Sun Belt Football Preview

August 31st, 2009

Trojans look to defend conference title


Favored to win the Sun Belt in 2008, the Troy Trojans had some recovering to do following back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Oklahoma State. Losing starting quarterback Jamie Hampton to a torn ACL didn’t help matters either, but the Trojans rose to the challenge in conference play. QB Levi Brown stepped into Hampton’s role and excelled, throwing for 2,030 yards and fifteen touchdowns in eight starts. For his efforts the Richmond transfer was named Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year, and his return is one of the reasons why Troy is favored to repeat as league champion.


Brown (or the recovered Hampton) will have with him one of the best receivers in the Sun Belt in senior Jerrell Jernigan, who amassed 868 yards on seventy-seven receptions. Jernigan is versatile as well, finishing second on the team in rushing in 2008 as well. Running back DuJuan Harris returns as well, looking to post a second consecutive season of at least 1,000 yards rushing. Just like Jernigan, Harris is a versatile offensive threat, finishing third on the team in receptions in 2008.


Defensively the Trojans return just five starters, but this is a very talented unit that should give league foes fits. Senior defensive end Cameron Sheffield was a First Team All-Sun Belt selection last season, as was middle linebacker Boris Lee. Jorrick Calvin is the lone returning starter in the secondary, but plenty of the options at Coach Blakeney’s disposal have game experience. The conference slate also works in their favor, with each of the other predicted contenders having to visit Movie Gallery Veterans Stadium. Another trip to the New Orleans Bowl is within the Trojans’ grasp.


Florida Atlantic made even more of a comeback than the Trojans last season, bouncing back from a 1-5 start to eventually become the first school in conference history to win consecutive bowl games. QB Rusty Smith seems to have been at FAU for the better part of a decade, and his experience will enhance an offense that returns eight starters. Defensively head coach Howard Schnellenberger has to replace eight starters, including all three linebackers and their top six tacklers from 2008.


Frantz Joseph racked up an amazing 154 tackles at the middle linebacker spot, and he leaves a very large hole for someone to fill. The lack of starting experience on defense puts a little more pressure on the offense to score points, but outside of trips to Nebraska and South Carolina their schedule sets up for another run at a conference title.


Steve Roberts and company could be in position to make a run at the Sun Belt title with fourteen starters back in Jonesboro. QB Corey Leonard is well on his way to becoming the school’s all-time leader in a number of passing categories, and it’ll help matters that the Red Wolves are experienced at running back and wide receiver. Defensively ASU welcomes back defensive end Alex Carrington, who racked up 10.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss on his way to becoming Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. Seven of the Red Wolves’ top nine tacklers from 2008 will be back this season.

Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee team could be on the verge of a special season with seventeen starters back, including ten on offense. They’ll have to make up for the production lost due to the graduation of QB Joe Craddock. RB Phillip Tanner led the team in rushing and new quarterback Dwight Dasher, has some game experience, will have at his fingertips a very talented and experienced group of receivers. Defensively the Blue Raiders return seven starters led by leading tackler MLB Danny Carmichael. Middle Tennessee ranked third in the Sun Belt in total defense last season while its offense was only sixth. Those rankings could be reversed in 2009.


Louisiana-Lafayette has to replace some of the most prolific players in school history, most notably RB Tyrell Fenroy, the 2008 Sun Belt Player of the Year. Also gone is quarterback Michael Desormeaux, meaning that head coach Ricky Bustle will need to find suitable replacements to make up the 2,500-plus rushing yards those two combined for last season. All five starters on the offensive line return led by left guard Brad Bustle and center Chris Fisher.


Defensively the Ragin’ Cajuns welcome back nine starters. But when you ranked eighth in rush defense and seventh in pass efficiency defense cynics there is room for improvement. Defensive end Hall Davis and linebacker Daylon McCoy will lead the way for a unit that will have to pick up the slack for an offense that’s replacing its two best weapons.  


The FIU Golden Panthers weren’t in the news much during the summer, due in large part to the hiring of Isiah Thomas as men’s basketball coach. But it wouldn’t be wise to sleep on Mario Cristobal’s team, which made significant strides in 2008 (improving their win total by four games from 2007). The next step is bowl eligibility, something that could have been achieved if not for close losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic in November. The Golden Panthers return ten starters on offense, led by quarterback Pail McCall. However FIU will need to replace their top two rushers from 2008, but a running game that finished dead last in the Sun Belt would have needed revamping anyway.


Louisiana-Monroe returns sixteen starters, eight on each side of the football. Head coach Charlie Weatherbie will likely look to junior Trey Revell to start at quarterback. Kinsmon Lancaster was a capable dual-threat quarterback in 2008, passing for just over 2,000 yards while rushing for another 800 yards. Defensively the Warhawks have plenty of experience with their top five tacklers from last season all back, led by middle linebacker Cardia Jackson (127 tackles). Look for the ULM lines to be solid with four starters back on the offensive line and all three back on the defensive line. But will a team that finished seventh in the conference in total offense last season produce enough points to improve upon their win total (four)? That remains to be seen.


North Texas and Western Kentucky will bring up the rear, with the Hilltoppers playing their first season as a football member of the Sun Belt. WKU went through a trial run last season, playing five Sun Belt teams in a 2-10 campaign (both wins came against FCS competition). Six starters return to a defense that gave up 200 yards or more on the ground in five games and at least 150 in two more contests. Senior inside linebacker Blake Boyd will have to lead that unit, and an offense that struggled mightily last season has to replace quarterback David Wolke. The good news is that contributors return at both running back and wide receiver, and the offensive line returns four starters. But the Hilltoppers will go through some serious growing pains.


North Texas’ lone win came against WKU, and unfortunately for head coach Todd Dodge the success he enjoyed at Southlake (Texas) Carroll hasn’t followed him to the collegiate ranks. The quarterback position had a lot to do with last season’s 1-11 mark, but the presence of redshirt freshman Riley Dodge could make a difference. Let’s just say that the coach’s son should have a solid grasp of the offensive system. Running back Cam Montgomery (928 rushing yards, 9 TDs) returns, as does the entire starting offensive line.


On defense the Mean Green welcomes back six starters to a unit had a really hard time last season. North Texas finished 2008 last in the Sun Belt in total defense and turnover margin…yet the Mean Green ranked fourth in time of possession. Defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach will need his defense to improve its efficiency, which will be helped by their improved performance along with the offense not turning the ball over as often.


Storyline: Can Troy repeat? They’ll face stiff tests from Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State but it’s a definite possibility.


Players of the Year: QB Rusty Smith (Florida Atlantic) and LB Boris Lee (Troy)


How they’ll finish

1.      Troy

2.      Florida Atlantic

3.      Arkansas State

4.      Middle Tennessee

5.      FIU

6.      ULM

7.      Louisiana-Lafayette

8.      North Texas

9.      Western Kentucky


Next: Sun Belt Ultimate Schedule