On Monday, Coach Blake Anderson stood at the podium, his brow furrowed in concern and his voice set at an even, no-nonsense tone synonymous with “straight talk.”
“They were just too big on both sides of the ball,” said Anderson grimly, “Too much senior leadership.”
Indeed, Appalachian State was too big. Too strong. Too deep. Too good. The Mountaineers punched through the Red Wolves offensive line without a challenge, collecting 12 TFL and six sacks. The offensive rumbled for 305 rushing yards – more than 80 by a quarterback unfazed by dropping his shoulder and and punishing defensive backs for an additional yard.
Too committed. Too talented. Too motivated.
Coach Anderson spoke at length about how the Red Wolves needed to working harder in the weight room; how the Red Wolves need to fill holes with recruiting. There was nothing new to hear. The same words could have easily be said in 2018, when Appalachian State manhandled the Red Wolves 35-9.
Appalachian was just too strong. Too fast. Too better.
So, when do we get to be “too better?”
Since the recent Sun Belt Expansions, the conference has seen a number of FBS-to-FCS programs improve and succeed: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Georgia State and Coastal Carolina have all evolved. Two of those programs – Appalachian State and Coastal – have earned AP Top 25 respect, a distinction that has eluded Arkansas State since entering FBS competition in 1992.
It is especially vexing to watch Coastal Carolina gain national prominence as the Red Wolves seem to slip farther and farther behind. Until this season, the Chanticleers had been an auto-win for Arkansas State. In 2020 Coastal padded its stats on Arkansas State, thumping the defense for 52 points.
The game against Appalachian State was more of the same, with ESPN commentators lauding the growth of the Mountaineers program, even comparing Appalachian State to “Alabama” at one point. Arkansas State, who once only aspired to be “the Boise State of the South,” was now barely better than South Alabama – a team that beat the Red Wolves last season.
The Red Wolves haven’t endured a losing season since 2010, the year before the program elevated offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to head coach. Nobody foresees a losing season for Arkansas State this year. But wins against Texas State, South Alabama and ULM are far from guaranteed. With the exception of the Warhawks, the Sun Belt has improved across the board. Even Sports Illustrated agrees. No longer can the Red Wolves breeze into an 8 to ten win season. Every yard must be battled for.
For the third consecutive season, the Red Wolves have begun conference play 1-2. Instead of enjoying the national spotlight, Arkansas State has been relegated to “conference spoiler,” relying on the mistakes of better teams like Louisiana and Appalachian State to retain relevance. Nobody said life in the Sun Belt would be easy.
But you have to wonder, but does the battle have to be this hard?