The big 2014 GoDaddy Bowl breakdown: Ball State favored in the BCS undercard

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, Arkansas State is in the GoDaddy Bowl, and once again the Red Wolves will be led by interim coach John Thompson. Can the Red Wolves, always in transition, fend off an outstanding Ball State offense and move to 8-5?

Traditions are part of what make college football so unique. (A more fleshed out list: tradition, marching bands, bowl games, making small cities like Tuscaloosa feel like the most important places in the country, creepy-looking bouncy inflatable mascots, and Ed Orgeron.) And in recent years, a new tradition has begun.

Before each Monday night BCS title game, we get a Sunday night GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, pitting a MAC team against an Arkansas State squad led by an interim coach. This is the third year in a row for this; hell, it's the second year in a row that ASU defensive coordinator John Thompson has been the interim of choice. Granted, traditions have changed a bit -- it's now just the GoDaddy Bowl -- but there are more than a few familiar elements here.

It is an awkward time of transition for Arkansas State, but if anybody can handle it, it's the Red Wolves. ASU dumped Steve Roberts in 2010 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons and brought in Hugh Freeze. The Red Wolves went 10-3, won the Sun Belt, lost Freeze to Ole Miss, and ended up in Mobile. They brought in Gus Malzahn for the 2012 season. They went 10-3, won the Sun Belt, lost Malzahn to Auburn, and ended up in Mobile.

In 2013, they brought in Bryan Harsin. They went only 7-5 this time around and had to share the Sun Belt title with UL Lafayette (the Cajuns won the tie-breaker), but they still lost Harsin to Boise State, and they still ended up in Mobile.

Including Thompson, ASU's fifth-year seniors next year will be on their sixth head coach when former UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson takes over following the bowl game. But for now, they have a bigger concern than coaching and transition: Ball State. The Cardinals are pretty damn good and are on the doorstep of an 11-win season.

How they got here

ASU's season to date

It took Bryan Harsin a while, but he did eventually get ASU looking like ASU again. With decent turnover in personnel and a rough early schedule, the Red Wolves began the season 3-4. They were thumped by Auburn and lifeless in a 31-7 loss at Memphis, but they hung around against eventual SEC East champion Missouri a while before falling, 41-19. They lost to UL Lafayette at home, but after a tight win over South Alabama on the road, they whipped ULM in Monroe and returned home to defeat Texas State and Georgia State and all but clinch another bowl bid. The regular season finished with a loss at Western Kentucky, but the Red Wolves still snagged a GoDaddy bid.

As a whole, change seemed to catch up to ASU a bit more in 2013 than it had in recent years. (It always does eventually.) The Red Wolves weren't as deep, especially on defense, but had enough offensive talent (and tremendous special teams) to reach a third straight GoDaddy.

Ball State's season to date

Ball State was basically two quarters from finishing the regular season undefeated. On September 14 in Denton, the Cardinals raced out to a 20-3 lead on North Texas, desperately nursed a 27-24 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and lost 34-27. Then, at Northern Illinois on November 13, BSU tied the game at 27-27 late in the third quarter but cratered, and the Huskies scored the game's final 21 points in the final six minutes to cruise to a deceptively easy 48-27 win.

Other than that, though? Ball State romped Virginia, survived tight visits from Toledo (not surprising) and Kent State (more surprising), and beat the other seven teams on the schedule by an average score of 46-20. The loss to NIU kept the Cardinals from reaching their first MAC title game since 2008, but for 46 of 48 quarters this season, BSU has been a legitimate, viable, top-50 team. The same cannot be said of ASU this season.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Arkansas State 7-5 NR 93 97 105 4
Ball State 10-2 NR 52 -7 36 88 14
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
ASU Offense 80 98 86 88 33 111 61
Ball State Defense 101 94 92 109 79 73 58
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
ASU Offense 59 42 57 56 108 46 113
Ball State Defense 94 57 75 98 40 65 75
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Ball State Offense 53 31 77 28 5 11 24
ASU Defense 106 59 100 93 65 83 35
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Ball State Offense 86 65 125 63 6 7 12
ASU Defense 98 101 48 80 87 73 80
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
ASU Special Teams 19 21 46 33 22 5
Ball State Special Teams 36 19 78 9 84 14

ASU's biggest advantages:

The ASU offense dominates the five yards closest to the line of scrimmage. The Red Wolves' offense hasn't been incredibly reliable in 2013, mostly because it lacks explosiveness. Leaning entirely on efficiency and third-down conversions can eventually backfire on you, especially when you struggle to protect the passer (and ASU has very much struggled to protect Adam Kennedy in 2013, particularly on passing downs).

But they can move the chains pretty well; they rarely go three-and-out, and the offensive line does a solid job of creating opportunities for runners Michael Gordon and David Oku. Gordon is ASU's most explosive player by far; his late-season emergence (72 of his 106 carries came in the last four games) added serious heft to the offense and took the pressure off of Kennedy.

