Commentary

Brennan, Smith highlight non-BCS seasons

Updated: December 11, 2007, 12:57 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | Special to ESPN.com

For years, Hawaii football was known for video-game offense, deficient defense, partisan officiating and the haka war dance. The Warriors now have another claim to their name: a BCS berth. For the third time in the last four years, a non-BCS team busted into the big bowls, as Colt Brennan and his teammates banked a Sugar Bowl berth. Hawaii ended up alone on an island for a new reason this fall, finishing as the only unbeaten team in Division I-A. BYU surged after a shaky start, winning its final nine games and going undefeated in a strong Mountain West. After struggling last year, Central Florida completed its resurrection and won Conference USA behind superstar running back Kevin Smith. Tulsa, meanwhile, claimed a division title with first-year coach Todd Graham. Central Michigan repeated as MAC champs despite some dreadful nonconference results, and Florida Atlantic swiped the Sun Belt title after stunning Troy in the regular-season finale.

Here are the awards for the non-BCS conferences.

Conference USA


Most Valuable Player


RB Kevin Smith, Central Florida
Smith had an 80-yard touchdown dash on the season's first play and never slowed down, finishing with the second highest rushing total (2,448) in Division I-A history. The Golden Knights star eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all but one game and had 170 yards or more nine times. Smith needs a doable 181 yards in the Liberty Bowl to break Barry Sanders' record. The affable junior said he's putting his stay-or-go NFL decision in the hands of UCF coach George O'Leary. Here's hoping he stays and makes a run at the Heisman in 2008. "[Smith] has been special from the first to the 12th and I hope everyone recognizes that," O'Leary said. A MVP mention also goes to Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith, who passed for 4,753 yards and 42 touchdowns and led the nation's top offense.

Coach of the Year


George O'Leary, Central Florida
The Knights dipped last fall after a breakthrough season in 2005, but O'Leary has them back on solid footing. Picked to finish third in the East Division, UCF won its final seven games -- the streak is a school record -- and twice beat Tulsa to lock up its first league title. O'Leary clearly knew Kevin Smith's capabilities and gave the running back 415 carries, an NCAA single-season record. UCF improved six games from last season and reached just the second bowl in school history. Todd Graham guided Tulsa to a West division title in his first season as coach after an intra-division move from Rice.

Newcomer of the Year


WR Trae Johnson, Tulsa
The 5-foot-11 freshman became Paul Smith's top target this season, catching a team-high 67 passes for 1,039 yards and 11 touchdowns. Johnson ranked fourth in the league in receiving yards per game (79.9), two spots behind teammate Brennan Marion, a junior-college transfer who was another one of the league's top newcomers. Johnson served as a returner for both kickoffs and punts and ranked ninth in the league in all-purpose yards (107.9 ypg). Other notables include Houston freshman quarterback Case Keenum, UTEP freshman quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and Tulsa fullback Charles Clay.

Biggest surprise


Central Florida
The ingredients were there for a turnaround, especially with Smith in the backfield, but any team that improves its record by six wins constitutes a surprise. Picked third in the East division, the Golden Knights and their superstar running back ran away with the conference championship. UCF's 10 victories tied a school record and it closed with seven straight wins. Memphis rebounded from a 2-10 season and won its final three games to finish 7-5.

Biggest disappointment


SMU
The Mustangs were picked third in the West division before the season but ended up advancing the theory that the program will never recover from the death penalty sanctions. SMU went winless in league play and 1-11 overall, prompting the firing of coach Phil Bennett with four games remaining. The nation's 116th-rated defense doomed SMU, which once again got decent production from quarterback Justin Willis. Preseason East division favorite Southern Miss had a wave of injuries and finished 7-5, though the bigger disappointment was the idiotic dismissal of longtime coach Jeff Bower.

Mid-American Conference


Most Valuable Player


QB Nate Davis, Ball State
After matching Ball State's single-season record for touchdown passes as a freshman, Davis easily broke it this fall with a league-high 27 scoring strikes. The 6-foot-2 sophomore led the MAC in passing (281.3 ypg) and quarterback rating (140.9), tossing three or more touchdowns six times. He led Ball State to its highest win total (8) since 1996 and its first bowl berth since the same year. Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour (3,360 pass yards, 23 touchdowns) was also worthy after leading his team to a second straight league championship.

Coach of the Year


Turner Gill, Buffalo
Many programs can be flipped around fairly fast, but Buffalo looked like a lost cause after winning just 10 games in its first seven seasons as a Division I-A program. Gill worked miracles this fall, guiding Buffalo, yes, Buffalo, to a 5-7 record. The Bulls were in position for a postseason push with three games left and won all their games in MAC play. Gill molded quarterback Drew Willy into one of the league's most efficient passers as Buffalo shattered school records. After interviewing for the head-coaching job as Nebraska, his alma mater, Gill likely will remain at Buffalo, which could enter next fall as one of the favorites in the MAC East. "There are only a handful of schools that I'd be interested in going to, but I plan on staying here," Gill said. "I'm not a coach that likes to jump around."

