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Tuesday, November 27
Updated: November 28, 3:58 PM ET
 
First year shows Sun Belt on the right track

By Adam Rittenberg
Special to ESPN.com

It seemed only fitting that a team would make an astonishing about-face to snare the conference championship in the Sun Belt's inaugural season. At 0-5, North Texas could have called it a year in most leagues. But competing in a wide-open title race, the Mean Green righted their ship and staged a second-half surge to secure a championship and a New Orleans Bowl berth.

The Sun Belt's best
MVP
Much of North Texas' turnaround can be credited to LB Brad Kassell, who led a marauding defense that dominated Sun Belt opponents all season long. With 85 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, five pass breakups, two interceptions and a sack, Kassell was all over the gridiron. Under his guise the Mean Green were tops in the conference in scoring defense (23.0 points per game), rushing defense (124.1 yards per game), total defense (365.0 yards per game) and first downs allowed (195). "As one of our few seniors, he has been through some rough times," North Texas coach Darrell Dickey said. "He knew what guys were going through. He didn't say much, but he led by example his performance was very instrumental in holding this team together."

Coach of the Year
With his job on the rocks and his team's morale in the gutter, North Texas' Darrell Dickey rallied the troops and engineered an impressive title run. Following a 19-17 loss to Louisiana-Monroe, the Mean Green used a dominating defense and effective running game to rattle off five consecutive conference victories, knocking off Middle Tennessee to earn a bid in the New Orleans Bowl. Dickey's squad was undoubtedly the most disciplined in the Sun Belt, leading the league in turnover margin (plus-6) and time of possession (31:36 per game).

Biggest Surprise
If first impressions held much water, New Mexico State appeared to be sinking fast after their first four games. The Aggies were pounded in a brutal non-conference schedule, dropping games to then-No. 6 Texas, then-No. 12 Oregon State and then-No. 10 Kansas State. But once they reached Sun Belt play, the Aggies elevated their play, rattling off two league victories to reach poll position in the standings. While New Mexico State fell to third place in the Sun Belt at season's end, its two losses were decided by one score or less.

Biggest Disappointment
With a senior-laden offense that ranked eighth nationally in 2000, Idaho was tabbed as a strong candidate to claim the Sun Belt crown. But injuries, turnovers and dreadful defensive play crippled the Vandals throughout the season, as they lost their first eight games and finished the year 1-10. While Idaho was able to tally some monster offensive numbers, its paper thin defense failed countless times, finishing dead last in Division I-A scoring defense with 45.0 points per game.

With seven very different teams brought together to slug it out in the league's first year, selecting a favorite was a tall task prior to season's kickoff. As expected, things started slowly for many Sun Belt teams only Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Lafayette were able to notch non-conference victories before the conference season began. Middle Tennessee streaked to a 5-0 start and seemed to be a lock for top honors in the Sun Belt, but a loss to North Texas doomed the Blue Raiders' hopes of reaching the New Orleans Bowl.

A key aim for the Sun Belt was to stage a close competition this year safe to say, the league was right on target. As teams like Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State (lost its two league games by a combined six points) can attest to, the margin for error was minute. The league proved it could mirror top conferences by providing a title race in which one loss could ruin a team's hopes. While this season's results exceeded expectations, the Sun Belt must made great strides to reach the level of a mid-major. The league's primary goal for 2002 will be tallying more against teams from top conferences.

Arkansas State
Arkansas State's weakest area was in the worst place possible under center. Inexperienced quarterbacks hampered the Indians throughout the season, as they racked up a league low 136.8 yards passing per game. Despite an effective running game, the Indians quickly became one-dimensional and opposing defenses caught on, limiting Arkansas State to fewer than 20 points in five of six Sun Belt games. The Indians 2-9 record did not impress administrators, who dismissed head coach Joe Hollis on Nov. 22 following a season-ending loss to Nicholls State.

MVP: RB Jonathan Adams. The senior runner carried the Indians attack on his back for most of the season, tallying 1,004 yards and five touchdowns for the season. Adams placed third in the league with 91.3 yards per game and finished his collegiate career in style, racking up 119 yards against Nicholls State.

Biggest Disappointment: QB Elliot Jacobs. While the freshman signal caller was in way over his head, the blame for Arkansas State's offensive struggles must start at the top. Jacobs, tabbed as a runner and passer heading into the season, accumulated a mere 725 yards of total offense for the season. Jacobs lost his starting job midway through the season, and the Indians finished their disappointing campaign with a fourth-stringer under center.

Did you know: With 1,004 yards rushing this year, Jonathan Adams became only the second running back in Arkansas State history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for a season.

