When you write lengthy previews about each team each year, you’re going to repeat yourself quite a bit. And each year, in talking about Arkansas State, I am pretty much guaranteed to reference a years-old remark from ASU’s athletic director about wanting to become the “Boise State of the South.”
For a while, the Red Wolves redefined the idea of what it takes to succeed in mid-major football. ASU ditched a decent coach in Steve Roberts in the hopes of landing an up-and-comer. The school then found itself having to do that year after year. Hugh Freeze won 10 games in 2011 and left for Ole Miss. Gus Malzahn won 10 games in 2012 and left for Auburn. Bryan Harsin won eight games in 2013 and left for Boise State.
Next up was Blake Anderson, who has continued the run of success. ASU has won or shared five of the last six Sun Belt titles and is 20-4 in conference play in three years under Anderson. After reaching just one bowl in its first 29 years of Division I/FBS, the program has attended six straight, and Anderson is responsible for three of those.
ASU hasn't reached Boise heights, but the Red Wolves have become the model of consistency amid chaos. They overcame having five different head coaches in a five-year span, and in what almost seemed like restlessness, created turnover on the field by taking in a boatload of transfers ... and then won the Sun Belt once again.
In this conference, you can reach a bowl with an S&P+ ranking in the 100s, but ASU has ranked 88th or better for seven straight seasons and below 80th only once since 2010.
That's the good news. The bad: The Red Wolves aren't quite hitting the same high notes as they were a couple of years ago. The program's peak came during the Malzahn "era" — they went 10-3 and ranked 50th in S&P+ in 2012, and after a slight slip in Harsin's "tenure" (7-5 and 79th), the Red Wolves bounced back to 60th (albeit at 7-6) in 2014.
But despite winning 17 games, ASU hasn't topped 80th since then.
There are two potential explanations.
1. The Red Wolves are beginning to show cracks that will become more obvious and clear moving forward. The offense has slipped from 38th to 65th to 113th in Off. S&P+ over the last three years, and only an out-of-nowhere defensive surge to 34th in Def. S&P+ (!) prevented collapse.
With the defense now tasked with replacing quite a bit of both the line and secondary, might we see a situation in which the offense falls further and the defense can't carry the same weight?
2. This is a product of intent. ASU has been awful in September in each of the last two years before hitting the gas in conference play. In 2015, the Red Wolves lost by 49 to USC and 30 to Toledo and allowed 27 to a Missouri offense that couldn't score 21 against air. In 2016, they lost to Toledo and Auburn by a combined 58, fell by two touchdowns to a sketchy Utah State, and suffered an upset at the hands of Central Arkansas.
In both instances, the turnaround was swift and comprehensive. The Red Wolves are 16-2 after September over the last two years. Might Anderson be intentionally tinkering and/or using non-conference games as a drawing board?
That wouldn't be the craziest strategy in the world, though it's one that messes with the numbers a bit — a No. 80 finish in this instance is more like No. 120 in September and No. 60 thereafter.
So which is it? We'll get a decent answer this fall. If ASU is a fading offensive team desperately reliant on its defense, the Red Wolves probably won't be Sun Belt contenders. If it's the latter, then, well, to hell with the numbers. Anderson has found a better way.
2016 in review
Be it a product of intention or a lot of new pieces trying to click into place, ASU began 2016 in a massive funk, then surged. At least, on one side of the ball.
- First 4 games (0-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 24% (~top 100) | Yards per play: Opp 6.3, ASU 5.4 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-14.7 PPG
- Last 9 games (8-1) — Avg. percentile performance: 59% (~top 50) | Yards per play: ASU 5.4, Opp 4.3 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-14.6 PPG
Adjusting for opponent, the offense played at a below average level for nearly the entire season, barring a midseason surge (6.8 yards per play against Georgia Southern and NMSU, 6 against ULM).
The defense, on the other hand, flipped a damn switch. After miserable outings against Toledo and Auburn, the Red Wolves didn't allow over 5.4 yards per play the rest of the season. Considering injuries and still-acclimating transfers, this sort of makes sense. Regardless, once ASU figured its defense out, the sky was the limit. It just took a couple of weeks.
