2007 Sun Belt Lookbacks & Recaps
- 2008 Sun Belt Early Lookaheads
2007 Sun Belt Season
| Florida Atlantic
| Florida International
| UL Lafayette
| UL Monroe
For the first time since 2004, the Indians swam in uncharted waters,
finishing the season below the .500 mark. After a nice start that
included a moral victory in the opener with Texas, Arkansas State
slumped in the middle of the season, showing an inability to protect
QB Corey Leonard or get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With the
talented trio of Leonard, RB Reggie Arnold, and WR Levi Dejohnette
in Jonesboro, the Indians had too much skill position talent to
slump on offense, a byproduct of inconsistent blocking up front.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Corey Leonard
Defensive Player of the Year: S Tyrell Johnson
Biggest Surprise: Scheduled as a Week 1 tune-up, the Indians
darn near picked off Texas in Austin on Sept. 1. Behind a plucky
defense and a fourth quarter rally, Arkansas State closed the gap to
21-13, and was within a converted onside kick from getting the ball
back in the final minute.
Biggest Disappointment: The pass defense. Sure, the Indians
only allowed 197 yards a game, but it’s the 21 touchdown passes that
were cause for concern. For a unit that boasted four senior
starters and a pair of All-Sun Belt first-teamers, it got burned too
often, yielding at least two scoring strikes in seven games.
Looking Ahead: While the defensive backfield gets gutted by
graduation, the offensive backfield is thrilled to get Leonard and
Arnold back for another season. DE Alex Carrington has the size and
quickness to give a lift in 2008 to the Indians’ sagging pass rush.
Bar none, the Owls were the story in the Sun Belt in 2007, delivering a
bunch of school-firsts under Howard Schnellenberger, led by their first league
championship and first bowl game. Battle-tested by a rugged schedule and
led by the deft passing of Rusty Smith, Florida Atlantic went 6-1 in the league,
regularly finding ways to overcome a gambling defense that allowed 33 points a
game. The turning point for the fledgling program came on Dec. 1, when the
Owls upset conference favorite Troy in Alabama to win the league title.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Rusty Smith
Defensive Player of the Year: LB Frantz Joseph
Biggest Surprise: Only one team from Florida won a bowl game this year,
and its home is in Boca Raton. While Florida, Florida State, South Florida, and
UCF were losing, Florida Atlantic was making history in the New Orleans Bowl,
upsetting Memphis, 44-27, in the Owls’ first experience in the postseason.
Biggest Disappointment: As good as the Owls were at home this year,
beating Minnesota and testing South Florida, they did lose to UL-Monroe on Oct.
27, their only conference loss of the year. In a three-overtime marathon, the
Warhawks prevailed on a Calvin Dawson touchdown run from 31 yards out.
Looking Ahead: By Sun Belt standards, Florida Atlantic is a locomotive
these days, looking to capitalize on the success of last year with deeper
recruiting classes and more support at the turnstiles. The return of Smith and
his top 10 pass-catchers from 2007 mean the Owls will be playing as the league
favorite in 2008.
In his first season at Florida International, rookie head coach Mario Cristobal
found out that the challenge at hand was every bit as daunting as he
anticipated. The Panthers sported the nation’s lowest scoring offense and
one of its worst defenses, losing by an average score of 39-15 last fall.
The silver lining in Miami, however, is that FIU played its best football in
November, even beating North Texas in the finale to halt a 23-game losing
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Wayne Younger
Defensive Player of the Year: CB Lionell Singleton
Biggest Surprise: The Panthers’ upset of North Texas on Dec. 1 was their
first victory since the end of the 2005 season, cause for an exhale and quite a
celebration from the players. In his first start behind center, Paul McCall
picked apart the Mean Green D for 228 yards and three scores in a 38-19 rout.
Biggest Disappointment: Had the Panthers’ kick coverage team been a
little tighter, the losing streak might have ended a month earlier. Florida
International tied Arkansas State with 48 seconds left, but allowed a 60-yard
return on the ensuing kick, putting the Indians within range for Josh Arauco to
kick the game-winner with two ticks on the clock.
Looking Ahead: Obviously, the Panthers have a long way to go before being
competitive in the Sun Belt Conference. It’ll help having a couple of young
quarterbacks to build around, as Younger and McCall have both shown a knack for
making plays in this league.
Even having two 1,000-yard rushers, QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy,
in the same season wasn’t enough to get the Cajuns to higher ground in 2007.
While Rickey Bustle felt this was the year that UL-Lafayette would finally
challenge for Sun Belt supremacy, the defense and special teams rarely
cooperated, especially late in games. The Cajuns stumbled to a
disappointing 1-8 start, ending any hopes for a run to the New Orleans Bowl even
before getting to November.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Michael Desormeaux
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Rodney Hardeway
Biggest Surprise: A heavy underdog at the time, UL-Lafayette went into
Murfreesboro on Nov. 10 and upset Middle Tennessee State, 34-24, playing a
complete game for the first time all year. The Cajuns dug out of a 14-0 hole,
cranking out 376 yards on the ground and allowing just a field goal to the Blue
Raiders in the second half.
Biggest Disappointment: A visit from McNeese State was supposed to
provide a confidence boost on Sept. 15, but instead, wound up sinking the Cajuns
to new depths. Even against an FCS opponent, five Desormeaux turnovers were too
much to overcome, as UL-Lafayette got dumped, 38-17, in front of a disgusted
home crowd at Cajun field.
Looking Ahead: While the returns of Desormeaux and Fenroy bring cautious
optimism for 2008, UL-Lafayette will again struggle to compete in the league if
the defense doesn’t make a quantum leap in the offseason.
