Mark Richt

Ranking the opponents on the Arkansas State football schedule in 2017

Ranking Arkansas State's opponents in 2017

Wrapping up the ranking of AState’s 2017 opponents. For those who aren’t premium members and haven’t been following the breakdown, it is a ranking based on how hard each opponent should be to defeat not a ranking of where those opponents will finish the season.

#3 Troy. The Trojans captured national attention and became the first Sun Belt team to crack the top 25 by starting 8-1 losing only to eventual national champion Clemson by six. They would lose two of the final three games in regular season falling to AState and Georgia Southern.

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
 The Trojans return three starters on the offensive line with the center and two guards returning.  Quarterback Brandon Silvers returns after a junior season where he put up 3180 yards and only 12 picks compared to 23 touchdowns and all of his receivers are back. They gave up only 8 sacks, with two of those coming from AState. Running back Jordan Chunn is back after posting 1288 yards rushing, averaging just over 4.6 yards per carry and scored 16 rushing touchdowns.

Neal Brown’s offense in 2016 improved about 6 points per game over 2015 moving Troy from 70th in the nation to 39th.  The defense had a similar improvement of just over 6 points per game. Neal Brown’s second team at Troy improved by 12 net points per game over his first season as head coach in 2015.

While the offense returns almost completely intact, Troy’s defense lost all starting linebackers and their top pass rusher. Of the top four tacklers against AState, three are gone as are two of the four players to record a sack against the Red Wolves.

Last year Troy gave up 13 rushing touchdowns in 13 games but three of those came against AState and two more against Georgia Southern. The Red Wolves and Eagles were the only teams to put up 200 or more yards rushing against the Trojans. AState’s 35 points were the most they allowed in 2016. The Red Wolves +5 turnover margin was huge in the game.

The AState game falls in a favorable situation for Troy. The Trojans get one extra day, playing Texas State on a Friday and they get an open date before Texas State. The Red Wolves last open date comes two weeks before Troy’s open date.

#2 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers lost their starting QB to the NFL, he was signed as a free agent by Minnesota, to play safety. Their big play receiver didn’t land a free agent spot. That sort of sets the stage to talk about Nebraska’s passing game. They were 99th in passing efficiency. To provide a comparison consider this. AState only attempted 2 more passes than Nebraska but the Red Wolves completed 30 more passes, gained 396 more yards, had three more TD’s and both teams had 9 picks in 2016.

Neville E. Guard, USA Today Sports
 Nebraska will entrust the passing offense to Tulane transfer Tanner Lee who was 143 of 276 for 1639 yards with 7 picks and 11 TD’s in 2015, starting nine times at Tulane. He started 10 times in 2014. If he works out the Huskers have some potential breakaway threats.

Of course who really expects a Nebraska team to built through the air?

Nebraska has to replace starting RB Terrell Newby. The starting spot likely goes to Devine Ozigbo who battled an ankle injury most of 2016. The Huskers were 73rd in the nation averaging 169 yards on the ground.

Nebraska has hired former UConn head coach Bob Diaco to take over the defense which was rated 30th in total defense. Diaco will have them in a 3-4 scheme.

The Huskers have some playmakers across the defense but the stars are in the secondary. Joshua Kalu, Kieron Williams and Lamar Jackson look to be the defensive leaders.

The game is the opener for both squads. Nebraska travels to Oregon in week 2 but with Oregon’s disappointing season last year, it doesn’t look like the sort of game where you might get the benefit of an opponent looking ahead. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost to a G5 school since 2004 and they have the 8th best winning percentage of any FBS school. The AState game should be their 355th consecutive sellout.

#1 Miami. The Hurricanes lost QB Brad Kaaya to the NFL draft. It seemed a bit surprising that Kaaya declared and he ended up being the 215th pick of the draft. There has been a three-way battle for the starting QB job. Not unlike the situation when the Red Wolves faced Miami in 2014, the QB spot seemed uncertain but Kaaya hit AState for four TD’s and 342 yards while completing 16 of 24 with one pick. He went on to be ACC rookie of the year. Miami was 27th in passing offense last year averaging 274 yards per game.

Shanna Lockwood/USA Today
 Mark Richt has brought new hope to Miami. In 2016 they won 9 games for the first time since 2013. The win over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl was Miami’s first bowl win since 2006. The Hurricanes finished 20th in the AP poll and 23rd in the Coaches Poll.

The ground game should play a larger role with last year’s leading rusher Mark Walton returning after posting 1117 yards and14 TD’s. He is also a threat as a receiver having 27 receptions for 240 yards and a TD. The ‘Canes were 93rd in the nation in rushing offense averaging just under 152 yards per game. Despite the low per game totals they averaged 4.5 yards per rush.

The bigger challenge to the running game may be the offensive line. Miami replaces four starters on the offensive line.

On the defensive side, Miami returns all of the starting front seven after finishing 20th in the nation in total defense. They have holes to fill in the secondary.

The heart of the defense is defensive end Joe Jackson and linebackers Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. All three are sophomores and were big contributors last year.

Miami will open the season with a mediocre FCS, Bethune-Cookman before traveling to AState. If the schedule does AState any favors it is that Miami travels to play Florida State in an ABC national telecast the next week. The winner of that game will not just be an ACC front-runner but potentially a top playoff contender.

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