Tag Archives: Arkansas State Red Wolves

Hard Lessons in Learning How to Win for Cleveland State

Cleveland State might be forgiven for feeling its way through the non-conference schedule, given the new coaching staff and the need to have the new players and upperclassmen start gelling as a team. However, with the slate head coach Dennis Felton and company put together in the ramp-up to the Horizon League games, the Vikings have been dropped into the deep end of the pool and are asked to swim back to shore.

In the first six games, it’s clear that learning to win has been a lesson that has seen Cleveland State take steps forward and backward. Taking away the blowout at Rutgers, and you can see two, perhaps three games early on that could have been winnable for the Vikings.

But when you have a team with a new coach and whose veterans have suffered from back-to-back 20-loss seasons, the road to completing the final lessons in winning will be winding and, at times, full of potholes.

The primary lesson, at least in the early going, has been the ability to close out games. Against East Carolina and Central Connecticut State, Cleveland State was leading in the final minutes. And, in both cases, offensive outages, coupled with defensive lapses, proved to be too much to overcome at the end of both contests.

As frustrating as the losses have been (and you were all warned about this, by the way), you have gotten the sense that it was only a matter of time before the Vikings were finally able to get over the hump. And Wednesday’s match-up against Arkansas State was a sign that things were taking a turn in the right direction.

Sure, Cleveland State had kept letting the Red Wolves back into the game, as it had against ECU and CCSU. But this time, the Vikings hunkered down, and bolstered by a key block by Bobby Word and a defensive set that led to an unforced error by Arkansas State, CSU came through with the 75-72 victory.

“We talked about the first year and how important it is to build your culture and set a high standard of excellence,” Felton told The News-Herald after the win.

If any of this sounds familiar to longtime Cleveland State fans, that’s likely because the Vikings have been in this situation before. It was 11 years ago, to be exact when Gary Waters took over as the head coach after years of poor-to-middling teams capped by four straight 20-loss seasons.

That, as it seems, is where the similarities end. Waters, in his first year, was given the latitude to ease Cleveland State back on the winning track, bringing transfers like Cedric Jackson, Chris Moore and George Tandy into the mix, starting in Year Two.

Felton, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. First, he’s called on the senior holdovers from the Waters era, specifically Word, Kenny Carpenter and Anthony Wright, to step up in the starting rotation. In addition, lending to a sense of urgency, the new players he’s brought into the mix, freshmen Stefan Kenic and Tyree Appleby, along with Northern Illinois transfer Dontel Highsmith, have played big minutes so far this season.

While the Arkansas State win was a much-needed boost, the non-conference road doesn’t get any easier, which includes tough road contests against Top 25 teams Cincinnati and Michigan State. That said, the Vikings appear to be in a better position than preseason pundits saw them, and with the volatility of the Horizon League, don’t be surprised if they pull out some wins nobody expected.

Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

Felton’s Debut Season at Cleveland State Will Be Grueling

For as many basketball pundits who have already predicted that Cleveland State, under Dennis Felton, will finish at the bottom of the Horizon League rankings, the Vikings’ new head coach didn’t seem deterred by loading up the non-conference schedule with some tough contests.

Cleveland State will, for its opening months, be facing the likes of Rutgers, Michigan State and Cincinnati. As expected, The Spartans and the Bearcat will provide the Vikings with, quite bluntly, nearly impossible odds of winning, especially given the recent changes in the Cleveland State roster and coaching staff.

Ironically, though, the CSU-Cincinnati game on December 21st will be played at the home of one of Cleveland State’s conference foes, Northern Kentucky. The Bearcats, while their permanent home is being renovated, will take up temporary residence at BB&T Arena, which the Vikings will see one more time later in the season when they face the Norse in Horizon League play.

As for the Scarlet Knights, second-year head coach Steve Pikiell may find some challenges in Cleveland State, which travels to New Jersey as part of the Phil Sellers Showcase, though Rutgers has made some significant improvements to its roster since last year. This showcase will also find the Vikings hosting Coppin State on November 17th, which will be Felton’s home debut, and Central Connecticut State, with a road trip to East Carolina in between.

For the third year, Cleveland State, along with Akron, Kent State and conference foe Youngstown State, will gather for the annual Northeast Ohio Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. This season, the classic will be held in Akron, with the host Zips facing off against the Vikings on November 14th.

Akron will be one of four MAC teams that Cleveland State will face. Toledo will come to the Wolstein Center for CSU’s annual pre-Christmas match on December 23rd, while the Vikings will make the road trip to Kent State (12/2) and Western Michigan (12/6).