Overshadowed by Florida Atlantic’s success, the Warhawks were one of this year’s
Sun Belt surprises, winning six of their last eight games to finish at .500 for
the first time since moving to the FBS in 1994. After taking its lumps in
September, UL-Monroe regrouped behind the running of all-time leading rusher
Calvin Dawson and a defense that stiffened late in the season. On Nov. 17, the
Warhawks delivered the kind of signature win that head coach Charlie Weatherbie
has been after, a 21-14 upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB Calvin Dawson
Defensive Player of the Year: S Greg James
Biggest Surprise: More than a three-touchdown underdog when it traveled
to Alabama in November, UL-Monroe scripted the upset of the season in the Sun
Belt Conference. Although it bent all afternoon, the Warhawk defense never
broke, shutting out the Tide in the second half for one of the biggest wins in
Biggest Disappointment: As respectable as the Warhawks’ season was, it
could have been even better. Despite thoroughly outplaying Middle Tennessee
State and amassing 624 yards of balanced offense, UL-Monroe bowed, 43-40, on an
89-yard kick return for a touchdown in the last minute. The loss ended a
two-game winning streak, and prevented the program from closing the season on a
Looking Ahead: The first order of business in Monroe will be to find a
replacement for Dawson, no small task. Frank Goodin will get first dibs after
rushing for 596 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman reserve. In the
meantime, QB Kinsmon Lancaster’s role should increase now that he’s proven to be
a decent passer that just happens to have good feet outside the pocket.
The Blue Raiders were the definition of a streaky team in 2007,
opening with four losses, winning five of six, and closing with two
crushing losses that ended dreams of a league title and bowl game.
Wildly unpredictable from one week to the next, Middle Tennessee
State could go toe-to-toe with Louisville and Virginia, or lose to
Western Kentucky and UL-Lafayette. Injuries hastened the
program’s demise, but also forced into action true freshman QB
Dwight Dasher, who looks like he’ll be one of the building blocks
for the next three seasons.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Dwight Dasher
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Tavares Jones
Biggest Surprise: Dasher. A possible redshirt before the
opener, the diminutive Dasher lit a fire under the offense after
starter Joe Craddock went down with an injury. Dasher finished the
season as the Raiders’ leading rusher, while throwing nine touchdown
passes to just three picks.
Biggest Disappointment: The close calls with Louisville and
Virginia were frustrating, but when Middle Tennessee State lost to
UL-Lafayette on Nov. 10, it was still alive for the Sun Belt crown.
Although the Blue Raiders opened up a 14-0 lead, they couldn’t hold
it, allowing Michael Desormeaux, Tyrell Fenroy, and Deon Wallace to
run circles around the defense.
Looking Ahead: Head coach Rick Stockstill has a good problem
heading into 2008, two quality quarterbacks with starting
experience. Both Craddock and Dasher looked comfortable running the
offense last fall, making for an interesting battle when the Blue
Raiders reconvene in the spring.
The debut of “Dodge Ball” in Denton was a rocky one, but considering
the dramatic changes on offense, the results surprised few
observers. There were growing pains everywhere in Todd Dodge’s
first season, none more so than on defense, where the Mean Green
allowed more points than any team in the country. Recognizing that
it wasn’t going to vie for a conference title, North Texas played
for the future, handing the ball to true freshman QB Giovanni Vizza,
who threw for a ton of yards to go along with an equal amount of
Offensive Player of the Year: WR Casey Fitzgerald
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Jeremiah Chapman
Biggest Surprise: The Mean Green broke into the win column on
Oct. 13, beating a UL-Monroe team that wound up in third place in
the league. Getting its best defensive effort of the year,
including two picks for touchdowns, North Texas scored the first 21
points, holding on for a 31-21 victory.
Biggest Disappointment: The offense. No, this is not going
to be an overnight transformation, but considering how often the
Mean Green put the ball up and how many prevent defenses it faced,
24 points a game comes off as underwhelming. Take out the 62-point
explosion in a loss to Navy, and North Texas managed just 21 points
Looking Ahead: There’s a justified feeling around Denton that
it’s just a matter of time before North Texas is once again a
dangerous Sun Belt opponent. Dodge had to break old habits and
basically start over before moving forward with his vision for the
program. He’s recruiting well, and destined to be more competitive
The Trojans were built for a second straight Sun Belt Conference
championship, and seemingly headed in that direction with one final
hurdle remaining. Florida Atlantic, however, had other plans.
The underdog Owls shocked Troy on Dec. 1, dethroning Troy and ending
its eight-game winning streak in league games. Although it was
a good year on many levels for the Trojans, which beat Oklahoma
State in September and hung with Georgia in November, they were
unable to land another bowl game as the Sun Belt runner-up.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Omar Haugabook
Defensive Player of the Year: CB Elbert Mack
Biggest Surprise: Sure, Troy was dangerous, but no one
expected it to obliterate Oklahoma State on Sept. 15. The Trojans
dominated from the kickoff, opening up a 41-10 bulge after three
quarters behind a monster effort through the air and on the ground
Biggest Disappointment: With the league crown at stake, it
was a foregone conclusion that the Trojans would beat Florida
Atlantic at home, right? Uh-uh. The Owl passing game took it to
Troy for four quarters, winning 38-32, and leaving the defending
champs without a 13th game to play in December.
Looking Ahead: It’s a good thing that Larry Blakeney has
recruited so well in recent years because he’s going to need the
depth in a post-Haugabook era. While the offense gets up to speed
in 2008, the Trojans will be paced by a defense that returns an
all-league performer at each level.