The defending Sun Belt Conference champs face the unenviable task of kicking off the 2012 campaign against one of the top teams in the nation this Saturday, as the Arkansas State Red Wolves head to the Pacific Northwest to challenge the fifth-ranked Oregon Ducks.
Arkansas State went 10-3 last year, and ran the table in the Sun Belt (8-0) to log their best season in more than a quarter century. The Red Wolves lost their head coach Hugh Freeze to Ole Miss following the campaign, but brought former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to hopefully keep the good times rolling in Jonesboro. Malzahn will have a potent offense chock full of experienced players, but his defense needs to perform up to snuff for the team to have any chance of repeating in the Sun Belt.
Oregon is the favorite to win the Pac-12's North Division title yet again after logging a 12-2 mark (8-1 in conference) a year ago. Coach Chip Kelly, who has led the Ducks to three straight conference crowns, has to find replacements for some key components on his high-powered offense, notably QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James. But don't cry for Kelly (34-6 in three seasons) as he has done an exceptional job in recruiting some of the top talent around, giving Oregon the upper hand against most opponents.
Arkansas State, which is 44-46-6 all-time in season openers, is not only facing Oregon for the first time ever, but it has never played a Pac-12 team.
Malzahn's first season at ASU should be a positive one as he has one of the Sun Belt's top signal-callers back for his senior year, as Ryan Aplin looks to pick up where he left off last year when he threw for 3,588 yards and 19 TDs, while also serving as the team's primary running threat with 588 yards and 10 scores. Aplin will have the good fortune of once again throwing to senior WRs Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer after the two combined for 102 catches, 1,486 yards and 9 TDs in 2011.
Taking some of the pressure off Alpin in the run game will of course be a huge help, but with former Auburn RB Michael Dyer having to sit out this season due to transfer rules, it will likely by sophomore Frankie Jackson (88 carries, 355 yards, 6 TDs) who gets the call more times than not.
Arkansas State was strong against the run last year, yielding a mere 103.5 ypg and only 12 TDs on the ground. Replacing 7 starters on defense means there is likely to be some growing pains this fall, and finding competent guys up front will be key. Malzahn signed a couple of juco transfers to play in the trenches, but losing a guy like Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in Brandon Joiner (13 sacks) hurts.
The linebacking corps should be fine with the return of seniors Nathan Herrold (66 tackles) and Don Jones (54 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT), and the secondary will certainly benefit from having sophomore FS Sterling Young back after logging 51 tackles and an INT as a rookie.
Certainly not looking past Oregon, but Malzahn is preparing his team for the rigors of Sun Belt play, "We want to have high expectations, but this league is tough," He continued, "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."
Marcus Mariota is the first freshman to start a season at quarterback for Oregon in more than two decades, but replacing Thomas (2,761 yards, 33 TDs, 7 INTs) will be incredibly difficult. The bigger question actually surrounds the Ducks' pass catchers, as junior Josh Huff is the top returning receiver after reeling in just 31 balls for 430 yards and 2 TDs last season.
James (1,805 yards, 18 TDs) was an all-world performer for Oregon not only last season, but pretty much his entire time in Eugene. But not to fret, the Ducks have another productive guy to plug in as senior Kenjon Barner gets his chance to be the feature back after rushing for 939 yards and 11 TDs in 2011.
The offensive line boasts the return of three starters, providing the offense as a whole with a sense of stability. Replicating last year's stats -- 46.1 ppg, 299.2 rushing ypg, 223.6 passing ypg -- won't be easy but if the young QB gets into a rhythm early, and Barner has the kind of season most expect he will, the Ducks should be flying high once again.
Kelly has instilled a work ethic is his players that goes a long way toward assuring their long-term success, "We're a young team but the guys that have been here the last three years understand that our success is because of our preparation, and that doesn't change."
Oregon's strength this year could be its defense, as the unit returns six starters and its top two tacklers from last season. Seniors John Boyett and Michael Clay both went over 100 tackles for Oregon in 2011, and they combined for 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs and a pair of fumble recoveries.
Others to keep an eye on include senior DE Dion Jordan (7.5 sacks) and senior LB Kiko Alonso (46 tackles, 2 INTs).
If all goes according to plan and some of the fresh faces pan out sooner rather than later, the Ducks could have one of their better defenses in recent memory.
Kelly believes in the guys entrusted with keeping the opposition at bay, "You don't win championships without good defense and I really think our defense has been underrated. I think our defense is finally getting the notoriety it deserves."