In what seems to be a given with Cleveland State and every other mid-major, there will be a non-Division I team on the home slate. This year, it will be Notre Dame College on December 10th. The Vikings will play a second non-D1 team, Cedarville, but this will be a November 2nd exhibition game.

Cleveland State will, in addition to its conference slate, play 14 games in the confines of the Wolstein Center. The Vikings will play host to Arkansas State on November 29th, a return matchup from the trip CSU took to Jonesboro last season.

Of course, the most anticipated game on the schedule may very well be on New Year’s Day, when the Vikings open the year, and the Horizon League, with a home contest against Youngstown State. The duel between new coaches Felton and YSU’s Jerrod Calhoun is probably marked on a few people’s calendars, though it’s a safe bet many of those folks are wearing red and white.

The competition that Cleveland State will face in 2017-18 is some of the stiffest that the Vikings have seen in some time, and you’d be forgiven if you’re not sure what to make of it. With three high-major road trips and an ever-improving Horizon League (IUIPUI notwithstanding), it seems as if CSU will not spend Felton’s opening year trying to ring up wins against low-majors to inflate its record.

At the same time, a slow burn may hinder Felton’s effort to rebuild the fan base. Whether the scheduling will serve as a benefit or deterrent to the Vikings when January 1st rolls around remains to be seen.

Email Bob at bob.mcdonal[email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

Don’t Ignore Blake Anderson And The Arkansas State Red Wolves

When talking about the mid-major level of college football programs, we all love teams from the American Athletic Conference and the Mid-American Conference. Teams like Miami-Ohio, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan, Houston, Temple, and Memphis capture our collective attention year in and year out. And based on the success of those teams, it just makes sense.

But what if I told you there was a not-so-sleeping giant of a program hiding out in the Sun Belt Conference? Say hello to the Arkansas State Red Wolves and Blake Anderson.

The best thing that Arkansas State has going for it is that the leadership knows how to hire football coaches. If you’re a fan of a bigger program and are looking for your next head coach, start with the Red Wolves. Blake Anderson is the current coach and he was preceded by Bryan Harsin, Gus Malzahn, and Hugh Freeze. Harsin, Malzahn, and Freeze all proved to be one-year wonders before jumping to Boise State, Auburn, and Mississippi respectively. But who can blame those power programs for going after those coaches? In the three-year period of Harsin, Malzahn, and Freeze, the Red Wolves went 27-10. Since taking over in 2014, Anderson has put together a record of 24-15.

It’s only a matter of time before Anderson jumps to a bigger stage. He’s stayed at Arkansas State longer than his predecessors, and I can only assume that the resume he’s putting together is attracting the attention of search firms and athletic directors. The 2017 schedule is what you would expect from Arkansas State with games at Nebraska, at home versus Miami, on the road against SMU, and what most would consider a sure win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Of those games, the game that could be a differentiator for Arkansas State and Anderson is that trip to SMU.

Like Anderson, SMU coach Chad Morris is considered to be an up-and-coming coach who’s a star in the making. The difference being that SMU is a sexier program to be at and Morris has Clemson on his resume. Don’t forget, Anderson has an impressive coaching association of his own; he stood beside Larry Fedora at both Southern Mississippi and North Carolina. If Anderson leads his Red Wolves to a victory against Morris’ Mustangs, I would expect his name to begin appearing on lists touting the next great college football coach. Truth of the matter is that Anderson’s name should already be on those lists.

Not that it should matter to hiring committees, but Anderson should benefit from the on-field success that Harsin, Malzahn, and Freeze have all had at Boise State, Auburn, and Mississippi. When millions of dollars are invested in coaches, lineage matters. When programs like Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas, or Arizona have coaching vacancies, Anderson should be a candidate. Remember, people are becoming infatuated with Morris and his 7-17 coaching record at SMU. Why? Probably because he spent time at Clemson.

But a coach who’s gone 24-15 is all but ignored because he coaches in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Call it the Clemson effect I guess.

Comment on this story in our free forum.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.

Photo: Arkansas State

AutoNation CureBowl Preview

I’m going to be upfront with you: this introduction section was originally going to be filled with jokes about how there are too many bowls and I was going to call this game something slightly different every time I mentioned it. Then I started doing research on the AutoNation Bowl. Turns out that it’s not just the AutoNation Bowl.

It’s the AutoNation CureBowl.

Yes, this probably isn’t going to be the most exciting game but it might be the most important game. No, it’s not going to decide the champion of the College Football Playoff. I’m sure most fans have already checked out or will never watch this game.

But they should.

The AutoNation CureBowl teams with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to help fund cancer research. 91 cents of every dollar contributed goes towards research which is a pretty fantastic ratio. The Orlando Sports Foundation who is the nonprofit organizer says that there will be a minimum donation of $150,000 which they will make up the difference if there’s not but they hope to be presenting a much bigger check than that.

