After starting the season 0-4, Arkansas State caught fire, winning seven of its last eight games resulting in a share of the Sun Belt title with Appalachian State. As a result, the Red Wolves are playing in their sixth straight bowl, appearing in the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla., against UCF.
UCF (6-6) enters this game on a two-game losing streak to finish third in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division with a 4-4 record. It’s been a tough road for first-year head coach Scott Frost, as the Knights played Michigan and Maryland out of the Big Ten in non-conference play and went 0-4 against AAC teams that went to a bowl game – Temple, Houston, Tulsa and South Florida. But despite those struggles 6-6 is a far cry from a winless (0-12) 2015 campaign that ended with head coach George O’Leary stepping down.
Arkansas State and UCF have only met once previously, back in 1991 when both programs were in Division I-AA (now known as FBS). The Knights won that game 31-20 in Jonesboro, Ark.
UCF is 3-4 in program in bowl games, while Arkansas State is 4-8-1.
AutoNation Cure Bowl: UCF vs. Arkansas State (Orlando, Fla.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Arkansas State +5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas State’s RBs vs. UCF’s defensive line
UCF boasts a strong secondary led by cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Drico Johnson that will make for an interesting matchup when Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen decides to throw the ball. But the key for the Red Wolves in this game is to run the ball effectively. That has been the formula since October when Arkansas State turned things around. Warren Wand leads the way with 867 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. In the Red Wolves’ last game against Texas State, Wand had 135 yards and a score. On the season, Arkansas State is averaging 146.2 rushing yards per game (102nd in the FBS).
UCF has not exactly shut down teams on the ground, giving up 181.3 rushing yards per game. Defensive lineman Tony Guerad leads the front line with 9.5 tackles for a loss. He and Trysten Hill (5 TFL) will try to make grounds difficult to come by for Wand and the Red Wolves.
2. UCF freshman QB McKenzie Milton
After sitting out the first two games, Milton made his collegiate debut on Sept. 17 against Maryland. The true freshman went 21-of-36 for 260 yards and two touchdowns and an interception, while also adding a rushing touchdown in his team’s 30-24 double-overtime loss. He took a next step back in the next game against FIU, throwing for just 173 yards and then missed the following contest with an injury.
But when he returned he resumed the starting role has been under center the past seven games. During this stretch he posted 210 yards and two touchdowns against eventual AAC champion Temple, piled up 317 yards and three scores against UConn, and 225 and two in the loss at South Florida. Entering this game, Milton has 1,808 passing yards to with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
For Arkansas State, safety Money Hunter has returned four interceptions for touchdowns in his career and without a doubt will look to add another in this game against UCF’s young quarterback. As a team, the Red Wolves have been pretty stingy against the pass, giving up 220.2 yards per game through the air and nearly as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes allowed (14).
3. Arkansas State’s bookends
Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Odom are on the cusp of breaking the Sun Belt’s single-season record for sacks. The current mark of 13 is in serious jeopardy as Jones enters this game with 12.5 and Rolland-Jones has 11. Both were named first-team All-Sun Belt and rank in the top 10 in the FBS in sacks per game. Odom has recorded three sacks in two different games, something Rolland-Jones accomplished against New Mexico earlier in the season. Rolland-Jones also piled up five sacks in one game against Idaho back in 2014.
Pass protection will be a key for UCF and not just because of Milton’s inexperience as a true freshman. The Knights are among the bottom third of the FBS rankings (tied for 95th) in sacks allowed at 2.5 per game.
After going winless in 2015, UCF players are thrilled to be playing in the postseason – even if it’s a bowl in their own backyard. Head coach Scott Frost has rejuvenated the program and put an exciting brand off offense on the field each week to complement a talented defense.
Arkansas State is making a sixth straight bowl appearance, but only after Blake Anderson’s team righted the ship after starting 0-4. But seven wins in eight games later, the Red Wolves have already claimed one title – a share of the Sun Belt championship.
Although UCF is trending upward as a program, Arkansas State enters this game with more momentum. Justice Hansen is a more than capable quarterback with Warren Wand doing the heavy lifting on the ground. Add in the pass-rushing tandem of Chris Odom and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and that should be a winning combination for the Red Wolves in Orlando.
Prediction: Arkansas State 30, UCF 21
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)