Not so fast.
While it was not a championship season, looking back with perfect 20/20 hindsight, it's not difficult to see why. Injuries and inexperience are a deadly combination, and while the Rams did have a talented and deep senior class, they probably shouldn't have been favored to win the conference. Not with health questions going in, and not when their returning QB's were sophomores or freshman.
CSU faltered early in the season, and had to rally to earn their third straight bowl bid. It's pretty remarkable that a team could lose it's two top running backs to injuries before the season, replace one inexperienced sophomore QB with another after three games (a QB who was first recruited as a defensive back) suffer key injuries to offensive and defensive lineman, start out 2-4, and still manage to get a bowl bid with a road win on the final Saturday of their season.
For those reasons, Lubick is as proud of the 2001 Rams as any team he's ever coached. A 7-5 finish and a big New Orleans Bowl win not only cemented the reputation of these Rams, but laid a different type of foundation for CSU teams of the future.
Persistence. Perseverance. Pride. All key words for this team and this program.
So what's ahead for the 2002 Rams?
More of the same, only better.
The better will come with the return of 2000 Liberty Bowl MVP Cecil Sapp, the stalwart tailback who sat out the season with a leg injury, and his top back-up, Rashaan Sanders, who also missed the season with a groin injury. The return of both players should instantly take the Rams running game up a notch, but just as important, will be the improved health and over-all performance of the offensive line. Injuries kept this unit from jelling most of the year, and graduation hits hard here. The Rams will return 12 lineman from this year's squad to anchor next season's O-line.
Better play from the line, the return of Sapp and Sanders, and the maturation of junior-to-be Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, should make the Rams ground game even more formidable next season. Van Pelt is a dangerous runner, who should benefit from an off season that could see more QB running plays incorporated into the CSU offense.
But it's the passing game where Van Pelt must make his greatest strides. Again, the off season work will be key, but so will the return of TE Joel Dressen, a superstar in the making, plus receivers Joey Cuppari, Eric Hill and Chris Pittman.
The Rams will score points in 2002, but they will have to improve greatly on defense to dethrone rejuvenated BYU in the Mountain West Conference.
In 2001, it was the secondary – led by the Gallimore twins – that made the majority of the plays for the Rams defense. Dexter Wynn (also a talented kick returner) returns to anchor the revamped group, along with Rhett Nelson.
Linebackers Drew Wood and Eric Pauly both stepped up as the season unfolded, and provided great help to David Vickers and Aaron Wade. All four return next season. As a group, they were aggressive, but undersized. More bulk at linebacker is a must.
Even more of a must, the Rams need more size, strength and depth on the defensive line. Talented Patrick Goodpaster, (6'3", 277) who missed the New Orleans Bowl with an injury, will return for his sophomore season with much expected from him. Fellow sophomore-to-be Andre Sommersell must add weight in the off-season, as will another young lineman, Bryan Save.
CSU has had some highly touted recruiting classes in recent years, and a number of these newcomers will be counted on to fill some defensive holes and provide depth.
It appears that Lubick and his staff are assembling another strong recruiting class this year, and some of the newcomers may be counted on to add more depth to next season's team.
Next year's schedule looks enticing again – the season opener August 31st against in-state rival Colorado in Denver, plus home games against BYU, UNLV and Louisville. The road is full of land mines - or golden opportunities - for Lubick's team. Following the CU game, the Rams travel to UCLA, and also visit Fresno State, Utah and Air Force.
2001 was not a step backwards for Colorado State. In fact, one thing is for certain – the 2002 Rams will have learned lessons in persistence and toughness from the 2001 team, and they'll need the many of the same qualities in order to regain their spot atop the MWC.