So if no other reason, that’s why you should be paying attention to this game.

But maybe you’re like me. You were already going to watch this game but for monetary reasons instead. Maybe you’re a little more curious about the Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Central Florida Knights and who’s going to do what and more importantly, who’s going to win.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Maybe. No refunds.

Sure, when you look at the records, Arkansas State looks like they should win the AutoNation CureBowl since the better record belongs to the team from the Sun Belt Conference. Records can lie, though. The Red Wolves got trucked early on in the season by Toledo and Auburn. Also, come on man. It’s the Sun Belt.

Now UCF isn’t exactly playing in the Big Ten but at least there are some real teams on the schedule. The Knights got walloped by Michigan but so did everyone not named Ohio State or Iowa. UCF also hung tough against Maryland, Houston, South Florida, and Temple. All those teams except Maryland won at least nine games. I’m just saying.

Here’s an interesting fact: The Central Florida secondary has only allowed three touchdown passes over the last six games.

Now you’re looking at a spread of just six points with Arkansas State playing the role of the underdog. That’s not a lot especially when you consider that Central Florida hasn’t been exactly amazing on offense and the Arkansas State pass rush has 31 sacks this season. It’d probably be a closer line but you have to take into account that this game is being played in Orlando, Florida.  You know what’s in Orlando? The University of Central Florida. This is a home game for the Knights.

Take the Knights and the points.

The intriguing bet is the over/under at 50. I’m sure you’re expecting me to tell you to take the under. But you’d be wrong. Sometimes the “lesser” bowls like the AutoNation CureBowl tend to be really exciting games. Sometimes they’re better than the big bowl games. I don’t know if this is going to be a shootout and in fact, I’d bet against it, but a 27-24 game? Yeah, that I can get behind.

Once again, no refunds but that’s not why you should be invested in this game. You should be invested in this game simply because we can help fund cancer research.

E-mail Tim at [email protected].

Image courtesy Flickr via Creative Commons

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Q Sweep Gives Cleveland State a Boost

Going into the game against Bethune-Cookman at Quicken Loans Arena, there were so many reasons to think that Cleveland State would have no problem dispatching of its MEAC foes. However, the specter of a four-game losing streak, coupled with the Vikings’ inability to win at the Q at all last season likely gave head coach Gary Waters a bit of pause.

In spite of Rob Edwards still appearing to be hampered by a hand injury (as evidenced by 8-14 from the free-throw line), he still managed to drop in 19 points. And a healthy Demonte Flannigan lead CSU with 21, allowing the Vikings to stave off a Wildcat surge, led by Quinton Forrest’s 24 points, to take their second win of the season, 73-62.

While the win was much-needed, especially on the heels of a 28-point drubbing at the hands of Arkansas State the game before, it did seem as if Cleveland State was a bit out of sorts. It probably didn’t help that the Vikings were a meager 21.9 percent on three-point shots.

Or perhaps it was because it seemed as if depth in the backcourt was seriously lacking against Bethune-Cookman. Gavin Peppers remains out with the bone bruise to his foot, and now walk-on Nelson Maxwell, who provided CSU with minutes backing up Kash Thomas, is out of the lineup with a hamstring injury.

Despite all of this, the Vikings regrouped and finally put together the kind of complete game fans have been hoping for all season with an 85-62 pasting of Western Michigan. The win game Cleveland State a sweep of the two games at the Q, a venue that gave the Vikings nothing but headaches last season, as they couldn’t muster a single win in the five games there.

In the win, Edwards’ hand appeared to be much improved from the previous game, shooting 50 percent from the field and finishing with 15 points. Flannigan, who has slowly but surely eased his way back into the swing of things since returning to the start lineup, dominated the paint and finished with 20 points.

But the big news coming out of the Q on Wednesday was the performance of Oral Roberts transfer Bobby Word. The junior had struggled mightily during the four-game slide, and even in the B-C game wasn’t terribly efficient (eight points on 3-9 shooting).

The WMU game, however, was a much different story.

Word practically couldn’t miss against the Broncos, and torched them on an astounding 75 percent (9-12) from the field, including making five shots from beyond the arc. His 25 points led all scorers, and could possibly serve as the spark the Vikings need on offense.

And that need won’t be felt more than it will be when Cleveland State travels to West Lafayette on Saturday to face 18th-ranked Purdue. And while the last ranked opponent the Vikings faced, then-No. 1 Kentucky, almost felt like an automatic loss, the Boilermakers, particularly their coach Matt Painter, isn’t underestimating CSU.

