Aug. 19, 2004
By MARY FOSTER
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - This is the last season the Sun Belt Conference will be scattered across the country.
The four-year old football conference is on its way to be becoming more regionalized, with the loss of three Western schools to the Western Athletic Conference next year and the addition of three Southeastern schools over the next two years.
"We're finally going to actually be a sun belt conference now," commissioner Wright Waters said. "We always planned for the league to be made up of southeastern teams. It's going to be more regional, which makes for better rivalries."
On the way out are Idaho, Utah State and New Mexico State. Troy is on board this season, and Florida Atlantic and Florida International are set to join next year.
"It's going to cut down on some of the travel," Louisiana-Monroe coach Charlie Weatherbie said. "And it will build the fan base for the conference teams. More fans will be familiar with these opponents and want to see them."
The Sun Belt will probably add more teams eventually. Eight teams is not enough for a football conference because its members must play at least four home games against Division I opponents. With eight schools, half of the Sun Belt teams would only be guaranteed three home games.
"We're through expanding for a while, but we've got our ear to the ground," Waters said. "We'd need to find something that is beneficial to both the teams and us."
Attendance was up for conference games last year and the league has expanded its television contract with ESPN.
The thing the Sun Belt needs now, Waters candidly admits, is stronger teams and better records. Last year North Texas was the only Sun Belt team with a winning record.
"I think that's our next step," Waters said. "We need to beat people and we need to beat some teams we're not picked to beat."
North Texas gives the Sun Belt its best chance for a big win this year. The Mean Green have won the league three years running and return one of the country's best running backs in Patrick Cobbs. Maybe, they can pull off the upset at Colorado on Sept. 18.
Newcomer Troy (previously known as Troy State) becomes an immediate contender to North Texas' crown. The Trojans always load up on big-name teams: This year Missouri visits Troy and the Trojans travel to South Carolina.
A capsule look at the teams in their predicted order of finish:
NORTH TEXAS - The Mean Green have an 18-game winning streak against Sun Belt opponents. ... QB Andrew Smith, who was expected to compete for the starting job, was killed in a car accident Aug. 7. ... Cobbs averaged more yards per game last season than any back in the nation and ran for a conference record 1,680 yards. ... DE Adrian Awasom and DB Jonas Buckles anchor the defense.
TROY - The Trojans are entering their fourth season in Division I-A football and giving up life as an independent for membership in the Sun Belt. ... RB DeWhitt Betterson rushed for 1,161 yards last season. ... Seventeen starters return. ... The error-prone receivers should be better.
NEW MEXICO STATE - The Aggies lost four conference games last season by less than a touchdown. ... There are 10 starters returning on a defense that ranked second in the conference. ... There will be eight new starters on offense. New Mexico State runs a power-I with RB Tony Joseph stepping in.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE - The Ragin' Cajuns started off 0-7 last year then won four of the last six, including the final two. ... QB Jerry Babb contributed to last year's rally by completing 63 percent of his passes and accounting for 10 touchdowns in the four victories. ... All four defensive line starters are gone and Cajuns have installed a 4-3 alignment.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE - Last season, the Blue Raiders (4-8) lost to Florida Atlantic by one point, lost at Missouri by one point in overtime, and dropped three other games by less than a touchdown. ... Had the Sun Belt's highest scoring offense. ... WR Kerry Wright set a single-season Sun Belt Conference record with 1,280 yards receiving on 73 receptions.
UTAH STATE - Solid defense with six starters returning. Aggies ranked 45th in nation in total defense last season, 25th against the pass. ... QB Travis Cox threw 18 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Offense must cut down on penalties. ... Utah State plays seven road games including Alabama and Clemson.
ARKANSAS STATE - QB Elliot Jacobs, who started the last 24 games left the team to concentrate on baseball. ... Nick Noce and Brian Hicks, who backed up Jacobs last season, JUCO transfer Devin Hollins and freshman Travis Hewitt are competing for the job. ... Defense has only three returning starters.
LOUISIANA-MONROE - Four coaches fired after 1-10 finish last year. Former Army coach Todd Berry will try to improve an offense that averaged less than 20 points. ... QB Steven Jyles, a deep group of receivers and a pair of big running backs should help.
IDAHO - After winning only 11 games in past four seasons, six in last three, Idaho has a new coach. Nick Holt hopes to spread the offense. ... QB Michael Harrington is the younger brother of Detroit Lions QB Joey Harrington. ... Vandals play four of first five games on road.