With a stacked backfield, North Texas still the leader
Posted: Monday August 22, 2005 1:59PM; Updated: Monday August 22, 2005 2:00PM
Team on the rise
Team on the decline
Most favorable schedule
Coach on the hot seat
Steve Roberts, Arkansas State
Newcomer to watch
Kenny Mainor, DE, Troy
Game of the Year
North Texas at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 10
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
Few teams own their conferences quite the way North Texas has the Sun Belt since the league's 2001 inception. The Mean Green have won the conference all four seasons. They've won 25 straight league games. And this year they become the first team in history to field two players who have led the nation in rushing for a season -- Patrick Cobbs (2003) and Jamario Thomas (2004) -- in the same backfield.
And yet, it's no stretch to say that this may be as good a year as any for someone in the Sun Belt to finally catch them. North Texas is faced with replacing 13 starters, chief among them quarterback Scott Hall. Cobbs and Thomas form a potentially lethal running tandem, but the offensive line is in limbo, and the defensive line and secondary must be rebuilt nearly from scratch.
The team that seems most poised to make a run at the Mean Green is Middle Tennessee, which returns a whopping 18 starters -- including one of the nation's most efficient passers, Clint Marks -- from a squad that won four of its last six in 2004. Louisiana-Lafayette, in its fourth year under former Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle, and Louisiana-Monroe, under former Navy head man Charlie Weatherbie, both showed improvement last year. And despite losing a ton of stars, Troy could still contend; the Trojans knocked off Missouri last season and took second in the Sun Belt in their first season of membership. To start the year, however, North Texas is the top dog until proven otherwise.
Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
Highly regarded offensive coordinator Ramon Flanigan has the ultimate luxury in senior Cobbs (157.2 yards per game in '03 before missing last year with a knee injury) and sophomore Thomas (180.1 average last year), but only one back can touch the ball at any given time. The key will be to develop a complementary passing game. UNT's once upper-echelon defense struggled last year and must be rebuilt.
The Blue Raiders should return to the right side of .500 for the first time since 2001. Marks is back after completing 70.4 percent of his passes last season, and senior WR Chris Henry should pick up where departed star Kerry Wright left off. The defense returns 10 starters, led by DT Jeff Littlejohn, but MTSU got torched by good passing teams last season and will need to create more pressure in order to force turnovers.
The Ragin' Cajuns won four games last season for the first time since 1996, and they lost three others by just a field goal each. This is the year to take the next step, with the return of athletic QB Jerry Babb, a third-year starter, exciting WR Bill Sampy and 12 other starters. The O-line is strong and experienced. The biggest question is whether ULL's oft-maligned defensive front can find a way to stop the run.
In just their fourth season in I-A, the Trojans reached the Silicon Valley Bowl last year, but gone are 15 starters, including workhorse RB DeWhitt Betterson and sack machine Demarcus Ware, the 11th pick in last spring's NFL Draft. Barring dramatic improvement from QB D.T. McDowell, Troy may struggle mightily on offense, but a defense that ranked 16th in the country in 2004 shouldn't fall too far off the map.
The Indians won five of their last seven last season after starting 0-4, but this year's schedule is nightmarish: road games at Georgia, Wyoming, Arkansas, North Texas and Middle Tennessee. A more experienced offensive line should help strong-armed QB Steven Jyles, though it's unclear who will step up in the receiving corps. The ULM secondary loses last year's national interception leader, Chris Harris.
Howard Schnellenberger's five-year-old program won 20 games the past two seasons, including victories over Hawaii and North Texas, but the Owls enter their first full year in I-A and the Sun Belt having lost 15 starters and 26 seniors that had been there since Day 1. A year after facing five non-I-A opponents, FAU gets no breaks this season, starting with Kansas, Oklahoma State and Minnesota, as well as an October trip to Louisville.
After winning six games in his first season, Roberts has regressed the past two years to five victories, then three, while adopting a youth movement in the program. Maybe it will finally pay off this season, but it's hard to expect much out of a team that ranked 103rd nationally in scoring offense last year (19.5 points per game) and 102nd in scoring defense (33.1). The Indians also play most of the conference's best teams on the road.
Much like Schnellenberger's Owls, Don Stock's program is a baby (just four years old) and a newcomer to both I-A and the Sun Belt. Unlike FAU, FIU has struggled to be competitive, even against mostly I-AA opposition, and could be in for a rude awakening. The Golden Panthers do have experience in the form of 17 returning starters, and may have some weapons on offense, but the defense could be overwhelmed.