3. Arkansas State
4. Florida Atlantic
6. Middle Tennessee
7. Florida International
8. North Texas
-->TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN THE SUN BELT
5. Will a Sun Belt team pull an upset? If not, it won't be for a lack of opportunity. Troy plays Oklahoma State at home, Florida Atlantic "hosts" Minnesota at Dolphins Stadium in Miami, Middle Tennessee gets Virginia at home, and Florida International entertains Maryland. Troy upset Missouri in 2004, but it's been a struggle for the Sun Belt teams against BCS foes since then. For a change, it looks like more of the SBC schools are getting home games against the big boys, which will help the upset cause. But it'll take more than one upset of a clearly overrated ranked team three years ago before people are going to take this league seriously.
4. Who will rise from the middle of the pack to be a league contender? In 2004, it was Troy, a first-year member of the league. In 2005, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette rose from near the bottom to battle Louisiana-Monroe for the league title. Last year, Middle Tennessee went from 3-4 in league play to 6-1, earning a bowl bid in the process. If the trend holds, it probably predicts good fortune for someone among the group of Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Thanks to a returning back who topped 1,000 yards as a freshman, I'm giving the nod to Arkansas State. Reggie Arnold should continue his solid running, and coach Steve Roberts appears to have the tools necessary to field a more balanced offense this year.
3. Will Rusty Smith get FAU's offense going? Howard Schnellenberger has a potential contender on his hands. If it doesn't happen this year, it surely will next year. The Owls have ten starters back on defense, including four seniors who will be in their third year starting. Where Florida Atlantic doesn't have seniors, they have experienced juniors like MLB Frantz Joseph. Smith is expected to get the snaps at quarterback, where he shared time with Sean Clayton last year. Smith was the more accurate of the two, but the Owls need better playmaking out of that position if they're going to improve upon the 15 points per game average from 2006. The running game will be better, thanks to an experienced offensive line and junior Charles Pierre, who was honorable mention All-Sun Belt last year.
2. Can Louisiana-Monroe play enough defense to win games? The Warhawks were decent defensively last year, allowing just 22 points per game against a pretty tough schedule. That unit loses five players, including leading tackler Kevin Payne. Coach Charlie Weatherbie expects to have a very good offense, with all eleven starters back. The Warhawks averaged 34 points per game over their last four, going 3-1 in that stretch to finish 4-8. ULM will spread out opponents and attack both with the run and pass, relying on senior Calvin Dawson to run it while improved junior Kinsmon Lancaster throws. A defensive front that is short on athleticism could hurt ULM, especially early in the season. Their first four games are all tough (Tulsa at home, followed by games at Clemson, Texas A&M, and Troy).
1. Could Troy have a better setup for a repeat? After a 7-1 finish took the Trojans from the outhouse to the penthouse, they're back to try it again this year. An 0-3 start wouldn't surprise anyone, thanks to games against Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma State. However, the Trojans have a fast, experienced defense, and they possess the league's best player in senior QB Omar Haugabook. He hurts opponents both with his arm and his legs. The Trojans also have a favorable league schedule, getting ULM, Middle Tennessee, and FAU all at home. If Troy can overcome a deadly non-conference schedule (add a late-season game against Georgia to the earlier list), they should have plenty of ammunition for a run at the SBC crown.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON SUN BELT AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Omar Haugabook, QB, Troy
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Eric Walden, DE, Middle Tennessee
Preseason Coach of the Year: Charlie Weatherbie, Louisiana-Monroe
Coach on the Hot Seat: Rickey Bustle, Louisiana-Lafayette
Bowl Bound: Troy
Bowl Bubble: Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State
Best Non-Conference Game: Tulsa at Louisiana-Monroe, August 30
Worst Non-Conference Game: Grambling at Louisiana-Monroe, November 10