I've gotten spoiled. Perhaps I've forgotten the sting of two-win seasons and the pain of embarrassing FCS losses. Because it's more than just a little pretentious to moan about a 9-4 season, especially when it comes with an undisputed conference championship. And yet, I moan. I groan for the lost opportunities. I sigh for what could have been.
But I'm not so much a douche that I don't recognize the greatness of the 2015 Red Wolves. This is one of the program's storied seasons; one that will define Blake Anderson as a head coach and place many of the players in Greatest Red Wolves Of All Time conversations.
So let's break it down. Let's examine the season in digestible chunks. Let us determine what rocked and what sucked in 2015. And then, let's look forward to next year.
The Red Wolves Defense Was The Most Thrilling In A-State (Modern) History
This year, nobody in the FBS grabbed more interceptions or scored more on turnovers than the Red Wolves Monster D. Nobody. Excluding the opening match with USC and the closing tilt with Louisiana Tech, Joe Cauthen's crew knocked loose a turnover out of every opponent. The defense may not have shutdown too many offenses, but it definitely improved the run-stopping over 2014. The best news? The Monster D will be even more freakish in 2016.
A-State's Out of Conference Performance Was Depressingly Miserable
Outside of the Sun Belt, the Red Wolves were a sad 1-4, with its lone victory courtesy of FCS Missouri State. The Red Wolves were overmatched by USC, outlasted by Missouri, out-played by Toledo, and out-gunned by Louisiana Tech. A-State's mastery over the Sun Belt may be the ultimate evidence of the Sun Belt's glaring overall weakness. After all, the entire conference's regular season OOC record was an abysmal 13-34, with nine of those victories coming at the expense of FCS competition. The Red Wolves' crushing loss to Louisiana Tech underscores just how much work Arkansas State and the Sun Belt has left to do.
Coach Blake Anderson Dons The Scarlet Robes of Red Wolf Immorality
With a perfect 8-0 conference record, Blake Anderson matched Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze as the only Red Wolves captains to win an outright Sun Belt title. Anderson's mastery over the Sun Belt was convincing to say the least, outscoring conference opponents by an average of 21 points. The Red Wolves didn't just win the Sun Belt. They completely owned it.
The Loss to Missouri Was the Absolute Worst Thing In The World
Frankly, considering the distance traveled and the quality of the opponent, the lopsided loss to USC was more than forgivable. But Missouri provided the program with a golden opportunity to secure a win over a P5 team under the rarest of circumstances: before a home crowd in Jonesboro. On the field, the Red Wolves looked every bit as competitive as the Tigers, taking the incumbent SEC East champs down to the final whistle. The loss of Fredi Knighten in the second half doomed A-State, but we should have found a way to win. And now we won't see a P5 opponent in J-Town until Miami arrives in 2017.
Pack Mentality Carried the Red Wolves to Greatness
A-State success was a classic team effort, which might be why the conference champion saw such a modest number of All-Sun Belt selections at season's end. For example, A-State's rushing game was not fueled by single RB, but by an arsenal comprised of Michael Gordon (1,058 yds), Warren Wand (709), Johnston White (614) and Fredi Knighten (400). A whopping fifteen Red Wolves contributed to the team's 26 interceptions. Passes were evenly distributed to the troika of Tres Houston (615 yds), Dijon Paschal (541) and J.D. McKissic (525). Opponents didn't know who was going to hurt them next. In the process, the 2015 Red Wolves broke the Sun Belt scoring record, interceptions record and touchdowns record. So this team was pretty good.
We Are All But Shadows and Dust. SHADOWS AND DUST!
At the beginning of the year, monster seasons were projected for Fredi Knighten, J.D. McKissic and Michael Gordon. And while each posted solid years, nobody stood out as clear MVPs. Knighten's year was especially bittersweet, as the senior signal caller was predicted to dominate. Instead, Knighten provided steady leadership with occasional bursts of brilliance in what was a year limited by injury. It was enough to win Arkansas State a championship, but not enough to elevate Knighten to the superstar status we projected.
The Future Looks Bad Ass
At WR, you may see Daryl Rollins Davis, Kendall Sanders, and Cameron Echols Luper on the field at the same time. Fastest trio in football?
— Justin (@Justin_CookRWRC) December 23, 2015
The Red Wolves lose a lot a talent through graduation, but the roster is primed for a conference championship repeat. On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama transfer Dee Liner becomes eligible to wreck Sun Belt offensive lines, and linebacker Tajhea Chambers returns from injury to pick up on what what was shaping to be a historic season. On offensive, transfers Cameron Echols-Luper (TCU) and Kendall Sanders (Texas) provide big time scoring weapons for Anderson and the new offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, A-State gets another season of Warren Wand, Money Hunter, Blaise Taylor, Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, and Dijon Paschal. Also, the Red Wolves have budding superstars in RB Logan Moragne and Omar "Batman" Bayless. And look out for the QB competition: James Tabary versus Echols-Luper will be an interesting title fight.
The Red Wolves Are Losing an Ass-Ton of Talent
It's been a pleasure stAte. Thank you for having me
— Fredi Knighten (@FrediKnighten) December 20, 2015
Yes, the Red Wolves lose McKissic, Knigthen, Houston, Gordon, Darion Griswold, Rocky Hayes and Chris Stone. That's bad enough, but the team also loses under-heralded punter Luke Ferguson, who made pinning opponents against their own goal lines look routine. The Red Wolves have capable personnel coming online for 2016, but replacing Ferguson's consistent production is critical to A-State's future success. And we haven't even mentioned the loss of offensive coordinator Walt Bell. Who will Anderson dig up to replace the 31-year-old's creativity?
It's been an honor to be a part of this family for the last two years. We told the truth and we loved each other. pic.twitter.com/ywe7kjpsVw
— Walt Bell (@coachwaltbell) December 20, 2015
What Pompous and Unrealistic Demands Do We Have For Coach Blake Anderson in Year 3?
The non-con schedule features meaty match-ups with Toledo (at home), Utah State and Auburn. A win against any of the three is expected. Winning two of three would signal that the Red Wolves have taken their game to a new level. In conference play, the Red Wolves finally get the Georgia Southern match-up that the Sun Belt deserves, settling once and for all who's the conference sheriff. To maintain the program's momentum, Coach Anderson needs to provide a signature non-con win while remaining Sun Belt masters. He'll have to find another offensive soulmate to replace Bell, plus prepare a new QB to take on the legacies of Ryan Aplin and Knighten. The pieces are in place. Anderson must deliver.