The best and worst of the Sun Belt
A final team-by-team look at the Sun Belt.
The Indians' second year under coach Steve Roberts saw progress. The team finished exactly where it was picked to finish in the Sun Belt -- fourth place at 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the league. But Roberts didn't rush things. He redshirted every high school player he signed last year, meaning that the program's long-term prospects should be good. "In trying to put everything in perspective, we finished 5-7," Roberts said. "Before we got here, the program had averaged 2.8 wins in Division I-AA. We've won 11 games the last two years and I believe we're on the right track."
MVP: LB Les Echols. The senior led the defense in every way, not the least of which was his team-best 123 tackles, 17 behind the line of scrimmage.
Biggest Disappointment: After returning the heart of one of the best defenses in the league, Arkansas State took a step backward defensively, which prevented the Indians from making more of a leap in Roberts' second season.
What's Next: Roberts will have to replace seven defensive starters but only three on offense. The challenge for Roberts will be to find some kind of consistency. He has lit a spark under the program, however. Attendance is up and the Indians lost only once at home.
Little went right for the Vandals this season. They couldn't overcome an 0-5 start and their 3-9 finish cost coach Tom Cable his job. A program known for its passing game, Idaho struggled in that department for a time as Cable wavered over whether to use sophomore quarterback Michael Harrington -- who began the season as the starter -- or senior all-conference QB Eric Lindgren, who finished the season as the starter. The new coach will be Nick Holt, currently the linebackers coach at USC. He was an assistant at USC from 1990 to '97 before he left to join John L. Smith's staff at Louisville.
MVP: RB Zach Gerstner. While the passing game searched for a leader, the running game at Idaho blossomed behind Gerstner, who ran for 1,157 yards in his final season.
Biggest Disappointment: The 0-5 start, in which a program accustomed to putting up big offensive numbers just couldn't get enough points on the board to be competitive.
What's Next: Holt will have to replace nine offensive starters, but he won't have a quarterback controversy. Harrington should be ready to step in and be effective as a junior. On defense, Holt will have to fill some major holes in the secondary.
There's every reason for optimism in Lafayette, which is saying something after the Ragin' Cajuns got off to an 0-7 start. They pulled together to win four out of their last five games, leaving coach Rickey Bustle excited about the future. Not only did ULL post its first winning conference record in three years in the Sun Belt, but it broke a 17-game losing streak to Middle Tennessee by beating the Blue Raiders 57-51 in four overtimes for a fantastic finish in the season finale.
MVP: WR Fred Stamps. The senior was the bulk of the offense early in the season and was the major playmaker late, finishing the year with 62 catches for 973 yards and seven touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: The defense ranked fifth from the bottom in NCAA Division I-A against the run, but still played well enough to keep the Ragin' Cajuns in the game in seven-point losses to South Carolina and Houston.
What's Next: There's no reason to think that Bustle won't be able to get the program to pick up where it left off from the end of this season. He loses 10 starters overall but expects to be able to turn more to high school recruits after solidifying the program through the junior college ranks.
The Indians went 1-11 in their first season under coach Charlie Weatherbie, who knew it was going to be a long year, but maybe not quite so long as it actually turned out to be. ULM had seven games decided by seven points or fewer, and won only one of them. But in many ways, just being that close represented progress for the program. "I don't know if I've ever been involved in a season like this," Weatherbie said. "But it's something we definitely can learn from and draw from. All those close games, they give you something to think about and they make you work a little extra harder in the off-season."
MVP: RB Kevin Payne. A freshman surprise, Payne led the team with 976 yards rushing while catching 41 passes for 488 yards and three touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: Special teams were a disaster. The Indians had seven punts blocked.
What's Next: Weatherbie has some good young players returning and he wasted no time shaking up his staff, firing his offensive coordinator, tight ends coach and linebackers coach at the end of the season. With Payne and sophomore quarterback Steven Jyles, Weatherbie has some people to build around.