Whether the Vikings can retain the momentum from overcoming their woes early this season remains to be seen. But maybe Cleveland State, especially when Peppers, Maxwell and also-injured Anthony Wright return, can get to a point where it’s not sitting near the bottom of the Horizon League standings.

Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

Cleveland State Returns Home (Sort Of) Battered and Beaten

It has really gotten to the point at Cleveland State where it’s become extremely difficult to figure out if there’s any progress happening. The initial returns did indicate that maybe, just maybe, the Vikings would avoid the fate that felled them last season. And let’s face it, nobody wants to see a repeat of last year.

But even with leaving the 101-70 drubbing at the hands of Kentucky out of the equation (since the Wildcats are putting that kind of hurting on all opponents this season), the measure of progress is looking harder to find.

And when Cleveland State continues to make the same mistakes over and over again (Read: long scoring droughts, giving up double-digit leads, etc.), it makes anybody wonder if the cycle of misery experienced from 2015-16 isn’t coming back to rear its ugly head.

Making matters worse is what appears to be a decided lack of depth, in spite of a rather robust rotation that coach Gary Waters has utilized. This has become a particularly glaring issue at point guard, where Gavin Peppers is still out of the rotation with a bone bruise on his foot.

Freshman Kash Thomas, as promising as he has been early on, has also run into some issues that his inexperience and a dearth of help in the rotation have brought to light. Kentucky and, most recent, Arkansas State have been able to target him on defense and, as a consequence, make him a non-factor on offense, as evidenced by limiting him to zero points in the first halves of both contests.

Now, the injury bug has come to claim Rob Edwards, CSU’s leading scorer, even as Demonte Flannigan and Terrelle Hales have come back from early health issues. A hand injury resulted in him sitting out of practice prior to the road trip against the Red Wolves. And limited to 22 minutes in the 78-51 rout at the hands of Arkansas State, Edwards was held scoreless.

In fact, with the Vikings sporting a 1-5 record, it seems as if the only highlight of the upcoming home game at Quicken Loans Arena against Bethune-Cookman is the return of a Cleveland State great. The Wildcats are coached by Gravelle Craig, who was part of the 1992-93 Vikings squad that tore through the Mid-Continent Conference (now called the Summit League) en route to a regular-season title.

For his part, Craig garner first-team all-conference honors (to go along with his second-team honors the previous year) and honorable mention All-American recognition from Basketball Weekly that season. His 5.5 assists per game remains the all-time record for dishes in CSU history.

The emotional boost that will be part of this Ohio homecoming for Craig, along with several members of the Bethune-Cookman roster and staff (including senior writer Dan Ryan) won’t be the only thing the Vikings will have to contend with. Cleveland State will also have to find an answer for the Wildcats’ junior guard, Brandon Tabb.

The 6-5 juco transfer has been on a tear, and was recently named MEAC Co-Player of the Week. Tabb’s 22.1 points per game also leads the conference and ranks him 22nd in the entire country, plus he is second nationally in three-pointers made.

With as many issues as the Vikings have had defending beyond the arc, even in their sole win against Canisius, having Tabb go off on them won’t help matters. And with the Bethune-Cookman faithful seemingly more excited about the game at the Q than Cleveland State fans are, the last thing Waters needs is reinforcement of his assertion that games at the home of the Cavaliers are little more than neutral-site contests to him.

E-mail Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com

How Many Quarterbacks Will Auburn Play This Weekend?

Last week in this space I, quite miserably, predicted the outcome of what I viewed as the six SEC games of greatest magnitude and impact on opening weekend. The Alabama-Southern Cal and Ole Miss-Florida State games were the only two I picked correctly. There were four misses; Auburn-Clemson, Georgia-North Carolina, LSU-Wisconsin, and Texas A&M-UCLA.

If I keep picking like that, it’s safe to say I’ll never be hired in Vegas as an odds maker. Quite frankly, people might begin to whisper, “Hey! Let’s see who Bird picked to win this weekend. We’ll just go in the opposite direction and get rich!”

And, sadly, that would have been a great strategy this past, long Labor Day weekend.

Today is another day. Saturday offers a fresh new slate of games, and I will give you my humble selections as to whom the victors will be in the SEC later in this column.

I’m an Auburn fan. That’s not news to any of you who know me or read my blogs. And what I am going to do today, as a concerned follower of the Tigers, is attempt to frame what happened on the Plains Saturday night, with the assistance of five informative links.

First of all, Auburn fans, as well as football fans across America, are scratching their heads at what has been aptly described, on many fronts, as “musical quarterbacks,” or “the quarterback merry-go-round.”

ESPN’s Greg Ostendorf addresses that matter.

Fortunately, Gus Malzahn spoke to the matter in his Tuesday press conference. He acknowledged that the experiment did not work and, once again, proclaimed Sean White as the primary signal caller.

