It didn't have to go this way. Every season, someone has to finish last in their conference—but it didn't have to be the ULM Warhawks in the Sun Belt.
After an 8-5 season in 2012 and an invitation to the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl, the team has regressed by two wins in every season since. This is how a team one year finishes last in its conference; it's also how Todd Berry, praised for the "mighty impressive things in one of the tougher jobs in the FBS" he does, loses said job.
Let's try to figure out where it went wrong for the 2015 Warhawks.
The Warhawks scored 273 points this season, which averages out to 21 points per game. It's good for the 125th best offense in the FBS, which isn't good. They weren't better in yards per game, ranking a not-so-robust 124th with 310.8 yards.
The Warhawks' problem was sustaining drives on offense—or that when they did, they too often coughed it up: you're not going to win many football games with a -16 turnover margin and, well, ULM didn't.
Quarterback Garrett Smith won the starting nod as a redshirt freshman out of nowhere and had both highs and lows this season. Ultimately, he did enough to see the bulk of the action over the team's first eight games. Connecting on 191 of 333 passes for 2,033 yards and a 57.4 completion percentage, and 17 touchdowns is far from perfect. But freshmen quarterbacks aren't supposed to be perfect. (They're not supposed to throw 11 interceptions either, but shhhhh.) Earnest Carrington also played, completing only 47.1 of his 119 passes.
The Warhawks simply couldn't run the dang ball: Ben Luckett, Kaylon Watson, Smith and Deontae McNeal combined for 1,220 of the team's 1,338 yards on the ground, and all seven of their rushing touchdowns. Only the redshirt freshman Luckett, with his 5.4 yards per carry, was effective in any kind of way.
If only the problems had been restricted to the offense, as they were, say, a season ago, the Warhawks might have been fine in 2015 again. Sadly, the defense also sputtered.
You'll say that, "Hey 105th is still better than the offense's 125th. That's good." That's weird definition of good, but I'll entertain the idea. However, the 36.5 points ULM surrendered on defense says this unit wasn't so good.
Looking at the totals against the pass and the rush will seemingly paint a picture of a unit that was better against the pass than it was against the run, but the numbers are better understood with some context. Opponents passed the ball 341 times this season against ULM and gained 8.2 yards per pass. On the flipside, they rushed the ball 638 damn times with only 4.24 yards per carry.
Why? Opponents passed at will against ULM, then rushed when they had the game in hand.
The strength of the ULM defense? Right along the front seven, where linebackers Hunter Kissinger and Michael Johnson, and linemen Ben Banogu and Gerrand Johnson excelled. Kissinger and the two Johnsons managed 35.5 tackles for loss, including 8 sacks.
Any team that finishes a season with a 2-11 record doesn't deserve a passing grade. It's as simple as that—but you want me to complicate it?
Okay, sure. Of the team's two wins, one came against an FCS school; their second arrived only after they had fired their head coach. The offense was just inconsistent enough to turn the ball over at inopportune times, which hurt a defense that was already hurting quite a lot.
The team's most valuable player is likely Hunter Kissinger, right? The senior led ULM with 133 total tackles in only 11 games, which works out to roughly 12.1 per game. That's 1) actually insane and 2) good enough for a First-Team All-Sun Belt selection. Among his 133 tackles were 11.5 for losses and two sacks; for good measure, Kissinger added one interception, one pass defended and one fumble recovery.
There will be a new head warhawk in town at Malone Stadium moving forward, with new head coach Matt Viator making the jump from McNeese State to the big boy football world of the FBS. He'll have to adapt to the Sun Belt, but he can rest easy knowing he has a 77-33 track record that says he's a good coach.
But will he be a good coach in Monroe?