The Sun Belt Conference is not the same conference as last year. Florida Atlantic and Florida International will move into the conference after playing their 2004 season in Division I-AA. New Mexico State, Idaho, and Utah State have left to join the WAC. No matter how the conference is made up, North Texas will seek its’ fifth consecutive conference title and an automatic bid to the New Orleans Bowl.
2005 Predicted Order of Finish
1. NORTH TEXAS
With the best rushing attack in the conference, the Mean Green should repeat as conference champions. They have two of the top rushers for the past two seasons returning. Sophomore Jamario Thomas (180 yards per game) finished as the nation’s leading rusher. The top rusher from 2003, Patrick Cobbs will be to battle for the title again this year. The Mean Green will have these players lined up all over the field and we ill see an exciting game each time they play.
2. MIDDLE TENNESSEE
With 18 returning starters (8 on offense, 10 on defense), the Blue Raiders will be in the thick of the race for the conference title. Junior quarterback Clint Marks leads the offense and with last seasons passing performance (2,749 yards and completion percentage of 70.4) leads the conference in that category. The other part of the offense will focus on junior Eugene Gross to lead the rushing attack. Defensive lineman Quinton Staton, formerly an offensive lineman, will set the pace for defense.
3. LOUSIANA-LAFAYETTE With return of senior Bill Sampy quarterback Jerry Babb, the Ragin Cajuns are an automatic conference title contender. The junior quarterback not only has the required accuracy, but can also hurt the opposing defense with his running ability. Solid special teams and strong defense will help the Ragin Cajuns to content for the title.
Troy will have to replace 23 seniors from the 2004 team. This includes six offensive unit starters. Linebackers Laverne Johnson and Bernard Davis, and defensive back Johnny Faulk will be the force of success of this team. D. T. McDowell will return at quarterback and try to lead the offense through a rebuilding era.
The Sun Belt’s freshman of the year, Kevin Payne, for 2003 will return after sitting out 2004 with a broken arm. If he returns to his 2003 form, this could be another team in contention for the title. Quarterback Steve Jyles is a dual threat, leading the team in passing (2,300) and rushing (587). An inexperience defense will be following defensive lineman Brandon Guillory.
6. FLORIDA ATLANTIC
After last season’s 9-3 record and losing most of the starters, the Owls will have a rebuilding season. The secondary should be the strong point for this year with Willie Hughley and Lawrence Gordon. B. J. Manley will take the hand-offs from former West Virginia backup Danny Embrick at quarterback.
7. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
The Golden Panthers will have an effective offense with Josh Patrick starting at quarterback behind a solid offensive line. He will have sophomore Julian Reams at running back to work with. Their defense was one of the worst in I-AA last season and will have to step up to help the team avoid the Sun Belt cellar.
8. ARKANSAS STATE
The strong point for this team is the young defense. Sophomore linebacker Josh Williams and defensive back Tyrell Johnson will once earn all Sun Belt honors. The offense has Antonio Warren (1,036 yards) and quarterback Nick Nole back, but the rest of the unit is inexperienced
Garth Belkins is the senior sports writer for 365SportsNews.com