JONESBORO — A season of hard work, high expectations and lofty aspirations boils down to a few hours between the hash marks.
On the final day of the regular season, all Arkansas State’s goals are still within its grasp. But it will take one more win to reach them.
Arkansas State collides with Middle Tennessee State with the Sun Belt Conference championship on the line today. Both teams share the same records and meet in what is an essentially a championship game on the final weekend of the regular season.
Kickoff is 2 p.m. at Liberty Bank Stadium.
Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn, in his first year on the job, has the Red Wolves poised to win their second straight Sun Belt title. He sees a team that is prepared and ready to prove itself one more time.
“They’ve been gearing up for this all year,” Malzahn said. “They’ve put themselves in position to win the championship and we’re playing at home. Our guys are definitely ready for it.”
A season that didn’t start nearly as well as anticipated has slowly evolved into one of championship caliber.
Malzahn’s hiring nearly a year ago brought widespread attention. But his team struggled badly in the opener, falling behind at Oregon 50-3 in the second quarter of a 57-34 loss.
Over the first five weeks of the season, the Red Wolves made wholesale changes as players tried to adjust to a new system and new coaches learned what their players could do. The offense struggled, special teams were in disarray and the defense was marginal at best.
ASU stumbled to a 2-3 start, including a loss to Western Kentucky to open Sun Belt play. The bright promise that the season began with had begun to fade.
“We took our licks early in the season,” ASU linebacker Nathan Herrold said. “It was tough early, but we just kept fighting each game and each practice to get better. Now we’re in this position to win it all.”
After a 26-13 setback at home to WKU, the Red Wolves had a short week before playing at Florida International. They overwhelmed the preseason conference favorites, 34-20, and jumped back into the mix of the Sun Belt race.
Week by week, one opponent after another, the Red Wolves have climbed the SBC ladder, making up for their early-season issues.
“After that first loss to Western Kentucky, we knew what we needed to do,” ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. “We had to flip the switch and from then on we needed to be perfect. That’s something we take pride in each and every day in practice.”
For the most part, the Red Wolves have done exactly that.
Arkansas State (8-3 overall, 6-1 Sun Belt) enters today’s showdown with MTSU on a six-game winning streak. ASU leads the SBC in scoring and rushing, and they’re second in total offense.
Each week, the Red Wolves have found ways to improve and keep winning. They face MTSU following one of their most impressive victories of the season, a 41-34 victory at Troy that included 595 yards offense and a record-setting performance by Aplin.
Now a second straight conference title is there for the taking.
“This has been our goal all season,” Aplin said. “It’s our No. 1 priority to be Sun Belt champs. It’s right here in front of us and all we have to do is take advantage of it.”
Middle Tennessee (8-3, 6-1) is the only obstacle between ASU and its first back-to-back conference titles since 1985-86.
The Blue Raiders have won four in a row but come limping into the contest with a rash of injuries. As many as eight starters from the season opener won’t be available this afternoon.
But MTSU coach Rick Stockstill isn’t preparing to make excuses. He believes the Blue Raiders will be ready and can win in a hostile environment even if Arkansas State is the better team.
“On paper, it looks like they’re the better team, but the better team doesn’t always win. The more talented team doesn’t always win,” Stockstill said. “The team that plays the hardest and plays the smartest and all that gives you the best chance to win.”
But even Stockstill admits, he’s having to resort to some magic tricks to conceal some of his team’s deficiencies.
“It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors right now,” he said.
The Blue Raiders have earned a shot at the SBC title with a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense.
MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore is among the league leaders with 2,457 yards and 16 touchdowns passing. Freshman Jordan Parker, who replaced injured running back Benny Cunningham, has 783 yards rushing.
The Blue Raiders rank 11th nationally in turnover margin with 28 gained and 16 lost. In its last five games, Middle Tennessee has committed just two turnovers and created 16.
“They find ways to win and they get turnovers,” Malzahn said. “They don’t give up turnovers, but they get them. They’re very opportunistic around the ball and they don’t give up big plays.”
No Sun Belt Conference title has ever been decided in a head-to-head matchup on the final weekend of the season in the league’s 11-year football existence. That will change this afternoon.
It should make for an intense and emotional battle.
“We’re going to go down there and we expect to win,” Stockstill said.
For Arkansas State, it’s the opportunity to polish off another remarkable season that didn’t start out so remarkably.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to control our own destiny and we’re playing a home game for the conference championship,” Malzahn said. “We couldn’t ask for much more than that going into this last game.”
Both teams figure to receive bowl invitations, but neither is concerned about their postseason prospects.
It’s all about one afternoon, four quarters of football, and the conference championship that belongs to the winner.
“This is for everything,” Aplin said. “This is for all the hard work we put in over the summer. It’s all on the line in this game. This is what we’ve worked for.”