It's not inaccurate to say that Arkansas State Red Wolves fans were feeling pretty cocky heading into the 100-year-old rivalry game with the University of Memphis Tigers. After all, our new head coach, Bryan Harsin, just posted 100 combined points on Troy and UAPB. Sure, we had lost 38-9 to Auburn the week before, but that was an aberration. Much was expected from the 2013 Red Wolves, who entered the season confident after a earning another Sun Belt title and a GoDaddy Bowl win against Kent State.
The Red Wolves were poised to start the season 3-1. Red Wolves fans knew that the Tigers were without claws. A man, we were so very, very wrong.
"We are all victims of our own hubris at times." – Kevin Spacey
The Memphis fans I encountered that day were understandably morose about their chances. The Tigers had lost the last two to the Red Wolves, and they were coming off a miserable 4-8 rebuilding year helmed by mysterious new head coach Justin Fuentes. "Man, how bad are y'all gonna beat us?" Tiger fans kept asking me. I responded with counterfeit modesty and chortled merrily at the prospect of another win against a hated foe.
We had every reason to believe victory was afoot. The Tigers had amusingly opened the season with a BYE week. Then they were punished by the Duke Blue Devils 28-14, and followed that up with a soul crushing loss to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 17-15. Clearly, Fuentes' Tigers were not up to the challenge!
It was a flawless September day, I remember. The tailgating at the Liberty Bowl was fantastic. I drank can after can of beer and lectured the Memphis faithful on the under-appreciated greatness of Adam Kennedy. My attitude was locked at Pompous Level 11. This was the year we'd crack the AP Top 25, I boasted.
Of course, I knew nothing of Marquis Warford, Brandon Hayes, and Paxton Lynch.
"There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry." – George Armstrong Custer
More than 36,000 fans trundled into the Liberty Bowl, with huge swatches of red cutting through the sea of blue. Memphis, wearing chrome helmets that blinded anyone who stared too long, immediately scored a pair of touchdowns, thanks to big runs from Warford and Hayes and deadly accurate passes from Lynch. Suddenly, it was the Memphis fans dialing the Pompous Level to 11! I was surrounded by good-natured high-fives from jovial Tigers. My hell was so real I could feel the flames on my cheeks.
But for about 90 seconds, the pain was gone. The Red Wolves went on an offensive blitzkrieg, cultivating in an amazing Fredi Knighten to J.D. McKissic touchdown pass that became the stuff of legend in Jonesboro. To everyone in the Liberty Bowl, it appeared that McKissic had gained the power of flight, soaring at least ten full yards before crossing the endzone. Everyone gasped. Everyone wearing red howled. This was the performance we were promised! Now it was a game.
Except, it wasn't. It was a disaster.
"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." – Cersei
The next three quarters was an abattoir of carnage and woe. Worford and Hayes combined for a bruising 284 yards on the ground, and the Tiger defense held the Red Wolves to an anemic 255 yards, completely choking what was supposed to be a dynamic offense. Final score, 31-7. After the game, Tiger players were overheard bragging how they could easily predict the Red Wolves' vanilla play-calling.
Coach Bryan Harsin seemed a little shell-shocked after the game. "Our guys played hard and didn’t quit, we fought out there. In games like this, it comes down to making plays, and that’s the bottom line. And they made more plays. Each and every week we are going to get everybody’s best."
Yes, you gotta make plays. You gotta make more plays than the other team. Harsin made the same mistake Gus Malzahn made against Western Kentucky in 2012. Football is football. Group of Five players may be a little smaller, the teams might not be so deep, but the skills and the heat are real. One does not simply walk into the Sun Belt and dominate because you spent a few years coaching at Texas. You better be prepared. Your game had better be "A."
Or you will die. (And later take the job at Boise State.)