Sun Belt News
Sun Belt News
Tuesday, November 9, 2004
A look around the Sun Belt
By Kevin Acee
Special to ESPN.com
Nothing personal, but the rest of the Sun Belt will not miss Idaho, New Mexico State or Utah State.
It has been a pain for the majority of the Sun Belt teams to get to Moscow, Las Cruces and Logan.
Neither Idaho nor New Mexico State has another home game this year, and Utah State hosts only New Mexico State. All three then head to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.
"That will make the travel a little easier," said Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts. "It's definitely difficult going to Idaho to play a game."
Roberts' team actually played Idaho in nearby Pullman, Wash., this past Saturday, losing 45-31. Leaving after the game, the wind was so great that the Indians had to lighten their load and send some cargo separately to Spokane, where the team plane followed and waited almost two hours before leaving for Kansas, where it stopped to refuel. The Indians finally got home at 6:15 a.m. Sunday, less than 12 hours before practicing at 4 p.m.
"You do have some excursions," said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle, whose team lost both places this season. "… We're adding two teams down in the same area (Florida). It's better trips. We're starting to close in on a little more regional type thing."
Trading the western schools for Florida Atlantic and Florida International is better for the regional perception of the conference. It is good for recruiting, especially in fertile Florida. It is good for fans that want to travel.
"When you're playing folks like Idaho, Utah State and New Mexico State, it's like you almost have an Eastern division and Western division," said Louisiana-Monroe coach Charlie Weatherbie. "It's better to get the Florida teams in the conference."
New Mexico State has won all three of its conference home games and lost both of its road games. Idaho is 2-1 at home, 0-3 on the road. Utah State is 1-1 at home, 0-3 on the road.
"I think it's always better," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "The teams in Florida, you're going to fly to all those places and they've got airports right there. It should be more convenient than some of the teams on the Western end."
Maybe the easier trips will help Sun Belt teams in their overall road performance. Only three teams have won conference road games this season. Five teams are perfect at home in conference. The overall road record in conference is 5-19, including two victories by North Texas.
"Probably the reason they're the champions is they've overcome the road won on the road," Middle Tennessee coach Andy McCollum said of North Texas.
When the coach with some of the worst facilities in the nation gets fired, you can't help but wonder why.
Read between the lines of Mick Dennehy's statement Monday, the day Utah State let him go.
"(Utah State athletic director) Randy Spetman has an incredibly tough job with his biggest priority being the building of facilities," said Dennehy, who will coach the Aggies' final two games. "I completely understand his decision and only wish that I could have done more to help him with this major undertaking."
Aside from a nice indoor facility, the Aggies were housed in a football complex that some high schools could better. It's awful hard to recruit to a place up in the mountains, in a mediocre conference with horrible facilities.
Dennehy is 18-36 in two seasons, including a 2-7 mark this season.
All that said, Spetman's decisiveness must be applauded. He didn't wait around. Now he has a chance to get a new coach in before the recruiting season totally wastes away.
Not quite yet
There are no tiebreakers in the Sun Belt Conference.
So, North Texas (5-0 in conference) has merely clinched a share of the title with two games to go (even though it has beaten two of the teams that could conceivably tie it). The Mean Green can wrap up their fourth consecutive championship and New Orleans Bowl berth with a victory at home Saturday against Idaho.
New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe, which lost to North Texas, and Troy, which does not play North Texas, are all 3-2 in conference. They remain alive until the Mean Green pounds Idaho.
Should North Texas somehow lose its remaining two games and one or more of the three second-place teams win their remaining two, the New Orleans Bowl would pick who it wants to represent the Sun Belt in the Dec. 14 game.
Arkansas State requests every year to not play at home after the first week of November. As football season winds down in Jonesboro, there is also harvesting and hunting to be done by the locals.
So when the conference could not acquiesce this year, putting the Indians at home their final two games, the school sent a schedule change request to the Sun Belt that stated hunting season as the reason.
So instead of playing on the next two Saturdays, the Indians will play the next two Thursdays. That works for them because many of their fans will be spending the next two Saturdays either harvesting wheat or soy beans, or they will be hunting. ('Tis the season for bears, turkeys, beavers, bobcats ? you name it ? in Arkansas. But the biggie is the Nov. 20 duck season opening.)
The Thursday games also give the Indians two straight appearances on ESPN Regional.
With just three senior starters on the offense and eight on defense, Louisiana-Monroe must be considered a team building toward next season.
Thus, good signs abound about the Indians' ability to finish. They are 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season, including last week's 32-25 win over Utah State in which they scored the final 14 points. Monroe scored with 50 seconds remaining and then held on when Chris Harris intercepted a pass at the Utah State 5-yard line on the game's final play.
"We turned a corner against Utah State," Weatherbie said. "We grew up as a team. Any time you can win a close game and find a way to come from behind and win, it builds a lot of confidence. It builds a little swagger. The guys are starting to believe in themselves and one another."
The Indians (4-5) are looking for their first winning season since moving up to Division I-A in 1994.
Kevin Acee covers college football for the San Diego Union-Tribune.