In Nebraska's bid to win the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2009, Arkansas State stands to be the biggest challenge of them all. Florida Atlantic seems to be the team that Husker fans look most warily at, with a top 25 offense and a four year starter at quarterback. But frankly, I think Arkansas State is the best of Nebraska's three Sun Belt foes.
The Red Wolves, who changed their mascot from the Indians last season, are lead by seniors Corey Leonard and Reggie Arnold on offense. Leonard will also be a four-year starter, and is a dual-threat quarterback who can hurt you with his legs and his arm. Ask Texas A&M about Leonard; he gashed the Aggies for 86 yards on the ground in wrecking Mike Sherman's debut in College Station. For last season, he rushed for 516 yards and threw for 2347, totalling 16 touchdowns through the air and four more on the ground.
Three-time all-conference running back Reggie Arnold rushed for 1074 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He'll be backed up by sophomore Derek Lawson, who added 695 yards and an impressive 7.2 yards per carry average in his freshman season.
Defensively, the Red Wolves will be led by returning Sun Belt defensive player of the year, defensive end Alex Carrington. All told, Arkansas State returns eight starters from the second best defense in the Sun Belt Conference. Phil Steele named junior defensive tackle Bryan Hall to his first-team all conference list, and added five more defenders on his second and third all-conference teams. Arkansas State finished 2008 as the #2 defense in the Sun Belt behind Troy.
Arkansas State finished 2008 at 6-6, though they added a nice pelt with a road victory over Texas A&M in the season opener. Their other BCS conference opponent, Alabama, blanking the Red Wolves 35-0.
With a mobile quarterback, solid running backs, and a stout defense, the Red Wolves are the best of the Sun Belt foes the Huskers will face in 2009. It's almost a no-win situation for the Huskers in this game: you are expected to win, and if you lose, you face uproar and embarassment. But if fans were planning to spend the money on any of the pay-per-view broadcasts of the Sun Belt schedule, the Arkansas State matchup is likely your best bet. If the Huskers are on their game, the Huskers should win this game going away, but if they're not, Arkansas State could claim another upset over a Big XII foe.
[ Update - CB]
Arkansas State started the season with a 61-0 win over Mississippi Valley State. They scored 40 points and had 294 yards by half time, and allowed only 69 yards to MVS for the game. There was some bad news for the Red Wolves as they lost two fifth year senior starters for the season, effectively ending their college football careers. Starting left guard Dominic Padrta suffered an apparently leg injury while free safety Evan Van Dolah suffered an injury during a full-speed collision while making a tackle. Van Dolah started all 12 games last season and was one of the Red Wolves' top tacklers and a leader on the defense.
Redshirt junior Alfred Louis will replace Padtra, while true freshman Cliff Mitchell will be in the rotation to back up Louis. Van Dolah's replacement will be redshirt junior M.D. Jennings, who started every game at strong safety last season. Another redshirt junior, Kelcie McCray, will move into the free safety position.