Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Updated: December 13, 12:05 PM ET
A look around the non-BCS conferences
By Adam Rittenberg
Special to ESPN.com
The BCS wedged open its cast-iron doors for college football's proletariat, and Boise State galloped through. Led by sophomore running back Ian Johnson, the Broncos met every challenge in their path, winning 12 games by an average of 23.8 points. They follow non-BCS trailblazer Utah to the Fiesta Bowl, where they hope to have a similar result. BYU reclaimed its place in the national spotlight behind quarterback John Beck, and TCU re-entered the Top 25 after seeing its BCS hopes dashed in September. The city of Houston produced two winners in Conference USA, while a new-look MAC produced four bowl teams. Troy recovered from a brutal nonconference schedule to capture the Sun Belt title.
Here are the awards for the non-BCS conferences.
MVP -- Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb
After putting up ridiculous passing numbers for years, Kolb obtained something more valuable this fall: a Conference USA championship, Houston's first league title since 1996. The senior stabilized the team after a three-game slide, and Houston captured its final six games, beating Southern Miss in the championship. Kolb ranks sixth in NCAA history in career passing yards (12,578) and fourth in total offense (13,334). He finished the regular season with 3,423 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Rice wideout Jarett Dillard also gets a mention.
Coach of the Year -- Rice's Todd Graham
No Division I-A team improved more than Rice, which went from 1-10 last year to the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the school's first postseason appearance in 45 years. And no coach deserves this honor more than Graham, who in his first season kept a team together after a 0-4 start and the tragic loss of freshman defensive back Dale Lloyd on Sept. 25. Rice played inspired football, winning its final six games, all by 11 points or fewer and four by four points or fewer. "We set our goals when I came here," Graham told the San Antonio Express-News. "Am I surprised where we're at now? No."
Newcomer of the Year -- SMU quarterback Justin Willis
The redshirt freshman set a school record with 26 touchdown passes, tying UTEP's Jordan Palmer for the league lead. Willis set an NCAA freshman record for completion percentage (67.4) and ranked 10th nationally in passing efficiency (158.4 rating), throwing only six interceptions in 270 pass attempts. "He's given us something," coach Phil Bennett said. "Jerad Romo did that the last four games of last season, and Justin has done that this season." Southern Miss freshman Damion Fletcher deserves a mention after ranking second in the league in rushing (112.7 ypg).
Biggest surprise -- Rice
Picked to finish last in the West Division before the season, Rice staged the biggest turnaround in Division I-A. Led by Graham, Dillard and quarterback Chase Clement, the Owls rebounded from a 0-4 start and the tragic death of Dale Lloyd to finish second in the division. Rice snapped the nation's second-longest bowl drought (45 years) and will face Troy in the New Orleans Bowl. East Carolina also rebuffed the preseason poll, finishing second in the East Division after being projected last.
Biggest disappointment -- Central Florida
The Golden Knights were an overwhelming choice to repeat as East Division champs, but they endured three- and four-game losing streaks en route to a 4-8 finish. UCF ranked 106th nationally in total defense (398.1 ypg) and 111th against the pass (248.8 ypg). Coach George O'Leary on Monday demoted defensive coordinator Lance Thompson and fired assistants Miles Aldridge and Peter McCarty. UTEP was also substandard, finishing 5-7 after being picked to finish second in the West Division.
MVP -- Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe
Preseason league favorite Northern Illinois didn't have the season it wanted, but Wolfe certainly lived up to expectations. He put Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record in jeopardy with 1,343 yards in his first six games, including a school-record 353 against Ball State on Sept. 30. Wolfe slowed down considerably down the stretch, but he still finished as the NCAA's rushing leader with 1,900 yards (158.3 average). Some credit also must go to Western Michigan linebacker Ameer Ismail, who helped curtail Wolfe and led the nation in both sacks (1.42 spg) and tackles for loss (2.13 tpg).
Coach of the Year -- Ohio's Frank Solich
The former Nebraska coach became the first coach in NCAA history to take teams to the league championship game in two different conferences. The Bobcats lost three of their first five games, and Solich's disciplinary policy became questioned after The Columbus Dispatch reported widespread arrests of his players. But Solich kept the team focused, and Ohio won seven straight games to win its first-ever East Division title. Brian Kelly deserves a mention after winning a league championship in only his third season at Central Michigan.
