predictions, All-Sun Belt team, unit rankings and more in the 2007 CFN Sun Belt preview.

2007 CFN Sun Belt Preview

Team Previews Arkansas State | Florida Atlantic | Florida International
Middle Tennessee | North Texas | Troy |
UL Lafayette | UL Monroe

- CFN All-Sun Belt Team & Top 30 Players
- Sun Belt Team-by-Team Capsules

Sun Belt Unit Rankings

- Sun Belt Schedules & Predictions

By Pete Fiutak

You try to figure out this year’s Sun Belt race.

On any given week there’ll be a new lead dog in the conference race with parity almost certain to be the big story. 

All eight teams have an honest shot at winning the title. Sure, Florida International and North Texas will need everything to break the right way to be in the running, but even those two have the potential to make serious noise in the dead-even league.

Middle Tennessee might have something to say about that after dominating throughout last season before blowing it late in a loss to Troy, but it’s not so good that it’ll roll at will with so many improved teams.

Florida Atlantic has the experience in place, as well as the coaching under Howard Schnellenberger, to be one of the sleepers in the race. UL Monroe might not have the best record, but it has the offensive talent to score on anyone in the league. UL Lafayette and Arkansas State each will be in the race until the end, and Troy, the 2006 New Orleans Bowl winner, has QB Omar Haugabook back to lead an even better Trojan team.

What’ll be the difference that separates all the dead-even teams? Who’ll be best at stopping the run? 

No one in the Sun Belt can throw on a consistent basis in a run-first, run-only league. Calvin Dawson (UL Monroe), Tyrell Fenroy (UL Lafayette), Jamario Thomas (North Texas), Reggie Arnold (Arkansas State), Julian Reams and A’mod Ned (FIU), DeMarco McNair (Middle Tennessee), Charles Pierre (Florida Atlantic) and Sean Dawkins and Kenny Cattouse (Troy) are all are threats to run for 1,000 yards and will all be the featured stars week-in-and-week-out. Whoever can stop these runners consistently will be in the running. Last year that was Middle Tennessee, UL Lafayette, Troy and Arkansas State. Expect the same good defenses to rise up again, but don’t hold your breath on the final order in the standings.

Team That'll Surprise

Florida Atlantic. The record won’t be stellar, and will likely be worse than last year, but the Owls will stun Middle Tennessee to open the season and be far better on both sides of the ball. With the expected emergence of QB Rusty Smith, 2007 will set the table for a huge 2008.

Team That'll Disappoint
Arkansas State. It’s only because of the schedule; the team is as good as anyone in the conference. Wins over Memphis, SMU and Troy at home are musts to have a shot at a winning record, and that’s asking way too much. Getting Texas, Tennessee and a trip Southern Miss out of conference won’t help the cause.

Offensive Player of the Year

QB Omar Haugabook, Sr. Troy. Haugabook was the big pickup of the Sun Belt season, and the former JUCO star didn't disappoint adding some desperately needed pop to the Trojan passing game completing 61% of his passes for 2,401 yards and 21 touchdowns. However, the senior had big, big problems with interceptions. While not known for being a runner, he turned it up a notch in the final two games of the year with 111 yards against FIU and 92 in the New Orleans Bowl win over Rice. With his experience and all-around skills, he'll be the lead runner in the Sun Belt Player of the Year race. He won it last year.

Defensive Player of the Year
SS Tyrell Johnson, Sr. Arkansas State. Johnson led the team with 63 stops to go along with an interception and four broken up passes on his way to First Team All-Sun Belt honors. He's a consistent player who's always on the field starting 34 games with a whopping 269 career tackles and seven interceptions. There are few better open-field tacklers in the league.

5 Big-Time Players Who Need a Bigger Spotlight ...
RB Calvin Dawson, Sr. UL Monroe
RB Tyrell Fenroy, Jr. UL Lafayette
DE Erik Walden, Sr. Middle Tennessee
DB Lionell Singleton, Sr. FIU
LB Koby McKinnon, Sr. Arkansas State

Coach on the Hot Seat
Charlie Weatherbie, UL Monroe – This had better be the year ULM makes a serious push for the Sun Belt title; there might never be a better chance. 19 starters return, including all 11 on the league’s best offense that was tremendous down the stretch. While Weatherbie’s job isn’t in jeopardy, everyone else in the conference is safe for at least a year. 

5 Non-Conference Games the Sun Belt opponents had better take, very, very seriously
1. Virginia at Middle Tennessee, Oct. 6
2. Minnesota at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 15
3. Oklahoma State at Troy, Sept. 14
4. UL Lafayette at UCF, Sept. 29
5. Arkansas State at Southern Miss, Nov. 24

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE Erik Walden, Sr. Middle Tennessee
2. FS Damon Nickson, Sr. Middle Tennessee
3. DL Jervonte Jackson, Jr. Florida Atlantic
4. SS Tyrell Johnson, Arkansas State
5. OT Franklin Dunbar, Jr. Middle Tennessee  

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. DeMarco McNair for Eugene Gross, RB Middle Tennessee
2. Wendy Napoleon (if healthy) for Keyonvis Bouie, LB FIU
3. Scott Love (punter) and James Truxillo (safety) for Kevin Payne, S/P UL Monroe
4. Joe Craddock for Clint Marks, QB Middle Tennessee
5. Brad Bryant for Brandon Cox, OT UL Lafayette

5 Bold Predictions
1. Middle Tennessee will be the best team in the league, and still won’t get it done. The Blue Raider defense should be a killer, while the offense should have a little more pop than last year. At times, this will be the Sun Belt’s dominant team, but it’ll lose the season opener at Florida Atlantic, scramble back into contention, and then lose at Troy to ruin a nice run.
2. UL Monroe will be the best Sun Belt team ever with a losing record. 11 starters return on an offense that should be unstoppable at times, thanks to Calvin Dawson running behind the league’s best offensive line, but the defense will be mediocre and the schedule will be a killer. Not only do the Warhawks have to play at Clemson, Texas A&M and Alabama, they get brutal league road games at Troy and UL Lafayette.
3. North Texas will continue to struggle. The pieces simply aren’t in place for new head coach Todd Dodge to run things the way he’d like. The offense needs receivers, and he doesn’t have any good ones to work with. This will be a more competitive Mean Green team that’ll lose its share of heartbreakers.
4. The team that stops the run the best will win the Sun Belt. Teams with great D lines like Middle Tennessee and Troy will have the big advantages in a run-first, run-only league.
5. The passing attacks will be abysmal. It’s not like the offenses aren’t changing and getting better at throwing the ball, but while there are several good quarterback prospects, the receivers are mediocre, at best, and it’s too easy to run it when there are so many good backs. Basically, if you can stop the run in the Sun Belt, you have a shot at success (although, FIU had one of the league’s best defense last year and finished 0-12).

What will happen
- Troy will lose its conference opener at UL Lafayette to start 0-4 overall, and will then win seven of its final eight games with the one loss coming at Georgia. Getting Middle Tennessee at home late in the year will be all the difference.
- UL Lafayette will come close, and will start out hot by beating Troy, but it’ll lose at Middle Tennessee and at Arkansas State to blow the Sun Belt title dreams.
- Florida Atlantic will annoy the heck out of everyone, but will still end up with a losing record. It’s a year away from being the Sun Belt champion.
- Arkansas State will be a fantastic team with a lousy record. The schedule doesn’t work out well.


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