Arkansas State will enter the 2018 football season as the favorites to represent the West division in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game this December.
The Red Wolves will be returning seven starters on offense, notably including reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen, and five on defense.
There are some very noticeable losses, such as Sun Belt Player of the Year (and the 2nd all-time NCAA sack leader) Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, All-Sun Belt First Team TE Blake Mack and longtime DB and return man Blaise Taylor, but the Red Wolves are still in a great position to compete for a Sun Belt title this season.
After only two conference losses last year by a total of 12 points, the Red Wolves are on a revenge tour to get back to the top of the totem pole. Four of their five losses last season came by a margin of seven or fewer points.
A-State may have the most favorable schedule in the Sun Belt this season, hosting Appalachian State and avoiding Troy altogether. Their non-conference schedule includes home games against SEMO and UNLV and a road game at Tulsa. The (literal) elephant in the room in a trip to Tuscaloosa to face defending National Champion UCF. Oh, I mean Alabama. Apologies. Outside of that game, it seems the Red Wolves could be favorites across the board.
Perhaps we should break it down.
The non-conference schedule is very favorable for the Red Wolves.
SEMO should be no more than a tune-up game if all goes well. Just another casual Saturday in Jonesboro, leading up to the tallest task of the season.
It would take a series of miracles to win at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Even the SEC powerhouses often fail to make games competitive against the defending National Champions, so don’t be too surprised if the Red Wolves fall well short in this one. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
From there, A-State has two matchups that will give fans a glimpse of just how good the team is.
When the Red Wolves travel to Tulsa, they’ll be facing a team poised for a comeback season after a dismal 2017. The Golden Hurricane followed up a 10-3 campaign in 2016 by falling to 2-10 last year. Strangely enough, this is commonplace for a Tulsa team that has won double-digit games in four of the last ten seasons, and proceeded to win five, eight, three and two games the next year, respectively. A win in Oklahoma would be a great start for the Red Wolves, but a loss would be less than detrimental.
UNLV has not had a winning season since 2013, and seem to be on the cusp of changing that narrative this season. The Rebels have improved their record by exactly one game per season over the last three years since a 2-11 outing in 2014. The Red Wolves will look to put an early damper on the UNLV season with a win in Jonesboro.
Sun Belt Play
The first Sun Belt showdown is also the first conference road game for the Red Wolves. Georgia Southern is likely going to be one of the middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt teams this season, but home-field advantage could make this game more competitive. If A-State plays well and avoids their road-turnover woes from a season ago, this should be another notch in the win column.
Then comes what could be the Sun Belt Game of the Year.
When Appalachian State comes to town, it could be a preview of the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game. These two teams, along with Troy, should be seen as the overwhelming favorites to win the inaugural title game. The Mountaineers will be the biggest threat to a potential 8-0 conference record for the Red Wolves and will be their toughest game of the season besides Alabama.
The Mountaineers took home a share of the Sun Belt title last season after avoiding both co-champion Troy and third-place A-State, but cannot say the same this year. They will travel to Jonesboro on October 9 and host the Trojans in the season finale in a game that will likely decide the East division.
The second-toughest matchup of the conference season will also come with home-field advantage.
A-State will host Louisiana-Monroe as the War Hawks look to snap their eight-game losing skid to the Red Wolves. Watch out for the QB matchup between Hansen and Caleb Evans, as these two are thought to be the best of the best in the Sun Belt this season.
A dark-horse game could be a trip down to the swamps of Louisiana to face the Ragin’ Cajuns.
This is the type of game that even the best teams struggle with. Right in the middle of the conference season, on the road, and after multiple home games in a row. Louisiana seems to always have the Red Wolves’ number. In fact, they snapped a 15-game conference winning streak by the Red Wolves that extended from 2014-2016. A-State got their revenge last season at home with a 47-3 blowout victory, but can they win in Lafayette?
South Alabama is another stop on the revenge tour after the Red Wolves gifted the Jaguars with a win last season thanks to six turnovers by the A-State offense. Hansen threw four interceptions and fumbled once (Blaise Taylor also fumbled) in the 5-point loss. Look for the offense to fix those mistakes and take care of business at Centennial Bank Stadium this year.
Cherries on Top?
The Red Wolves get Georgia State at home and travel to both Coastal Carolina and Texas State in games that, on paper, should be fairly easy victories. Losses to any of these opponents would be more telling than wins.
If all goes well, Anderson could earn his second undefeated Sun Belt regular season with a win in San Marcos.
My Official 2018 Season Prediction
Call me crazy. Call me overly-excited. Say I’m buying into the hype too much. Any of those could be fair assessments. But I’ve got the Red Wolves going 11-1 (8-0 Sun Belt) and HOSTING the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game.
I could easily see them going 9-3 (6-2) or 10-2 (7-1) with a loss to App State and/or a Louisiana school, but I think this could be THE year for the Red Wolves.
Is it a little excessive to predict the Red Wolves to perfect outside of an SEC road trip? Perhaps.
Is it also entirely possible that with the right combination of luck and skill that they could pull it off? Of course.
You may call it a wild fantasy, but I call it a best-case scenario.
All-Time Series vs. FBS Opponents, For Fun
|Opponent||All-Time Series||Last Meeting|
|Alabama||Alabama 2-0||Alabama 35-0 (2008)|
|Tulsa||Tied 2-2||Tulsa 54-7 (2003)|
|UNLV||UNLV 1-0||UNLV 28-23 (1995)|
|Georgia Southern||A-State 2-1||A-State 43-25 (2017)|
|Appalachian State||Tied 1-1||A-State 40-27 (2015)|
|Georgia State||A-State 4-0||31-16 (2016)|
|Louisiana (Lafayette)||ULL 23-20||A-State 47-3 (2017)|
|South Alabama||A-State 5-1||USA 24-19 (2017)|
|Coastal Carolina||A-State 1-0||A-State 51-17 (2017)|
|Louisiana-Monroe||A-State 24-14||A-State 67-50 (2017)|
|Texas State||A-State 4-1||A-State 30-12 (2017)|
All photographs are my own.