Welcome to The Ciskie Blog's 2008 College Football Preview. As usual, you can expect a rundown of every Division I-A (or "Football Bowl Subdivision", if you prefer) conference, as well as a brief look at the independents. Some of the information used to compile these previews came from various football preview publications that I took the time to review this summer. I give a full endorsement to Phil Steele's College Football Preview (the national edition, as well as his various regional magazines). I also have looked at Sporting News, Athlon Sports, and Blue Ribbon (via ESPN Insider). Information was also gathered from local newspapers and school websites. Please use the comments section or e-mail for feedback, questions, and any corrections you feel need to be noted.
1. Florida Atlantic
3. Arkansas State
6. Middle Tennessee
7. North Texas
8. Florida International
TOP FIVE STORYLINES IN SUN BELT
Florida Atlantic is the class of the league. After their first conference title and first bowl berth last season, the Owls appear poised for a run at serious respect this year. I'm sure that the administration had visions of a successful program when they started up in 2001, but the fact they've come so far so fast is a tribute to legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger. Junior QB Rusty Smith (see photo) is the star of the show on the field, off a 32-touchdown season a year ago. Smith will be helped a great bit by the returns of feature back Charles Pierre and the top ten receivers from last year's team. Junior Cortez Gant is the top pass-catcher, as he topped 1,000 yards last year. FAU does need to get better on defense, where the Owls allowed well over 30 points per game while giving up 4.7 yards per carry and a 64.0 completion percentage to opponents. Schnellenberger is working on the team's ratcheted expectations this year by saying he feels they have a real chance in the opener at Texas. They might not win that game, but the schedule sets up well for nine or ten regular-season wins.
Can Louisiana-Monroe keep going after a 5-1 finish to 2007? Oh, and one of those wins was over Alabama. Not Alabama-Birmingham, Alabama State, or Alabama A&M. Alabama. The Crimson Tide. Anyway, the Warhawks did indeed finish the season 5-1, including that huge upset. For Charlie Weatherbie's club to carry it over, they have to replace three key players who have moved on. RB Calvin Dawson ran for over 1,400 yards and scored 12 times. CBs Darrius Battles and Quintez Secka combined for 20 pass breakups and played well in coverage for a good chunk of the season, standing out on a rather poor defense. QB Kinsmon Lancaster (right) returns after showing real progress a year ago, and the new spread offense incorporated by coordinator Steve Farmer really suits Lancaster's mobility and short-passing talents. If Weatherbie can steer this team through early-season games at Auburn and Arkansas, the Warhawks are poised to make a run at a bowl bid.
Biggest shoes to fill: Omar Haugabook. In 2005, Troy managed just 16 points per game on offense. They added a touchdown to that total in 2006, Haugabook's junior year. Last year, it ballooned to 34, as Haugabook accounted for 29 total touchdowns (18 passing). Only a home loss to Florida Atlantic in the season finale kept Troy from going to a bowl game. Now, Haugabook is gone, and the coaching staff is left with three candidates to replace him. Based on what I've read, sophomore Jamie Hampton has the upper hand on the job, and he'll be fortunate to be surrounded by a strong, experienced offensive line. In Troy's spread, Hampton's mobility will be a key, as will the play of new starting RB Maurice Greer, a Colorado transfer. Quickly reloading the offense will be a huge key to success for Troy, as will their ability to replace another first-round NFL draft pick on defense (CB Leodis McKelvin).
Experienced QBs all over. Yes, Haugabook is gone, but other teams are in great shape under center. Smith returns at FAU, and we already mentioned Lancaster at ULM. Also back are Michael Desormeaux at Louisiana-Lafayette, Corey Leonard from Arkansas State, Dwight Dasher and Joe Craddock (Middle Tennessee), Giovanni Vizza of North Texas, and Paul McCall from Florida International. The most intriguing position battle in the league may be at North Texas, where Vizza - off a solid freshman season - faces a serious challenge from freshman Riley Dodge. Riley's father, Todd Dodge, is the UNT head coach and architect of the Mean Green's version of the spread. It's an offense Riley knows well from his time playing for his dad at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas.
Desormeaux developing as a passer. For Louisiana-Lafayette to make a move this year, the senior has to continue improving as a throwing QB. With over 1,100 yards rushing last year and over 2,000 yards rushing in his ULL career, there's no question Desormeaux can run the ball. If he can't pass it, the Ragin Cajuns will not do much better than last year's 3-9 record. ULL has two experienced wideouts to work with, and coach Rickey Bustle has talked openly about improving the passing game this year. If they can find a way to get even a good passing game going, a rushing attack that averaged 252 yards per game last year will only improve, and so will Lafayette's record.
BEST OF THE REST
Arkansas State sports a new nickname (Red Wolves), but the same backfield they had last year. Leonard and RB Reggie Arnold (right) return after helping the offense improve by ten points per game over a miserable 2005. The Craddock-Dasher battle for the QB job at Middle Tennessee is going to be entertaining, and it might not be decided in fall camp. Craddock is a better passer, and Dasher a better athlete, leading MTU with 530 rushing yards last year. Besides Vizza vs. Dodge, the other top storyline at North Texas is the defense. They allowed a ghastly 45 points per game last year, giving up almost 500 yards per game. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it needs to improve if UNT is to make any kind of move back up the standings. A new on-campus stadium will probably be the highlight of the season for Florida International. They'll play five games in the new digs, and while the building process is underway, there is still much work to be done for Mario Cristobal. He gets 18 starters back, and many of them are quite young.
PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Offensive Player of the Year: Rusty Smith, QB, FAU
Defensive Player of the Year: Frantz Joseph, LB, FAU
Coach of the Year: Charlie Weatherbie, Louisiana-Monroe
Coach on the Hot Seat: Rickey Bustle, Louisiana-Lafayette
Best Non-Conference Game: UTEP at Louisiana-Lafayette, November 8
Worst Non-Conference Game: Alcorn State at Troy, September 13