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Football: Sun Belt teams to face heavy hitters

Ranked opponents await four schools

07:38 AM CDT on Tuesday, August 31, 2004

By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

The Sun Belt Conference could be in for a rough few days this weekend when all nine members of the league open the season with games against opponents that are either nationally ranked or received votes in a preseason poll.

North Texas is facing perhaps the biggest challenge among Sun Belt teams in the form of a road game against No. 7 Texas. The game will mark the third straight season the Mean Green have opened the year with a game against a team ranked among the top 10 in the country.

"It’s nothing new for us," UNT coach Darrell Dickey said. "If you can’t get excited about a game against Texas, you are not a competitor."

Middle Tennessee will travel to Gainesville to take on No. 11 Florida. Louisiana-Monroe will take on No. 17 Auburn, while Arkansas State will take on No. 18 Missouri.

Even Louisiana-Lafayette, the team that has perhaps the easiest road in the first week of the season among Sun Belt teams, will face a ranked team. The Ragin’ Cajuns open the season with a game against Northwestern State, which is ranked No. 18 in Division I-AA.

Middle Tennessee came close to breaking through for a big non-conference win last season before falling to Missouri in overtime. Blue Raiders coach Andy McCollum said his team would take a similar approach in its game against Florida that it did last year against the Tigers.

"We have to try and make them earn it," McCollum said. "That’s the biggest thing. I want our kids to play as well as they can."

Waters expresses confidence in SunBelt Conference

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Wright Waters applauded the NCAA on Monday for giving Division I-A football programs extra time to adhere to a new set of guidelines.

The NCAA dropped the number of home games Division I-A teams are required to play against teams from the same division from five to four until the 2006 season this summer. A second rule requiring teams to average 15,000 fans for home games will remain on the books, but teams will not be penalized for failing to meet the standard this season, Waters said.

Several other rules will go into effect this year, including minimums for the number of sports schools sponsor and the number of scholarships awarded to athletes on an annual basis.

Waters expressed confidence that all the teams in the league would be able to meet the new standards during the league’s first conference call of the season.

"I feel good about how our schools are doing," Waters said. "We have been monitoring season ticket sales, which the schools have made a point of emphasis, and everyone has stepped up the number of sports they offer and met the requirement of 200 scholarships."

The new NCAA rules were one of several issues Waters addressed.

Waters also said he was pleased with the league’s new alignment that will be completed in the next two years with the addition Florida Atlantic and Florida International in 2005. Troy will become a member of the Sun Belt’s football league this fall.

Partial member Louisiana-Monroe is also scheduled to join the league in all sports and help replace New Mexico State, Utah State and Idaho, which are departing to become members of the WAC. Monroe is already a member of the Sun Belt’s football league.

The changes in the league’s alignment will prevent each member of the conference from playing this season because of existing contacts for non-conference games. Those contracts will prevent three-time defending league champion North Texas from playing Troy State, which finished second in the league’s preseason poll.

The league originally designed 12 non-conference games to count in the league standings, but reduced the number to four earlier this year. The Sun Belt champion will be determined by winning percentage.

Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Troy will all have their games against Florida Atlantic count in the standings. NMSU’s game against UTEP will also count in the standings.

"All the coaches would like to settle the conference title on the field," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "Not being able to play everyone is a disadvantage for all the teams. We have gone to winning percentage. That’s the best method we have."
08-31-2004 09:27 AM
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