In cooperation with the other Sun Belt Conference sites on Rivals.com, we take a look at five questions facing each team as preseason practice approaches.
At this point in time, only three Sun Belt Conference team sites have active publishers on the Rivals.com network. Those teams will be represented in this feature.
The series begins today with a report on the Arkansas State Red Wolves from RedWolfReport.com's Luke Matheson.
1. Why will Arkansas State be better or worse than the preview magazines predict?
Depending on which magazine you look at, the Red Wolves are predicted to finish anywhere from first to fourth in the Sun Belt Conference. Athlon's has the Red Wolves projected to finish as conference champions, while Lindy's has them predicted to finish second. Phil Steele has them predicted to finish fourth overall.
Of course, it's not the same team that won the conference a year ago. The defense lost seven starters and some quality back-up players, and that will play a factor, especially early on in the season. However, there are several quality returning starters in what will be a high powered Gus Malzahn offense, and that should help the Red Wolves win football games.
With the various magazines having the Red Wolves predicted to finish from first to fourth, I think that they are pretty spot on. If the ball bounces the right way a few times for the team, they could certainly win the conference again. If not, they could finish as low as third place in the conference in my opinion. I do believe they will make a bowl game appearance in Malzahn's first year as head coach.
2. Which player(s) will Arkansas State miss the most from last season?
Arkansas State will immediately miss linebacker Demario Davis. Davis was the "Leader of the Pack", and his presence on the field will be missed. Not only will his play-making abilities be missed, but so will his leadership both on and off of the field. Someone will have to step up and fill that leadership role that Davis left behind.
Offensively, the Red Wolves will miss wide receiver Dwayne Frampton, running back Derek Lawson, and center Tom Castilaw. All three players were dependable, hard working play-makers. Their presence will be missed, but there are some key players who will be ready to step up and fill their roles, and those players are going to have to do just that for the Red Wolves to enjoy early success this year.
3. Which newcomers will make the biggest impact this season?
Offensively, Arkansas State recently landed a huge pick up in transfer running back David Oku. Oku was explosive in the open field for Tennessee, and once he knocks the rust off, should be just as explosive for Arkansas State. Oku could end up being a major blessing for the Red Wolf offense considering the NCAA recently deemed Michael Dyer ineligible for the 2012 football season.
Defensively, one guy I expect to step up big for the Red Wolves will be defensive back Kyle Coleman. Coleman is the son of former NFL great and current Arkansas-Pine Bluff head coach Monte Coleman. He possesses an impeccable work ethic, and has natural instincts and abilities on the field.
4. What is the biggest question mark heading into preseason practice?
Arkansas State is going to be looking for early help at linebacker, defensive back and on the offensive line. The offensive line will replace three starters, and you may see true freshmen like Quanterio Heath, and junior college transfer Eddie Porter get early playing time at the linebacker position. The Red Wolves also lost two All-Sun Belt Conference defensive backs, but also return quality players like Don Jones, Sterling Young, Artez Brown, Chaz Scales, and Andrew Tryon.
5. How does the schedule set up for Arkansas State?
The Red Wolves will open up on the road against Oregon, and game that many Red Wolf fans are looking forward to. A home affair against Memphis in week two should be a sellout, and a week three trip to Nebraska week three could be a winnable game if all of the dominoes fall in the right places.
Games against Western Kentucky, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International, and Middle Tennessee will be key games in conference play. A Thursday night match-up on ESPN against Louisiana-Monroe will certainly be a game to watch as well.
Needless to say, the schedule actually sets up quite nicely for the Red Wolves in what will be a partial rebuilding year, especially on the offensive line and defensively as well. All of the conference games will be winnable, and the Red Wolves should have a pretty legitimate shot at making a run for another conference title, and another bowl game.
Bonus question. What is the best-case scenario (and/or worse-case scenario) for Arkansas State this season?
Worst-case: The Red Wolves suffer key injuries in the first four weeks before opening conference play against Western Kentucky. No matter what happens this season, the offensive line must protect quarterback Ryan Aplin and help keep him healthy. Aplin is a tough quarterback, but losing him could prove to be detrimental to the team.
Best case: Arkansas State upsets either Oregon or Nebraska and gets a head of steam heading into conference play. A boost of confidence like that added to the hype surrounding new head coach Gus Malzahn and his coaching philosophy could skyrocket this team into back-to-back conference championships, and possibly even a bowl win.
For additional Arkansas State coverage, visit RedWolfReport.com.