Sun Belt Coaches Poll
All-Sun Belt Preseason Team
Last year's Sun Belt forecast missed the exact record of four teams by just one loss. Conference champ Troy and runner-up Middle Tennessee each finished the season with 6-1 conference marks and 7-5 over-all records. Troy's 21-20 win at MTSU on November 25 wound up earning the Trojans the title. However, both schools went to bowl games as the Trojans steamed Rice in the New Orleans Bowl, 41-17, and the Blue Raiders fell 31-14 to Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.
Louisiana-Lafayette was the 2006 preseason favorite but the Ragin' Cajuns slipped to a 6-6 over-all mark and were just 3-4 in the Sun Belt. That doesn't stop the computer from liking Rickey Bustle's troops again in 2007. It sees the Cajuns competing with Troy for the season title with each team picked to finish 6-1 in conference play. The tie-breaking game will come early in the season when Louisiana-Lafayette is favored by 1.84 at home over the Trojans on September 22.
Howard Schnellenberger has Florida Atlantic ready to compete for the title, too. The Owls enter the season with the highest power rating of any team in the conference and are 8.91-point favorites in the season-opener at home against Middle Tennessee. But FAU faces the wrong teams on the road where narrow losses to Louisiana-Lafayette (+0.48) and Troy (+1.65) are forecasted. Still, a benchmark win for the program could come on September 15 when the computer sees the Owls has a narrow favorite (-1.12) over Minnesota in Dolphin Stadium.
The computer puts Louisiana-Monroe (6-6 over-all, 4-3 Sun Belt) in 4th place. The Warhawks could get toughened - or simply flattened - in early non-conference road trips to Clemson and Texas A&M. They also journey to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama later in the year.
As for the Blue Raiders, Rick Stockstill's second team in Murfreesboro is forecasted to slip to 5-7 over-all, 3-4 in the league, after taking Middle Tennessee to its first bowl game in his first season as the head coach.
Two years ago, Arkansas State captured a share of the Sun Belt title and represented the league in the New Orleans Bowl. The Indians just missed the postseason in 2006 with a 6-6 mark over-all and a conference record of 4-3. The computer sees further slippage this year as it saddles the Indians with a 4-8 projection. However, Arkansas State is an underdog by fewer than five points in three projected conference losses.
2007 marks the debut of two new head coaches. Mario Cristobal replaces Don Strock at FIU and Todd Dodge takes over for Darrell Dickey at North Texas. Each has a pretty large hill to climb and their 2006 futility was on display with they battled each other on October 7 in Denton.
The Golden Panthers and Mean Green tried for six overtimes to give the game away, combining for 8 missed field goals. UNT finally prevailed, 25-22, in an NCAA record-tying seventh extra period when FIU missed a 35-yard FG and North Texas converted a 34-yarder on their ensuing possession. FIU had forced overtime on a 28-yard FG with 6 seconds left in regulation to knot the score at 16-apiece. A total of fourteen overtime possessions produced a grand total of only 15 more points!
The following week, things got much worse for FIU when their game with neighboring Miami became a bench-clearing brawl in the 3rd quarter of the Panthers' 35-0 loss. It was the first time the two Miami schools played each other and their melee included stomping, kicking, punching, and the use of everything from crutches to helmets as weapons. FIU ultimately handed down 16 player suspensions and dismissed 2 players from the squad.
Strock, obviously ashamed to be coaching a team that would conduct itself in that manner, announced a month later that his resignation would be effective at the end of the season. The former Virginia Tech and Miami Dolphins' quarterback is a popular south Florida resident who started the program at FIU and had served as its only head coach.
The brawl was reminiscent of the South Carolina-Clemson game that marred the end of Lou Holtz' coaching career two years earlier.
Cristobal played on the offensive line at Miami from 1988-1992. His only previous coaching experience has been as an assistant with Miami and Rutgers. He was the tight ends coach for the Hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, and Miami's offensive line coach in 2006.
This year, FIU's ambitious schedule is the toughest of any Sun Belt school. The Panthers open at Penn State and also journey to Kansas and Arkansas. Keep your eyes on the September 15 game, too, when FIU and Miami hook-up once again in the Orange Bowl.
North Texas hit a brick wall after capturing the first four Sun Belt titles from 2001-2004 and is just 4-10 in Sun Belt games over the last two seasons. After Dickey was fired with three games left in the season, Todd Dodge was plucked from the Texas high school ranks and announced on December 12 as the new man in charge. Dodge was the head coach at Southlake Carroll High School, located just 20 minutes from UNT's Denton campus. Under Dodge, the school won its third straight state 5-A Division 1 championship on December 28 to end the season on a 48-game winning streak. The school was ranked No. 1 in the final USA Today Super 25 prep football rankings.
Dodge previously served as offensive coordinator for the Mean Green from 1992-1993 before beginning his head coaching career. At Southlake, he ran a no-huddle offense with four receivers in a spread formation that followers dubbed "Dodge Ball".
Western Kentucky is currently in transition to become the ninth Sun Belt Conference football playing institution and the 120th Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) member. The Hilltoppers will play six SBC teams in 2008 and will be eligible for the conference title and a bowl berth in 2009.