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Arkansas State has the schedule and experience for a massive run in 2018

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Blake Anderson’s team hasn’t been able to close out tight games. That’s about the only box left to check in Jonesboro.

NCAA Football:  Camellia Bowl-Arkansas State vs Middle Tennessee RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

When Arkansas State made the jump to the FBS level in the early-1990s, the school had reason to believe it could hold its own.

The Red Wolves (then Indians) had played in seven lower-division bowls — three Pecan Bowls, two Tangerine Bowls, and two Refrigerator Bowls (!) — in the 1950s and 1960s. They attended the FCS playoffs for four consecutive years in the 1980s, reaching the finals in 1986. There’s plenty of talent in the Arkansas/Tennessee/Louisiana area, and ASU thought it could attract enough to compete with the ULMs and NMSUs of the world.

It took a while. The highlight of the first decade of FBS residence was a 6-5 campaign in 1995. Head coach Steve Roberts came aboard in 2002 and established a higher baseline of success — ASU won five or six games six times in seven years and went to its first bowl in 2005 — but couldn’t get over the hump.

Then the investment began. ASU, and the Jonesboro community, began plugging more money into the program, and the school got extra ambitious in its hiring. It brought in Hugh Freeze, who won 10 games in 2011 and jumped to Ole Miss. Gus Malzahn won 10 games and bolted to Auburn. Bryan Harsin came in 2013, ready for a long tenure, but when Chris Petersen unexpectedly left Harsin’s alma mater, Boise State, he took over there the next year.

Success and instability arrived in Jonesboro simultaneously, but under Blake Anderson, the latter has dissipated. After going 5-3 in Sun Belt play during his 2014 debut, he has since gone 21-3. ASU uses aggressive non-conference scheduling — in the last four years, the Red Wolves have played Tennessee, Miami, USC, Auburn, Missouri, Nebraska, and G5 power Toledo (twice) — to figure out what it’s got, then unleashes hell on its own conference.

And Anderson’s still there! He has figured out a balance between recruiting five-year talent and bringing in enough transfers to maintain a high ceiling. And over the first two months of 2017, that ceiling was as high as it’s ever been. The Red Wolves nearly beat Nebraska, laid an egg at SMU, then beat conference foes Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, UL Lafayette, and NMSU by a combined 178-66. They surged into the S&P+ top-30 until a familiar enemy ruined the latter portion of the season: close games.

Back in 2014, ASU beat a good Utah State team, 21-14, in the first one-possession finish of the Anderson era. Since then, the Red Wolves are 1-8 in such games. Their strong moments are dominant, but they haven’t figured out the formula for the manufactured wins yet.

Part of this is luck, of course. There is an element of randomness in these games, and it could reverse itself at any time. But it’s not all random, and ASU figured out ways to lose three games it had no business losing late last year.

  • They turned the ball over six times against South Alabama — three times in the first six snaps — and lost a fumble in the USA end zone late in an out-of-nowhere 24-19 loss to the Jaguars.
  • They outgained Troy by 313 yards and created seven more scoring opportunities than the Trojans but threw three interceptions — two in the red zone — and managed to turn 11 scoring chances into just 25 points in a seven-point loss.
  • They outgained MTSU by 110 yards in the Camellia Bowl but gave up a fumble return score, lost another fumble at the MTSU 6 and squandered a late fourth-and-goal in a 35-30 loss.

ASU had a plus-10 turnover margin in seven 2017 wins and a minus-11 margin in five losses. Anderson’s Red Wolves tend to have strong big-play potential and an aggressive defense that creates big plays in both directions. That volatility has served the team well, but it holds them back at times.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Arkansas State
Blake Anderson
Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there’s a better balance between the volatile and reliable, ASU has a chance to find it this fall. Quarterback Justice Hansen, an Oklahoma transfer who threw 10 picks in those five losses but also threw for damn near 4,000 yards, returns, as do a series of mountainous targets: 6’6 Justin McInnis, 6’5 Kendrick Edwards, 6’3 Omar Bayless, 6’3 Jonathan Adams Jr. (Another Oklahoma transfer, 6’5 Dahu Green, also becomes eligible in 2018.) Mighty-mite running back Warren Wand is also back; so are four of ASU’s five starting linemen.

This is a loaded offense, and if a reconfigured defensive line holds up, the back seven could dominate. Anderson’s cupboard is full. If there are steadier hands — or better bounces — to be found, this might be the year the Red Wolves find them.

Offense

Arkansas State offensive radar

Hansen’s upside is undeniable. He showed it repeatedly last fall.

  • Hansen in ASU wins: 64% completion rate, 14.7 yards per completion, 25 TD, 6 INT, 171.2 passer rating
  • Hansen in ASU losses: 62% completion rate, 11.3 yards per completion, 12 TD, 10 INT, 128.2 passer rating

Not including sacks, Hansen also rushed about nine times per game at over six yards per carry. With him behind center, ASU had the best combination of efficiency and explosiveness in the conference.

Arkansas State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner put his entire trust in Hansen’s right arm. The Red Wolves ran just 45 percent of the time on standard downs (the fifth-lowest run rate in FBS), and it worked. Hansen targeted 10 different receivers at least once per game and four at least five times per game.

In that sense, ASU both loses and returns a lot of production. Slot receivers Chris Murray and Christian Booker and tight end Blake Mack, a.k.a. Hansen’s security blankets, are gone, but it’s still easy to get super-excited about this group of receivers. McInnis, Edwards, and Bayless combined for 119 catches, 1,573 yards, and 13 touchdowns, and all had at least a 59 percent catch rate. The addition of Green and Boise State transfer Bubba Ogbebor, plus former Texas A&M receiver (and Last Chance U. product) Kirk Merritt in the slot, will give the Red Wolves too many weapons for Sun Belt defenses to account for.

