GAME #7: Louisiana (AT LAFAYETTE) Ragin Cajuns
We now begin the back nine of the 2017 Astate season if you will and it’s our old foes from Lafayette, the Ragin Cajuns. On a surprisingly mild November day last season, the Cajuns were able to snap the Red Wolves conference winning streak of 15 and ensured Arkansas State wouldn’t once again claim the SBC title outright. I’m sure there will be little motivation needed when the Cajuns travel to Jonesboro come that Thursday night in October. It’s hard to gauge as of this writing what to expect from Louisiana (…at Lafayette).
Many pundits and preseason prognosticators seem to have little to no high expectations for Mark Hudspeth and company and a part of that could be their schedule; only five home games are slated for UL (…L) and with road trips looming that include Texas A&M and Ole Miss from the SEC, a Tulsa Squad that’ll be vying for the AAC Western Division and conference trips ranging from Moscow to Boone you could easily make the argument the Cajuns have among the toughest schedules in the ‘Belt.
Furthermore, with all the headaches caused by the 13 players suspended during spring ball (that have since been reinstated) and a fanbase on edge already after the dull performance in the New Orleans Bowl against Southern Miss, you would have to think Hudspeth, who was once among the hottest names in the coaching carousel once upon a time, might need to be refreshing his Resume’ if he comes up with another clunker season. It’ll be pretty critical for the Ragin Cajuns to be able to perform well on the road and one thing I’m certain of: the Red Wolves are going to do everything they can to prevent that from happening in Centennial Bank Stadium.
GAME #8: At NEW MEXICO STATE
Now this is a game that has me all discombobulated. Along with Idaho (who never really belonged in the Sun Belt to begin with but we still love you Vandals!), NMSU was a program I certainly was rooting for to remain a part of the league. Did they fit into King Karl’s “geographic footprint” vision? Not at all. And while we all know the struggles and lack of success the program has had, knowledgable fans will also know they maintain a respectable athletic budget that puts them right in the middle of the league, have a great TV package deal with their “Aggie Vision” property and perhaps most importantly, are REALLY really good at basketball (something the Belt overall lacks in).
And when you also consider the unstable footing the Aggies have dealt with in terms of conference affiliation the last 15 years, it’s easy to understand why they’ve struggled to recruit and be competitive in football. Alas, the voices that be spoke and after this season New Mexico State will have to venture out in the cold world known as Independent Football. There’s a part of me that would love nothing more than for the Aggies to rise up and be the darlings of the league this year, be in the race for the title and certainly break their bowl drought before departing (Hey Idaho did it last year right?).
However, even with dynamic running back Larry Rose III returning along with Tyler Rogers and a slew of other starters from last season, this schedule….WOOF. AT Arizona State, AT New Mexico, AT Arkansas, AT Appalachian State not to mention hosting potential conference contenders Troy and Astate. I changed my mind–New Mexico State has a tougher schedule than the Cajuns. As for the game between the Aggies and Red Wolves itself, until I see it happen with my own eyes I have no reason to suspect NMSU will have the talent or depth to be able to challenge Arkansas State, even at home.
GAME #9: At SOUTH ALABAMA
The Jaguars have been among the quirkest and simultaneously most erratic program in the league since their first season back in 2012. They’ve been among the better performing squads in non conference play and while they’ve never really been in serious contention for the SBC Crown, they’ve certainly thrown monkey wrenches in other teams plans (Thumping the Cajuns on senior night which forced the Cajuns to share the conference title with Astate in 2013 and handing App their first home conference lost as a SBC member back in 2014 come to mind).
However just as seemingly strong as they appear, in an instant they’ve shown the tendency to absolutely crumble, especially in critical games down the stretch of a season. Despite being the father of Jaguars football and leading the program to their first 2 ever bowl games, Joey Jones is entering the final months of his current contract and as of this post, there still hasn’t been any obvious movement from either his representatives nor the USA athletic administrators in coming to an contract extension agreement. My ‘Jake Sense’ tells me South Al big whigs are going to play a game of wait and see for perhaps at least the first half of the ’17 season.
USA seemingly has enough pieces returning on both sides of the ball and with a schedule that starts off with three of the beginning four games at home, you’d think the Jags would have a solid chance at getting back to six wins. Will one of those six wins come from Arkansas State? The last three games haven’t been exactly kind to South Al, having been outscored 111-48 and turning the ball over 11 times combined. Along with Georgia Southern, the Red Wolves are the only other current Sun Belt Team USA has yet to score a victory over; breaking the hex against Astate might be critical win they need to finally break through and save JJ’s job.
