In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-3 in Sun Belt)
Head Coach: Blake Anderson (.538)
Returning Starters: 16/24 (9 OFF/5 DEF/2 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 86th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 5 @ USC
- Sept. 12 v. Missouri
- Sept. 26 @ Toledo
- Oct. 20 v. UL-Lafayette
- Nov. 5 @ Appalachian State
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE RED WOLVES
For the past four years, the Arkansas State head coaching position has been the fastest rotating turnstile toward upward mobility in the game. After guiding the Red Wolves to a 10-win season in 2011, Hugh Freeze vaulted up into the lead position at Ole Miss. The following year, nine wins in the regular season left Gus Malzahn packing to return to the Plains as Auburn’s head coach. The seven-win campaign in the 2013 regular season opened the door for Bryan Harsin to succeed Chris Petersen at his alma mater, Boise State. Thus, for the first time since 2010, the 2015 season will see a head coach remain for a second year at the helm of the Red Wolves:
How could you not love a coach that wants to stay at your school and who goes around filming himself surprising folks with free football tickets? The Arkansas native was actually raised in Texas, yet the former North Carolina offensive coordinator’s enthusiasm for the post has allowed continuity to make a rare appearance. Should he manage to re-establish the highs that allowed the Red Wolves to win a share of the Sun Belt championship from 2011 to 2013, Anderson could be the next one out the door after his sophomore campaign.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE RED WOLVES IN 2015
It all begins with Anderson. Continuity hasn’t been a prerequisite for success in Jonesboro, but having a coach who was born in the town and remains eager to find success at the school has positioned the team for a potential next breakthrough. The ability to work in the same system for a second season should benefit a core group of players that already played dynamic offense in 2014 and could be even more dangerous for opponents in 2015.
Speaking of the offense, the return of nine starters and all but 180 of last year’s 6,194 yards gained is a major source of hope for the Red Wolves this season. Quarterback Fredi Knighten, three receivers, and tight end Darion Griswold all return as starters along with tailback Michael Gordon and three offensive linemen from last season. That experience could propel a top-40 offense into a top-25 unit, which might be the difference between seven and nine or 10 victories. And if the defense can come together and replace the six departed starters on that side of the ball while maintaining or even improving on last year’s results, the Red Wolves could once again be Sun Belt favorites.
WHAT COULD COST THE RED WOLVES THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
Just like Marshall with its weak schedule strength, any Sun Belt champion is going to be competing against a different standard than the champions of the AAC or Mountain West. And Arkansas State has a murderer’s row for a non-conference schedule, with two top-20 Power Five opponents to open the season and a road game at fellow Access Bowl hopeful Toledo. Losses to teams in the class of USC and Missouri would probably not exempt Arkansas State from contention for the Access Bowl, but no further margin for error would exist in conference play.
And to succeed without a blemish en route to a Sun Belt title will require far better defensive performance than was exhibited in 2014 as the Red Wolves slipped to a tie for fourth in the conference. Especially against the run, Arkansas State proved too weak to hang in shootouts against teams like Georgia Southern. The Eagles aren’t on the schedule this year, which unfortunately also means that the chance of a split championship is also likely. And we saw how well that worked out for Baylor and TCU in a selection committee debate for the final spot in the CFP semifinals, leaving a precedent that requires winning the championship outright.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
The season opener across the country at USC pits the Red Wolves against a Pac-12 and national favorite, and a veteran Trojans squad should overpower Arkansas State. The same could be said about the following weekend’s game against two-time defending SEC East champ Missouri, even though the Tigers come to Jonesboro for a rare SEC road game against mid-major competition. The following weekend will allow a measure of redemption and a first win for the year against FCS Missouri State, but a tough trip to the Glass Bowl to take on Toledo will put the Red Wolves in a position where they are 1-3 and in danger of falling completely out of the national picture.
Idaho’s visit to Arkansas will open the conference schedule positively for Blake Anderson’s crew, and a close but successful visit to South Alabama will have the Red Wolves back to .500 in the standings. Louisiana-Lafayette comes to Jonesboro, which should make the difference in a showdown between two teams in transition, and nothing scary should come of Georgia State’s visit on Halloween. Optimism will be renewed on the Arkansas State campus as the Red Wolves enter November at 5-3.
The trip to Appalachian State could bring the edifice crumbling back to earth, putting Arkansas State out of the picture. Wins over Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, and Texas State would finish off the year with momentum heading into bowl season, and at 8-4 the Red Wolves would definitely be selected to participate somewhere. But in the end a golden opportunity to return to at least shared status atop the Sun Belt will instead end with neophytes continuing to consolidate position as the new top dogs on the block. Even then, a motivated bowl victory will give ASU two more wins in Anderson’s sophomore campaign than his first year as the coach, and a third season could be the charm for a school that no longer seems like an immediate steppingstone.
PREDICTED RECORD: 9-4 (0-0 in Sun Belt)