BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith. He was under-recruited out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla., but has developed into a big-time passer. He has added some weight ? he's up to 230 from 212 and stands 6 feet 5 ? and that should make him tougher in the pocket. He has a good arm and also a good understanding of where and when he's supposed to throw. Smith, a junior, should continue to progress and will be a top-20 quarterback nationally in 2009.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida Atlantic linebacker Frantz Joseph. Joseph began his career at Boston College but transferred closer to home (Fort Lauderdale) to play for the Owls. He's a big guy (6-3/235) who can run and make plays. He'll get an NFL shot.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Michael Desormeaux. Desormeaux, a senior, was second in the league with 1,141 rushing yards last season. That was the 20th-best single-season rushing total for a quarterback in NCAA Division I-A history. His running isn't the problem. He simply has to become a better passer for ULL to legitimately challenge for the league title. As it is, he and tailback Tyrell Fenroy make for a productive running duo. But just think how much more effective Fenroy would be if ULL also could muster a consistent passing game. Desormeaux threw for more than 162 yards just once last season and had as many picks as TD passes (10).
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arkansas State end Alex Carrington. Carrington, a junior, has prototypical size at 6-5 and 280. Frankly, though, his production hasn't matched his potential yet. He has 52 tackles and just two sacks in his first two seasons. Given his physical attributes, that sack total has to increase. The Red Wolves could potentially have the league's best defensive line ? but only if Carrington emerges as a difference-maker.
PLAYERS WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Troy cornerbacks Chris Bowens and Trevor Ford. To say Troy has a big void at cornerback might be understating the case. The Trojans lost Leodis McKelvin, who was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, and Elbert Mack ? who led the nation with eight interceptions last season. The likely starters are Ford, a senior who began his career at Florida State, and Bowens, a sophomore. They played in 14 combined games, with 11 tackles, last season.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Louisiana-Monroe tailback Frank Goodin. Yardage machine Calvin Dawson is gone, and into the void steps Goodin ? a sophomore who ran for 596 yards last season. The Warhawks' offense is predicated on having a workhorse back, so folks can expect good numbers from Goodin. It may take a while for Gooden to get untracked, though, because ULM's line has four new starters.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Louisiana-Monroe free safety Greg James. James, a junior playing for his hometown team, had a good season in 2007 but should truly emerge this season. He has good size (6-1/195), can run and packs a punch. He had five picks last season, which also points to his good instincts.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: North Texas wide receiver Sam Roberson. The Mean Green are looking for a No. 2 receiver and Roberson ? a redshirt freshman ? could be the guy. He is expected to start, and at 6-4 and 217 pounds, he has good size. He's not a blazer in terms of speed, but he has good hands and is physical.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Louisiana-Monroe cornerback Nate Brown. The Warhawks are looking for two new starting cornerbacks, and Brown has impressed new co-coordinator Phil Elmassian ? a longtime college assistant who was Nebraska's secondary coach last season. Brown was a running back in high school in Texas, then was moved to wide receiver when he arrived at ULM. Brown changed positions again in the spring. He has adapted quickly to the new position, and he and junior college transfer Otis Stamps are expected to be the new starting corners.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Louisiana-Lafayette's Rickey Bustle. Bustle has been coach since 2002 and has had just one winning season. He was offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech when he was hired away by ULL, and the play of his defense has been the biggest problem in his tenure at the school. It may take an above-.500 finish in the league for him to keep his job.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Florida Atlantic. When Howard Schnellenberger was hired as coach/director of football operations in 1999, he said FAU would be playing for the national title in 2007. Uh, that was playing for the Division I-A national title ? and it was before the school ever had played a game. No question it was hyperbole (Schnellenberger is good at that), but there's also no question he and his staff have done a phenomenal job in a short amount of time. No, FAU didn't play for the national title last season, but the Owls did win the Sun Belt title and did win a bowl game. The guy knows what he is doing, especially on offense. He's one of just five current coaches who have won nine games in a season at three different Division I-A schools.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Florida Atlantic's Gary Nord. He has been with Howard Schnellenberger for a while now, and he does a superb job developing quarterbacks. What's important to remember is that a lot of quarterbacks he was worked with ? including current FAU standout Rusty Smith ? weren't exactly recruiting priorities for most schools. Nord does a good job pinpointing strengths, then game-planning for those strengths.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Troy's Jeremy Rowell. Rowell, who quarterbacked Troy in the early 1990s, is set to enter his third season as the Trojans' coordinator. He generally has better athletes than any other coordinator in the league, and he does a good job turning them loose to make plays.
ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: FAU offensive coordinator Gary Nord. Let's get serious: Nobody is going to go from an assistant's job at a Sun Belt school to a head-coaching job in Division I-A unless it's at a Sun Belt school. That means the likely candidate would be Nord, but only if Schnellenberger decides to retire after this season - which doesn't seem likely.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Troy at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 7. It would be stunning if this didn't end up being for the conference title and the resultant New Orleans Bowl bid. The Owls stunned the Trojans last season in Troy, Ala., to get the bid and the Trojans wouldn't mind returning the favor.
Troy at Middle Tennessee State, Aug. 28
Florida Atlantic at Texas, Aug. 30
Maryland at Middle Tennessee State, Sept. 6
Florida Atlantic at Minnesota, Sept. 20
Louisiana-Lafayette at Louisiana-Monroe, Oct. 4
Troy at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 7
Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette, Oct. 18
Florida Atlantic at Louisiana-Lafayette, Nov. 1
Florida Atlantic at Arkansas State, Nov. 22
Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy, Nov. 22
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Troy. The Trojans visit both LSU and Ohio State, and play at Oklahoma State in non-conference action. They also must travel to meet FAU and Middle Tennessee in league play. There are seven road games total. Special mention to Western Kentucky, which plays five of its first six on the road, including trips to Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia Tech ? all of whom went bowling last season.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: None. This is the Sun Belt. These programs go on the road to get trounced in non-conference play in return for a healthy paycheck.
WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Troy. "Worst" is a relative term here. We're giving this to Troy because the Trojans' lone home non-conference game is against Division I-AA Alcorn State, which was 2-8 last season and was held to 10 or fewer points in half its games.
BIGGEST MISMATCH: Florida International at Kansas, Aug. 30. The Jayhawks blasted FIU 55-3 last season. It'll be around that bad this season.
PROGRAM ON THE RISE: North Texas. The Mean Green dominated in the early days of the Sun Belt, then fell ? a long way. Second-year coach Todd Dodge revamped the offense last season, turning the Mean Green into a team that threw the ball all over the place. He and his staff reeled in a solid recruiting class. If that continues, UNT will be back near the top of the league by 2010.
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: No one. The league has been remarkably "even-keeled" the past few seasons, and there is no program that looks to be on its way down. Troy won't be as good as it was the past two seasons, but the Trojans still should finish second.
IN THREE YEARS, FLORIDA ATLANTIC WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: As long as Schnellenberger stays in charge, FAU will be fine. The staff recruits well ? and has a fertile area in which to recruit. He delegates well and has a winning background, which can't be overstated. Unlike a lot of schools in the league, FAU doesn't rely on junior college transfers and/or four-year transfers. The staff brings in high school recruits, then fits them into their plan.