Before we allow Gus and Rhett Lashlee to shoulder all the blame in this, we need to remind ourselves that coaches do not tackle or block. Blocking, or a lack thereof, was a big problem in the loss to No. 2 Clemson.

This piece, from SEC Country, expounds on that issue.

Let’s now look at the more positive aspects of the game on which Auburn can build.

Malzahn always has at least one 1,000-yard rusher in his offensive arsenal, and Kerryon Johnson just might be that guy in 2016. AL.com analyzes the sophomore’s first start.

Dee-Fense! Yes, how ‘bout that D?! The Auburn Tigers are back to playing the kind of defense that her fans had grown accustomed to in the days of Shug Jordan, Pat Dye, and Tommy Tuberville.

If you had told me Auburn would hold the high-octane Clemson Tiger offensive machine to 19 points, I would’ve guaranteed a burnt orange and navy blue Tiger victory on Saturday night. Period. End of sentence. No questions asked.

Here is some enlightening info pertaining to that successful area of Auburn’s play.

Ok! We do have a foundation on which to build! That brings us to the next game on the slate. Tomorrow. Again. In the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. More on Auburn and Arkansas State.

Predictions? Dare I? Why of course! Both Auburn and I seek to redeem ourselves. As the old hymn goes, “Lift up your head redemption draweth nigh.”

If you want picks on Texas A&M-Prairie View, Georgia-Nicholls State, Ole Miss-Wofford, LSU-Jax State, and Mizzou-Eastern Michigan, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Just send me cash or a money order and I’ll give you the skinny on those nail biters.

Florida vs. Kentucky

This will be a very good football game down in The Swamp. Gators, 31-28.

Alabama vs. Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers have a good team but they are no match for the Crimson Tide. No one is at this point. Bama, 41-7.

Vanderbilt vs. Middle Tennessee

Vandy gets its first win of the season. Dores, 20-17.

Mississippi State vs. South Carolina

Should be a very close one. It’s in StarkVegas. Bullpups, 23-21.

Arkansas vs. TCU

Another one which could be a real scrap. The Amphibious Purple are the home team. Horned Frogs, 28-24.

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech

Yet another potential barnburner. The Battle at Bristol. Vols, 28-21.

And! Auburn vs. Arkansas State

“Lift up your head redemption draweth nigh.” Tigers, 38-6.

Peace.

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull

Photo: Courtesy of Bird Lecroy

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College Football 2016 Preview: Group of 5

American Athletic Conference

Prediction: University of Houston (11-1) vs. Temple (9-3)

I think almost everyone expects to see UH come out of the west in the AAC, as it is both coming off a tremendous year, and in the weaker division in the American. They biggest competition in the West is probably Navy, but it won’t be nearly as big of a challenge now that Keenan Reynolds is gone to the NFL.

Houston will be working hard this season to try and earn a spot in the Big 12, so it will be working for a repeat of the amazing season it had last year. I only have them losing a late season game to Louisville, but the Cougars are definitely the team to beat in the AAC.

In the East Division, the competition is much more of a toss-up, as realistically any of the five teams could take the division. However, the two most likely division champs are USF and Temple. USF’s schedule could pose large problems, however, as it will have to go through the likes of Northern Illinois and FSU early on. With an easier non-conference schedule, I think Temple will be able to win the East by a game. They will only be the last obstacle in UH’s way to a conference championship.

Conference Champion: University of Houston Cougars

Mid-American Conference

Prediction: Ohio University (7-5) vs. Western Michigan University (10-2)

The conference champion will definitely come out of the West division in 2016. The top four teams in the West are all currently ranked above the top ranked East team, Ohio.

Ohio will be able to get enough wins to take the East over the likes of Bowling Green and Akron. The West should be an interesting competition, but I see a breakout season coming from WMU. Their hardest non-conference games are Northwestern and Illinois, two beatable teams for the Broncos. Though they may drop a game against another team in the West, I think they will take at least the Northwestern game and win the West.

Conference Champion: Western Michigan University Broncos

Mountain West

Prediction: Boise State (10-2) vs. San Diego State (11-1)

The Mountain West really looks like a two-team race this year. Except for maybe Air Force, Boise St and SDSU seem like the only two real competitors for the Mountain West crown.

Both should be able to easily win their division, but Boise’s non-conference is much harder than SDSU’s, as it has to face the likes of Oregon State and Washington State. SDSU only really needs to overcome Cal. However, I see them dropping a matchup against NIU the week following, as they will have to travel all the way across the country. SDSU’s lack of difficult out of conference will make them slightly weaker than Boise, despite the better record.

