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CBS SportsLine.com Sun Belt preview

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CBS SportsLine.com Sun Belt preview

Josh Pinnick is becoming very popular.

After earning first-team All-Sun Belt honors last season, the senior defensive lineman was one of 43 players named to the Lombardi Watch List heading into this year. He is also a preseason All-Conference selection, CBS SportsLine.com's Sun Belt preseason defensive player of the year and is gaining attention from NFL Draft services.

"They are nice and its nice to be recognized for what you do, but you are only as good as your next game," said Pinnick. "I try not to get caught up in the hype and conference honors. It's more for my mom. She loves that kind of stuff. Everybody likes to be honored for what they do, but the only thing that really would make me happy is the Sun Belt Conference championship. Anything less and I'm going to feel incomplete."

Pinnick and Florida Atlantic will have more than just mom keeping tabs on them this year as the defense is one of only eight schools in Division I-A to return at least 10 starters. Hopes are high for the Owls' defense to make things easier on an offense that averaged only 15.1 points per game last season.

Last season the Owls started out rough, getting outscored 222-39 through the first five games of the season, including losses to Clemson (54-6), Kansas State (45-0) and South Carolina (45-6). Despite all that, the defense ended up first in the Sun Belt in red zone defense, second in scoring defense and third in pass defense and total defense.

Pinnick, senior linebacker Cergile Sincere and safety Kris Bartels lead a very experienced squad which has played 254 games together. Sincere, who was also named preseason All-Sun Belt, led the team with 78 tackles, while Bartels was named the team's defensive MVP with 70 tackles in 2006.

All three have been playing together since their freshman seasons and have become close not only on the field, but off too.

"For me it's a trust issue, when you play with guys for a while, you have faith in what they are going to do and be there when it counts," added Pinnick. "And I know they count on me the same way. That extends more than just those two guys. We are only strong as the weakest link and everybody out there is out there to do their job. As a unit we are really strong and really close."

Pinnick and Sincere both arrived at FAU in 2003, but redshirted, while Bartels walked-on the team in 2004. Neither of them were highly recruited out of high school, but all three will go down as one of the best players in school history.

"They are the foundation of this defense and critical to this program," added FAU defensive coordinator Kirk Hoza. "Those guys to us are everything, but to the rest of the world they are underdogs."

The Owls definitely know something about being longshots as they will once again be underdogs in all their non-conference games, playing at Oklahoma State, Minnesota and at Kentucky during the first five games of the season. They also play South Florida on Oct. 6 and the national champion Gators on Nov. 17 in Gainesville.

"Coach (Howard) Schnellenberger's philosophy is play as tough opponent as you can play outside the league," added Hoza. "It's good for us and good for our players."

FAU is hoping the strength of its out-of-conference matchups prepare it for Sun Belt play, where Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette will be the favorites. Each week the Owls' top defensive goal will be "Under 13." They feel if the defense can hold the opponent to less than 13 points, they should win the game.

"Defensively we are going to keep our team in every game," said Pinnick. "If we don't give up the big play on defense than our offense should be able to put up enough points to win. We need to limit mistakes and play to the potential that we can. This defense has a chance to be really, really good, its just a matter of executing and playing mistake free. We have the most talent we've had here since I've been here at FAU."

Potential will be key with one of the most experienced defenses in the Sun Belt because many of the players know this is their last chance to win the conference title and play in a bowl game. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Team to beat: Troy
Sleeper team: Florida Atlantic
Offensive MVP: Omar Haugabook, Troy
Defensive MVP: Josh Pinnick, Florida Atlantic
Coach of the year: Larry Blakeney, Troy

Offensive MVP

Omar Haugabook, Troy: Junior college transfer swept all the awards last season after throwing for 2,401 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Trojans. Haugabook won conference player of the year, offensive player of the year and newcomer of the year. Haugabook also earned New Orleans Bowl MVP after throwing for four touchdowns (2, 3, 6 and 56 yards) and rushing for another.

The senior should have big numbers once again as the Haugabook will have running back Kenny Cattouse and all-conference WR Gary Banks both back for their senior years.

Defensive MVP

Josh Pinnick, FAU:
The defensive lineman returns for his fourth year as a starter after enjoying his best season in 2006. Pinnick had 33 total tackles, including 11.5 for a loss with five sacks. He is was named Sun Belt preseason All-Conference, along with earning a spot on the Lombardi Watch List.

Predicted Finish

1. Troy: It all starts and ends with Haugabook, who is one of the conferences most exciting players. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin leads a solid defense. The Trojans will take their lumps early, but will be the favorites to return to their third bowl game in the past four years.

2. Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin Cajuns have one of the best running backs in the conference back in Tyrell Fenroy. The junior racked up 1,197 yards and 10 touchdowns, while ranking 38th in the nation in yards per game (114.1). Michael Desormeaux takes over at quarterback as Jerry Babb has graduated.

3. Florida Atlantic: A star-studded defense will keep the Owls in a lot of games in conference. They'll need to step up on offense and will look to redshirt sophomore Rusty Smith at quarterback and running back Charles Pierre.

4. Arkansas State: The Indians will need strong play from QB Corey Leonard if they are going to challenge for the league title. Sophomore RB Reggie Arnold is already a stud for Arkansas State, becoming the 13th player in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards.

5. Louisiana-Monroe: With 10 starters back on offense, the Warhawks are the definite sleeper of the Sun Belt. RB Calvin Dawson and WR LaGregory Sapp are very good, along with an offensive line that returns five starters.

6. Middle Tennessee: Things are going to look a lot different as the Blue Raiders must replace QB Clint Marks and RB Eugene Gross. Safety Damon Nickson, one of the best returners in the nation, is one of six starters back on defense.

7. North Texas: After bursting onto the scene in 2004 as a freshman, Jamarrio Thomas' production has seen a major dropoff. The senior will be looking for redemption as the Mean Green has an inexperienced offense.

8. Florida International: The Golden Panthers will be looking for new QB Paul McCall and a solid offensive line to improve the worst offensive team in the nation (9.6 ppg). Lionell Singleton is one of the top defenders in the conference.
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CBS SportsLine.com Sun Belt preview

If you go to sportsline.com today, the SBC preview is on the front page with a picture of Josh Pinnick. Look on the middle of the page.
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