Middle Tennessee State
The Blue Raiders just might have been the nation's hard-luck team this season. They lost five games by a touchdown or less. They lost their opener to Division I-AA power and future Sun Belt member Florida Atlantic on the game's final play. They appeared to have beaten a ranked Missouri team on the road, but wound up losing 41-40 in overtime. "We were so close in so many big games, and the disappointment is we just couldn't find a way to make the big plays to win them," coach Andy McCollum said. "Our record (4-8, 4-3) is very disappointing because we expected so much more from this season. We were only four or five plays away from being where we wanted to be. But we didn't make those plays."
MVP: WR Kerry Wright. Wright became the first MTSU player ever to top the 1,000-yard mark receiving and finished with a Sun Belt-record 1,280 receiving yards. He had 73 catches for a school-record nine touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: Like others in the league, MTSU expected to have a strong defense entering the season, but that never materialized.
What's Next: McCollum has big holes to fill on the offensive line -- with three starters graduating -- and he'll have to replace his entire secondary with candidates on the existing roster few and far between. More important, McCollum needs to try to establish some of the optimism and momentum that the program lost this season.
New Mexico State
The Aggies were expected to compete with North Texas for the Sun Belt title, or at least to finish second to the Mean Green. They didn't come close to doing either. After winning a slew of close games in the 2002 season, they won just two of seven that were decided by a touchdown or less this year. They were solid defensively and good in special teams, but their offense let them down too many times in key situations.
MVP: QB Buck Pierce. The junior split time at the quarterback spot, but made things happen when he got the chance. He finished the year with just over 1,300 passing yards and seven passing TDs, and ran for 250 more yards and a team-best seven touchdowns. His season ended painfully, with two concussions and a broken leg against North Texas.
Biggest Disappointment: The offense moved the ball well enough, it just gave the ball away too much. The Aggies turned the ball over 24 times this season, and those were too much to overcome.
What's Next: Both quarterbacks are back and all but one starter on a solid defensive unit, so coach Tony Samuel's future looks good. Even more encouraging is that the Aggies' problems this season weren't in the area of personnel. The players were good enough, they just made some key mistakes. Without the turnover problem next season, New Mexico State should be back.
Mean Green coach Darrell Dickey is familiar with New Orleans Bowl opponent Memphis -- his first full-time coaching job was as the Tigers tight ends coach from 1986 to '89. Dickey said the team is preparing well for a Memphis team that got hot late in the season. A win for North Texas would give the program its first 10-win season since 1947.
MVP: RB Patrick Cobbs. While DL Brandon Kennedy no doubt was the team's best player, Cobbs may have been the most valuable. His explosion in the running game helped the Mean Green win some games in which they weren't as dominant defensively as they have been in the past.
Biggest Disappointment: The Mean Green was competitive in every game this season except one -- a 31-7 loss to Arkansas. A better showing against an SEC power wouldn't been another feather for a program that continues to gain respect nationally.
What's Next: Let's go out on a limb here and predict another Sun Belt championship. While Dickey will have to replace Kennedy, he his five underclassmen returning who were first-team all-conference choices.
Utah State's stint in the Sun Belt Conference will be little more than a fly-by. The Aggies joined this season, and next season will be their last. They were expected to have an immediate impact on the league, and they did, jumping out to a 3-1 Sun Belt start. But they lost their last three games of the to dampen their enthusiasm. Coach Mick Dennehy was encouraged at how his defense adjusted to running a new 3-4 scheme, and expects the defense to be even tougher next season with a year of the system under its belt.
MVP: QB Travis Cox. The junior had thrown only seven career passes coming into this season but wound up leading the league with 2,469 yards. He threw for 17 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
Biggest Disappointment: The late-season slide, which came on the heels of some dominant conference performances. All three, however, were relatively close losses, to New Mexico State, Troy State and Idaho.
What's Next: Dennehy has a lot to look forward to with Cox returning for his senior season. He does have to replace three starting lineman, an all-conference tight end and the team's leading rusher, but if he can address those areas, the defense should keep improving, with eight starters returning.
Eric Crawford covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
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