Conference Champion: Boise State University Broncos

Sun Belt

Prediction: Appalachian State (9-3)

In the only of the Group of 5 conference without a title game, Appalachian State will have to battle off the likes of Arkansas State and Georgia Southern for the Sun Belt title. I see this conference really coming down to Appalachian and Arkansas State. Arkansas State has two guaranteed loses in my eyes, to Auburn and a much closer game to Toledo, and maybe even a third loss to Utah State.

Meanwhile, Appalachian State will lose to Tennessee. They have a possible upset against Miami (FL) and then a game against Akron. If Appalachian State manages to come out of its non-conference schedule having only lost to Tennessee and Miami, it will win the Sun Belt.

Conference Champion: Appalachian State Mountaineers

Conference USA

Prediction: Southern Miss (10-2) vs. Marshall (8-4)

Conference USA is very lopsided this year, as Southern Miss is the easy pick out of the West division. The East division, however, is much more up for grabs. Middle Tennessee, Marshall or Western Kentucky could all be the one to face off against Southern Miss, but I think Marshall’s non-conference schedule gives it the edge.

Marshall’s hardest non-conference games are Louisville and Pitt, which are both preferable to WKU’s game against Alabama. None of the non-conference games for MTSU jump off the page, but they are all decent. Vanderbilt, Bowling Green and Missouri are all difficult opponents. For this reason, I have Marshall coming out of the East.

Conference Champion: Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Featured Image courtesy of Giovanni Gallucci – Flickr

The Sun Belt’s Best Football Games of 2016

The Sun Belt is quite the oddball conference. Not only does it not have a conference championship game (one of only two conferences with that dubious distinction, shout-out to the Big 12), but it has an odd number of teams, 11. Oh and the Idaho Vandals are in the conference. I don’t know about you but when I think of sun, I think of Idaho.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore the conference in 2016. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern just joined the Football Bowl Sub-Division in the past couple years, and Georgia State didn’t even have a football team until 2010. Yet, all three of those teams finished in the top four of the conference last year and will compete to top Arkansas State, who won the conference with an 8-0 record in 2015. The Sun Belt may be the most interesting non-Power 5 conference this year, and here are its most intriguing games:

10. Georgia State @ Troy (Saturday, October 15)

Troy struggled to just three conference wins in 2015 but was competitive in its game at Georgia State. With 15 starters back the hopes at Troy are for improvement and to maybe challenge for the conference crown. It will take a while before we know if that’s a possibility because the Trojans toughest conference opponents come at the end of the schedule. This will be their first chance to show if they are legit or not.

9. Georgia Southern @ Western Michigan (Saturday, September 24)

Georgia Southern gave the Sun Belt some respect by dominating the MAC champion in its bowl game in 2015. They’ll look to set a similar tone this year when playing one of the MAC’s better teams in the Western Michigan Broncos. Many of the offensive stars return between these two teams for what should be an entertaining game of contrasting offensive styles.

8. Appalachian State @ Troy (Saturday, November 12)

Appalachian State rolled through most of its seven conference wins in 2015, but Troy was the one team that kept it close. The Trojans lost by just a field goal in a triple-overtime thriller on the road. They’re one of the few teams that will be as experienced as the Mountaineers and will look to return the favor this year on their own home turf.

7. Arkansas State @ Georgia State (Saturday, November 4)

After rolling through the conference undefeated last year, Arkansas State will be starting a new quarterback and returns just the eighth-most starters in the conference. Assuming they take a step back, they could at least upset Georgia State’s chances for the conference title in this late season showdown.

6. Appalachian State @ Tennessee (Saturday, September 3)

Before playing the Miami game, the Mountaineers will have a chance to make their first statement in the season opener at Neyland Stadium (7:30 pm est on SEC Network). The Volunteers have failed to live up to the hype the past couple years and Appalachian State is obviously no stranger to upsetting Power 5 teams.

5. Appalachian State vs. Miami (FL) (Saturday, September 17)

Appalachian State’s quarterback Taylor Lamb upped his touchdown total by 14 last year while not increasing his interception total at all. Lamb will lead an experienced Mountaineers team that went 11-2 last year in a home game against a perpetually disappointing Hurricanes squad. If the Canes play the type of undisciplined football they did last year, it wouldn’t be shocking to see App State pull off the win (ESPN/ESPN2 at Noon est).

4. Georgia State at Wisconsin (Saturday, September 17)

Georgia State gets a chance to make a real statement here. As previously stated, they have 17 starters returning to a team that made a bowl game last year. Wisconsin hasn’t been the same power it was a few years ago, and it’ll be coming off games against LSU and Akron to start the year. They’re in for a long day if they overlook the Panthers.