Louisiana-Lafayette
The Ragin' Cajuns were stocked with athleticism coming into the year, but miscues at critical moments prevented them from gaining momentum. Louisiana-Lafayette's downfall stemmed from its inability to have both strong offensive and defensive performances on Saturdays. The Ragin' Cajuns limited Middle Tennessee's vaunted attack to 26 points but couldn't muster more than nine points of their own. Then when the offense clicked against New Mexico State, the defense collapsed down the stretch, conceding 49 points in a last-minute loss. It was a season of what-ifs for Jerry Baldwin's squad, but a core of returning starters such as quarterback Jon Van Cleave should help the Ragin' Cajuns in 2002. Baldwin himself will not return, as athletic director Nelson Schexnayder dismissed the head coach on Nov. 26.

MVP: QB Jon Van Cleave. The sophomore gunslinger seemed to improve each week, finishing the season first in the league in passing with 227.2 yards per game. Van Cleave was 224-of-407 for 2,499 yards and 14 touchdowns. Van Cleave was named Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the week on Oct. 22 after throwing for 407 yards and three touchdowns in a 54-37 victory over Idaho . Biggest Disappointment: Louisiana-Lafayette defensive line: The front wall cracked and split open in several games this season. The Ragin' Cajuns finished next to last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 183.4 yards per game and an average of 4.3 yards per carry. With the Ragin' Cajuns unable to generate a ground attack of their own, their inability to stop opposing runners factored into the 3-8 season.

Did you know: Louisiana-Lafayette's 46 points against New Mexico State on Nov. 17 was the highest total it had tallied at Cajun Field since a 56-point output against UAB on Sept. 9, 1995.

Louisiana-Monroe
Louisiana-Monroe holds the distinction of being the only team to hand North Texas a Sun Belt loss. Only one problem that's the only feat the Indians can claim in a hard-luck 2001 campaign. Louisiana-Monroe was hampered throughout the season by a stagnant offense that tallied a meager 13.8 points and 248.7 yards per game. Following the triumph over North Texas, the Indians went through a month-long drought of faults and follies, dropping four straight contests. The lone bright spot for Bobby Keasler's squad was its rushing defense, which placed second in the league after allowing only 137.1 yards per game.

MVP: DE Marbrae Wilson. The freshman defensive end fueled the Indians in close contests, notching five sacks in only six games played. Wilson led the league with an average of .83 sacks per game, edging line mate Donald Malveaux and LB Maurice Sonnier. With six tackles for a loss in as many games played, Wilson should be a fixture in the Indians front wall for many years.

Biggest Disappointment: RB Bryant Jacobs. The junior runner could never find his rhythm, posting a meager 3.0 yards per carry average and 27.8 yards per game. The rushing attack was a major weakness for the Indians all season, and Jacobs will need to boost his numbers to secure a starting role next season.

Did you know: Heading into its season finale on Saturday at Cincinnati, Louisiana-Monroe has led at halftime on only two occasions this season.

Middle Tennessee
Although North Texas will be making the trip to the Big Easy on Dec. 18, there is a group of people in Murfreesboro, Tenn., who aren't convinced that the Mean Green is the Sun Belt's best team. With at least two wins more than any other league team and an offense claiming top-10 national rankings in a multitude of statistical categories, Middle Tennessee seems to be the league's premier squad on paper, at least. The Blue Raiders' tandem of quarterback Wes Counts and running back Dwone Hicks highlighted an attack that generated 37.1 points and 481.4 yards per game in 2001. While Middle Tennessee's defense was less-than-stellar, it finished tied for the top spot in the conference with 27 sacks. Despite the facts and figures, Blue Raiders players and coaches are the first to point out this season's bottom line: that they didn't take care of business when it mattered most against North Texas.

MVP: RB Dwone Hicks. The junior runner battled nagging injuries for most of the season but still managed to top the charts in league rushing with 103.9 yards per game. A Doak Walker Award Candidate, Hicks tallied a whopping 1,143 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns for the year. It was the second straight season the he surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark.

Biggest Disappointment: PR Hansford Johnson. One of the few problem areas for the Blue Raiders this season was punt returns. Middle Tennessee finished last in the league with a mere 56 punt return yards on 18 runbacks. Johnson did not help the cause, racking up only 3.1 yards per return this season.

Did you know: With 20 touchdowns in 2001, Hicks brought his career total to 48, breaking the school record of 45 set by Joe Campbell, who played at Middle Tennessee from 1988-91. Hicks, a junior, can build on his mark if he chooses to remain with the Blue Raiders for his senior season.

