Howard Schnellenberger, who turned 74 in March, is enjoying his golden years in the posh south Florida community of Boca Raton.
No, not in retirement.
The longtime coach is too busy adding to his legacy of building winners, this time at Florida Atlantic.
``Football in paradise is what we call it,'' Schnellenberger said, a smile widening under his signature white mustache. ``We're going to get Jimmy Buffett to come sing his song (``Cheeseburger in Paradise''), but change the words a little bit.''
The only head coach FAU has ever known is back for his eighth season with the program he built from scratch. This year is different, however. The Owls are preparing to defend a Sun Belt Conference title and seeking a repeat of their New Orleans Bowl triumph.
Most of Schnellenberger's fellow coaches seem to think the Owls can do it. FAU was picked as the favorite in the Sun Belt's preseason poll, followed by Troy, which crushed Rice in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl and upset Oklahoma State last year. Louisiana-Monroe, which registered a stunning upset at Alabama last season, was picked third.
The Sun Belt Conference, a football league since 2001, is getting stronger, seemingly fielding more potential giant killers each season. Accordingly, the conference has deals this season to send teams to as many as three new bowls.
The league champ will still head to the New Orleans Bowl, but other bowl eligible teams could end up at the St. Petersburg, Papa John's or Independence bowls.
The league is also in the process of adding a new team, Western Kentucky, which plays a Sun Belt schedule this season but does not officially compete in the conference until 2009.
Schnellenberger, who turned a losing Miami Hurricanes program into the 1983 national champion, then elevated Louisville to the Top 25 in the early 1990s, said he isn't surprised by FAU's newfound respect.
The Owls have lost only four starters from a squad that upset Minnesota last season for the program's first win over a BCS conference team, then convincingly beat Memphis, 44-27, in FAU's maiden bowl appearance.
Starting quarterback Rusty Smith, who threw for 3,688 yards and 32 touchdowns last season, is back. Also returning is top receiver Cortez Gent, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving and nine TDs.
``We have to learn how to be a great football team coming from a different position,'' Schnellenberger said. ``Obviously, we won't sneak up on anybody. People will come and play the best they can against us and we need to experience that. We need to deal with it and overcome it.''
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
FLORIDA ATLANTIC - Key Players: QB Rusty Smith, Jr.; WR Cortez Gent, Jr.; RB Charles Pierre, Sr.; LB Frantz Joseph, Sr. Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Schnellenberger, who has long known how to recruit in talent-rich south Florida, has created an enticing option for players who want to stay close to home but have little chance of starting right away at Miami. The coach thinks it's only a matter of time before FAU becomes a contender for a BCS bowl.
TROY - Key Players: OT Dion Small, Sr.; LB Boris Lee, Jr.; DE Kenny Mainor, Sr.; S Sherrod Martin, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: The Trojans have a lot of returning starters on their offensive and defensive lines, but they will have new faces at numerous key positions. Departed top performers include QB Omar Haugabook, RB Kenny Cattouse and WR Gary Banks, as well as cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Elbert Mack.
LOUISIANA-MONROE - Key Players: QB Kinsmon Lancaster, Sr.; RB Frank Goodin, So.; TE Zeek Zacharie, Sr.; LB Cardia Jackson, Sr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: ULM's upset over Alabama highlighted a strong finish in which the Warhawks won five of their last six games after a lousy start. With 15 starters coming back, including his QB, coach Charlie Weatherbie has reason to believe his program enters 2008 headed in the right direction.
ARKANSAS STATE - Key Players: QB Corey Leonard, Jr.; RB Reggie Arnold, Jr.; WR Brandon Thompkins, Jr.; LB Ben Owens, Sr. Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Arnold gives the Red Wolves (formerly called the Indians) a running back with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Now if Leonard can throw fewer than the 15 interceptions he had last season and cut down on sacks, ASU could be a winning team.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE - Key players: QB Dwight Dasher, So.; RB Desmond Gee, Jr.; WR Patrick Honeycutt, Jr.; LB Danny Carmichael, Jr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Dasher is expected to start the next three seasons at quarterback, but first he'll have to beat out senior Joe Craddock. Coach Rick Stockstill has to figure out how to shore up a run defense that twice allowed more than 300 yards in a game late last season.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE - Key players: RB Tyrell Fenroy, Sr.; QB Michael Desormeaux, Sr.; WR Jason Chery, Sr.; LB Antwyne Zanders, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Fenroy seeks his fourth 1,000-yard season. Desormeaux was always a threat to run as well last season, but coach Rickey Bustle hopes he'll become a better passer. Meanwhile, the pressure's on Bustle, now in his sixth season, after only three victories in 2007.
NORTH TEXAS - Key players: WR Casey Fitzgerald, Sr.; RB Micah Mosley, So.; LB Craig Robertson, So. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Expect competition for the starting quarterback job between sophomore Giovanni Vizza and freshman Riley Dodge, the son of coach Todd Dodge. Whoever wins it can look forward to throwing to Fitzgerald, who had 1,322 yards receiving and 12 TDs last season.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL - Key Players: RB A'mod Ned, Sr.; LB Scott Bryant, Jr.; S Jeremiah Weatherspoon, Sr.; QB Paul McCall, Jr. Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: After going 1-11 last season, coach Mario Cristobal will need to improve fast. FIU scored 15 points per game last season. If McCall can't produce, sophomore QB Wayne Younger is likely to get a shot.

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