3. Georgia Southern @ Georgia State (Saturday, November 19)

These two football up-starts battle in what looks to be a budding rivalry. The schools were already considered rivals but since Georgia State has only had a football team for a few years, the real rivalry is just beginning. Helping breed a better rivalry is the fact that this game could have conference title implications.

2. Georgia State at Appalachian State (Saturday, October 10)

Last year was just Georgia State’s third in the FBS and yet it finished fourth in the conference and made a bowl game. This year they’ll try to build off that success and make a run at a conference championship with 17 starters returning. Last year was Appalachian State’s second year in the FBS after dominating the FCS ranks the previous few years, and it went 11-2.

1. Appalachian State at Georgia Southern (Thursday, October 27)

App State and Georgia Southern were two of the best teams in the conference last year, and with at least seven defensive starters back and the starting quarterback returning for each squad, 2016 should be no different. With Arkansas State taking a step back after their 2015 conference championship, this game could decide the champ this season.

E-mail Jason at or follow him on Twitter @JLindy87

Featured image courtesy of Jamie Williams

Realigning into 16-Team Power Conferences

So much has been said about conference realignment in the last few years that we’ve become numb to it.  We recognize that the motive behind all of it is money, and that, understandably, turns many of us off to the whole idea.

I haven’t seen anybody try to turn this sensitive issue into something fun though.  Obviously, this is a complicated case with a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.  We don’t need to get into all of that.  It’s been done before.  It’ll be done again.  So, forget all that and proceed with an open mind.

Let’s just stuff 16 teams into each of the Power 5 conferences and see what that looks like.

First of all, logistically speaking, adding teams gives us an opportunity to level the playing field a bit.  16-team conferences break down nicely into four divisions of four and that allows me to mandate schedule changes.

Every team will play 12 games in a regular season, three non-conference contests against other Power 5 teams and nine within the conference.  Teams will play their three divisional foes every season.  They’ll also annually rotate playing one entire division within their conference.  This leaves two more games, filled by one team from each of the remaining divisions in the conference.  Those, too, will rotate yearly.

From there, division winners will be pitted against each other in a two-week long playoff to determine a conference champion.  The five conference champs will receive automatic bids to the College Football Playoff with three more bids going to the most deserving at-large teams.  Oh yeah, we’re expanding the Playoff too, but that’s another column for a different time.

Enough introduction, let’s realign.

ACC

We’ll start out with the easy one.  The Atlantic Coast Conference already has 14 teams and it’s a basketball league anyway.  It shouldn’t be hard to add two schools that’ll make the East Coasters happy.

Additions: Memphis and Temple

The Tigers and the Owls both had surprisingly solid seasons in the American Athletic Conference in 2015.  Timing might have a lot to do with this but it seems like they’d be the best fits for right now.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Clemson                    Florida State            Louisville                    Boston College

North Carolina         Miami                       Virginia Tech              Pittsburgh

NC State                    Georgia Tech            Virginia                       Syracuse

Wake Forest              Duke                          Memphis                     Temple

The problem with the ACC is there aren’t many schools you know you can count on to field a solid football team every year.  That made splitting them up evenly a bit more challenging and I think these combinations are as fair as you’re going to get.

To clarify the schedule reconstruction from earlier, let’s use Clemson as an example.  The Tigers would play UNC, NC State and Wake Forest every year going forward.  In 2016, they’d play every team in “Div. 2” and one team from “Div. 3” and “Div. 4”.  I think that shakes out to be a much better schedule than anything we see under the current system.

Of course, you’d rotate home and away to prevent Clemson from rarely leaving Death Valley, but breaking all that down would be delving into details that are not the aim of this column.  Again, we can do that some other time.

Big 12

Yee-haw!  Here’s where the real fun is to be had.  The Big 12 needs six teams to get itself up to code.  There’s been a whole lot of talk coming out of the Wild West, but it seems everyone is too afraid to pull the trigger on any real moves.  Let’s make it easy for them.

Additions: Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, Boise State, Arkansas State, North Dakota State

With so many spots to fill, this was the toughest conference to add to.  Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and Boise State all belong in the Big 12 for real and I figured why not throw in Arkansas State and FCS-powerhouse North Dakota State for fun.  All of these teams would run the Kansas Jayhawks out of the building so I’m not worried about having to dig a deeper basement.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                         Div. 3                          Div. 4

Oklahoma                  Texas                        Houston                    West Virginia

Oklahoma State        Baylor                      Boise State                Iowa State

Kansas State              TCU                         BYU                             Cincinnati

Kansas                        Texas Tech            North Dakota State   Arkansas State

Look, I know this isn’t perfect, but like the ACC, the Big 12 isn’t giving me much to work with.  It’s a conference dominated by its haves and embarrassed of its have nots.  I’ve almost made it into a coast-to-coast league by adding Boise State (that’s a long way from Morgantown, West Virginia) but the conference itself didn’t seem too bothered by that when it added the Mountaineers in the first place.

