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Toledo Rockets vs. Arkansas State Red Wolves Preview and Prediction

Kareem Hunt

Kareem Hunt

If there’s been one constant over the past half decade in the Sun Belt conference, it’s been Arkansas State. The Red Wolves lured current head coach Blake Anderson away from North Carolina, hiring him in December 2013 to help stabilize a program that had seen five coaches depart in a five-year span.

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Anderson’s done just that, winning seven games his inaugural year in Jonesboro, Ark., and going 9-4 overall and 8-0 in conference last season. Things, however, will be a bit different for Anderson and the Red Wolves’ offense with the addition of new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner and offensive line coach Allen Rudolph. Arkansas State also enters 2016 without decorated signal-caller Fredi Knighten and 27 other players from last year’s squad.

The Jason Candle era is officially underway at Toledo — well, sort of. Candle coached the Rockets to a 32-17 victory over Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl last December after former head coach Matt Campbell accepted the top job at Iowa State. Although Campbell is no longer at the school, he didn’t leave the figurative cupboard empty as a number of key players, such as running backs Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson, along with All-MAC wideout Corey Jones, return from last year’s 10-win team.

Both teams find themselves in different positions for the 2016 season: Arkansas State looks to continue its Sun Belt dominance under its third-year coach, while Toledo hopes a regime change doesn’t curb the success experienced under Campbell.

This will be the fifth time these two teams have met, with the Rockets winning the previous, including last year’s 37-7 victory at home.

Toledo at Arkansas State

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 2, at 9 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Spread: Arkansas State- 4

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Three Things to Watch

1. Who emerges as Arkansas State’s top quarterback?

It’s been a while since anyone other than Fredi Knighten has filled the role as the Red Wolves go-to guy at quarterback. Knighten played an instrumental role in Arkansas State’s recent Sun Belt success, but he’s now departed Jonesboro. Anderson has said Chad Voytik, a Pittsburgh transfer, will play the first two series of Friday’s game, but Justice Hansen also will receive playing time early. The adage says, “If you have more than one quarterback, you don’t have any,” but that’s hardly the case for Arkansas State. At Pitt, Voytik threw for 2,461 yards and 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season. Hansen was one of the Oklahoma’s top quarterback recruits and came to Arkansas State from Butler (Kan.) Community College. At Butler, he posted a 77 percent completion rate while throwing for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

2. Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson

Thanks to Hunt and Swanson, Candle’s initiation as a head coach will be a bit easier than some, as a better rushing tandem in the MAC would be hard to find. As a sophomore two years ago, Hunt rushed for 1,631 yards. And in an abbreviated 2015 season, he still ran for 973. In 22 career games, Hunt has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark 15 times and is currently ninth on Toledo’s all-time rushing list. Barring injury, Hunt could easy garner first team All-MAC honors by season’s end.

Then there’s Swanson, who rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s win over Arkansas State. He finished the year with 923 yards and seven scores on 143 carries. Against Kent State, Swanson rushed for a season-high 161 yards.

On defense, Arkansas State’s Ja’Von Rolland‐Jones camped out in opposing teams’ backfields last season (Sun Belt-best nine sacks in 2015) and owns 17 career sacks. He and teammates Waylon Roberson and Chase Robison will have their hands full containing Toledo’s two talented backs.

3. Arkansas State’s offensive wall

No matter who emerges as Anderson’s starting quarterback, he can rest assured that he’ll be protected by one of the league’s most experienced offensive lines. The position group helped Arkansas State pace the Sun Belt and finish 12th in the FBS in scoring offense (40.0 ppg).

Final Analysis

Toledo is a solid program that has been trending upward. But the loss of former head coach Matt Campbell will undoubtedly shake things up, at least initially. Arkansas State, historically, has yet to earn a win over the Rockets, but that’s likely to change Friday night in Jonesboro. The Red Wolves’ boast a wealth of experience, and head coach Blake Anderson will have things clicking in year three of his tenure. Since 2005, Arkansas State has gone 10-11 in home openers. The Red Wolves will even that record by game’s end.

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Prediction: Arkansas State 27, Toledo 20

— 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.