It was seen as a nice get for Anderson when he brought Buster Faulkner over from MTSU to serve as his coordinator. In 2014-15, Faulkner's Blue Raiders offense had ranked 55th and 54th, respectively, in Off. S&P+. The 2015 ranking was quite an accomplishment considering he was calling plays for a new freshman quarterback (Brent Stockstill).
That MTSU offense had a pass-first, high-efficiency attack. At ASU, the pieces just didn't mesh. Faulkner tried hard to establish the run but couldn't (116th in Rushing S&P+), and basically the only thing ASU had going for it was the ability to bail itself out with long passes.
The struggle makes sense to some degree. ASU had a new starting quarterback and was replacing its go-to running back and six of its top eight receiving targets.
Still, the line returned intact, which made a lack of run-blocking success disappointing. And after providing both efficiency and explosiveness in 2015, new starting running back Warren Wand found neither. He carried at least 11 times in all 13 games but averaged more than 6 yards per carry in a game just three times. That created a lot of third-and-longs for the starting QB.
Luckily, when Hansen took over for Chad Voytik in week three, the passing game began to figure some things out. The success was sporadic, but Hansen averaged nearly 14 yards per completion and took far fewer sacks than Voytik. He distributed the ball beautifully — eight different players caught between 19 and 38 passes — and ASU ended up finding just enough offense to complement the awesome defense. The Red Wolves had the third-lowest success rate in the conference but still went 7-1.
ASU's offensive experience heading into 2017 is the inverse of last year’s. Hansen's back, as are every running back and seven of the aforementioned eight frequent targets. But the key for this year might be finding your go-tos.
- Blake Mack was one of the Sun Belt's most unique weapons. The 6'3, 245-pound tight end was by far ASU's best big-play threat, but in conference play he caught more than two balls in a game just once. (He caught 15 passes in Hansen's first two games, the losses to Utah State and UCA.)
- Senior A-back Cam Echols-Luper averaged a healthy 15.7 yards per catch and 9 yards per target, but he, too, averaged only two catches per game in Sun Belt play and alternated between big games (a combined six catches for 187 yards against UCA and ULM) and no-shows (zero combined catches in the games that followed UCA and ULM).
- Seniors Chris Murray and Dijon Paschal were all-or-nothing, each averaging 14-plus yards per catch with a catch rate barely over 50 percent.
There’s a lot of experience, but the names changed from week to week last year. If a go-to emerges — and hell, it might end up being lanky Arkansas transfer Kendrick Edwards, for all we know — that might help to provide desperately needed consistency.
Meanwhile, the line is a blank slate. ASU finished 2016 with 174 career starts up front; it will begin 2017 with two, both from sophomore guard and 2016 backup Troy Elliot.
Anderson saw this coming and tried to address it in recruiting. Players like Elliot, junior Jamal Fontenot, and sophomore Dalton Ford return from last year's two-deep, but they're joined by a ton of newcomers, from Iowa State graduate transfer Jaypee Philbert to JUCO transfers Marvis Brown, Chase Johnson, and Nour-Eddine Seidnaly to three-star freshman Dwayne Fisher.
We've learned that experience up front doesn't seem to matter as much as talent and in-season continuity. If Faulkner and company find a fivesome that gels, the offense could be on its way toward improvement. But comprehensive turnover is a scary thing.
If the offense was a semi-surprising disappointment, the defense was a stunning success. Coordinator Joe Cauthen had been around for a couple of years, but he found the pieces very much to his liking.
ASU's success was built around a combination of experienced pieces, quality newcomers, and late bloomers. Proven guys like end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones and defensive back Cody Brown combined with newcomers like Alabama transfer Dee Liner and JUCO Kyle Wilson, and they got a boost from breakout players like end Chris Odom and nickel Justin Clifton.
The Red Wolves had maybe the deepest defense in the conference, and Cauthen knew how to utilize it. The Red Wolves stuffed you on first down and forced third-and-longs, and while they trended toward all-or-nothing on those downs — lots of sacks and closed drives mixed with a few big plays — the recipe obviously worked.
