Thankfully, the college football season is just 85 days away. With that in mind, it’s time to preview team No. 85 in the Rant Sports 100 in 100 Series: the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
ASU has been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the past two years. Not only have the Red Wolves captured the last two Sun Belt titles, but they have also posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.
Can Arkansas State make it three in a row, or will the loss of stalwarts Don Jones, Ryan Aplin, Nathan Herrold and Zack McKnight doom the team to a mediocre season?
Despite learning its third different system in three years, the Red Wolves’ offense will be one of the best in the conference. After all, the offensive line welcomes back four starters, including tackle Aaron Williams, from a unit that averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season. They should have no trouble opening up huge holes for All-Sun Belt running back David Oku, who ran for a 1,061 yards and scored a league-best 16 TDs.
The passing game is also in excellent shape. Sure, the starting quarterback spot is still up for grabs, but the offseason addition of Utah State transfer Adam Kennedy will give ASU some much-needed experience at the position. Regardless of who takes over under center, the Red Wolves have plenty of weapons at the skill positions in J.D. McKissic (103 receptions), Julian Jones (30.3 yards per catch, 7 TD) and Darion Griswold.
Even though the offense received most of the recognition for the team’s success, the Arkansas State defense quietly put together a fine season. Under the leadership of defensive coordinator John Thompson, the Red Wolves’ D finished first in the conference in scoring defense, second in total defense and second in turnover margin.
With Thompson remaining in Jonesboro, the 2013 version of the defense could be even better since the players won’t have the burden of adjusting to a new scheme. Although ASU must break in four new starters in the front seven, the run defense should be just fine with the return of run-stuffing DT Ryan Carrethers and tackling machine Qushaun Lee (108 stops).
The Red Wolves’ secondary will be the best in the Sun Belt this year. Sure, the unit loses Jones to the next level, but starting safeties Chris Humes and Sterling Young are back. Keep an eye on cornerback Rocky Hayes, who had an impressive spring after playing mostly on offense last season.
As always, ASU plays a challenging non-conference schedule. Sure, the docket includes a couple of tune-up games against the Arkansas Pine-Bluff Golden Lions and Idaho Vandals, but it also features road trips against the Memphis Tigers, Auburn Tigers and Missouri Tigers. While an upset against one of the SEC schools isn’t completely out of the question, the Red Wolves will likely finish the non-conference slate with a 3-2 record.
The Sun Belt schedule is equally difficult. ASU plays both the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on the road, and faces the Troy Trojans on a short week after visiting Auburn.
Let’s be honest, Arkansas State is the Rodney Dangerfield of college football because it still doesn’t get any respect nationally. Despite losing some key components from last season’s 10-win squad, this team still has as much talent as anyone else in the conference. If — and it’s a big if — the Red Wolves win a couple of key road games, it will win its third straight Sun Belt championship.