During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.
Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.
Sunniest of Belts
Earlier in this series, we mentioned how a band of misfits established the Sun Belt and their first champion was a 5-6 North Texas team. Over the next three years, something surprising happened, a dominant team emerged.
The North Texas Mean Green not only won three straight conference titles, but went 20-1 in conference play in the process. 2005 looked to be no different as they returned Patrick Cobbs, who ran for over 1500 yards in 2003 and Jamario Thomas, who broke 1800 yards the year before.
However, things hardly went as expected. North Texas got off to a sluggish 1-3 start and finished 2-9, leaving a void at the top. No team looked like a front-runner but by midseason the race narrowed down to three teams.
Wild Times in Jonesboro
The first was Arkansas State, an original member of the conference, who had bounced around the Southland, independence, and two separate stints in the Big West.
The then-Indians started 4-3, with a 3-1 mark in the Sun Belt. All three wins were eventful to say the least. The first was a 66-24 trouncing of FIU in their inaugural game in the Sun Belt, where Arkansas State forced seven turnovers and ran for 304 yards on only 35 carries.
A loss to Louisiana-Monroe followed the FIU game, but Arkansas State bounced back to beat Louisiana-Lafayette 39-36 on an Eric Neihouse field goal as time expired. State had to come back from a 29-14 fourth-quarter deficit and allowed 457 rushing yards to the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Next was a game against Florida Atlantic that was scoreless at the end of regulation and won once again by a Neihouse field goal for a 3-0 score. Arkansas State outplayed the Owls, outgaining them 393-168, but could not get out of their own way, committing four turnovers.
Despite this great start, Arkansas State faltered down the stretch, opening the door for the Sun Belt’s two Louisiana teams. Arkansas State went 1-2 after the FAU game with an ugly 9-3 win over Troy mixed in with a 45-7 loss to Middle Tennessee and a 38-10 loss to Army (both of whom finished 4-7). Louisiana-Monroe had not had the journey of conferences that Arkansas State had, but they were just as upstart.
Louisiana-Monroe had a nightmarish 0-3 start, which included losses to Northwestern State, and a 38-0 blowout at the hands of a Wyoming squad that would finish 4-7.
Yet, they won the games that mattered, getting back on track with back-to-back wins over FAU and Arkansas State with late game heroics. Calvin Dawson’s six-yard run with 1:28 left gave the also-then-Indians a 28-21 win over the Owls, and Steven Jyle’s 2-yard run topped Arkansas State 31-27 with 36 seconds to go.
While wins over Troy and North Texas put a rest to the late-game craziness, ULM needed another comeback to beat Middle Tennessee. After giving up two touchdowns in 45 seconds to blow a ten-point lead, Jyles once again bailed ULM out with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Drouzon Quillon with 43 seconds left to beat the Blue Raiders 34-31.
Down the stretch, a 31-29 loss at the hands of FIU was the only hiccup, as ULM outgained the Panthers 484-295, but three turnovers stole the game.
Now, Enter the Cajuns
Like Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette was a Southland and Big West cast-off, with only two shares of conference titles at the D-1 level. The Ragin’ Cajuns got off to the worst start out of the three title contenders, ending the first half at 1-5 including blowout losses to Texas (yep) and Eastern Michigan (what). The Cajuns caught fire though, winning four straight in the Sun Belt after losses to Arkansas State and FAU.
Like their in-state counterparts in Monroe, Lafayette needed late game excitement for three of these wins. First, a six-yard Booker Jenkins run with 64 seconds left completed a 10-point comeback over Middle Tennesse in a 13-10 win.
The next week, after blowing a 14-point lead against Troy, they needed a 40-yard Sean Comiskey field goal in overtime to escape with a 31-28 win. A one-yard Tyrell Fenroy run with 1:10 to go continued the string of late game magic in another 31-28 win over North Texas.
The Cajuns got a bit of a reprieve from close games the following week with an easy 28-7 win over FIU. All of these events set the stage for a thrilling final week.
A Final Week For All the Gumbo
In the final weekend, ULM and ULL faced each other, while Arkansas State matched up with North Texas. The scenarios were simple.
By way of their victory over Arkansas State, a win by Louisiana-Monroe put them in New Orleans for their first bowl ever. Arkansas State needed to win and get help from Louisiana-Lafayette, while Louisiana-Lafayette needed a win over ULM and a loss by Arkansas State to get themselves to the Big Easy.
There is something about pennant races that draws people to late-season sports, and the Sun Belt was primed for their first real pennant race. In the first game of importance, the Battle for the Pelican State, Louisiana-Monroe blew their win-and-in scenario with a 54-21 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns ran over ULM with 343 rushing yards, led by Tyrell Fenroy and QB Jerry Babb both exceeding the century mark. Now the Cajuns had to wait for the outcome at Denton to learn their fate.
Hopes were high for the Cajuns as North Texas entered halftime with a 17-7 lead over Arkansas State, but Arkansas State fought back and punched their ticket to the Big Easy with a one-yard Antonio Warren run with 30 seconds left. Arkansas State relied on their ground attack, as they had all season, with Warren and Shemar Bracey both going over 100 yards.