The Sun Belt Conference determines its champion not through a title game pitting divisional representatives, but with a season-long round robin. As a longtime follower of the old Pac-10 (pre-12), I appreciate a championship won by going through every single conference member.
Still, one can’t help but feel lacking a championship game on this final week is like missing out on a party. Thus, there’s an added element of excitement when a round robin championship not only comes down to the final week, but pits the top two teams against each other. This occurred in the Pac-10 in 2009 when the winner of the Oregon-Oregon State Civil War would go to the Rose Bowl, and it’s happening Saturday in the Sun Belt.
Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee are in the same position in Week 14, but that wasn’t the case before the season.
Arkansas State is playing for its second consecutive Sun Belt title. The RedWolves didn’t miss a beat despite losing head coach Hugh Freeze to Ole Miss. Rather, dual threat quarterback Ryan Aplin has similarly flourished playing for offensive guru Gus Malzahn and ASU has chugged along scoring 35.6 points per game. That’s a field goal better than the RedWolves’ 2011 average.
A balanced and talented corps of skill position players key the ASU offense. Aplin is completing two-thirds of his pass attempts for 2891 yards and a very impressive 20 touchdowns to four interceptions. Add his nearly 400 yards rushing, and Aplin is the third prong in Malzahn’s three-headed rushing attack. Former Tennessee Vol David Oku earns the lion’s share of carries, which has translated into over 900 yards and 14 touchdowns. Rocky Hayes is used in Malzahn’s system like the D’Anthony Thomas to Oku’s Kenjon Barner, exploding for huge gains when his number is called. Hayes averages an obscene 11.3 yards per attempt.
Arkansas State’s defense isn’t exactly full of slouches, either. Since losing at Nebraska in Week 3, ASU has only given up 30-plus once. Defense was this team’s biggest question mark with the departures of Demario Davis and Brandon Joiner, but this year’s group has responded via outstanding performances from Nathan Herrold, Chaz Scales and Tim Starson.
While Arkansas State is extending its success, Middle Tennessee is rebuilding. The Blue Raiders were picked seventh in the Sun Belt’s preseason media poll, coming off a disappointing 2-10 campaign.
Exceeding expectations so vastly could be enough for MTSU, but the Blue Raiders head to Jonesboro playing to win.
“If you closed the [locker room] door today and ended the season today, I’d look every one of those players in the eye and tell them it was a great year. You had a great year,” said MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill. “But it’s not over yet. We still have two games left.”
Stockstill knows about coaching MTSU to a conference championship. Though the memories of a 2-10 finish were fresh, the program is just three years removed from winning 10 games and the league title. But losing to FCS opponent McNeese State in Week 1 did not bode well for the Blue Raiders returning to the Sun Belt’s forefront.
That turned in Week 4 when MTSU ran wild on Georgia Tech, 42-28. Benny Cunningham erupted for 217 yards and five touchdowns, emerging has a top candidate for the SaturdayBlitz.com Detmer Award. But just two weeks later, he was cut down for the season. How could the Blue Raiders, fresh off a two-win season, hope to maintain their bowl aspirations without the top offensive weapon; let alone pursue a conference championship?
“The people who are stepping in due to injuries are good players,” Stockstill said. “If Benny Cunningham had stayed healthy, Jordan Parker would just be a name to you guys. He probably would have been redshirted. So you’re getting an opportunity to see how talented he is.”
Parker had a standout performance on national television when he led the Blue Raiders to a defeat of Western Kentucky with 149 yards rushing and a touchdown.
MTSU has also had the consistent play of quarterback Logan Kilgore. His numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping; he’s thrown for 2457 yards via a completion percentage just below 64. But he has an impressive 4-to-1 touchdown:interception with 16 scores and just four picks. Last season, Kilgore threw 12 interceptions.
Arkansas State’s defense thrives on creating turnovers. The RedWolves have gained 29 of them. Maintaining his protection of the ball is crucial for Kilgore. Maintaining ball possession to keep Aplin and the explosive ASU offense off the field gives MTSU its best shot at doing what the Blue Raiders have done best this season and surprise.