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 greats, 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.
A Band of Misfits
Conferences rise and fall all the time. This is nothing new and when the Big West dropped football after the 2000 season, six schools needed new homes.
Boise State went to the greener pastures of the WAC, while Utah State went independent. That left North Texas, New Mexico State, Idaho, and Arkansas State without a home.
Their solution was to create a new conference, the Sun Belt. They added independents Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette (Big West members from 1993-95), and Louisiana-Monroe to create a new conference with a similar footprint to the Big West, but not as western.
These seven schools were as odd of a bunch to start a conference as one could imagine. Between them they combined for eight bowl appearances and 13 conference titles at the Division 1-A level.
Yet, someone had to win the conference and out of the gates, Middle Tennessee emerged as the front-runner. The Blue Raiders jumped to a 5-0 start which included a two score win over Vanderbilt and a 70-58 shootout against Idaho. By game six, their bubble burst to the least likely of teams.
North Texas began the year 0-5 with losses to good Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech, and South Florida squads, and an ugly loss to conference foe ULM, who would go 2-9 on the year.
The Mean Green’s slide stopped against the Blue Raiders with a narrow 24-21 victory, and they won their next four games by an average margin of 40-16, clinching a share of the title with a 50-27 win over Idaho, which put them at 5-5.
A Historic Accomplishment
Instead of continuing their hot streak, they made history the next week for the wrong reasons. Against Idaho, they improved to 5-5, and clinched a shot on the big stage of the New Orleans Bowl by way of their head-to-head tiebreaker over Middle Tennessee.
Despite going 8-3, the Blue Raiders were home for the holidays. This was the Mean Green’s first bowl since the 1959 Sun Bowl where they faced current conference mate New Mexico State.
However, they still had one more game to play, a non-conference game against the independent Troy Trojans. They lost that one 18-16, becoming the first team to make a bowl with a losing record since 1970 William & Mary, coached by Lou Holtz.
Their opponent in the inaugural New Orleans Bowl could not have been any different than them. The previous year’s Mountain West Champs, Colorado State, awaited them. The Rams were even ranked #24 in the AP Preseason poll. By game-time, the differences were apparent and the Rams cruised to a 45-20 victory.
The first year of the Sun Belt went as expected. Even though the upstart group of schools struggled to shine in their first year together, the year was still a landmark year for one of their co-champions.
Think about it, a 5-6 North Texas team did something that not even Mean Joe Greene could do for the program, take it to the promise land of bowl season.