Arkansas State - Toughest schedule in the conference plus a new starting quarterback and inexperienced defensive line equals a long season for the Indians. Junior college transfer Devin Hollins will compete with Nick Noce and Brian Hicks for the starting quarterback job. Elliot Jacobs, last year's starter, decided to skip football his senior year and concentrate on baseball. Whoever the quarterback is, he will have a good running back in Shermar Bracey to hand the ball to. Senior linebacker Steven Tookes leads a defense that will be looking to fill some major holes on the defensive line and backfield due to graduation. Head Coach Steve Roberts has the Indians headed in the right direction, and the team will be improved. Uunfortunately this season, the improvement will not show up in the won-loss column.
Predicted finish: 8th place
Idaho - New Head Coach Nick Holt has a daunting task before him. No team has done worse in the three years of Sun Belt Conference football than the Vandals. Quarterback Michael Harrington will lead a Vandal offense that includes talented receiver Orlando Winston. Lack of experience at running back and a new offensive scheme may hurt the Vandals early in the season. Linebacker/End Mike Anderson is the Vandals' best defensive player. Holt must get the other players on defense (like end Brandon Kania and cornerback J.R. Ruffin) to play to their potential. A new coach, new system, inexperienced running game, and a very tough out of conference schedule mean a last place finish for the Vandals. Idaho joins the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.
Predicted finish: 9th place
Louisiana-Lafayette - Head Coach Rickey Bustle has Cajun fans excited for the first time in a long time down on the bayou. Led by sophomore quarterback Jerry Babb, the Cajuns offense finished 2003 averaging 32.0 points per game over the last 5 games (finishing 4-1 over that stretch) and should only be better this season. Senior strong safety C.C. Brown leads the defense which has switched from the 4-4-3 to a 4-3-4 alignment with hopes of stopping the big plays that plagued them in 2003. The 2004 Cajuns have more depth and talent than has been seen in years in the vermilion and white but may still be a year away. A weak strength of schedule combined with any improvement from the defense should find them fighting for the top spot this season.
Predicted finish: 2nd place
Louisiana-Monroe - After finishing 2003 1-11, sixth place may seem a little high for the Indians, but given their talent at the skill positions, it could also be too low. Led by quarterback Steven Jyles, ULM has a potentially high-powered offense. The receiving corps is deep, and running back Kevin Payne is among the best in the conference. The Indians problems are centered on the offensive line where talent (beyond left tackle Bruce Hampton) is questionable and depth is scarce. Defensively, the Indians strong safety Chris Harris and linebacker John Winchester lead a group that must improve upon the 39 points per game allowed in 2003. Coach Charlie Weatherbie has Louisiana-Monroe headed in the right direction, and they will no longer be the cellar dwellers of the conference. A few lucky breaks and improvement by the defense could find the Indians surprising more than a few teams.
Predicted finish: 6th place
Middle Tennessee - Could Middle Tennessee to win the Sun Belt in 2004? Don't be surprised. Middle Tennessee has fielded arguably the most talented teams over the three-year history of Sun Belt football. The Blue Raiders went 4-8 last season and 6 of those 8 losses were by 8 points or less. Leading rusher Eugene Gross and leading receiver Kerry Wright return to lead the offense. Sophomore Clint Marks and Junior Josh Harris will battle for the starting quarterback job. Linebacker Jonathan Bonner will lead a defense that must step up, or the Blue Raiders could drop back into the pack. Head Coach Andy McCollum needs to produce this season, or his job could be in danger. He has done a great job of getting talent to Middle Tennessee; now is the time to do something with it.
Predicted finish: 3rd place
New Mexico State - On paper the Aggies look to be one of the Sun Belt's better teams. Over the past three seasons, they always seem to be in the hunt for the conference crown, but something stops them. This year will be no different. NMSU return quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Paul Dombrowski. Pierce is the better passer, Dombrowski the better runner. If this two-headed monster can stay healthy at the same time and cut down on their mistakes, the offense will benefit greatly. Sophomore running back Tony Joseph enjoyed a good freshman season and should only be better this year. The Aggies strength this season will be their defense with ten starters returning. Led by linebackers Rich Glover and Jimmy Cottrell, the Aggies will be tough to beat if they can learn how to stop the comebacks they allowed in 2003. Call it bad luck or bad coaching, this could be a make or break year for head coach Tony Samuels. New Mexico State joins the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.
