Here is my take on every team in the Sun Belt Conference, leading with the team I feel is the conference favorite -- Middle Tennessee State.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
|Dwone Hicks is an excellent all-around weapon for the Blue Raiders.|
In seven of their eight wins last year, the Blue Raiders scored 37 or more points, with their lowest output in a victory coming in their 26-9 defeat of Louisiana-Lafayette. This time around, the offense should be just as potent, even though graduation losses included QB Wes Counts and productive wideout Kendall Newson.
Junior Andrico Hines, a former junior-college transfer who sat out last year, takes over as the starting signal-caller. A bright young man with a cannon arm, Hines will be able to stretch things vertically, providing a new dimension to the passing attack. A lack of experience at the major-college level will be the question surrounding Hines early on.
Rest assured, he'll be leaning heavily on super blue-chip senior RB Dwone Hicks to take some of the pressure off. Despite being bothered in three games by a hamstring injury last year, the 5-foot-10, 225-pounder still managed to rush for over 1,100 yards and score 20 touchdowns, while averaging an impressive 6.0 yards per carry. He's also a very capable pass-receiving option, totaling 42 catches during his stay in Murfreesboro.
Any time they have to spell Hicks, the Blue Raiders are fortunate to have a top-flight young backup RB in sophomore Reshard Lee. Last season, the athletically gifted (37-inch vertical jump) 5-10, 227-pounder rushed for nearly 800 yards and scored four TDs, while averaging a remarkable 7.3 yards per carry.
While the sure-handed Newson is no longer available, they are fortunate to return senior Tyrone Calico, an intriguing pro prospect due to his size (6-3½ 218) and athleticism. He's hauled in 149 receptions for a 13.6-yard average and 13 TDs during his stay with the Blue Raiders.
Benefiting Hines and Hicks will be the return of all five starters along the offensive line, keyed by outstanding junior left tackle Brandon Westbrook. He's already viewed as potentially the best offensive lineman in MTSU history.
Head coach Andy McCollum has seen the Blue Raiders' defense improve steadily each of the last three years. Overmatched in 1999, they ranked 108th in the country in total defense. Last season, however, saw the Blue Raiders' stop troop finish 72nd overall.
In order for the defensive upgrade to continue, McCollum will be counting on big years from senior DE Curtis Daniely, junior MLB Randy Arnold and super blue-chip junior FS Michael Woods, clearly one of the elite defensive players in the Sun Belt Conference.
The non-conference slate is brutal early on with road trips to Alabama and Tennessee opening the campaign, but if they survive from an injury standpoint and Hines is the answer at QB, the Blue Raiders should be in a position to capture the Sun Belt Conference title.
The Mean Green captured the Sun Belt championship, despite not only finishing the regular season with a record of 5-6, but also becoming the first team in NCAA history to start a campaign 0-5, yet still end up in a bowl game.
And while the Mean Green managed to reel off five straight conference victories to win the Sun Belt, a number of those games as well as a few of their losses could have really gone either way. In fact, four of their games (two wins and two losses) were decided by a field goal or less.
Fortunately, head coach Darrell Dickey returns the majority of both his starting offensive and defensive units, so you really can't count out the Mean Green as they look to capture their second straight Sun Belt championship.
Offensively, key performers include junior QB Scott Hall, productive senior RB Kevin Galbreath, senior WR George Marshall (the primary go-to option) and reliable senior TE Jeff Muenchow.
On the defensive side, junior DT Brandon Kennedy sets the tone up front, but the real key to the Mean Green's stop troop will be whether junior Cody Spencer (shifts from OLB) can adequately fill the void at MLB due to the graduation loss of Brad Kassell and whether the CB position is up to the level necessary. While CB is a questionable area, the strength of the back seven is at the safety spots with junior SS Craig Jones and standout sophomore FS Jonas Buckles.
As is the case with most teams in the Sun Belt, the Mean Green just hope to survive their murderous non-conference slate, which includes road trips to Texas, Alabama, TCU and Arizona.
Former Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle takes over as the head coach of a Ragin' Cajun squad that definitely has some firepower when they are on the attack. Last year, they lit up the scoreboard in several contests, scoring 54 points against Idaho and 46 points against New Mexico State.
