With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. Starting today and running through Monday, we’ll preview Auburn’s foes this fall at an output of two per day. We continue with the Arkansas State Red Wolves, where Gus Malzahn served as head coach last season before taking over the Tigers last December.
Who: Arkansas State
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.
All-time series: Auburn leads 2-0
When last they met: Auburn opened the 2010 season with a convincing 52-26 victory over Arkansas State. It marked the first game with Cam Newton at quarterback for the Tigers, and he flashed glimpses of what was in store for the remainder of the season — making the spectacular look routine, which he did, often with ease, on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. The electric signal-caller threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns against Arkansas State, going 9 of 14 through the air. He was every bit as good carrying the ball, rushing for 171 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Freshman running back Michael Dyer tacked on another rushing touchdown, and tallied 95 yards on the ground, while Quindarius Carr collected two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Red Wolves had some success moving the ball against the Tigers’ defense, especially through the air, as quarterback Ryan Aplin rang up 278 yards and a touchdown. And the Red Wolves were able to put some points on the board — 26 in all. Then again, that means little when your opponent doubles you up. After this win, well, I don’t need to tell you how the rest of the Tigers’ year unfolded.
The coach: Bryan Harsin (0-0; First year as a head coach; served as Texas’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons)
2012 record: 10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt (won conference title and beat Kent State 17-13 in GoDaddy.com Bowl)
Total offense: 466.69 ypg (23rd in Division I, 2nd in Sun Belt)
Scoring offense: 34.92 ppg (26th, 2nd)
Total defense: 383.69 ypg (51st, 2nd)
Scoring defense: 24.46 ppg (43rd, 1st)
2012 Year-in-Review: Things couldn’t have gone much better in Malzahn’s only year leading the Red Wolves. A double-digit victory total, a conference title and a bowl victory? What’s not to like? (Though Malzahn didn’t coach in the bowl game; instead, interim coach John Thompson led Arkansas State to a 17-13 win over Kent State.) The Red Wolves’ only defeats came to Oregon, Nebraska and Western Kentucky. But Arkansas State’s success has also been (a bit of) a curse, as Harsin represents its third head coach in three seasons, following Malzahn’s one-year tenure in 2012 and Hugh Freeze’s one-year stop in 2011.
Biggest area of concern: Who’s going to replace Aplin? The Sun Belt Player of the Year flourished in Malzahn’s up-tempo scheme. The senior threw for 3,342 yards and 24 touchdowns (against only four interceptions), while completing 68 percent of his attempts (276 of 406). He even added 438 rushing yards for good measure. Incredibly, there were only six (!!!) passes the Red Wolves attempted last year that didn’t come from Aplin; sophomore Fredi Knighten played in eight games and threw five times, and “first-team all-cool name” selection Phillip Butterfield appeared in one game and threw a solitary pass. Alas, it fell incomplete.
The best thing going for Aplin’s eventual successor? He’s got a lot of talent to work with on the Red Wolves’ offense. (More on that below.)
Key returning player/unit: Take your pick between senior running back David Oku or redshirt sophomore receiver J.D. McKissic (a Phenix City native, for those readers in the Columbus/Phenix City greater metropolitan area). You can’t go wrong either way.
Oku was one of the top-rated all-purpose backs in the nation in the 2009 class, and originally committed to Tennessee. Oku thrived on kickoff returns, leading the Volunteers in return yardage as both a freshman and a sophomore. But when he saw his name dropping down Tennessee’s tailback depth chart, he announced plans to transfer in January 2011. He signed with Arkansas State last June, and the move paid immediate dividends for both Oku and the Red Wolves. Oku ran for 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He was also fourth on the team in receptions, snagging 20, with seven of them being scoring plays.
One player Oku trailed in the receiving department, of course, was McKissic. He had a dazzling redshirt freshman campaign, winning the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year award and being named to numerous all-freshman teams. And the proof is in the pudding: McKissic caught 103 passes for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns. McKissic also captured the GoDaddy.com Bowl’s Offensive Most Valuable Player award after hauling in 11 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.
It’s hard to believe Oku’s and McKissic’s numbers won’t be every bit as good — if not better — this season as they were in 2012.
Extra point: Kudos to USA Today’s Paul Myerberg for tweeting out this delicious nugget Wednesday morning: There are only five active coaches in the FBS who haven’t been a part of a losing season as a head coach or full-time assistant (minimum three years of experience), and two of them will be opposing each other in this game in Malzahn and Harsin. The other three? Southern California’s Lane Kiffin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.