I tried to keep as many rivalries alive as I could without severely crippling any one of the divisions.  Who knows what to expect from “Div. 3” with all newcomers, or “Div. 4” with West Virginia at the top.  There’s a lot going on in the Big 12 and frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it on a regular basis.  Sorry, Courtney McCrary.

Big Ten

Welcome to Big Ten country, where football is just better.  Sure, we’ve recently added a couple ridiculous East Coast members in Maryland and Rutgers, but they do serve nicely as automatic wins for our real teams.  Just two additions needed here.

Additions: Notre Dame and Ohio

Now that I know I’ve scared away all the Golden Domers, I can just come right out and say that it’s utterly ridiculous for Notre Dame to be playing half of an ACC schedule.  The Irish belong in the Big Ten.  We all know it.  They all know it.  The only reason they’re not, you guessed it: money.

Also, welcome the Ohio Bobcats whose campus is absolutely beautiful (and great fun on Saturday nights).  Maybe now people will realize there is, after all, another school besides THE one in Columbus.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Ohio State                Michigan                    Nortre Dame            Wisconsin

Penn State                Michigan State         Iowa                            Minnesota

Maryland                  Indiana                      Northwestern            Nebraska

Ohio                           Rutgers                       Purdue                        Illinois

Truthfully, I would love to boot Maryland and Rutgers, make them go play in the ACC and add a couple more MAC schools.  Northern Illinois, Toledo, Central and Western Michigan would all suffice, but for the purpose of this column I’m simply working with what’s already there.

Notre Dame gets to play schools it can start, or continue, a legitimate rivalry with.  They’ll have to play those fake rivalries they’ve got on both coasts on their own time.  The Buckeyes will have to play the Bobcats every year because I know that scares them.  As far as “The Game” is concerned, like our own Damien Bowman says, Michigan vs. Ohio State would be an even bigger game if it wasn’t played annually.

SEC

I know I angered many of you from the Southland with that wise crack about football being better up north.  We all know where the best football is played.  It’s just that people are tired of hearing about it.  The best conference in college football also needs just two teams to fill itself out.

Additions: Western Kentucky and Southern Mississippi

You’re the best, right?  Well, then you shouldn’t need any more help proving it.  Take these two C-USA teams (last year’s division winners), and consider them replacements for those mid-season walk-throughs y’all like to schedule against FCS schools.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

Alabama                    Florida                       LSU                             Ole Miss

Auburn                      Georgia                      Arkansas                     Tennessee

Texas A&M               Kentucky                    Missouri                     Mississippi State

South Carolina        Western Kentucky    Vanderbilt                  Southern Mississippi

There are so many rivalries down south it’s impossible to keep them all intact.  This divisional split preserves many of the big games while setting up some intriguing new ones.  This shakeup seems perfect to me, particularly for this coming season, but I’m sure some of you have one or two issues with it.  I’m curious what our SEC guys (and gals), Bird LeCroy, Seth Merenbloom and Kristen Botica, think about this.

Pac-12

Fifth and finally, that wacky conference out west that loves to put up points.  Unfortunately, picking last and being on the West Coast severely limits the options here.  With four spots to fill, this is going to be a tough one.

Additions: Utah State, Colorado State, San Diego State, Nevada

Basically, the Pac-12 absorbed the best available teams from the Mountain West and banished the rest of them to whatever level we’re setting up underneath the Power 5.

Div. 1                          Div. 2                          Div. 3                          Div. 4

USC                            Stanford                    Oregon                         Utah

Arizona                      UCLA                         Washington                Colorado

Arizona State            California                  Washington State      Colorado State

San Diego State       Nevada                      Oregon State               Utah State

Dividing this group of teams was even more difficult than finding which ones to add to it.  I wanted to keep USC and UCLA together, but doing so makes all the other divisions look much less formidable.  The door does seem wide open for Oregon and Utah in this setup.  I tried to put the Ducks and the Utes together but, again, the repercussions make things worse than they stand now.  What say you, Mike Wilson?

Reminder

Sports are supposed to be fun.  If they’re not, then what’s the point?  And while I understand this is a serious topic with a lot of money involved, I have a hard time taking it seriously since all anyone wants to do is talk.  Until something real happens, I’ll just keep serving up far-fetched proposals to stir the conversational pot.

I hope you enjoyed reading and I look forward to many of you telling me what I already know, why this won’t work, in the comments section below and on Twitter @GreatGatzke.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.