Predicted finish: 7th place
North Texas - It has been a very tough off-season for the Mean Green. First, seven players, including two projected starters, left the team for unspecified reasons. The most devastating event of the summer was the tragic death of junior quarterback Andrew Smith in a traffic accident. Smith started 16 games during his career at UNT and was a more than capable backup to starter Scott Hall. Only time will tell how much the loss of Smith will effect his teammates on the field. Senior running back and All-American candidate Patrick Cobbs returns to lead what could be the best North Texas offense the SBC has seen. Senior DE Adrian Awasom, will lead the tough Mean Green defense, but questions remain as they try to replace all three starting linebackers from last season. Can the Mean Green replace all of the talent that has been lost since the end of the 2003 season? Maybe so, but they cannot replace the experience. This is the year North Texas comes back to the pack.
Predicted finish: 4th place
Troy University - The Trojans begin their first year of Sun Belt play with high expectations. Troy has eight starters returning on offense and nine on defense. Running back DeWhitt Betterson is a workhorse, but the passing game will need to step up this season for the Trojans to win it all. Quarterback Aaron Leak hopes to rebound from a tough 2003 and play more consistent or risk losing his job. Heralded Freshman D.T. McDowell is one of the players waiting in the wings if Leak falters. The defense was the strength of the team in 2003 and should be among the best in the SBC, lead by defensive end Andre Ware, free safety Derrick Ansley, and Georgia Tech transfer defensive tackle Alfred Malone. Despite this being their first year of Sun Belt play, Troy University has the talent and experience to win it all this season.
Predicted finish: 1st place
Utah State - The Aggies enter their second and last season of Sun Belt play before they leave for the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies have everything needed to make a run at the Sun Belt title. They have arguably the best quarterback in the conference in senior Travis Cox and one of the best defenses, led by sophomore free safety Terrence Washington and linebacker Robert Watts. The problem is Utah State plays seven, that's right seven, road games this season including trips to Alabama and Clemson. If not for the long and tough road schedule, the Aggies would challenge for the conference title. As it is, they will do well to have a winning record.
Predicted finish: 5th place
Projected Sun Belt Standings
8-3 (6-1) Troy University
Preseason 1st Team All-Conference Picks
Sun Belt Bests
Best Team - Troy University. Normally you have to beat the man (North Texas) to be the man. Sadly this season Troy and UNT do not play each other. Despite that, Troy will be the man in 2004.
Best Coach - Darrell Dickey, North Texas. How can you argue with an 18-1 conference record?
Best Player - Patrick Cobbs, RB, North Texas. Cobbs was the SBC Offensive Player of the Year in 2003 and lead the nation in rushing with 152.7 yards per game. Enough said.
Best Stadium - Movie Gallery Stadium, Troy University. This newly remodeled stadium is the envy of the Sun Belt.
Best game of the upcoming season - Troy University at Louisiana-Lafayette, November 13th, (ESPN Regional). This game could very well be for the Sun Belt title.
Best Fans - Troy University. In a conference where home game attendance (or lack thereof) is a concern and in some places a huge problem, Trojan fans support their team.
Best Tradition - Louisiana-Lafayette. Cajun tailgating. Are you kidding? Nobody can beat it.
Best bet to under-achieve - North Texas. After 3 years on top, anything less would be considered below par for the Mean Green.
Best bet to over-achieve - Louisiana-Monroe. The Indians have the talent at all the skill positions. If their paper-thin line (no depth on offense and defense) stays healthy, they could well be the surprise of the conference.
Troy University enters their first year of Sun Belt Conference play as the leading candidate to win the conference. Defending champion North Texas will again be in the hunt to represent the conference in New Orleans come December, but the Mean Green lack the experienced depth of past seasons and will be hard pressed to repeat the dominance they had grown accustomed to over the past two season. Up and coming teams like Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Lafayette will benefit from a weak strength of schedule, while teams like Arkansas State, Utah State and Louisiana-Monroe will suffer because of their tough out of conference schedules.
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