|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.