Junior QB Jon Van Cleave checks in at 6-5, 248 pounds, allowing him to see the field and enjoy a great deal of success throwing the football. Van Cleave has a quality No. 1 target in junior wideout Frederick Stamps, while powerful 6-1, 240-pound junior Jerome Coleman has the capability to provide the necessary balance.
While senior CB Charles Tillman is one of the top defensive players in the Sun Belt Conference, this unit has more questions than answers going in. Last year, the overmatched Ragin' Cajun defense allowed 35 or more points in six games.
NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies, under the direction of head coach Tony Samuel, have a chance to be right in the thick of the Sun Belt race. But in order to do so, they will have to adequately compensate for the graduation loss of the entire offensive backfield as well as the linebacking corps on defense..
Buck Pierce, who played in 10 games as a freshman last year, opens as the Aggies' starting signal-caller. He'll have a quality target to seek out in talented senior P.J. Winston. While three starters return up front, they'll be clearing the way for an Aggie rushing attack that is looking for someone to emerge. The RB spot is clearly the biggest question mark on this football team.
That's why you can look for Pierce, who has demonstrated sound passing skills thus far during fall practice, to air it out with more regularity than has been the case normally during the Samuel era.
Defensively, junior NT Joe Olivo and senior SS Siddeeq Shabazz are the primary headliners, but the good news is that the early returns from fall practice on the new look linebacking corps are very positive. They have more depth than last year, with junior OLB Tim Patrick emerging as a potential standout at this spot.
The Indians have some individual components, especially on offense where senior OT Garry Johnson is without question the top player at his position in the Sun Belt Conference. They also have a proven senior WR in James Hickenbotham, capable of creating big-plays any time he gets his hands on the football. Another plus has been the emergence since fall practice began of junior-college transfer Mike Cox. The 5-10, 175-pound wideout should be a nice complement to Hickenbotham.
The question, though, is at QB, where both senior Tommy Miller and sophomore Josh Driscoll are coming off the injury list. Miller was held out of contact work in the spring while working his way back from a knee injury, while Driscoll is returning from a broken collarbone that sidelined him the second half of the season and also limited him in the spring. Thus far during fall practice, Miller appears to have secured the No. 1 ahead of Driscoll, while promising freshman Reed McKinney could end up being redshirted.
Defensively, the Indians return seven starters, highlighted by their outstanding DE John Bradley, but need to show significant improvement after being overmatched in a number of games last season.
The schedule is not only brutal, but how about the physical demands on an Indians squad that has to play 13 straight games in what actually amounts to a little less than 13 weeks?
The Vandals were involved in some exciting games late last season, but their only victory came against Louisiana-Monroe, 42-38. While the Vandals were sixth in the nation offensively, scoring 50 or more points in four games, they were the exact opposite on defense (114th).
Unless the defense shows marked improvement, the Vandals will have to set their sights on outdueling the opposition in some incredible shootouts in order to come away with the victory.
Last year, the Vandals allowed 33 or more points in all 11 games. And check this out: They actually gave up more points to Middle Tennessee State (70), New Mexico State (46), Louisiana-Lafayette (54), Louisiana-Monroe (38) and North Texas (50) than they allowed to Washington State (36) and Arizona (36).
Not only have they revamped their defensive staff, but a number of junior-college transfers will likely be asked to play a significant role. Of the holdovers from last year, the noteworthy starters include sophomore DE Brandon Kania, junior DT Brian Howard, and junior MLB Patrick Libey.
The offense returns some firepower in junior QB Brian Lindgren and tailback Blair Lewis, while junior Matt Martinez is an excellent anchor at the center position. Lindgren started three games last year, guiding a Vandals' offense that rolled up 637 yards of total offense in a 70-58 loss to Middle Tennessee State.
For an illustration of just how erratic and unpredictable the Sun Belt is, look no further than the Indians of Louisiana-Monroe. Last year, they handed North Texas its only conference loss, yet the only victory for Idaho came against the Indians.
What the Indians have to do is find a way to sustain drives and show significant offensive improvement. Over the last two years, they have averaged just 11 points per game.
The new QB will be junior-college transfer Daniel DaPrato, who did benefit from being under center during spring practice. This gives him an edge over another junior-college product, Kjell Nesen, who comes to the Indians from San Francisco Community College after being signed initially out of the prep ranks by Washington State.
The Indians' defense has a chance to be one of the better units in the Sun Belt. Junior LB Maurice Sonnier is the ringleader, along with junior DE John Thompson.