The Sun Belt plays, arguably, the toughest out-of-conference schedules in college football, traveling thousands of grueling miles every year to face the upper-echelon of the Power Five. Competitively, it's not very fair, but the financial rewards are considerable to say the least. But the Sun Belt is stabilizing, believe it or not, and wins are becoming just as valuable a currency as, well, currency.
And the Sun Belt Commissioner seems to agree.
In a July 23rd, 2015 interview with The Advocate, Karl Benson appears to have been given a glimpse of clarity – that the Sun Belt's business model as a rent-a-win conference just isn't sustainable.
"We need to schedule with a balance against the big five, but more importantly we need to schedule against our peer conferences," Benson said. "The Sun Belt goal is to be the best conference of our four peer conferences — Conference USA, the American, the Mid-American and the Mountain West."
In recent years, the Red Wolves have wagon-trained it to Oregon, Nebraska and Southern California for a small chance of victory and a 100% guarantee of big bucks. When the season ends, the cash is cold but the L on the season record still burns. While there are plenty of pressing financial needs that linger for A-State, it's clear that AD Terry Mohajir has bigger plans for the program. Consider this quote from a Jonesboro Occasions interview with Mohajir:
"Our vision – why we are doing all this – is to be one of the top programs in the group of five," said Mohajir. "We truly believe we can be that one team; that’s what we are building the program for."
The be a top program in the Group of Five, you have to beat the top Group of Five programs. Defeating the richly-funded P5 on your schedule helps, of course. But beating a P5 on its home-turf is a stacked a deck. Trading punches with an H-and-H against a peer-conference opponent makes better sense.
But who to schedule? The Red Wolves, who recently inked a four-game series with Memphis, are already meeting Benson's mandate to schedule more compelling, peer-conference OOCs.
2016: Toledo and @Utah State
2017: @ SMU
2018: UNLV and @ Tulsa
2020: Tulsa and @ Memphis
Memphis, who appears on the Red Wolves schedule from 2020 until 2023, is a peer-conference OOC that is a must inclusion for A-State fans. After all, 100-year-old rivalries don't grow on trees. But who else among the Group of Five are choice OOC candidates for the Red Wolves? Let's make a wish list!
As a first-time head coach, Bryan Harsin lead the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt title and a 7-5 record in 2013, and he was immediately rewarded the head coaching position at his Bronco alma mater. Yay for Bryan. But now its time to pay up. The least Harsin can do after orchestrating the 31-7 disaster in Memphis is offer Arkansas State a home-and-home with the Manglers of the Mountain West. Come on, Bryan. The Broncos are pretty booked, but both programs have an open date for September 5, 2020. Jonesboro would love to see you again, BH.
Many Red Wolves fans want this game if only for an excuse for a road trip to New Orleans. Also, Tulane is in the middle of what seems like an endless rebuilding project, so a game with the Wave would make a nice respite between actual competition. (See how I sowed the seeds of rivalry there?) Neither team is doing anything on September 22, 2018. Let's make a Red/Green game happen.
Last season's New Orleans Bowl reaffirmed a powerful truth within A-State's collective soul: we really can't stand the Bulldogs. In fact, we've been unable to tolerate LaTech's presence for quite some time now. That Louisiana Tech, a regionally sensible rivalry than began in 1956, hasn't been included on the Red Wolves regular season schedule since 1998 is a crime that demands justice. Mohajir is just the sheriff needed to acquire retribution. September 7, 2019 is a long time to seethe, but it's an open date for both programs. Time to seal the deal.
Back when NIU and A-State were Big West buddies, the two teams were mandated to play all the time. But the two programs went their separate ways, with the Red Wolves dominating the Sun Belt and the Huskies tearing apart the MAC. The two last faced each other in the 2012 GoDaddy Bowl, when heroically overmatched interim coach David Gunn attempted to lead A-State over the talented MAC champs. The Red Wolves lost 20-38. We want several rematches. The Red Wolves and Huskies both have September 12, 2020 open. Let's pencil it in.
The Red Wolves and the Blue Raiders are not friends. And once Middle Tennessee bailed on the Sun Belt (mere days before playing a game with A-State that would determine the conference championship), the rivalry was severed completely. The Red Wolves justly rewarded the Blue Raider's poorly timed defection with a 45-0 drumming that not only denied Middle Tennessee a SBC Championship, but also a bowl bid. And if that weren't enough, the Red Wolves recently ensconced with MTSU's offensive coordinator! The Blue Raiders have plenty of incentive to come back to Jonesboro. But do they have the guts? (Is September 14th, 2019 good for you?)
I'm calling down the thunder. The Cougars were the Group of Five darling in 2015, and A-State wants nothing more than to claim that title. Astonishingly, Houston and Arkansas State have zero history, an egregious wrong that I wouldn't mind being set right at a neutral site. (War Memorial, perhaps?). Both the Red Wolves and the Cougars have September 22, 2018 open. Let's make this happen, Terry.
I did all the leg-work for you, Terry. Now all you have to do is play some of these ADs a game of shuffleboard and ink the contracts. Like the Lone Ranger, I don't need your thanks. Just your promise to me that justice will be served.