Last season was a special year for the young program at Florida Atlantic, where Howard Schnellenberger’s team won its first conference title in school history. Form there it was on to the New Orleans Bowl, where the Owls soundly defeated Memphis 44-27 for the school’s first bowl victory. But can 2008 be the year of seconds for the Owls? There’s a good chance that the answer may indeed be a yes, led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Rusty Smith. Both sides of the ball are absolutely loaded, making FAU the clear favorites to win the conference.
Their biggest challenger could be the team they beat on the road last season to clinch the title: Troy. Fourteen starters return for the Trojans, but they’ll need a good year from sophomore quarterback Jamie Hampton, who steps in for two-time Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Omar Haugabook. Another issue for the Trojans will be a schedule that includes trips to LSU and Ohio State. Good lick with that.
The two Louisiana schools in the conference could be next in line, with a winning season possibly being the perfect remedy for Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ricky Bustle. In order for that to happen, however, the Ragin’ Cajuns need to improve a defense that ranked 104th in total defense and 113th against the run in 2007. All three linebackers return, led by Antwyne Zanders (team-high 93 tackles in 2007). The combination of QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy eclipsed 2,000 yards on the ground, but Desormeaux needs to be more consistent in the passing game.
Louisiana-Monroe returns all three starters at wide receiver and quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster, which could be good news for an offense that was 106th in passing offense a season ago. Like their rivals from Lafayette the Warhawks return all three starting linebackers, and this unit could be the key to Charlie Weatherbie’s program building upon their upset of Alabama.
Arkansas State changed their nickname in the offseason, going from Indians to Red Wolves. But they return just thirteen starters, led by quarterback Corey Leonard and running back Reggie Arnold, both of whom were All-Sun Belt selections last season. Unfortunately for the Red Wolves they have to replace all four starters in a secondary that helped ASU finish 19th in pass defense last season. Middle Tennessee is also light in the returning starters category, but at least they return RB Desmond Gee, who is one of the Sun Belt’s more versatile players. The defense, however, needs to improve against the run given their ranking of 102nd in run defense last season.
North Texas will look to make some strides in the second season under Todd Dodge. Giovanni Vizza may be the incumbent at quarterback, but the head coach’s son Riley could be the best fit for the system. Sixteen starters return, including eight on an offense that ranked 47th nationally last season. However, a defensive unit that returns six starters must play better than they did in 2007, ranking 113th in total defense and giving up at least thirty points ten times (and more than sixty three times). Florida International is also looking to improve in their second season under Mario Cristobal, but the best news may be the new on-campus stadium that opens with South Florida visiting on September 20th. The Panthers were atrocious on both sides of the football last season, ranking 118th in total offense and 105th in total defense. There really isn’t anywhere to go but up for FIU.
Players of the Year: QB Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic) and LB Frantz Joseph (Florida Atlantic)
Coach of the Year: Howard Schnellenberger (Florida Atlantic)
Newcomers of the Year: QB Riley Dodge (North Texas) and CB Nate Brown (Louisiana-Monroe)
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Florida Atlantic @ Texas (August 30th): The Owls get their first major test of the season in the opener. They probably won’t win in Austin, but they can make the Longhorns sweat for a bit.
2. Troy @ Ohio State (September 20th): This game follows Ohio State’s trip to USC, so one of two things can happen. Either the Buckeyes will be in a really bad mood, or they’ll all show up with smiles on their faces. Either way, the Trojans are in trouble.
3. Maryland @ Middle Tennessee (September 6th): This could very well be the Sun Belt’s best chance to notch a win against a BCS opponent.
Conference Game of the Year
Troy @ Florida Atlantic (October 7th): Last year’s regular season finale saw the Owls win at Troy to clinch the Sun Belt title. The Trojans will look to return the favor in early October in a game that will go a long way in deciding who heads to the New Orleans Bowl.
How they’ll finish
1. Florida Atlantic
5. Arkansas State
6. Middle Tennessee
7. North Texas
8. Florida International