SUN BELT PREVIEW
Sun Belt coaches like Troy's chances
By Brett Martel
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS — The Sun Belt Conference champion won only one of the first five New Orleans Bowls — the bowl game conceived specifically to make the league’s top team a part of college football’s postseason.
Then came Troy, an Alabama school which upgraded to Division I-A in 2001, made its first bowl appearance in 2004 and won its first bowl last season.
The Trojans’ 41-17 rout of Rice was only the second victory for a Sun Belt team in the New Orleans Bowl, and only the first one by a convincing margin.
North Texas had finished atop the fledgling Sun Belt during the conference’s first four years, winning one New Orleans Bowl, 25-19, over Cincinnati in 2002.
Conference USA teams won the next three by 10 points or more each time.
Troy’s dominant performance in last year’s edition seemed to mark that the conference began to come of age.
“Our league is getting stronger and we’re recruiting better players,” says Troy coach Larry Blakeney, who has headed the program since 1991 and oversaw the jump from Division I-AA.
Blakeney figured it was only a matter of time before the Sun Belt grew stronger, given that all of the schools are in Southern states where football is king. Players that may be a little late in maturing to get attention from nearby Southeastern Conference schools, especially those who want to stay close to home, have other I-A options in the Sun Belt.
“Our league’s pretty competitive top to bottom and there’s probably five teams that maybe can win it,” Blakeney said. “I hope and think that our league is headed toward a second bowl tie-in.”
A second Sun Belt team was invited to a bowl in 2006. Middle Tennessee went to the Motor City Bowl with a 7-5 regular-season record, but lost to Central Michigan.
According to a preseason coaches poll, Troy and Middle Tennessee are the top teams in the league again.
The 2006 conference player of the year, quarterback Omar Haugabook, is back at Troy.
Last season, Haugabook threw for 2,401 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also rushed for 313 yards and five TDs. His bowl performance was a memorable one, with four touchdown passes and another score on the ground.
Haugabook’s only major flaw was his tendency to throw interceptions — 17 of them last season.
Blakeney said he’s seen continued maturity in his QB since spring practice.
“Omar, from day one, looked like the same guy, he just got better,” Blakeney said. “He is going to have to carry more of the load this year.”
His scrambling was a weapon last season, but may be a necessity this year as only one starter returns to the offensive line.
Troy has its leading receiver back in Gary Banks and leading rusher in Kenny Cattouse. And the running game should have added depth with the return of Sean Dawkins, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Troy also has eight defensive starters returning, yet another reason why they could be tough to dethrone as league champion.
Although Middle Tennessee was 7-6 last season, all six losses came against teams that went to bowl games, four of which were conference champions and two of which were nationally ranked in Louisville and Oklahoma.
Whether the Blue Raiders can challenge for the title will depend in part on how well Joe Craddock replaces three-year starting quarterback Clint Marks.
Meanwhile, Blakeney was a little conflicted about the coaches poll favoring his team to repeat.
“If you were another coach, wouldn’t you pick us to be champions this year so we’d have a big target on us. I knew they were going to do that. They want the motivation for their team,” Blakeney said. “Maybe we should have been picked first. ... I hope so.”
A capsule look at the teams in their predicted order of finish:
Senior quarterback Omar Haugabook was selected as the preseason Offensive Player of the Year after being the league’s Player of the Year in 2006 and the MVP of the New Orleans Bowl. ... The Trojans also have both their leading rusher and receiver back, while the defense returns all but three starters.
The Blue Raiders’ five top receivers and two of their three leading running backs from last season are expected to be back. ... Seven starters are back on defense, including team leaders in sacks, tackles for losses, and interceptions.
After sharing time last season with Travis Hewitt, Corey Leonard is expected to take over as the full-time starter, with Hewitt backing up. The Indians will expect their passing came to improve, but Leonard’s primary job will be to hand off to Reggie Arnold, who broke 1,000 yards in his freshman year and is widely considered one of the Sun Belt’s best backs.
Running back Tyrell Fenroy leads the offense. He’s had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and needs 1,085 more to pass former NFL star Brian Mitchell (3,335) as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ career rushing leader. ... The quarterback is junior Jason Desormeaux, who didn’t start a game at that position last season but impressed coach Ricky Bustle in the spring. The athletic Desormeaux saw most of his playing time last season at wide receiver, defensive back and special teams.
Coach Charlie Weatherbie has high hopes with 11 starters returning on offense and six on defense. That includes Calvin Dawson, who led the Sun Belt in rushing (1,210 yards), and LaGregory Sapp, the conference leader in receiving yards (796 yards).
Howard Schnellenberger has been methodically building this program from I-AA to a team that got increasingly competitive in the Sun Belt as last year wore on. They won five of their last eight games in 2006 and two of their three losses were by a touchdown or less to Sun Belt champion Troy and to Louisiana-Lafayette. Almost all of their starters are back, so they could be a dark horse.
Todd Dodge, who made his name in the competitive world of Texas high school football, takes over as first-year coach of the Mean Green. His team’s best player returns in senior running back Jamario Thomas, but it’s not yet clear how much help he’ll have.
First-year coach Mario Cristobal takes over for a Golden Panthers team trying to move past last year’s embarrassing brawl with Miami in the Orange Bowl. And his quarterback situation may not be settled. Paul McCall is the projected starter, but others could challenge for playing time in what Cristobal calls a “very, very young program” and an “equal-opportunity company.”
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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