Aug. 7, 2004
By J. Darin Darst Staff Writer

The Sun Belt is starting to see many changes.

Troy joins this season, while New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State will leave to join the WAC after this season. And in 2005, Florida Atlantic and Florida International join.

Sun Belt
Predicted Finish
1. North Texas
2. Troy
3. New Mexico State
4. Louisiana-Lafayette
5. Middle Tennessee
6. Utah State
7. Arkansas State
8. Idaho
9. Louisiana-Monroe
Off. Player of Year:
Patrick Cobbs, N. Texas
Def. Player of Year:
Adrian Awasom, N. Texas
Coach of the Year:
Darrell Dickey, N. Texas

The one change the conference hasn't seen is on the field.

North Texas is the only conference champion and Darrell Dickey is the only coach of the year in the Sun Belt's three-year history.

The Mean Green enter the season with the nation's longest conference winning streak at 18 games. They also return the nation's leading rusher (152.7 yards per game) and scorer (11.5 points per game) in Patrick Cobbs.

He set school records in rushing yards, rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns, 100-yard rushing games and scoring. He rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last nine games, including a 110-yard, two-touchdown performance in a loss to Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.

Cobbs will continue to be the focal point of the offense and knows that everybody wants to end North Texas' conference title streak.

"We've always had a target on our chest, and it's getting bigger," Cobbs said. "We've won the championship the last three years, and the other guys are angry about that. That would make me angry too."

Until somebody proves otherwise -- North Texas continues to be the team to beat.

1. North Texas: Anything less than a conference title will be a major disappointment. The biggest question mark will be how will the team handles the death of backup quarterback Andrew Smith, who was killed in a car accident last week.

2. Troy: The Trojans are the new kids on the block, joining the conference in its fourth season in Division I-A. The Trojans defense is solid, especially in the secondary, but the offense needs lots of improvement. Troy averaged only 15.4 points per game last season.

3. New Mexico State: The defense returns 10 starters, including conference newcomer of the year DE Aubrey Dorisme. Quarterback Buck Pierce, who set a school record for completion percentage, returns to guide the offense.

4. Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin' Cajuns should be one of the most improved teams in the conference after not winning a game outside the conference last season. Jerry Babb is a solid quarterback who should help them challenge for the title.

5. Middle Tennessee: The high-powered offense should be just as good as last season, especially with the return of wide receiver Kerry Wright (1,280 yards, 9 TDs in 2003). But a weak secondary will mean the Blue Raiders will be playing a lot of 42-35 games.

6. Utah State: Coach Mick Dennehy has really improved Utah State's defense, and it will once again be the strength, but with no proven running back don't expect much out of the Aggies. Travis Cox is the best quarterback in the Sun Belt.

7. Arkansas State: Don't expect Arkansas State to have a very good season. The defense is inexperienced and there are no playmakers on offense. The worst part? The team plays at Missouri, at LSU, vs. Memphis and at Ole Miss in four of its first five games.

8. Idaho: Quarterback Michael Harrington (Joey's brother) runs the show and he has two experienced receivers, but the Vandals defense will be one of the worst in the nation.

9. Louisiana-Monroe: It won just one game and allowed 39 points per game last season. Things won't be any better this season.