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Sun Belt storylines plentiful for '08

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 PostPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2008 12:27 pm   
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July 27, 2008

Sun Belt storylines plentiful for '08

By Paul J. Letlow

The Sun Belt Conference is growing, both in size and prominence, in its eighth year of football competition.

Think back to the inaugural year of football in 2001 and you realize how far the league has come in a relatively short period of time.

Certainly there have been growing pains not one of the original programs has the same football coach it did when the conference played its first season. But that can be taken as a sign that the member schools aren't satisfied with struggling.

The Sun Belt leapfrogged the MAC in RPI in 2007 and scored upsets over schools from the Southeastern Conference, the Big 10 and the Big 12. The past two seasons, Sun Belt schools hold an 8-7 record head-to-head against Conference USA.

"Last year really caught a lot of people's attention," former Miami coach Larry Coker, now a television analyst for ESPNU. "Coach (Charlie) Weatherbie's win over Alabama was a huge win. That gets everybody's attention."

Within the conference, competition is fierce and unpredictable from top to bottom. Last year ULM beat eventual league champion Florida Atlantic and lost to rebuilding North Texas. Half of the Sun Belt's first-team all-conference players and eight of 11 first-team offensive stars return this season.

Western Kentucky and South Alabama will soon be part of the mix too. Western Kentucky is in its second year of transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision and will compete for conference championship honors and bowl bid in 2009.

Watch out for the Hilltoppers, who grew season ticket sales from 1,900 in 2006 to 9,000 last season. The Hilltoppers also are undergoing a $49-million renovation to their stadium and athletic complex. Western Kentucky beat Middle Tennessee last season.

Sun Belt member South Alabama is bringing back football and begins play in 2009 with an eye on moving up by 2013. The Jaguars have already signed a contract for a four-year home-and-home series with Navy.

Meanwhile, the 2008 season should offer plenty of Sun Belt developing storylines. Here's some stuff to look for, as the Belt turns:

Is the venerable Howard Schnellenberger building the next dynasty at Florida Atlantic?

Could be — FAU is expected to be the team to beat again this year. Schnellenberger calls his quarterback Rusty Smith one of the best he's ever been around as a coach.

"I've made that statement that he's going to be a first-round choice in the National Football League," Schnellenberger said. "I believe that, truly. He is in the same mold and has the same makeup as Joe Namath, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Jim Kelly, Browning Nagle and Greg Brohm all players I was around. "

Smith led an offense that averaged 31.5 points per game.

"Thank goodness, our football team matured at a time when his talent and leadership gives us a chance to be successful," Schnellenberger said.

The favored Owls recruit almost exclusively in the talent-rich state of Florida and return 18 starters from a team that beat Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. With another banner year, momentum in recruiting could stock the cupboard for years.

"You reach higher," Schnellenberger said when asked about defending the conference title. "You use the experience that they gained in the past couple of years and make sure they stay focused."

Any Sun Belt coaches on the hot seat?

The warmest backside sits in Louisiana-Lafayette, where Rickey Bustle is 26-44 entering his seventh season. The Cajuns were 3-9 last year and picked sixth in preseason polls, which means expectations are low among the other coaches and media who cover the Sun Belt.

Further, ULL has lost five of the last six meetings to in-state rival ULM. That alone has to make Cajun fans uneasy with the status of their program.

Overall though, barring a scandal, most of the Sun Belt coaches appear secure at their respective schools.

Veteran quarterbacks like ULM's Kinsmon Lancaster are prominent throughout the conference. Anybody with a quarterback question mark heading into training camp?

Troy suffers the biggest turnover as 2007 offensive player of the year Omar Haugabook departs. Troy coach Larry Blakeney named Jamie Hampton his starter after spring ball.

North Texas has a returning starter in sophomore Giovanni Vizza, who passed for 2,135 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman. But he'll be pushed by blue-chip freshman Riley Dodge — son of head coach Todd Dodge.

Last year the Sun Belt scored several upsets over more established programs. ULM beat Alabama, FAU beat Minnesota and Troy knocked off Oklahoma State. What are the best bets for more of the same in 2008?

Florida Atlantic's visit to Michigan State could be interesting. ULM catches Arkansas in the second playing date as the Bobby Petrino era gets underway.

Troy might not score another upset as it makes a trip to Oklahoma State, but give the Trojans the bravery award for scheduling both LSU and Ohio State — the teams who met for the national championship.

Which program is poised to surprise in the conference race?

Arkansas State has a knack for flying below radar. Now called the Red Wolves, Arkansas State brings back 17 starters from a 5-7 team — including Davey O'Brien semifinalist Corey Leonard as quarterback.

"I think we're right in the middle of the mix," Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said.

The schedule could help out, too. Arkansas State draws contenders Florida Atlantic and ULM at home in Jonesboro, Ark.

How are Sun Belt schools addressing facility improvements?

The biggest enhancement took place at Florida International, which opens a new stadium. The stadium is expected to open in September with a seating capacity of 18,000 before additional construction bumps it up to 45,000.

Louisiana-Lafayette put down new turf and opened an indoor training facility last year. North Texas and FAU are both scheduled to complete construction on new stadiums by 2010. UNT's first phase will include seating for approximately 33,000 with potential expansion up to 50,000. FAU's stadium will hold up to 30,000 spectators.

Arkansas State and ULM recently installed new turf, and the Warhawks will have a refurbished locker at Malone Stadium. Western Kentucky is improving its digs before officially joining the Sun Belt in 2009.

"Those facilities continue to improve," Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said. "These are all signs of tremendous progress."

Which Sun Belt games on paper could have the most impact on the championship picture?

Considering the parity in the Sun Belt, all of them.

But a notable matchup of local interest is Florida Atlantic's trip to ULM on Oct. 25. The Warhawks have enjoyed success against FAU and get the Owls in Malone Stadium after beating them 33-30 in triple overtime in rainy conditions a year ago.

Also worth circling on the schedule: Troy at Middle Tennessee, Aug. 28; ULL at ULM on Oct. 4; Troy at FAU on Oct. 7 on ESPN2 and ULM at Arkansas State on Oct. 11.

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