2011 Record: (10-3, 8-0 in Sun Belt)
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (first time head coach)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 GoDaddy.com Bowl: lost to NIU 38-20
Big Name Opponents: 9/1 at Oregon, 9/15 at Nebraska
Most Intriguing Conference Game: 10/23 at Louisiana
Rivals: 9/10 vs Memphis, 10/8 at ULM
Stat to Cheer: led the Sun Belt with 208 plays of 10 or more yards and 32 plays of 30 or more yards.
Stat to Fear: 27 turnovers (giveaways) tied for 97th in the Nation
Phil Steele's Returning Starters (Offense: 6; Defense: 3; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Nathan Herrold (66 tackles), DB Don Jones (54 tackles), DT Ryan Carrethers (29 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Ryan Aplin (19 TD, 16 INT), WR Josh Jarboe (54 rec, 2 TD), WR Taylor Stockemer (48 rec, 7 TD), OT Zack McKnight, RB Frankie Jackson (355 yds, 6 TD)
I have a soft spot for Arkansas State. It was probably that re-tweet I got from coach Hugh Freeze's twitter account for an article we did that included Arkansas State last year. Regardless, what the Red Wolves did last year was impressive. In nine years Steve Roberts mostly hovered around the .500 mark but never exceeded it. In only one year as a head coach, Hugh Freeze was able to go 10-2 and post an 8-0 conference record.
The big question is whether Guz Malzahn can continue what Freeze did despite the loss of talent on the defensive side of the football. Malzahn still has some weapons to play with on offense as the Red Wolves return QB Ryan Aplin and two of his top receiving targets. Aplin got better as the year went on (11 TD and 4 INT in his last five regular season games versus 7 TD and 9 INT in his first seven) and he also finished the year as the leading rusher for the Red Wolves. Malzahn had some success with a mobile QB in the recent past if you remember (cough...Cam Newton...cough). Like last year, they will have to rebuild part of their offensive line but I think Arkansas State should be able to maintain their success on offense.
The telling part will come on defense where they lost a good bit of talent. They lose three defensive backs that combined for 12 interceptions and their top six sackers (26.5 sacks). Look for some JUCO guys to get some immediate playing time and how well the defense responds under new DC John Thompson might just come down to those guys. I don't think this Red Wolves team will go undefeated in conference (like last year) but I would bet on them being in the thick of the Sun Belt race.
2012 Prediction: 9-3
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