Read that cavalierly written headline and then whisper, “Why not?” After all, the Reese’s Senior Bowl is not until the end of the month (Jan 28), followed closely by NLI Signing Day (Feb 1). What the hell else have we got? (Besides enjoying an unexpectedly juicy Sun Belt basketball season?)
If you’re a Red Wolves fan, you’ve probably already digested half-a-dozen retrospectives dissecting what might be the program’s wildest season in recent memory. Instead of recapping the season, I’m just going to take my Red Wolves 2016 Preview and determine what I got right-ish and what I got insanely wrong. (And then, yeah, I recap the season.)
Right-ish! Dee Liner and Kendall Sanders are new guys who’ll make significant impacts.
Both Liner and Sanders came out of the blocks slowly, but Liner delivered a ton of QB pressure at season’s end, culminating in fine performance against UCF in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. Sanders impact was more apparent, especially during the last 4 weeks of the season, where he accounted for 221 yards and 3 TDs. His massive performance against UCF, 127 yards and 3 scores, earned him Cure Bowl MVP honors.
Insanely Wrong! Chad Voytik will be The Man for the Red Wolves
I predicted Voytik would be named the starter at the beginning of the season. But the versatile transfer from Pitt never seem comfortable in Buster Faulkner’s offense. Sophomore signal caller Justice Hansen took over for Voytik midway through Week 3’s tilt against Utah State and remained the starter ever since. Voytik wound up contributing in short yardage situations.
Insanely Wrong! Buster Faulkner will make the offense even faster in 2016
Maybe the offense was intended to be faster, but perhaps asking for an insane pace of play from an offense replacing the bulk of its skill players was a bit much to ask. The 2016 Red Wolves dearly missed seasoned veterans like Fredi Knighten, JD McKissic and Michael Gordon, and the overall result was struggle, especially in the red zone.
Right-ish! The defense will be the class of the conference
The defense started off just as wobbly as the offense at the start of the season. But defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen got the squad in monster form just in time for conference play. The result was a heavy-sacking machine led by disruption from Waylon Roberson (2nd team Sun Belt), Chris Odom (conference sack leader and 1st team Sun Belt) and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (Sun Belt Player of the Year).
Insanely Wrong! 12-and Oh
To be fair, I didn’t outright predict a flawless season. I merely said this team had the moxie and talent to win every one of its games, even at Auburn. Frankly, I was making a classic mistake of buying into the hype while completely ignoring the warning signs. The QB battle that extended from the Spring Game right up to the start of the season should have been clue enough that the QBs were not quite ready. Also, one might have noted the relaxed nature of Spring and fall practices and thought maybe everybody is a little too chill. Also, the team was bringing a ton of new pieces online, including skill players and key staff. Yes, this was a talented football team. But I was wrong to ignore the obstacles. Sorry.
Moment that changed everything
You can make an argument that Blake Anderson replacing Chad Voytik with Justice Hansen midway through the Utah State game was the pivotal moment of the season. After all, Hansen nearly led the team to a road comeback. But the true season-changer arrived two games later in Jonesboro against Georgia Southern. Down 26-20 with less that 3 minutes in the game, the Red Wolves seemed doomed needing 16 yards to covert an improbable 4th down. Justice Hansen, flushed out of the pocket, manufactured a ping-ponging 18-yard scramble, taking advantage of an awesome block from Cameron Echols-Luper. The 13-play, 70 yard drive ended with a circus catch in the corner of the end zone between Hansen to Omar Bayless. The Red Wolves won 27-26. Without the Hansen Scramble, the Red Wolves fall to 0-5 and into the Pit of Despair.
Most satisfying game of the season
Upending “Power 6” opponent UCF will get votes, as well as tossing a bucket of ice cold “Sorry Not Sorry” on Georgia Southern. But upsetting and dominating #25 Trojans at Troy 35-3 reestablished the Red Wolves as the Sheriff of the Sun Belt. The win over Neal Brown’s resurrected program restored the Red Wolves swagger and paved the way for another conference championship.
Biggest bummer of the year
Sure, losing to Toledo again was no picnic, and watching in-state FCS program Central Arkansas outplay the Red Wolves wasn’t fun at all. But the biggest bummer of the season had to be falling to the Louisiana Cajuns just a week after upending the Trojans, destroying any chance of winning a Sun Belt title outright. 100% of the Sun Belt trophy should have been mailed to Jonesboro. Instead, the Red Wolves had to settle for a share with Appalachian State.
My most prophetic statement of the year
“Of course, it all goes to hell if the Red Wolves lose to Toledo again on September 2.” – some wise moron
Last word on the season
When the screaming ended and the bodies were scraped off the turf, the Red Wolves wound up ranked 65th by Sagarin, smack dab in the middle of everyone, just ahead of Indiana and UCLA and right beneath Texas. So it wasn’t exactly the storied season I predicted. So what? It was, in fact, a very good season from a team that might have allowed an 0-4 start to dictate the year, but instead went on to win 8 of its last nine to salvage an 8-5 season. A-State fans enjoyed another bowl victory, another winning season, and another conference championship. And yet, we demanded more. Maybe that’s good. Demanding more is better than expecting nothing.
First word on the next season
The Red Wolves will enter 2017 with serious questions. The defense will need replacements for DE Chris Odom and DB Money Hunter, and the offense will have to replace a whopping five offensive linemen. And yet, a good portion of the key playmakers remain, starting with Justice Hansen who keeps most of his skilled players (Kendall Sanders will be missed). Furthermore, the staff has placed a recruiting emphasis on getting deeper and heavier on the offensive line. Where the line lacks in experience, it makes up for with size. Lastly, this will be Year 2 for offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, whose offense should be easier to digest in 2017. Call me nuts, but I think the Red Wolves come back strong next season.
Maybe even 12 and Oh strong.