After allowing 7.8 yards per play to Toledo and Auburn, the Red Wolves allowed only 4.4 thereafter. No Sun Belt opponent topped 26 points, and five were held to 16 or fewer. And ASU capped the season by wrecking UCF's offense (13 points, 2.9 yards per play) in the Cure Bowl.
It's hard to say the depth will be as strong in 2017, not with four of the top six linemen and three of the top four defensive backs gone. But star power remains.
- Ja'Von Rolland-Jones has been one of the steadier big-play guys in the conference. He had 12 tackles for loss in 2014, 12.5 in 2015, and, with Odom wrecking shop on the other side of the line, 21 in 2016. He is one of the better players the casual fan maybe hasn't heard of.
- Liner returns and could be ready for a star turn. The former blue-chipper had just 1.5 tackles for loss in his first six games last year but had a hand in at least one TFL in six of the last seven games. He had a pair of them in the Cure Bowl.
- Kyle Wilson was a revelation in run defense. He led the linebacking corps with 3.5 sacks, but he had 12.5 NON-sack TFLs, and he was a difference maker in both the Georgia Southern win and the Cure Bowl.
- Clifton found happiness in the nickel back role. A good-sized 6'0, 206 pounds, he combined eight TFLs with seven passes defensed and was second on the team in tackles (behind Wilson).
- Corner Blaise Taylor has intercepted four passes and broken up 16 more over the last two. He will be rejoined by Jamaris Hart (seven passes defensed in 2015).
The line has some remodeling to undergo, but once again, Anderson was as prepared as he could be. He signed a trio of high-two-star JUCOs in end Ronheen Bingham and tackles Josh Curry and Tony Adams. There should be enough talent to get by at end, but tackle depth could be an issue if both Curry and Adams aren't immediate contributors.
ASU special teams gave and took away. Kick coverage was a legitimate strength despite a lack of touchbacks, and Blaise Taylor was a solid punt returner. But while Damon Foncham's punts weren't particularly returnable, they were also quite short, and J.D. Houston's place-kicking was scattershot, to put it nicely (ASU missed five PATs and three field goals shorter than 40 yards).
Since place-kicking and punting carry the heaviest weight in the Special Teams S&P+ formulas, ASU ranked 120th overall despite the relative strengths. Foncham will need to figure out how to add a couple of yards to his boots, but I guess the bar is set pretty low for the new place-kicker (probably Sawyer Williams).
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|TBA||at Georgia Southern||98||0.0||50%|
|TBA||at New Mexico State||124||7.0||66%|
|TBA||at South Alabama||108||2.4||55%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||83|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||107 / 60|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-3.7 (80)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||99 / 95|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 0.7|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+1.6|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||64% (78%, 50%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||9.1 (-1.1)|
Your view of Arkansas State in 2017 is very much dependent on how you believe ASU came about its "more wins, worse S&P+ ratings" success in 2015-16. If the iffy ratings (still strong for the Sun Belt, but not "15-1 in conference play" strong) are a sign of crumbling infrastructure, then massive turnover in the trenches could render the ASU offense even more one-dimensional and take away one of ASU's bigger defensive strengths.
But if you believe the "Stink in September, then surge" approach is sustainable, then there's no reason to think 2017 will be any different. The Red Wolves are more experienced at quarterback and in the skill positions, and they still have a lot of play-makers on D. The lack of defensive tackle depth is a concern but could be mitigated by Liner, and since the offensive line wasn't particularly effective last year, wholesale changes in that unit might not lead to regression.
I'm kind of leaning toward the latter, by the way. Barring a host of injuries on the defensive line, I don't see why ASU can't pull a repeat of recent success, especially since the schedule brings Troy to Jonesboro and doesn't include Appalachian State.
Besides that, ASU has earned the benefit of the doubt at this point, huh? S&P+ says the Red Wolves should be one of the three or so best teams in the Sun Belt. Until proven otherwise, I say No. 3 or No. 4 is the floor.