North Texas
It was a tale of two seasons for the Mean Green in 2001. They sputtered out to a painfully slow start against top-notch non-conference foes before finding the winning track after league play got underway. Head coach Darrell Dickey said his team made a collective decision to continue fighting after dropping their Sun Belt opener to Louisiana-Monroe. The Mean Green's resurrection was fueled by a stifling defense led by linebackers Brad Kassell and Cody Spencer, both of whom placed among the league's top tacklers. Senior placekicker Jason Ball provided added help with his powerful leg and running back Kevin Galbreath proved to be rock solid throughout the season, finishing second in the league with 103.5 yards per game. With their backs against the wall against New Mexico State and Idaho, North Texas displayed its resiliency, churning out strong second-half performances.

MVP: RB Kevin Galbreath. While many point to the Mean Green's defense as the primary cause of the team's turnaround, Galbreath's consistency was paramount for a spotty attack. Heading into North Texas' season finale on Saturday, Galbreath has tallied 1,035 yards and four touchdowns. Most impressive has been the fact that Galbreath has surpassed the 100-yard mark in seven of the 10 games he's played in this season.

Biggest disappointment: The passing attack While it is hard to fault the leadership of quarterback Scott Hall, North Texas has struggled to establish a multi-dimensional attack throughout the season. Hall tallies a meager 130.8 yards passing per game, while Mean Green opponents have averaged nearly 100 yards more per game in the air. Hall and his receivers will need to find a rhythm in the New Orleans Bowl, as the Mean Green will likely face an offensive juggernaut from the Mountain West Conference.

Did you know: Thus far this season the Mean Green have not allowed an opposing back to rush for 100 yards in a game. The last time North Texas went an entire season without allowing a 100-yard ground performance was in 1977, when it conceded an average of 125.3 yards rushing per game en route to a 10-1 record.

New Mexico State
While North Texas has received all the attention for its stunning turnaround, the Mean Green was not the only Sun Belt team to right the ship midway through the season. Although New Mexico State was unable to pull off a league title and New Orleans Bowl berth, they were able to notch five victories after limping through a vicious non-conference slate jam-packed with top opponents. The Aggies boasted the league's best offensive line and one of its best all-purpose quarterbacks, K.C. Ezminger. Coupled with an experienced secondary that limited opposing teams to a league-low 122.6 pass efficiency rating, New Mexico State posed a stiff challenge for Sun Belt teams. Yet the Aggies downfall was their inability to execute in crunch time, as they were unable to tally the go-ahead score against North Texas and Middle Tennessee.

MVP: CB Tony Lukins. Lukins' speed and athleticism helped the Aggies in several areas this season. He finished fourth in the league in kick return average with 23.7 yards per runback and two touchdowns. As one of New Mexico State's biggest playmakers, Lukins forced three fumbles, tying him with teammate Siddeeq Shabazz for the league lead. He also amassed two sacks and two interceptions, capping off a career-best campaign.

Biggest disappointment: P Brian Copple. The Aggies often lost the field position battle in games because of spotty punting by Copple and Co. New Mexico State finished last in the league with a paltry net of 31.5 yards per punt. Copple could not find a tempo this year, posting a gross of 37.2 yards per punt.

Did you know: Despite playing his final four collegiate games with a torn ligament in his left knee, Ezminger accumulated 1,943 yards of total offense this season, giving him 6,778 yards for his career. Ezminger becomes only the third player in school history to tally more than 5,000 career yards, with Cody Ledbetter and Joe Pisarcik being the other two.

Idaho
Idaho head coach Tom Cable called it "the part of the journey that isn't much fun." The Vandals 1-10 season took its toll on players and coaches as they struggled to comprehend what went wrong in 2001. Idaho returned an arsenal of offensive weapons from a team that went 5-6 a year ago and seemed to be on the rise. Yet a myriad of defensive lapses, mental errors, injuries and poor execution doomed the Vandals time and again in 2001. While the offense was able to put up impressive point totals, Idaho's brittle defense could not stop opponents late in games. The Vandals 70-58 slugfest loss to Middle Tennessee on Oct. 6 was a prime example of their inability to jell as a team.

MVP: QB Brian Lindgren. Forced into the starting signal callers role after senior John Welsh went down to injury, Lindgren put on a display that makes Vandals fans feel optimistic about the team's future. He set new Idaho records for completed passes (49), pass attempts (71), passing yards (637) and total offense (657) in the loss to Middle Tennessee and finished the season with 1,611 yards passing and 10 touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment: Anyone associated with Idaho's defense Simply put, the defenders let the team down this season. Relying completely on the offense to keep the team in games, Idaho's defense finished at or near the bottom of Division I-A in several key statistical categories. Most jarring is the 45 points per game average the Vandals allowed this year. Forcing the offense to climb that mountain every Saturday was just too much to ask.

Did you know: Vandals senior wideout Chris Lacy finished 13th in Division I-A in receiving yards per game with an average of 95.0. Lacy hauled in 65 catches for 1,045 yards and eight touchdowns this season.




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