It had been awhile since Arkansas State’s 2005 co-champion team, and prospects became good for the Red Wolves. Almost too good. Arkansas State began an era of one-and-done coaches, beginning in 2011 when Hugh Freeze led the program to an undefeated Sun Belt record and a 10-3 finish. He left for the “big-time” environment of Oxford, Mississippi and Gus Malzahn took over. The Red Wolves rode the Gus Bus to another 10-3 finish, this time with a 7-1 record in conference. Malzahn too departed, this time to Auburn.
Taking over the program now, was Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State offensive coordinator. The Red Wolves were in the weird position of doing good enough to succeed in the Sun Belt, but average enough to keep their coach.
They looked to be well on their way to accomplishing the latter as with a 3-4 start. Their wins came against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Troy, and Idaho, with Troy being the only decent win of the bunch. The worst part of the stretch were blowout losses to Auburn, Memphis, and Missouri. In their latest loss, the offense looked listless in a 23-7 loss where they gained only 168 total yards.
At 3-4, Arkansas State faced a crossroads at the season, and in danger of missing their first bowl since 2010. Like so many teams in this series, the Red Wolves caught fire at the right time, winning four in a row. The first win was a 17-16 win over South Alabama in which QBs Adam Kennedy, not that Adam Kennedy, and Fredi Knighten led the way with an efficient 21 for 25 passing.
The next week, Kennedy again took over with over 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in a 42-14 blowout of ULM. The Red Wolves continued their run with an easy 38-21 win over Texas State. Things got closer against the least likely of opponents, 0-10 Georgia State.
The upstart Panthers jumped to a 17-7 halftime lead and continued to be a thorn at the Red Wolves side. only trailing 35-27 late in the fourth. Albert Wilson, who gained 100 yards both rushing and receiving and ended with 253 yards from scrimmage on nine touches shocked Arkansas State with a 70-yard scoring pass from fellow receiver Kelton Hill. The Red Wolves escaped with by a slim margin when the Panthers’ tying-two point attempt came up short for a 35-33 win.
For a chance at an outright title, Arkansas State had to win in the final week against Western Kentucky, who had a 3-3 record in conference, but a 7-4 overall record. They also needed Louisiana-Lafayette to lose either of their last two games against Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama
However, the Hilltoppers recently struggled against a 3-8 Army team, needing a touchdown in the final minute. All records, aside, Arkansas State was the hottest team in the Sun Belt, sitting at 5-1, and 7-4 overall, so an outright title was not out of the question.
The Red Wolves struggled at the gate, falling behind 20-7, but fought back to take a 21-20 lead at the beginning of the third quarter. After, the lead would change hands multiple times, with the Red Wolves holding on to a 31-27 lead after a six-yard touchdown pass from WR J.D. McKissic to Julian Jones. Western Kentucky got the ball last in this shootout, and the Red Wolves were 10 seconds away from keeping their outright title hopes alive when Brandon Doughty tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to Willie McNeal for the win.
Luckily for Arkansas State, they got help from South Alabama during championship weekend, when the Jaguars blew out Louisiana-Lafayette 30-8. The Jaguars took a 30-0 halftime lead and never looked back, holding the Ragin’ Cajuns to 212 total yards and 9-for-26 passing.
The final weeks of the 2013 Sun Belt season is an amazing testament of the conference’s parity that year. Seven of the eight schools finished 6-6 or better, with four of them ending at that exact 6-6 mark. Before 2015 though, being an at-large bowl team out of the Sun Belt was a tough life to live, with the conference only having two tie-ins. As a result, only Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette went bowling, while the rest, even 8-4 Western Kentucky stayed home for the holidays.
The Red Wolves went to their third straight GoDaddy.com (Mobile) Bowl, and defeated a quality 10-2 Ball State team 23-20, while Louisiana-Lafayette won their third straight New Orleans Bowl.
While Arkansas State had a solid season, they again fell victim to the one-and-done curse, losing Harsin to his alma mater, after Chris Peterson fled to Washington. Yet, all’s well ends well, as they hired Blake Anderson, who will likely go down as the Red Wolves greatest coach when he retires.
The 2013 Sun Belt race ended with a slow starter picking up speed in an amazingly close race. Surprisingly, in such a contested race, both leading teams did the best they could to throw it away. Luckily for us, it created an amazing tale to add to our series.