Arkansas State wasn't predicted to win the conference by anybody. Nobody knew that the recently departed "Blind Side" coach Hugh Freeze would make that much of an impact in his first year as head coach. Freeze was in only his second season as the head coach of the ASU Red Wolves, and last year was his first spot on the team as offensive coordinator. Now he is at Ole Miss and Gus Malzahn will replace him next year, but has no effect on this year. It's essentially the same situation NIU had last year.
Enter David Gunn as your interim, who was running backs coach this past season for ASU and for the past 10 years.
The Red Wolves really have whipped everybody on their Sun Belt Conference schedule this year. Their only wins by less than a touchdown were road victories over Western Kentucky and Louisiana Monroe earlier in the year. Despite early non-conference losses to bowl teams Illinois and Virginia Tech, this team has been on fire steamrolling opponents.
Hugh Freeze's offense runs through QB Ryan Aplin, who is essentially a Chandler Harnish clone. On the season he has completed 65.6% of his passes for 3,411 yds and 18 TDS and 13 INTs. He's second in the conference and 41st in the nation in QB efficiency. He also leads the team in rushing with 605 yds and 9 TDs on 151 attempts.
His main target is WR Dwayne Frampton, a 5'9" burner with an awesome last name and 90 rec for 1,125 and 6 TDs to show for the season. He is also the 37th best punt returner in the nation. 6'3" WR Josh Jarboe has 52 rec for 707 yds and 2 TDs, which is still 6th in the conference.
The offensive line has been around the middle of the road all-over and their two best players are C Tom Castilaw and LT Delano Moore.
While the offense gets all the attention, the most overlooked part about this team is how good the defense is.
DE Brandon Joiner won Sun Belt defensive POY for recording 40 tackles, 15.5 TFL and 12 sacks on the season. The kids know what they're dealing with, having had faced Larry English earlier on in their careers in practice. 'Wolf LB' Demario Davis is their best linebacker totaling 65 tackles, 8 TFL and 2 sacks on the season.
They also have an excellent secondary including CB Darryl Feemster, who recorded 37 tackles, 5 INTs and 7 PBUs on the year. SS Kelcie McCray totaled 62 tackles and 4 interceptions of his own.
Their DC Dave Wommack has 31 years of experience coaching in college and most recently was GT's DC from 2008-09 and Arkansas from 2001-04. Only he's gone now to Ole Miss.
There's two things that I feel pretty strong about: ASU's offense is overrated and NIU's defense is underrated. Arkansas State's offense was great this year, but if you just go down the line of their schedule, they really haven't played anybody through the Sun Belt schedule and their two OOC wins are over Memphis and Central Arkansas. It also seemed like a lot of the yards gained and points scored were at times in the game that didn't matter.
On the other side, NIU's defense has been gradually improving all season long. The allowed only 14 to Bowling Green, had a better day than on paper against Ball State and kept us in the game against EMU (12) and won the MAC Championship against Ohio giving up only 20 in the first half.
Overall, it should be a tremendous battle between two conference champs. Who takes this one? Nobody knows, but NIU has been known to beat the odds in the past.
Who takes this, Huskie fans?