Newcomer of the Year -- Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour
LeFevour became the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to a MAC title since Bowling Green's Brian McClure in 1982. A first-team All-MAC selection, LeFevour set a single-season school record for touchdown passes (23) as Central Michigan won its first league championship since 1994. Freshman wide receiver Bryan Anderson became LeFevour's top target (816 receiving yards, 5 TDs) and deserves a mention.
Biggest surprise -- Kent State
The Golden Flashes became college football's Cinderella story after getting off to their best start in 19 years. Kent State posted its first five-game winning streak since 1976, its first nonconference road win since 1987 and its first homecoming win since 2001. Though it struggled late to finish 6-6, the Flashes seem to be on their way back. Central Michigan won the league title after being picked fourth in the MAC West division in the preseason. Coach Doug Martin was rewarded with a four-year contract extension after the season.
Biggest disappointment -- Miami (Ohio)
After averaging 7.9 wins the last 11 years, Miami endured its worst season since a winless campaign in 1988. The RedHawks dropped their first six games and finished 2-10 after being picked second in the MAC East in the preseason. But Miami was not alone when it came to disappointing teams. MAC East favorite Akron went 5-7, and traditional powers Toledo and Bowling Green also finished below .500.
Mountain West Conference
MVP -- BYU quarterback John Beck
Anyone unconvinced of Beck's value bought in Nov. 25, when the senior capped a 12-second play by finding Jonny Harline for the game-winning touchdown against Utah with no time remaining. Beck led BYU to a league title, an undefeated conference record and nine consecutive wins to close the regular season. He ranked second nationally in passing efficiency (173.3 rating) and fourth in both passing yards (319.1 ypg) and total offense (316 ypg). Utah senior Eric Weddle (6 interceptions, 2 touchdowns) also had a stellar season alternating between cornerback and safety.
Coach of the Year -- BYU's Bronco Mendenhall
It's taken only two years for Mendenhall to make BYU matter again. After going 6-6 last season, the Cougars surged to a league title behind Beck and Mendenhall's defense, which ranked 16th nationally in scoring (15.3 ppg allowed). If not for a controversial overturn of a touchdown against Arizona and several missed chances in a double-overtime loss to Boston College, the 19th-ranked Cougars could have joined Boise State in the BCS bash.
Newcomer of the Year -- UNLV wide receiver Ryan Wolfe
Wolfe was one of few bright spots for a UNLV team that finished 2-10. He became the first freshman ever to lead the Mountain West in receiving yards after racking up 911 to go with five touchdowns. The 6-foot-1 Wolfe had three catches of 50 yards or longer and ranked 25th nationally in receiving yards (75.9 ypg). BYU cornerback Ben Criddle also merits a mention.
Biggest surprise -- Wyoming
After surviving a start that featured four losses by seven points or fewer, Wyoming rallied to capture five of its final seven games. Picked to finish last in the league before the season, the Pokes ended up tied for third with a 5-3 conference record. Though they did not end up in a bowl game, Joe Glenn's team should be set up well for 2007.
Biggest disappointment -- Colorado State
The Rams went from league title contender to basement tenant in record time. After riding a solid defense to a 4-1 start, Colorado State dropped its final seven games, never scoring more than 23 points against a Division I-A opponent. A stagnant offense saddled coach Sonny Lubick with his worst season in 14 years as CSU coach. "I probably might shift some things, but it might not be as drastic as people might want," Lubick told the Rocky Mountain News.
Sun Belt Conference
MVP -- Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook
Haugabook guided the Trojans to their first league title, and he did it the hard way -- by winning on the road. The junior-college transfer threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:19 to lift Troy over Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A week later, Haugabook had a career-best 107 rushing yards and passed for two touchdowns in Troy's win at Florida International. Haugabook led the league in both passing (182 ypg) and total offense (200.1 ypg). Other MVP-worthy candidates include Louisiana-Monroe running back Calvin Dawson and Middle Tennessee linebacker J.K. Sabb.
Coach of the Year -- Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill
In his first season as Blue Raiders coach, Stockstill guided the team to a 7-5 record and its first Division I-A bowl appearance. After going 4-7 last season, Middle Tennessee won a school-record six Sun Belt games and reached the Dec. 26 Motor City Bowl (ESPN, 7:30 ET). "To be able to attend a bowl game in just our eighth season at the I-A level is a testament to our program and shows the direction we are headed," Stockstill said.
