Arkansas State (7-3, 6-1) vs Troy (9-2, 6-1)
Location: Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Kickoff: 6:30 PM CT
Spread: ASU -1
The era without a Sun Belt championship game is coming to an end after 17 years and it could not have ended any better than this. Two of the Sun Belt’s most successful teams will battle it out on primetime for a share of the conference title and possibly an outright championship.
Appalachian State is the third one-loss team and is playing Louisiana-Lafayette at 1:30 on Saturday. A win clinches a share of the conference crown while a loss turns the Jonesboro showdown into a conference championship game.
These two teams have met 14 times with the Red Wolves holding a 9-5 advantage in the series. Arkansas State won the first matchup 39-0 back on October 20, 1951. The two wouldn’t see each other again for 40 years when Arkansas State claimed a 20-17 victory in 1991.
After Arkansas State won five of the first six meetings, Troy rattled off four wins in a row during its mid-to-late 2000’s run of glory. Following the fall of Troy, Arkansas State has produced four wins in a row.
The Red Wolves lead all Sun Belt teams with 72 wins and six conference championships since Sun Belt football began in 2001. Troy, who began league play in 2004, is second with 66 wins and five conference championships.
This is the first time the league’s most storied programs will square off in the season finale with a ring hanging in the balance.
Arkansas State has yet to lose a home game this season and have won eight consecutive home games dating back to last season. However, the combined record of those eight opponents is a whopping 23-58. On the other hand, Troy is 9-3 on the road in the last two seasons including a 4-1 record this year.
The cliché phrase “An unstoppable force meets an immovable object” is the perfect way to characterize the contest. The Red Wolves have put up 39.9 points per game on 486.9 yards a contest this season, both figures are good for best in the conference.
Digging in on the other side, however, is one of the nastiest defenses any Sun Belt team has ever fielded. The Trojans have given up just 16.8 points per game thus far. The last time a Sun Belt team allowed less than 17 points per game in a season was in 2004 when both Troy and Florida Atlantic did it.
The battle at the line of scrimmage will be a major factor as Arkansas State’s much improved offensive line will need to create running lanes and protect quarterback Justice Hansen against a strong defensive line that makes a living in its opponent’s backfield. Troy leads all Sun Belt teams with 94 tackles for loss, a number that also ranks eighth nationally.
The Trojan front seven has gotten stronger as the season progresses, as well, averaging 11 tackles for loss per game in the month of November after averaging nine per game in October and 6.8 in September. The front seven has an 11 percent havoc rate which is seventh highest in the country.
Arkansas State’s run game has also seen a boost in production in the past couple of games. The Red Wolves had 233 rushing yards against Texas State before pounding Louisiana-Monroe with 261 yards last week.
The X-factor for Arkansas State will be its group of pass catchers. The Red Wolves are incredibly deep at wide receiver and feature great speed on the outside. Seven players have at least 20 receptions while tight end Blake Mack is the primary red zone threat with five red zone touchdowns.
The Trojans have fielded a greatly improved secondary that has benefited from the play of true freshman corner Marcus Jones. Troy’s pass defense tops the Sun Belt, giving up just 206.1 yards through the air per game.
It will be strength versus strength when Arkansas State has the football, putting more pressure on Troy’s possession time. Quarterback Brandon Silvers has played his game manager role well this year while running back Jordan Chunn is miles ahead, health wise, than where he was last year.
The Trojans boast a balanced offensive attack that started the season with a slow, horizontal style but have begun stretching the field vertically in recent games.
Arkansas State has played admirably against the run but are stingy against the pass. Opponents have completed just 50.5 percent of their passes against the Red Wolves this year.
Both teams dropped 60 plus last week in their wins over Sun Belt opponents. The difference? Arkansas State gave up 50 points to Louisiana-Monroe while Troy held Texas State to nine. The Bobcats offense is in no way comparable to Monroe’s but 41 points is still a large swing.
Last week’s performance shows what these two team’s are capable of. Both Arkansas State and Troy have hit their strides offensively while the Red Wolves are more equipped to pull away in a shootout. That’s where the vaunted Trojan defense steps. Troy’s defense will make enough plays for it to outlast Arkansas State and the Trojans will collect their first Sun Belt championship since 2010.
Troy 31 Arkansas State 21