Time: 9:00 PM EST
Location: Mercedes Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
Line: La Tech -2; O/U 67
For the first time in five years, the Sun Belt will be represented in the New Orleans Bowl by "not Louisiana Lafayette," as the Arkansas State Red Wolves make their second overall appearance and first in ten years, while their opponent Louisiana Tech is making their first appearance in the game.
These two teams have a decent history as well, as this is their 38th meeting of all time. Last they met, the Red Wolves traveled to Ruston and got smacked around, 69-21, for what was their ninth loss to the Bulldogs in their previous ten tries.
That was back in the day, when La Tech featured the immortal Tim Rattay-to-Troy Edwards connection on offense, while an Arky State team in their last year as an FBS independent featured Cleo Lemon under center. Ah, the memories.
Anyways, what have we got this year?
When Arkansas State has the ball
After a 35 year history that featured one season with more than six wins (back in 1975) the Red Wolves have topped eight wins for the fourth time in five years and can reach 10 for the third time in that span with a win here. That rushing offense is a big reason why. They are explosive and productive at an above average rate in the running game, which successfully compensates for what has been an erratic year passing the ball. Those passing stats belie the absence and then gradual return to form of Fredi Knighten this season.
Unfortunately for Arkansas State, they go up against a defense that, at least on paper, matches up very well with them. Better at stopping the run without being horrific at stopping the pass, this defense forced 18 turnovers and racked up 23 sacks during the regular season. Heck, Bryson Abraham intercepted three passes this season to lead the Bulldogs and took all three back for touchdowns. This is not a unit to be trifled with either.
Advantage Louisiana Tech, but only by a little.
When Louisiana Tech has the ball
It says something about his level of play that La Tech's Kenneth Dixon had 1300+ yards from scrimmage and 27 touchdowns, and it was still a bit of a down year for him. He's now second all-time in a bunch of scoring categories, ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball but trailing the prolific Keenan Reynolds.
Fortunately for Dixon and his "slow" year, the Bulldogs have some transfer at QB by the name of "Jeff Driskel". After his much-maligned existence at Florida, Driskel has moved west and shined brightly. Posting a 3:1 TD/INT ratio and a whisker shy of 300 passing yards per game, Jeff has led what has become a very explosive offense.
This is also bad for the Red Wolves defense. The Bulldogs are a top 40 offense by most metrics, and a borderline top 25 passing offense. Meanwhile the boys from Jonesboro are the fifth worst in the country at preventing big plays overall despite being in the top third of defenses at preventing big run plays, which means the back end is leaky. Combine that with a defense that racked up 30 sacks, 26 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, and you have a truly boom-or-bust unit.
Considering this is a Bulldog pass offense that is built to light it up, that's not good for the Wolves. Of course, I say that knowing that Driskel threw three of his eight interceptions just a little bit ago against a Southern Miss team that profiles similarly.
Advantage Bulldogs, either by a lot or by a whisker, I'm not sure.
Prediction: This would be a lot easier to make had La Tech not done what they just did against the Eagles. They profile as a team that is slightly better when A State has the ball, and significantly better when they do. However, the Red Wolves and their offense are cruising of late, and the Bulldogs just laid a King-Kong-sized goose egg against Southern Miss. Stop making my job harder than it needs to be, Jeff Driskel (said every coach, ever).
Louisiana Tech 45, Arkansas State 35