Sun Belt Conference 2009 FOOTBALL PREVIEW
Marc Lawrence • PLAYBOOK.com
If the SUN BELT CONFERENCE was a racetrack, they would running low-level claiming races.
Sure, one or two thoroughbreds surface each season and find their way to a stakes race (read: bowl game), but in sport where breeding is key, the SBC is a league filled with geldings.
Entering its 33rd season as a conference, the Sun Belt has had a modicum share of success of late.To put itself on a scale with other lightweight conferences, the Sun Belt points out the fact that it is 3-2 in bowl games the last three years and last season swept the MAC, winning all three games in head-to-head battles.
Here is my outlook on the SBC for 2009. Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QB’s designated with an *).
Coming up next: the WAC CONFERENCE.
Sun Belt Conference
ARKANSAS STATE – *6 / 8
Team Theme – ROUTE 66
You have to hand it to Steve Roberts. He is not shy when it comes to tackling non-conference opposition. In his 7 years with the Red Wolves, Roberts has taken on the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia Tech. This year’s itinerary takes them to Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville. They are led by SR QB Corey Leonard (28-19 as a starter), a 2nd team all-SBC selection last season. SR RB Reggie Arnold, a 1st team all-SBC member who has rushed for over 1000 yards each of the last three seasons, complements Leonard in the backfield. The biggest hang-up is a schedule that finds the Red Wolves with 7 road games. They suffered the same plight in 2006 and managed a 6-6 effort. In fact, they have recorded 6-6 seasons three of the last four years. Another tough row to hoe. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Louisville (10/31)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC – *6 / 4
Team Theme – PROFESSIONAL RUSTOLEUM
After building this program from scratch, Howard Schnellenberger is enjoying the fruits of his labor. The Owls celebrate back-to-back bowl victories – the only SBC team to ever do so – with a new stadium in 2009. Here’s hoping their new digs will help them overcome yet another taxing 7-game road slate (for the 6th straight year). Ironically, life on the road has been good for FAU. Since entering the major college level in 2004, the Owls are 12-5 SU and 10-3 ATS when squaring off against .333 or less opposition (FYI: they are 3-15 SU and 4-13-1 ATS on the road versus greater than .333 opposition). Star SR QB Rusty Smith, with 6912 passing yards and 56 TD’s the last two seasons, will air it out looking to enhance his professional chances against a schedule with only three winning teams, two of whom are right out of the gate. PLAY ON: vs. Middle Tennessee State (10/31)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL – *9 / 5
Team Theme – CRYSTAL BALL: BOWL GAME
Let’s face it. When you are a fledgling program residing in a bottom-tier conference your travel schedule more closely resembles passage via Pony Express than Federal Express. But, the fact of the matter is it’s a pleasure to be aboard. That being the case, FIU will journey out onto the road in four of its first five games in 2009. Amazingly, over the last four years, in their first eight games of the season the Panthers have been on the road 24 of a possible 32 games. It appears to have toughened them. Mario Cristobal’s young bunch enters this campaign with wins in five of the final nine games last season. FYI: FIU had won only one of its previous twenty-six games! With 14 starters back, including 1st team Freshman All American WR/KR T.Y. Hilton, the spring press guide said it all… Postseason: None Yet. PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Florida Atlantic (12/5)
LA LAFAYETTE – 7 / 9
Team Theme – RICKEY DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER
Lafayette appeared on the way to its best season-ever under head coach Rickey Bustle last year before a 1-3 finish stifled those aspirations. Instead, for the third time in the last four years, they settled on a 6-win season. The Cajuns are a well-coached team. That’s confirmed by the fact that Lafayette has been the least penalized team in the Sun Belt Conference during Bustle’s tenure. Rickey’s skills will be put to the test in 2009 when his team takes the field minus the services of the SBC’s Offensive Players of the Year in QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy. As a result, Bustle will be forced to rely his TNT (Tackles and Turnovers) defense, one that returns 9 starters. Suddenly, another 6-win season is looking pretty good. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Louisiana Monroe (11/21)