Newcomer of the Year


WR Antonio Brown, Central Michigan
A true freshman, Brown led the league in receptions (98), snagging 11 more passes than any other wideout. He became the top possession receiver in Central Michigan's spread offense, and his receptions total tied for the fifth best in MAC history. Brown also was a first-team all-league selection as a kickoff returner, averaging 27.7 yards per runback with a 90-yard touchdown. Buffalo freshman safety Davonte Shannon (123 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 forced fumbles) also merits a mention.

Biggest surprise


Buffalo
The Bulls found themselves in a familiar spot, picked last in the MAC East before the season. But behind second-year coach Gill and blossoming quarterback Willy, Buffalo staged one of the nation's top turnarounds. Buffalo won five games, half of its victories total from its first seven seasons in Division I-A. All five wins came in MAC play, where the Bulls had won just eight times before the fall. Bowling Green tied for the league lead in victories (8) after being picked fifth in the MAC East before the season.

Biggest disappointment


Western Michigan
The Broncos were picked to win the league after going 8-5 last year, but several come-from-ahead losses resulted in a 5-7 record. Western Michigan fell to Akron 39-38 after allowing an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the game's final play. Two weeks later, Ball State scored a touchdown with 1:07 left to rally past Western Michigan. The Broncos then blew a 31-27 lead in the final 1:34 against Central Michigan, which scored the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left. Preseason MAC East favorite Ohio went a disappointing 6-6, while Kent State backslid to 3-9.

Mountain West Conference


Most Valuable Player


WR/RB Chad Hall, Air Force
Generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, Hall seemed as unassuming as his team entering the season. But both Hall and Air Force became dangerous, surging to a 9-3 record and a second-place finish. Hall ranked third nationally in all-purpose yards (208.7) and was the only Division I-A player to lead his team in rushing yards (1,415), receiving yards (488) and all-purpose yards (2,504). The senior broke the league record for all-purpose yards and needs 80 yards in the Armed Forces Bowl to break Beau Morgan's single-season school rushing mark. Other notables include BYU quarterback Max Hall and UNLV linebacker Beau Bell.

Coach of the Year


Troy Calhoun, Air Force
Stepping into a potentially sensitive situation after Fisher DeBerry's retirement, Calhoun made Air Force relevant again during his first season as coach. The Air Force alum engineered the biggest turnaround for a first-year coach in Division I-A, as the Falcons went 9-3 and finished second in the league after winning just four games last season. Calhoun enhanced but didn't overhaul Air Force's offense, which finished second nationally in rushing (298.5 ypg). Bronco Mendenhall continued to build a non-BCS powerhouse at BYU, which went undefeated in conference play.

Newcomer of the Year


RB Harvey Unga, BYU
After some early shuffling at running back, BYU settled on Unga, who set a league record for all-purpose yards by a freshman with 1,840. He became the first BYU freshman to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and the first to record seven 100-yard performances. Unga needs just six yards in the Las Vegas Bowl to break the league's single-season freshman rushing record set by Air Force's Keith Boyea in 2001. "His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and his ability to run the ball with power played a critical role in our conference championship season," Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said. TCU freshman quarterback Andy Dalton merits a mention after setting the school's single-season freshman passing record with 2,210 yards.

Biggest surprise


Air Force
After enduring three straight losing seasons and the retirement of longtime coach Fisher DeBerry, Air Force seemingly had a low ceiling this fall. But new coach Calhoun and a veteran squad raised the bar. The Falcons went 9-3, eclipsing their wins total from the previous two seasons. A five-win improvement from 2006 was the second best one-year turnaround in school history, and Air Force finished with its most wins since 2000.

Biggest disappointment


TCU
Tabbed as this season's non-BCS darling back in August, TCU dropped two of its first games and finished a pedestrian 7-5 despite returning nine starters from a defense that ranked second nationally last year. Star defensive end Tommy Blake twice took a medical leave from the team, and TCU struggled with ball discipline (27 giveaways, minus-.5 turnover margin). Colorado State dropped nine of its first 10 games in coach Sonny Lubick's final season.

Sun Belt Conference


Most Valuable Player


QB Rusty Smith, Florida Atlantic
Smith set a conference record with 3,352 passing yards and led Florida Atlantic to a surprising championship. The 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore also set a school record with 27 touchdown strikes, tossing three or more scores in five games. Smith ignited for 463 passing yards and five touchdowns in FAU's win against Minnesota and threw for 291 yards and two scores in an upset of Troy that clinched the league title. Other notables include Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook (3,606 yards of total offense) and Louisiana-Monroe running back Calvin Dawson (117.8 ypg).

