Sun Belt Preseason Coaches Poll
All-Sun Belt Preseason Team
Last year, the computer's (about the computer) preseason forecast nailed the exact record of three Sun Belt teams, and missed by just one with four schools. The only one it missed badly on was its projected champion, Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin' Cajuns were expected to edge past Troy and FAU for the title but limped in with a 6th-place finish at 3-4 in conference play.
Under the direction of national title-winning head coach Howard Schnellenberger (Miami, 1983), Florida Atlantic went 8-5 last season while capturing the Sun Belt conference title and routing Memphis 44-27 in the New Orleans Bowl. The Owls faced five schools from the "big six" conferences, defeating Minnesota and nearly upsetting South Florida when the Bulls were unbeaten and in 2nd place in the BCS Standings.
Now, FAU needs a fan base. The Owls ranked 109th in average home attendance among the 119 bowl subdivision teams, and next-to-last among Sun Belt teams (only nearby FIU ranked lower). The computer's forecast for FAU may serve to stir up more fan interest as it projects the Owls to go 10-2 over-all and 7-0 in league play.
The computer expects the conference champion to be decided when FAU hosts Troy on October 7 with the Owls favored by nearly 3.47 points. Last year, FAU went to Troy as an 11.74-point underdog and captured the crown with a 38-32 upset in the final game of the season. The loss left Troy with an 8-4 record over-all but nowhere to go bowling.
Troy's 9-3 forecast for 2008 includes a narrow victory (-0.28) at Oklahoma State. The Trojans hosted OSU last season and trounced the Cowboys 41-23.
FAU's forecasted wins include a 12-point road rout at Minnesota. The Owls beat the Golden Gophers 42-39 in Dolphin Stadium last season.
The biggest question may be whether or not the Owls and Trojans can maintain their success as consistency has plagued the Sun Belt since its beginnings. North Texas captured the first four titles (2001-2004) but has won just 7 of its last 28 games. Middle Tennessee shared conference titles with North Texas in 2001 and Troy in 2006, but has never nailed down the conference champion's berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Arkansas State earned that distinction in 2005, but did so with an over-all record of 6-5 for its only winning season since 1995.
There doesn't appear to be much question that FAU and Troy are the class of the league again this year. They are projected to finish among the nation's top 31 teams while no other Sun Belt member is listed among the top 60. Four Sun Belt schools are ranked 93 or below, and two teams rank in the bottom 3.
Both FAU and Troy will begin the season with a 9-point advantage over their closest conference rival, Louisiana-Monroe. The competition drops off even more severely behind the WarHawks, who gained a shocking 21-14 win at Alabama last season. Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee all trail ULM by at least 5 power points. North Texas and FIU are expected to bring up the rear.
The top three teams in the Sun Belt forecast - FAU, Troy, ULM - are projected to go 8-7 in non-conference games. The bottom five teams (excluding Western Kentucky) are picked to win just 2 of their 25 OOC games and one of those is against an FCS school.
League members have a slew of tough non-conference games on their 2008 schedules as Arkansas State opens at Texas A&M; FAU goes to Texas and Michigan State; FIU faces Kansas, Iowa and South Florida; UL-Lafayette goes to Illinois and Kansas State; Louisiana-Monroe kicks off its season at Auburn; MTSU tackles Maryland and Kentucky; North Texas journeys to Texas and LSU; Troy visits LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State; and Western Kentucky plays at Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia Tech.
Western Kentucky is in its final transition year from the FCS to the FBS. Even though it is not eligible for bowl consideration this year, WKU has been added to the Congrove Computer Rankings because it plays 10 of its' 12 games against FBS schools. The Hilltoppers are projected to win three of the five games scheduled against Sun Belt opposition. Next season, the Hilltoppers will become the ninth Sun Belt Conference football playing institution.
The conference announced during "Media Days" in July that it had signed agreements with the Independence Bowl, PapaJohns.com Bowl, and the new St. Petersburg Bowl. While None of those agreements give the Sun Belt an automatic entry, they do allow the conference the first option at fielding a replacement selection if a primary conference can not provide an eligible team.