GAME #10: TEXAS STATE
While South Al might inconsistent at times, Texas State is a down right conundrum. When it was first announced they were joining the league back in 2013 and after doing some initial reading and research on the program, my immediate reaction was “oh ****.” This Texas State program just seemed destined to become a monster in the ‘Belt; large enrollment, located not only in an awesome college town but in the ravenous football state of Texas and who had a year prior dropped $33 million dollars on their football stadium. In their first two years in the ‘Belt, the Bobcats for the most part started off fairly solid posting a 6-6 recored in 2013 and followed it up with a 7-5 mark in 2014. Since then, it’s been crash and burn in San Marcos.
The Cats have only won five games in the last two seasons (two of which came against Prairie View A&M of the SWAC and Incarnate Word of the Southland). Granted, second year head coach Everett Withers inherited a bigger mess than I think even he realized but the reports of running players off in 2016 and just within their first week of fall camp having multiple players either dismissed, leave or suspended, it just doesn’t seem like 2017 is going to bode any better for the Bobcats. I’m still a believer that Texas State can become a force to be reckoned with in the Sunbelt, just not this year. Should be an easy ‘W’ in the Vault.
GAME #11: LOUISIANA MONROE
Second to last game of the season and I’ve got to admit, this an interesting ULM Squad. Despite going 4-8 in 2016, there still seems to be much optimism and high hopes coming from the bayou of Monroe (something that’s been lacking there since the start of their 2013 season). If nothing else, Matt Viator seemingly has breathed new life into his Warhawk program and in year two at the helm, I know he and the ULM crew would love nothing more than to make a push and get the program back to the six win mark for just the second time since 2009. Two things factor in my mind: 1) Garrett Smith staying healthy and can the Warhawks survive the first four games of the season.
Smith the last two years was the lone bright spot for otherwise abysmal seasons for the Warhawks in both ’15 & ’16, combining for over 3,200 passing yards and 26 TDs. However he’s also had nasty luck with injuries, missing the last two games of the 2015 season and the last six of ’16. With their upcoming schedule loaded with the first three of four on the road (@Memphis, @Florida State & @Lafayette) with daunting home game against Southern Miss thrown in the middle of that, Smith staying healthy and once again putting up big numbers through the air is ULM’s best shot at achieving a winning season. I figure by the time the Red Wolves along with the hundreds of fans come pouring into Monroe for what should be another early kick off time, not only will the conference championship scenario be pretty much set, but the Warhawks ultimate 2017 fate all but sealed.
GAME #12: TROY
Here we are! Last game of the regular season for the Red Wolves. Optimistic Jake would like to think at this point would LOVE to say Astate is 9-2 overall, undefeated in the ‘Belt and with a victory will once again share the SBC crown with Appalachian State. Down to Earth, realistic Jake would lower expectations and expect 7-4, MAYBE 8-3 (really hinges on that @SMU & @Georgia Southern Swing week). Either way if nothing else, they’ll still be quite a bit to play for as I imagine Troy at the least will be contending for bowl positioning as will Astate. It’s hard to believe that this will be the first time the Trojans have made the trek back to Jonesboogie since early September of 2013 (A LOT HAS CHANGED HASN’T IT??).
What also only seemed like yesterday was a time when Troy absolutely put Boots to @$$es in the league and were the dominant program from 2006 to 2010, before falling off for five years. Much like how Stella found her groove (90s reference for you babies) so has the Trojans with the guidance of Neal Brown. And in year two of the NB Regime, I don’t really expect Troy to skip a beat at all with Brandon Silvers and virtually the entire offense from last season all returning for round two. Furthermore, Troy really catches a break with the schedule as they miss App State and while they do still have to contend with road dates at Boise State and at LSU, one would expect the men of Troy to be favored in all their other games…except maybe at Arkansas State. Troy has dropped four straight to the Red Wolves and since 2002, Arkansas State has only lost four Senior Days.
All in all, it’s tough to really get full gauge as to how this season is going to go for the Red Wolves. While BA has really hyped the “size and physicality” of the offensive line in fall camp so far, still having to replace the entire starting O-Line from a season ago still worries me somewhat (especially with games against Nebraska, Miami and SMU to start right off the bat). The heart obviously says “10-2!!!” But my gut and looking at past tendencies has me to believe this to something like a 2013 or 2016 year-probably struggle with the OOC slate early on and either hit the conference portion full speed or start sluggish and finish strong. If that’s the case, as long as there’s a bowl game at the end of it all, I’ll be a satisfied Red Wolf.