Coach of the Year


Howard Schnellenberger, Florida Atlantic
The 73-year-old has built programs before, but Florida Atlantic might be his most impressive project. Schnellenberger guided FAU to a Sun Belt championship and a New Orleans Bowl berth in only the program's third full season in Division I-A. He built FAU from scratch beginning in 1998, and the team played its first game in 2001. The Owls played a competitive schedule this fall and upset Troy on the road in the regular-season finale to secure the title. "It's a reward for all the things that they've done to this point," Schnellenberger said, "but more importantly than that, it's still part of the mission that all the kids came here for."

Newcomer of the Year


QB Giovanni Vizza, North Texas
In a season of few bright spots at North Texas, Vizza boosted hope for the future with a solid performance under center. The 6-foot-1 true freshman wound up third in the league in passing (238.8 ypg) and sixth in quarterback rating (115.1). He set the NCAA single-game freshman record for passing touchdowns with eight against Navy. Florida Atlantic redshirt freshman cornerback Tavious Polo (7 INTs) was another notable newcomer.

Biggest surprise


Florida Atlantic
Picked sixth before the season, Florida Atlantic sneaked up on everybody, namely Troy, and nabbed the league title on the final day of the regular season. With star quarterback Smith at the helm, the Owls ranked second in the league in scoring offense (30.1 ppg). They led the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.58) and won four games by seven points or fewer. "People who two years ago didn't know us from a cake of soap now know our football team," coach Howard Schnellenberger said.

Biggest disappointment


Troy's Final Game
Troy had it all lined up: another conference title, another trip to the New Orleans Bowl, a perfect sendoff for standout quarterback Haugabook. All the Trojans had to do was beat Florida Atlantic at home and polish off a 9-3 record that included a win against Oklahoma State and three losses to ranked SEC teams. But three turnovers and a disastrous third quarter led to a 38-32 loss that abruptly ended Troy's season. Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State both went 5-7 after being picked second and third in the league before the season.

Western Athletic Conference


Most Valuable Player


QB Colt Brennan, Hawaii
The big numbers were guaranteed, but how far could Brennan take Hawaii in 2007? All the way to Bourbon Street, it turned out. Brennan not only continued to redraft the NCAA record books, but he led Hawaii to a perfect season and a BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl. The so-called system quarterback didn't match his ridiculous stats from 2006 (5,549 passing yards, NCAA record 58 touchdowns), but he still managed 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns. Brennan owns or shares 29 NCAA records, including career touchdown passes (131).

Coach of the Year


June Jones, Hawaii
The man behind Hawaii's insane offense proved he could take a team to the top. Jones helped Brennan develop into one of the nation's best players, and his offense led the nation in scoring (46.2 ppg). Hawaii fixed a shaky defense and survived two overtime tests to finish as the nation's only undefeated team. Jones earned his second consecutive WAC Coach of the Year award and could be heading to a bigger job on the mainland.

Newcomer of the Year


QB Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
It wasn't an easy season for Nevada, which endured several key injuries and lost five games by eight points or fewer. But Kaepernick's development signals good things are ahead for the Wolf Pack. The freshman started the final seven games for Nevada, passing for 2,038 yards and 19 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He added 567 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Kaepernick ranked fifth nationally in quarterback rating (161.1), two spots behind Brennan. Other standout freshmen included Idaho running back Deonte Jackson (97.9 ypg), Boise State running back Jeremy Avery, Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews and Boise State freshman place-kicker Kyle Brotzman (15-for-17 on field goals).

Biggest surprise


Hawaii's defense
Despite Brennan and an incredibly productive offense orchestrated by Jones, Hawaii always seemed to have a ceiling because of its defense. Last season, the unit ranked 93rd nationally in yards allowed (377.8) and 105th against the pass (241.7 ypg). But the return of coordinator Greg McMackin and the development of several players (linebacker Solomon Elimimian, defensive lineman David Veikune) helped the defense blossom this fall. Hawaii ranked fifth nationally in tackles for loss (8½ per game) and ninth in sacks (3.25 spg).

Biggest disappointment


New Mexico State
The WAC preseason poll played out almost exactly as forecasted, so no team could be classified a major disappointment. But New Mexico State continued to struggle despite having one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks in Chase Holbrook (3,866 total yards, 26 touchdown passes). The Aggies dropped their final five games and seven of their last eight, their only league win coming against 1-11 Idaho. Coach Hal Mumme will be back next fall despite an 8-29 record in three seasons at New Mexico State.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.