Even though this conference will not
come close to having a member representative threatening to crash the BCS bowl
party, it just may prove to have the most exciting race for the New Orleans
Bowl. Five teams begin the season
within four points of each other, and the last place team begins the season a
mere 10 points behind the top-rated team.
Last year, Arkansas State emerged as
the surprise conference co-champ, earning the league’s automatic New Orleans
Bowl bid. It marked the first time
someone other than North Texas had won the title. Arkansas State has the talent to repeat
this year, but the Indians have a tough schedule in
The official pre-season poll taken at
the league’s meetings in the Crescent City a few weeks ago showed the Ragin’
Cajuns of Louisiana Lafayette as the number one team, followed closely by
Arkansas State and Troy in that order.
North Texas was picked fourth, while Louisiana Monroe was tabbed for
fifth, picking up one first place vote.
Middle Tennessee was picked sixth just behind ULM, while Florida Atlantic
and Florida International brought up the rear in that
So, what do the PiRates think about
that poll? They agree with the
bottom two selections, but other than that, they have a differing
Following is a team-by-team
PiRate-style preview. Every PiRate
rating has been rounded to the nearest whole number. Since teams don’t win games by fractions
of a point, there is no need to tell you the team rated 100 is really
National Ranking: 100
The Indians lost some key components
from last year’s conference co-championship and New Orleans Bowl team. However, they return just enough talent
to edge out four others for top preseason rating. Replacing quarterback Nick Noce won’t be
easy, as he could run and pass well above average for the SBC. Gone as well is 1,066-yard rusher
Antonio Warren. Replacing these two
stars will be difficult, but not impossible.
The new starting quarterback, Travis
Hewitt, will have another excellent tailback to hand off the ball. Redshirt freshman Reggie Arnold ran a
4.38, 40-yard dash at a high school combine a couple years ago. Whenever he gets into an open field, he
will sprint for long gains, the type that wins ball games. Highly rated fullback Oren O’Neal will
be supplying his expert lead blocking giving Arnold a better chance of getting
into open field. You cannot ask for
a better pass protector should a rushing defender break through. O’Neal is like having a third guard on
The receiving corps is a strength this
year. The top five receivers, in
terms of yardage, return led by Levi Dejohnette. Kevin Jones is a deep threat who will
take away run support by forcing cornerbacks to go deep with
The starting offensive line is strong
and should help Arnold increase the Indians’ average yards per carry from
2005. Center Tanner Jenkins is sure
to hear his name called in the 2007 NFL draft, while tackle Matt Mandich could
be even better in two more years.
ASU could easily average five yards per rush. The pass protection could be a bit iffy,
especially with an inexperienced quarterback who may need a little extra time in
the pocket. Depth is a concern, but
that’s the case with every team in this league.
The real strength of this Indians team
will be the stop troops. ASU should
be stronger against the run and as good as last year against the pass. The only reason the secondary and
linebackers won’t be any better against the pass is because you cannot get much
better than best in the league.
Free safety Khayyam Burns and cornerback Dominique Williams will stick
like glue to receivers and force opposing passers to look elsewhere.
The 2005 defensive line was not up to
par with the rest of the stop troops, as they surrendered 187 yards per game at
a 4.2 yard average. That will still
be the way to beat ASU, but I don’t think they will give up as much this
year. Ends Brian Flagg and Brandon
Rollins will need to step up their games this year, or teams will run off-tackle
and wider for big gains.
What will hurt ASU’s chances to repeat
is a brutal November schedule that finds them finishing at Auburn, hosting MTSU,
and then going to Troy and UL-Lafayette.
How healthy they are after going to the Loveliest Village on the Plains
will decide their fate. My personal
guess is they will come up short, but the PiRates says their the best to open
National Ranking: 101(t)
Arguably, the Blue Raiders have had
the most talented team in the Sunbelt about three different times in the
21st century, yet they have never won the title. It cost former coach Andy McCollum his
job, even though he managed to beat neighborhood rival Vanderbilt three
New coach Rick Stockstill inherits an
enviable position, as the Blue Raiders are loaded with talent at the skilled
positions and could easily walk away with the league crown this season. MTSU finished four-tenths of a point
behind Arkansas State in the opening PiRate
Leading the offensive charge this year
are three returning stars. It all
starts with quarterback Clint Marks, who may be as good as Kelly Holcombe and
Wes Counts. Last year, Marks
completed 66.1% of his passes (mostly quick strikes less than 10 yards across
the line) for close to 200 yards per game.
Receiver Bobby Williams was suspended this spring, but he is sure to be
back as the premier receiver this year.
Without his services, MTSU will drop from second to fifth in these
ratings before they kick off the season.