Of course, even with all of these weapons, Faulkner might call more run plays if ASU is actually better at running the ball. ASU ranked just 110th in Rushing S&P+, and from the standpoint of marginal efficiency and explosiveness, Wand was below average in both categories.

An ankle injury didn’t help. Wand was averaging 6 yards per carry through four games but missed two games and averaged just 4.8 per carry the rest of the way (3.1 in the three late losses). A full-strength Wand, running behind a line that features all-conference tackle Lanard Bonner and three other starters, could give Faulkner one more exciting option. And a steadier run game could be one hell of a boon in close finishes.

NCAA Football:  Camellia Bowl-Arkansas State vs Middle Tennessee
Justin McInnis
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Arkansas State defensive radar

ASU’s defensive radar chart is pretty enlightening. In basically every category involving a defense’s ability to make opponents uncomfortable or leverage them into tough downs and distances, the Red Wolves shined. They were seventh in completion rate allowed, 14th in Adj. Sack Rate, 18th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 25th in overall success rate, and 30th in opportunity rate.

It’s not on the chart above, but they were also ninth in overall havoc rate — second on the defensive line and 10th in the secondary. This was a nasty, active defense.

ASU got burned quite a bit, too, however: 110th in passes of 20-plus yards allowed per game, 105th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays), 95th in gains of 30-plus yards allowed per game, a far worse success rate on passing downs (53rd) than standard downs (24th). ASU was willing to sacrifice the occasional big gainer for three-and-outs and turnovers, and it mostly paid off. But they lost the big-play battle in four of five losses; it didn’t always pay off.

Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen’s approach is admirable. Efficiency is the steadiest, most reliable aspect of football — it’s what is most in a team’s control — and he forces the efficiency issue. But youth in the back was an issue: among the top three linebackers and top six safeties, there were four freshmen/sophomores and only one senior. That’s a recipe for glitches.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 17 Cure Bowl - UCF v Arkansas State
Justin Clifton
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The balance of experience flips around this year. ASU was able to rely on a senior heavy line and three senior corners to physically control most opponents and make sure that the risk-reward ratio was mostly solid. They’re all gone, as is middle linebacker Kyle Wilson. In total, four of ASU’s top six havoc guys depart, including ends Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (19 tackles for loss) and Caleb Caston (10 TFLs) and corner Blaise Taylor (16 passes defensed and five TFLs). So does big tackle (and former Alabama blue-chipper) Dee Liner.

Anderson and Cauthen are throwing numbers at the issue up front. Twelve linemen who recorded between three and 16.5 tackles are back, but ASU is still bringing in four transfers (three JUCOs, plus Ball State transfer Kevin Thurmon) for backup. As long as about seven or eight of these guys are ready to play at a reasonable level, the Red Wolves could avoid a drop-off. But we don’t know that will happen until it does.

Cornerback is more of a concern. The loss of Taylor, Kyle Martin, and Nehemiah Wagner means that, among those listed as corners last year, the leading returnee is junior Jeremy Smith, who had 6.5 tackles and one breakup. Any of three young former three-star recruits — redshirt freshman A.J. Cayetano, plus true frosh Nathan Page and Jevon Jones — could end up in the mix, but ASU might need to convert a safety to the position.

No matter where he plays, senior Justin Clifton could be the key in the back. The 6’0, 204-pound senior played nickel in 2017 and thrived, recording 4.5 TFLs and 14 passes defensed. If he can still be used in a disruptive role from the corner position, that could be a nice solution. But his play-making is vital, no matter where he lines up.

Special Teams

He wasn’t used a whole lot, but Cody Grace was one hell of a weapon at punter. The junior averaged only 41.6 yards per punt, but 24 of 44 kicks ended up inside the 20, 26 were fair caught, and none bounced into the end zone for touchbacks. ASU was a field position dynamo, primarily because the offense would get a couple of first downs before Grace pinned opponents deep.

The return game helped in that regard, too, though the loss of Blaise Taylor (punt returns) and Chris Murray (kicks) hurts.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep SE Missouri State NR 33.7 97%
8-Sep at Alabama 2 -28.0 5%
15-Sep at Tulsa 108 8.1 68%
22-Sep UNLV 105 12.3 76%
TBD Appalachian State 63 2.1 55%
TBD Georgia State 113 15.0 81%
TBD UL-Monroe 107 13.0 77%
TBD South Alabama 109 13.5 78%
TBD at Coastal Carolina 118 11.0 74%
TBD at Georgia Southern 106 7.4 67%
TBD at UL-Lafayette 121 12.3 76%
TBD at Texas State 123 13.5 78%
Projected S&P+ Rk 66
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 36 / 91
Projected wins 8.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.3 (68)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 89 / 90
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 0.5
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (65%, 58%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.8 (-1.8)

It’s hard to find a Sun Belt team with more upside than ASU. Troy and Appalachian State, the two other members of last year’s upper tier, both return enough play-makers to make a conference title run, but on a play-for-play basis, no one in this league is more dangerous than Anderson’s Red Wolves.

ASU plays like a lit firecracker, but sometimes those things blow up in your hand. If the Red Wolves can rein the volatility in just a tad, their schedule could be conducive to lots of wins. They avoid Troy on the conference slate, and Appalachian State comes to Jonesboro.

S&P+ favors them in 11 of 12 games and gives them at least a 67 percent chance of winning in 10 of them. If Hansen’s mistakes are dialed down just a hair, and if they allow, say, one fewer 20-yarder per game, an 11-1 finish is very much on the table. This is Anderson’s chance at an enormous season; if he’s been saving up those good breaks and happy close-game finishes, now would be the time to spend them.

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