Arkansas State's football team drew a lot more interest than normal at Monday's Sun Belt Conference Media Day ... for a lot of reasons.
The Red Wolves had one of the league's two new coaches, Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn, making his first appearance at a Sun Belt media gathering. ASU also had league preseason Offensive Player of the Year Ryan Aplin on hand, as one of four All-Sun Belt honorees from the ASU squad.
More than anything else, though, ASU was tabbed among the league favorites ... one year after nobody expected the Wolves to be a factor in the Sun Belt race and the coaches picked ASU outside the top four.
ASU was picked fifth last year ... but that was before last year's wire-to-wire run through the league schedule, an 8-0 Sun Belt mark and nine straight wins to close the regular season.
On Monday, ASU was a close second in the poll of the league's 10 head coaches, its 85 points trailing only league favorite FIU (92). The Wolves drew two first-place votes.
"It's a poll, so that's just someone's opinions," said Aplin, who ranked in the nation's top 10 in total offense last year and led ASU on the nine-game win streak. "You don't want to get too worked up about it, but you can use it as motivation."
Malzahn knows the perils of the polls, especially after taking over a Red Wolves team that won their first-ever outright Sun Belt title and compiled their most wins since becoming an FBS member. ASU also did it impressively, beating its final six opponents by an average of 21 points per game.
"We want to have high expectations," Malzahn said, "but this league's tough. There's no gimmes on that schedule. After they won 10 games last year and won the conference, we've got our work cut out for us. There's no way we're sneaking up on anybody."
Even if the Wolves had any hopes of sneaking up on any league members, Malzahn's reputation as an offensive guru and an up-tempo advocate quashed that.
"We're going to be a no-huddle team," Malzahn said. "We want to play with great pace, but there's different kinds of pace. We're trying to go two-minute pace the whole game ... I think you have a big advantage in college football nowadays if you can do that."
Having Aplin taking the snaps once again should help that pace. The senior from Tampa, Fla., already ranks fourth in Sun Belt history in total offense, completions and passing yards and figures to move up those rankings this season. He ranked 10th nationally in total offense (321.2 yards per game), 14th in passing yardage (3,588) and 20th in completions per game (23.38), all school single-season records.
"It's very fortunate for our new staff to have a veteran like that, and one that's run a very similar offense," Malzahn said. "He's had a great career, he's the leader of our team and a leader for our university ... he's the type of kid you want to marry your daughter.
"What he allows us to do as coaches coming in is to spend our time worrying about everybody else, because he has such a good grasp of what we're doing."
"It feels good to hear that," Aplin said, "but I wouldn't be anywhere without my teammates. If I throw that bubble screen and we get 15 yards, it's because everybody did their job. Those extra yards are what can put you over the top."
In addition to Aplin, the Wolves also had senior wide receiver Josh Jarboe – who was hurt and missed all of spring practice -- and senior offensive tackle Zack McKnight make the preseason all-league offensive unit, and senior defensive back Don Jones on the preseason defensive unit. That defense is the biggest question mark for the Wolves in defense of that league title.
"In fairness, we lost a lot on defense," Malzahn said. "We have a lot of skill guys, but we've got a lot of holes to fill defensively ... and we're going to be asking a lot from our defense. When we go into the fall, it's going to be an open game and all the spots are open."
Aplin is one of nine – count 'em, nine – starting quarterbacks returning this season for Sun Belt teams. The only team not returning its signalcaller is, ironically, league favorite FIU. The Panthers collected the highest coaches' vote total, though, because of their defensive prowess, and had preseason Defensive Player of the Year Tourek Williams and three others named to the preseason all-league defensive unit.
"I like the fact that we're known for defense," said head coach Mario Cristobal, whose team finished 8-4 in the 2011 regular season and made its second straight bowl appearance. "I'm a former lineman so that's my mentality, but we expect to get after people on defense."
Most teams in the league have a significant number of offensive players returning, and an inordinate number of skill-position players. But the Panthers won their final three regular-season games last year with solid defensive efforts and allowed only 13 points per game in their final four outings on the way to setting a school record for wins.
"Being good defensively is an advantage, as long as we still play good on offense and on special teams," Cristobal said. "We were able to do that at the end of the year last year."
FIU got five of the 10 first-place votes and finished with 92 points in the poll, while UL Lafayette joined ASU in drawing two first-place votes. UL finished third with 81 points after reaching – and winning – its first-ever Division I bowl game.
In addition to Williams, FIU had six other players named to the preseason all-league team – defensive tackle Isame Faciane, linebacker Winston Fraser, defensive back Jonathan Cyprien, running back Kedrick Rhodes and offensive linemen Rupert Bryan and Caylin Hauptmann.
"Those guys don't pay a lot of attention to that, or to the polls," Cristobal said. "You make yourself a target if you spend your time reading the predictions. We tell our guys that anytime you look more at polls than at goals, you're not going to be successful."
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