Williams is the team’s only legitimate playmaker when he catches the ball
with some space.
Eugene Gross is a capable running back
with excellent pass catching skills.
He can pick up crucial first downs running on 3rd and short
and by catching the seven yard pass on 3rd and
The strength of the offensive line
will be the two tackles. Germayle
Franklin and Franklin Dunbar can open holes and prevent pass rushers from
getting by to Marks. However, the
rest of the line is not as highly rated, and MTSU will not run inside with that
much success, while being vulnerable to stunts and blitzes up the
Kicker Colby Smith slumped last year,
connecting on only 2-10 field goals of 30 yards or more. His punting skills were much
Defensively is where the Blue Raiders
won games last year. Unfortunately,
they lost a lot of talent to graduation.
One star who does return is linebacker J.K. Sabb who registered 13
tackles behind the line of scrimmage and successfully defensed six passes. Another stud is cornerback Bradley
Robinson who defensed 12 passes, with five of those resulting in
MTSU will be more vulnerable to the
run with three new starting defensive linemen. Like Arkansas State, the Blue Raiders
will find it hard stopping off tackle and wide runs. Don’t look for MTSU to hold seven teams
to 17 points or less like they did last year.
The Blue Raiders will contend for the
SBC title due to an improved offense that should score at least 25 points a
game, even if the defense yields five more points per game than last
season. My personal guess is MTSU
will challenge for a .500 record overall, but games against Oklahoma and
Louisville will leave them too battered and bruised to take the SBC
3. Louisiana Lafayette
National Ranking: 103
The Ragin’ Cajuns took their lumps in
the season opener last year having to be fodder for eventual National Champ
Texas. The 60-3 beating they
received took a month for them to recover.
Once they did, ULL blasted five consecutive opponents to finish the
season in a three-way tie for first in the league.
This year, ULL could be the class of
the league, but a questionable passing game could be the hole in the boat. Jerry Babb is the second best running
quarterback in the SBC, but he only threw for 859 yards a year ago. Backup Michael Desormeaux is the best
running quarterback in the league, but he doesn’t scare anybody when he drops
back to throw. ULL averaged only
132 yards passing last year and three times in league play failed to get 100
yards through the air.
The Cajuns did their damage with the
infantry last year, and they figure to do so once again. The quarterbacks combined for 1,020
yards rushing when you remove sacks, and tailback Tyrell Fenroy rushed for 1,053
yards and 12 scores, as ULL led the league with almost 300 rushing yards per
Tackle Brandon Cox could easily star
in the SEC. The 6-7 giant will play
for pay next year. The rest of the
offensive line is above average, so expect them to open some nice holes for
Fenroy and contain the defense enough for the quarterbacks to get wide with
Defensively, ULL surrendered 28 points
per game last year, so this stat must improve this year if they are to go
bowling. The Cajuns should fare
better against both the run and pass, thanks to a stronger defensive line. Ends Rodney Hardeway and Anthony Hills
should give the defense a better pass rush this
Brenton Burkhalter and Mark Risher
give ULL two excellent pursuing linebackers, but the secondary needs to
improve. Last year, ULL intercepted
only six passes and defensed less than 30 for the season. The 7.1 yards per pass attempt they
surrendered was much weaker than MTSU, Arkansas State, and Troy, three teams they will contend
with for the title.
ULL must start the season on the road
against LSU and Texas A&M.
Later in the season, they play at Houston. Will they come out in good shape after
playing those three powers? If so,
they could be playing in the Superdome in December. If not, it looks like another five to
six-win season and near miss. My
personal guess is ULL will be hosting Arkansas State for the title on November
4. Troy Trojans
National Ranking: 108 (t)
The Trojans suffered a record reversal
last year falling to 4-7 after posting a 7-4 record and earning an at-large
Silicon Valley Bowl bid in 2004.
Troy’s anemic offense kept a very good defense from being able to win
several games. The Trojans
surrendered just nine points to conference co-champ Arkansas State but lost
9-3. They held MTSU to 271 yards
and lost 17-7. All told, Troy
scored 21 points or less in eight of their 11
This year, the Troy offense should be
improved and score more than the 15.9 points per game they did last year. However, the defense took a shot from
the bough by the graduation cannon, claiming four of their top five tacklers,
including the top three tacklers for loss.
Any thought that Troy’s defense will
be substandard is wrong. The
Trojans still have a bevy of talent on that side of the ball. The strongest unit is the secondary,
where safeties Brannon Condren and Sherrod Martin return as starters. The pair combined for 18 passes defensed
and 136 total tackles. Look for the
Trojans to better their five pass interceptions of a year
Marcus Richardson could lead the team
in total tackles this year from his Sam linebacker position. Last year, he registered 59 tackles with
seven being for loss, and he broke up five passes, while hurrying the passer six
additional times. There is still a
battle for the other two vacant linebacker positions. This will be the key to whether the
defense stays as potent as last year.
