Conventional wisdom says to consider all players, depth charts, coaching staffs and intangibles when projecting who can rise to the top and make a conference title run.
Arkansas State’s 2018 roster checks plenty of those boxes that the Red Wolves are right on their way to adding their third conference title in the Blake Anderson era.
The play of senior quarterback and 2017 Sun Belt Player of the Year Justice Hansen appears to be the difference maker when looking ahead. As a junior, Hansen broke all sorts of passing records last season (3,967 passing yards, 37 touchdowns).
But despite the gaudy numbers the Red Wolves left some wins on the table as they went 0-4 last season in games decided by seven points or less.
Red Wolves head coach Blake Anderson is 26-6 in conference play, and with the new division alignment in the Sun Belt, he’ll be face of the clear-cut favorites to play for that amazing Sun Belt trophy.
Did I mention that Hansen guy?
Good, moving on...
The key to more monster numbers this season is the return of a veteran and rock-solid offensive line. Left tackle Lanard Bonner is the anchor, but returning starters Marvis Brown, Troy Elliott and Jacob Still help give Arkansas State their greatest source of depth.
If they can buy Hansen time, the sky is the limit for the 2018 edition of the offense.
Outside of Hansen, Arkansas State has a slate of playmakers that are capable of spreading defenses out. Having large targets in Justin McInnis, Omar Bayless and Dahu Green give the offense options, but most importantly, red zone targets who all demand the opponent’s attention.
On the other end of the height chart, 5’5” senior running back Warren Wand is capable of having a 1,000-yard season in 2018 with all the attention on his backfield buddy and the passing game.
Keep an eye on Oregon/Texas A&M transfer Kirk Merritt. If he and Hansen gel quickly, Arkansas State will surely lead the conference in scoring offense yet again.
Not only are the Red Wolves replacing several starters on defense this season, but a force of nature in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Throw in Caleb Caston and Kyle Wilson’s contributions, and Arkansas State suddenly has to replace 20-plus sacks and 37.5 tackles for loss.
Therefore, there is pressure on the likes of Ronheem Bingham and co. up front to create opportunities for newcomers to apply their own pressure. That means a big season is necessary for Ball State Cardinal transfer Kevin Thurmon and junior linebacker Trent Ellis-Brewer.
If enough pressure is applied, the Red Wolves have some playmakers in the secondary, including Justin Clifton and BJ Edmonds to give that potent offense the ball back quickly. The projected starting corners Jeremy Smith and Brandon Byner will have elevated roles and will need to show consistency against the elite Sun Belt receivers over a larger sample size to merit more confidence.
But this unit’s success will truly start with replacing at least a portion of the linemen that created that sweet, sweet pressure.
Australian punter Cody Grace can be a weapon for the Red Wolves if they need to play the field position game. Kicker Sawyer Williams must be more consistent after a 16-for-22 showing with five missed PATs in 2017.
The non-conference schedule points to Week 2 against defending national champion Alabama. It’s the mother of all “If only...” contests in the Sun Belt this season. If they pull that upset, say hello to your new G5 leader for the New Year’s Six bid.
The schedule favors the Red Wolves in conference play. They dodge Troy altogether and get Appalachian State at home after a pseudo-bye (game on Tuesday). They also get home games against South Alabama, who beat them last year, and UL Monroe who figures to be their toughest competition in the division.
Toughest conference road game looks to be Georgia Southern in late September.
They may not beat ‘Bama, but the if the Red Wolves find chemistry on defense and keep their o-line healthy, expect for stAte to reach the inaugural Sun Belt title gamet on December 1st.
A 9-3 season is not out of the question and a trip to another bowl under Coach Anderson seems like a lock. With Hansen upright all season, the Red Wolves are a prime candidate to win the Sun Belt and wear that trophy belt this December.