Arkansas State has every reason to be in rebuilding mode. The RedWolves are on their fourth head coach since 2010, parted ways with their three-year star quarterback and have lost standout players to the NFL.
Yet, Arkansas State’s pursuit of a third consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship is off to a strong start after a thrilling, 41-34 shootout win over Troy Thursday. Quarterback Adam Kennedy, a transfer from Utah State, effectively captained an offense that appeared to miss no beat without two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin.
Kennedy’s 282 yards passing balanced nicely with the RedWolves rushing attack, led by David Oku and Michael Gordon. All told, Arkansas State racked up over 500 total yards. In downing Troy, Arkansas State is past one of the hurdles in the new-look Sun Belt. The reigning champions get Louisiana-Lafayette at home, and travel to Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe.
Any of the four are equipped to win the league, but ASU has to like its early start under Bryan Harsin.
Harsin was named the program’s fourth head coach in just a two-year span last December. Between Harsin and nine-year ASU veteran Steve Roberts, Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn both parlayed 10-win campaigns into SEC jobs.
Success is a double-edged sword for lower-tier conference programs like Arkansas State. Conference championships and bowl appearances are obviously the goals any team pursues, but oftentimes reaching those goals means losing a coach. Rare are programs like Boise State, TCU and Utah, where Chris Petersen, Gary Patterson and Kyle Whittingham remained to oversee perennial powers — and there’s no guarantee the latter two would have had their programs not been invited to upper echelon leagues.
Keeping a quality head coach around is a chore for Sun Belt, MAC and Conference USA programs. Maintaining a high standard through turnover is even more of a challenge. Ask Ball State, which just last season bounced back from losing Brady Hoke after its perfect regular season in 2008, or Hawaii, which faces its fourth losing season and third straight since June Jones left.
If Arkansas State maintains a championship pace under its third head coach in as many seasons, Jonesboro may have unlocked the magic formula.