The defensive line was hit hard by
graduation, but the new group should be quite adequate. End Kenny Mainor is the lone returning
starter. He has the potential to be
a top-rate pass rusher. End Shawn
Todd should complement Mainor, giving the Trojans great
The Trojan offense is expected to
improve by as much as 10 points a game this year thanks to JUCO quarterback Omar
Haugabook. Haugabook has a strong
arm and quick feet and produced eye-popping stats last year in the JUCO
ranks. Three other quarterbacks who
played last year return this year, so Troy has great depth
Kenny Cattouse inherits the vacant
tailback spot after rushing for 314 yards a year ago. Troy averaged only three yards per rush
last year and 118.1 yards per game, so these stats can only get
The passing yardage will jump forward
this season, especially since the Trojans intend to open up the playbook. They have their best group of receivers
in years as seven of the top eight receivers return. Smokey Hampton and Gary Banks should
combine for 1,200-1,500 receiving yards.
The emergence of Darius Williams could be the nail in the coffin for
other SBC teams. A year ago,
Williams caught only three passes, but two of them went the distance leading to
his averaging 43 yards per catch!
The Troy special teams could win a
game or two. Returner par
excellence Leodis McKelvin returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last
Troy has the apparent best schedule of
the contenders. They get North
Texas, UL-Lafayette, and Arkansas State at home, and only MTSU on the road among
the five contenders. The
out-of-conference schedule could be their downfall. They must make visits to Florida State,
Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and Alabama-Birmingham on four consecutive
Saturdays. They will most probably
start the season 1-4, before opening conference play. It will all come down to how banged up
they are after September. My
personal guess is they will not have enough depth to overcome the likely
injuries in that four-game stretch.
5. North Texas Mean Green
National Ranking: 112
After thoroughly dominating the league
the first four years of its existence, North Texas fell all the way into a tie
for last in 2005. The Mean Green
return the most starters and the highest percentage of lettermen in the
conference. Can an extra year of
experience vault them back to the top?
It’s possible, but not probable.
UNT will definitely jump up a few notches in the standings, but the days
of them including the New Orleans Bowl on their printed schedule are over for
The season wasn’t as bad as the record
last year. The Mean Green lost all
five conference games by a touchdown or less. They should be at least a touchdown
better this season, so you could argue that the boys from Denton will run the
table in the SBC if the other teams stagnate.
North Texas had problems completing
passes last year, finishing with just 48.6% completions. They averaged a paltry 5.1 yards per
attempt and 129 yards passing per game.
Sophomores Daniel Meager and Matt Phillips may only slightly improve on
those marks, but whoever is under center will spend a good part of each Saturday
giving the ball to the star tailback and getting out of his
How often can a team in this league
lose a back that rushed for 1,154 yards at a five yard per carry clip and
consider themselves better off the next year? North Texas can stake that claim. After losing Patrick Cobbs, Jamario
Thomas reclaims the starting job after overcoming an injurious 2005 season. In 2004, Thomas led the nation with
1,801 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Thomas can explode through a hole and into the clear
The entire starting trio of receivers
returns this year as well as the three backups. Joel Nwigwe has deep threat potential
and should help keep opposing defensive backs
The experienced offensive line should
keep Thomas among the nation’s rushing leaders. Three players, center Chad Rose, guard
Dylan Lineberry, and tackle Josh Alexander could vie for all-SBC
Defensively, UNT should improve on the
31.5 points per game allowed in 2005.
Safety Aaron Weathers recorded 113 tackles and intercepted three passes
last year. He’s one of the top
three safeties in the league.
The real strength of the defense will
be the linebackers. Brandon Monroe,
Maurice Holman, and rover Phillip Graves will make it much harder for running
backs to get into the clear and should help the Mean Green chop off 25 or more
yards off the 221 per game they surrendered last
Up front, end Jeremiah Chapman and
tackle Sky Pruitt have the potential to make
North Texas has the hardest schedule
of the five contenders. They face
the other four contenders on enemy ground.
Add to that non-conference games at Texas, Tulsa, and Akron, and you can
just as easily pick UNT to finish with nine losses once again as they have of
regaining the crown. My personal
guess is UNT will at least double their wins from last year, and all of them
should come in conference play.
With a few breaks, they could find themselves playing for a trip to the
Superdome when they face UL-Lafayette on November 11.