Newcomer of the Year -- Arkansas State running back Reggie Arnold
Haugabook deserves some love here, but priority goes to freshmen, and Arnold was a great one. The 5-foot-9, 217-pound redshirt freshman ranked third in the league in both rushing (89.7 ypg) and all-purpose yards (91 ypg). He also ranked third nationally among freshmen in rushing. Other fabulous freshmen included Middle Tennessee's Desmond Gee, Arkansas State kicker Josh Arauco and Louisiana-Monroe cornerback Greg James.
Biggest surprise -- Middle Tennessee
After a 4-7 finish and the firing of coach Andy McCollum, everyone expected Middle Tennessee to struggle this fall. The Blue Raiders were picked sixth in the league's preseason poll and had major questions on offense after finishing 100th in rushing and 105th in total yards. But new coach Rick Stockstill instilled new hope in the program, and an aggressive pass rush lifted Middle Tennessee to a 7-5 record and its first Division I-A bowl game.
Biggest disappointment -- Louisiana-Lafayette
The preseason league favorite opened the season 4-2 before falling off against title contenders Middle Tennessee and Troy. Louisiana-Lafayette finished in fourth place despite having the league's top rushing offense, led by sophomore Tyrell Fenroy. Also deserving a mention is Florida International, which lost national respect following its fight with Miami and was one of only two Division I-A teams to go winless this season.
Western Athletic Conference
MVP -- Boise State running back Ian Johnson and Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan
There's too much offensive firepower in this league to have only one MVP. Johnson burst on the scene with 240 rushing yards against Oregon State and never let up, finishing second nationally in rushing (146.6 ypg) and first in scoring (13.1 ppg). He set a school-record for rushing yards (1,613) despite missing a game with a partially collapsed lung. Though Johnson was the face for the nation's top mid-major, no one put up numbers like Brennan. The Warriors junior led the nation in passing yards (4,990), passing efficiency (182.8 rating), total offense (410.8 ypg) and passing touchdowns (53). Brennan needs one touchdown to tie David Klinger's single-season NCAA record set in 1990. "I'll be disappointed if he doesn't make it to New York [for the Heisman Trophy presentation] because I don't care what people say, no quarterback has played like he has," Hawaii coach June Jones said before Brennan wasn't invited to the Heisman ceremony.
Coach of the Year -- Boise State's Chris Petersen
Petersen became the fourth first-year coach to lead his team to a BCS game and the fifth coach ever to win 12 or more games to begin his career. He kept the Broncos focused through unprecedented media attention and facilitated improvement on both sides of the ball after a disappointing 2005 season. Though Hawaii's June Jones earned WAC Coach of the Year honors after guiding a team picked fourth in the preseason poll to a second-place finish, even he voted Petersen for the honor. "I don't know how Chris Petersen didn't get it," Jones said. San Jose State's Dick Tomey also merits a mention.
Newcomer of the Year -- Idaho cornerback Stanley Franks and San Jose State cornerback Dwight Lowery
The two junior college transfers tied for the national lead in interceptions with nine each. Franks ranked second in the WAC and 11th nationally in passes defended (1.33 per game), while Lowery tied for 13th nationally (1.25 per game). Lowery became the first San Jose State player ever named to the American Football Coaches Association All-America team. Franks tied Idaho's single-season interceptions record.
Biggest surprise -- San Jose State
Picked sixth in the WAC preseason poll, San Jose State transformed into one of the nation's biggest surprises this season. After going 3-8 last season, the Spartans won four straight after an opening loss to Washington and finished in a tie for third place in the league. They reached their first bowl game since the 1990 California Raisin Bowl and beat Fresno State for the first time since that same year. After finishing 114th in pass defense a year ago, San Jose State improved markedly behind Lowery.
Biggest disappointment -- Fresno State
The Bulldogs endured their worst season in the Pat Hill era, finishing below .500 for the first time since 1998 with a 4-8 record -- their worst since 1975. Picked second in the preseason poll, Fresno State looked like a shell of its former self, stumbling on special teams and turning over the ball. Hill's team finished 97th in scoring defense (28.3 ppg), tied for 91st in average turnover margin (minus-.5 per game) and 113th in net punting (30 ypp). "It hasn't been fun," Hill told The Fresno Bee. "Just a lot of funny things happened during the course of this season."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.