LA MONROE – 7 / 7
Team Theme – WEATHERING THE STORM
There’s a new look and attitude in Monroe and it can’t get here soon enough. The promise to break through to the winning side didn’t materialize last season. It wasn’t even close. As a result, Charlie Weatherbie brought in a new defensive coordinator, Troy Reffett. The Warhawks have switched to a 3-3-5 defense to better utilize the athletes they have on that side of the ball. Offensively, 6’ 5” JR QB Trey Revell is the leading candidate to replace Kinsmon Lancaster, a three-year starter. Revell played in 9 games last year and 5 games in his freshman campaign. Well respected in coaching-circles, Weatherbie has tutored the likes of Paul Johnson, Gary Patterson and Jim Zorn. When asked if he is an “offensive-minded” or “defensive-minded” coach, Weatherbie said, “I’m a win-minded coach.” We’re waiting. PASS
MID TENNESSEE STATE – 10 / 7
Team Theme – STOCK UP
Refusing to stand still following a second straight 5-7 campaign, Rick Stockstill added high-profile OC Tony Franklin to his staff this season. Franklin had a brief stint with Auburn last season after masterminding Troy’s offense to back-to-back Sun Belt titles the previous two years. Stockstill’s staff sports 3 national championships, 72 bowl rings and 204 years of experience. Speaking of experience, the Blue Raiders return plenty of it on the playing field in 2009, including their top 8 receivers. Schedule-wise, four of the first five games of the campaign are on the road. After that, MTSU closes out the season against only one winning opponent over the final seven games, five of which are at home. It’s our feeling the home finale will be the game that makes the Raiders bowl-eligible. We’re there. PLAY ON: vs. Arkansas State (11/21)
NORTH TEXAS – *8 / 9
Team Theme – CHAPTER 11
It seems like only yesterday that the Eagles ruled the roost in the Sun Belt Conference. No football team in Division-1 football owned a better league record than NTSU when it won four straight championships, going 25-1 from 2001-04. Like the stock market, the bottom has fallen out. “Mean” has changed to “Lean” for the Green with only five wins in their last 28 league games. Todd Dodge understands he was hired to stop the bleeding, but he has failed to apply a tourniquet. Dodge knows the fans want results, yet he refuses to waver from his game plan. Back-to-back 4000-yard offensive efforts more than doubled the numbers of his predecessors. Unfortunately, his stop-troops have suffered through back-to-back 5000-yard campaigns. It’s numbers like those that have led to federal bailouts. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Western Kentucky (10/31)
TROY – *8 / 5
Team Theme – PAINT IT BLACK
Last year we pointed out the fact that the Troy team spring prospectus stated, “Larry Blakeney is a winner. Always has been.” It would be hard to refute those words. Blakeney is 144-73-1 in 18 years at Troy, with only four losing seasons. Included in those numbers is a nifty 29-6 mark against teams from the Yellowhammer state. Despite the loss of his offensive coordinator and his top two skill players in QB Omar Haugabook and RB Kenny Cattouse, who had over 4,600 combined total yards the previous year, Troy captured another conference championship last season. Blakeney’s teams just happen to own a better record than any program in the state of Alabama in his tenure. It’s why he was voted into the Alabama Hall of Fame this spring. The bottom line is the man can coach. PLAY AGAINST: vs. Louisiana Monroe (10/31)
WESTERN KENTUCKY – 9 / 6
Team Theme – TIGHTEN YOUR BELT, SUN
Sun Belt Conference Member. Bowl Eligible. Those are the two phrases adorning the Hilltoppers’ media guide this season. David Elson leads his charges with a new feeling of vim, vigor, hope and pride. The season-ending 8-game losing skid last season is history. Unlike last year when Western Kentucky was forced to play five of its first six games on the road, the Hilltoppers will be home for four dates during the first half of the campaign this year. Offensively, Elson’s squad brings nine starters back, including an entire OL that averages 6’ 3” and 287 lbs. The defensive line was hit hard by graduation, with all four starters gone. Win, lose or draw, this will be a season to remember for WKU. The company they keep is now for keeps. PLAY AGAINST: vs. South Florida (9/12)
Note: Marc Lawrence is a 30-year veteran handicapper. He finished No.1 in the nation (88-63 +25.7 Net Units) in MLB during the 2007 season as documented by Sports Watch in Las Vegas.
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