When combined with solid possession receivers J.D. McKissic and Julian Jones, Gordon offers ASU a chance at a well-rounded offense. But even if ASU doesn't get many big plays, the Red Wolves could still move the chains a bit and put themselves in position to win the field position battle.

Creating long fields for Ball State will be quite important, considering the Cardinals have one of the best mid-major offenses in the country. In this case, the ASU offense can help its defense out immensely even if or when it isn't scoring points.

You really can't touch this special teams unit. Place-kicker Brian Davis is a perfect seven-for-seven inside 40 yards and five-for-seven beyond 40. McKissic averages 30 yards per kick return and a decent 8.4 yards per punt return. Opponents average just 19.4 yards per kick return, and while Paul Jones doesn't punt balls very far (38.3 average), he punts them pretty high. Nearly one-third are fair-caught, and one-third have been downed inside the 20.

Despite a porous defense, Arkansas State has a top-20 field position advantage, basically because it avoids three-and-outs and hands the ball to its awesome special teams unit to do the rest. Ball State's special teams are almost as good, actually, but ASU's unit really is a game-changer and could help out immensely. This game is all about doing your defense favors, and ASU's offense and special teams could do that.

Ball State's biggest advantages:

The Cardinals are more efficient. According to Brian Fremeau's First Down Rate, only four teams are better than Ball State at avoiding three-and-outs. Granted, the run game isn't quite as strong without the injured Horactio Banks, but between Jahwan Edwards' running and quality pass distribution from Keith Wenning to receivers Willie Snead, Jordan Williams, and Jamill Smith and tight end Zane Fakes (these four have 89 percent of Ball State's receptions and have gained 3,682 yards with 34 touchdowns), BSU is varied and reliable in its attack.

ASU's defense, meanwhile, is probably too passive to stop BSU too many times before the Cardinals have cranked out a first down or two. The Red Wolves are decent in stuffing the run at times -- end Chris Stone has 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss, while linebacker Qushaun Lee has 5.5 and end Eddie Porter has 5.0 -- but the pass rush does no favors for a pair of otherwise active corners (Rocky Hayes and Artez Brown.

Ball State's offense doesn't really regress on passing downs, and if the Cardinals face a few (not a given), they will have an opportunity to dig their way out and matriculate the ball down the field.

The Cardinals are more explosive. Wenning is a consistent, efficient signal-caller; he's completed 65 percent of his passes with 34 touchdowns to six interceptions.

But make no mistake, he and the Cardinals can get aggressive when they want to, as well. The running game doesn't have much to offer in this regard without Banks, but no worries. Snead, Williams, and Smith each averages at least 9.2 yards per target and 13.6 yards per catch. Snead is the star; by the end of the game, he'll have likely caught his 100th pass of the season and potentially gone over 1,500 yards (he's at 97 and 1,429 at the moment).

Depth is key here. ASU might have two strong corners, but do the Red Wolves have three?

There's a lot of skill position talent on the field in this game. ASU's Julian Jones is a smooth athlete who plays bigger than his listed height (6'0), and McKissic is a poor man's Ace Sanders, with all of his weight in his core, catching balls underneath the coverage and bouncing off of tacklers. But BSU has the edge here with this trio. Plus, ASU's defense is, as a whole, a bit shakier than BSU's.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Let's face it: In the MAC, your fortunes depend almost as much on your coach as it does on your star power. Ball State will lose Keith Wenning, Jamill Smith, and most of its defensive line in 2014, but as it currently stands, the Cardinals will return their strong coach, Pete Lembo, for a fourth season. His predecessor, Stan Parrish, won just six games in two years, but he's won 22 of 31 games after a slow start in 2011, and so far it looks like he'll be in Muncie again in 2014.

That's good enough, and it will probably make BSU a division contender once again in the MAC, whether or not the Cardinals win in Mobile. (Assuming Snead returns for his senior season. That'll help, too.)

ASU, meanwhile, starts over with a new coach once again. Blake Anderson will be tasked with replacing Adam Kennedy, Julian Jones, David Oku, three starting offensive linemen, and three starting defensive linemen. Gordon and McKissic should return, along with the back seven of the defense (corners Hayes and Brown are each underclassmen) and most of the special teams unit.

There are questions for this team to answer, but after three straight conference titles or co-titles, we might need to give the Red Wolves the benefit of the doubt.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ball State 42, Arkansas State 27
Win Probability: BSU 81%

Two good special teams units, two shaky defenses, one strong offense. Ball State gets the nod, basically, because of its passing game. The Cardinals can wing it. (Get it?)

The emergence of Michael Gordon makes ASU a more interesting entity, especially if there's a general devil-may-care approach on the offensive side of the ball. The Red Wolves have just enough weapons to make this interesting, but BSU has simply proven itself on an entirely different level this year and is justifiably favored to reach 11 wins.

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