6. Louisiana Monroe Warhawks
National Ranking: 113 (t)
ULM finished in a three-way tie for
first last year and could have won the league by defeating ULL in the season
finale. The Warhawks couldn’t stop
ULL’s running game and fell 54-21.
This year, ULM should tumble toward
the basement. After giving up 4.6
yards per rush last year, this year’s defense against the run could be even
worse. No starters return to the
defensive line. Nose tackle Ricky
Williams will lead the new quartet.
The top member of the second line of
defense should be rover Josh Thompson.
He plays both the run and pass quite well. Harry Bradley is adequate, but the two
linebackers will need help. Making
160 tackles between them won’t amount to a hill of beans if those tackles are
mostly five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
The secondary should be among the best
in the league, but one reason for this may be because opponents won’t need to
throw the ball to beat them. Safety
Kevin Payne led the Warhawks with 87 tackles in 2005. Cornerbacks Chaz Williams and Quintez
Secka defensed 16 passes last year.
When you consider opposing teams ran the ball 60% of the time last year,
that stat looks more impressive.
While more starters return on offense
than defense, one position where a new starter must play is at quarterback. ULM didn’t set the woods on fire through
the air last year, but they did manage to top 200 yards in six games. New starter Kinsmon Lancaster proved he
can run in limited action last year, but he completed just 29.2% of his passes
for only 54 yards at 2.3 yards per attempt.
Leading rusher Calvin Dawson returns,
and he should top the 666 yards he produced a year ago. Dawson averaged almost five yards per
The Warhawks lost their big-play
receiver last year, so Marty Humphrey will have to step up and star this
season. He caught 20 balls for 269
yards last year.
The ULM offensive line may be the best
in the entire league. Both guards,
Adam Hill and Aaron Schutz could make all-SBC, while tackles Larry Shipley and
Kyle Cunningham are not far behind the two guards in
ULM must play Kansas, Alabama, and
Arkansas on the road this year and then get Arkansas State, Troy, and
UL-Lafayette on the road in league play.
My personal opinion is they will lose all six of these games. Throw in home losses to MTSU and North
Texas, and it adds up to more losses than last
7. Florida Atlantic Owls
National Ranking: 115
Florida Atlantic trails ULM by a mere
two-tenths of a point. The Owls
return the second most starters this year, but they don’t have enough talent to
challenge for a winning record. The
season finale against rival Florida International could be one to avoid last
The offense will have to rely more on
the run than in past years. Charles
Pierre should do better than his 517 yards rushing and 3.6 average of last
year. Having excellent blockers
ahead of him, like tackle Nello Faulk should make that statement
Defensively, the Owls were thin on the
line last year and thin once again this season. End Robert St. Clair barely tops 200
pounds. Opponents rushed for 218.1
yards and 4.9 yards per try.
While the defense gave up 176.6 yards
per game, opponents completed little better than half their passes against
FAU. With the loss of star
defenders Lawrence Gordon and Willie Hughley, the numbers should be worse this
FAU’s first five games are on the
road, and the first four come against Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and
South Carolina. They should open
conference play at 0-4 with at least three of those losses being quite
The negative momentum should send the
Owls reeling to a nine or 10-loss season.
Even with legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger on the sidelines, FAU
should finish among the weakest 10 teams in the
8. Florida International Golden
National Ranking 116 (t)
Former Miami Dolphin quarterback Don
Strock finds his team rated last in the SBC to start the season. After narrowly missing out on a winning
season last year, FIU shouldn’t match 2005’s five wins.
The offense will fall several notches
this season as the unit was decimated by graduation. The offensive line is green, and they
won’t protect quarterback Josh Padrick as well as they did last year. The 2005 sack total of 16 could easily
double this season. Padrick will
have to keep one eye on Chandler Williams, as this connection should be their
Defensively, the Panthers have a
middle linebacker capable of being drafted in the latter rounds of next year’s
NFL draft. Keyonvis Bouie made 118
tackles last year with 11 behind the line of scrimmage. He caught three enemy passes as
Defensive end Antwan Barnes is the
other prime player on this side of the ball. Last year, he made 15.5 stops for
The secondary has holes, and FIU could
actually fare worse against the pass than last season, when they surrendered
211.8 yards per game and allowed enemy passers to complete close to 70% of their
To make matters worse than they should
be, FIU has to play on the road at Maryland, Miami, and Alabama. They may score less than 10 total points
in these three blowout losses.
Playing at South Florida and hosting Bowling Green should give them an
0-5 non-conference record. This
could be ugly in Miami; FIU could lose 10 games or even
Sources: The Sunbelt Conference and
all eight member websites.
Next Up: The Mid American Conference. Can Akron repeat after shocking the MAC