AUBURN, Ala. — Just two days after Appalachian State nearly toppled No. 9 Tennessee in Knoxville, South Alabama pulled off the first major college football upset of the season last Saturday, beating Mississippi State 21-20 for its first win ever against an SEC opponent.
Now Arkansas State, which has won four of the last five Sun Belt Conference titles, travels to the Plains, where coach Blake Anderson will try to earn his program’s first win over an SEC opponent.
The Red Wolves are 0-4 against Auburn since their first meeting in 2006. How can they conquer the Tigers this time?
South Alabama quarterback Dallas Davis, who had 285 yards (two touchdowns) against Mississippi State, might know the secret.
“(Sun Belt teams) don’t have the depth big SEC teams do,” Davis said. “Our ones we have to train hard because we know we have to play most of the game. They have more depth but for us, we just have to go out there with a big heart and confident that you’re going to do your job and make plays and hopefully come out on top. Mississippi State was much bigger than we were. Tennessee was bigger than App State, you just have to go in there confident and want it more.”
Last September, Auburn started the year with a No. 6 national ranking, but nearly stumbled against Jacksonville State, an FCS program.
The loss would have been categorized — along with No. 5 Michigan’s 2007 home loss to Appalachian State and No. 25 Oregon State’s 2013 fall to Eastern Washington — among the biggest upsets in college football history.
The Sun Belt conference is 8-127 against the SEC since 2001, but upsets are possible. Louisiana Monroe beat Arkansas in 2012 and Alabama in 2007.
“I think that the Sun Belt Conference has some really good football teams with really good players,” South Alabama head coach Joey Jones said. “They may be an inch shorter or 20 pounds lighter or whatever it might be, but we’re finding really good football players to play against those teams. I think the tough part (of those games) is just the human nature factor where SEC teams are supposed to beat Sun Belt teams.”
But sometimes the little guys choose not to accept the norm.
“They’re going to treat you as like, ‘We’re already going to beat these guys and not worry about them,’” Davis said. “That’s when you can pull a big upset. We practiced hard all week long. We prepared and had a really good plan against them and we came out and executed and did what we needed to do. I mean we went into the game really confident in our team, and that’s what you have to do against teams like that.”
Anderson was optimistic about his team’s promise this fall, but also anticipated challenges.
“We’re on both sides of the spectrum because the potential is really, really high,” Anderson said in early August. “I love the way the team looks on paper. I mean, we’ve got dynamic playmaking ability on offense. We’ve got big bodies up front on defense. We’ve got speed in the back end, but there’s a lot of unknowns, especially on the offensive side of the ball. … If there’s some growing pains, then it could be frustrating.”
The first game didn’t go quite like Anderson hoped. Arkansas State took a beating from Toledo, losing 31-10 in Jonesboro.
The Week 2 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium brings an unconventional familiarity.
Gus Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State before heading to the Plains in 2013. Auburn receivers coach Kodi Burns was on Malzahn’s staff in 2012. On the opposite sideline, Arkansas State defensive backs coach Trooper Taylor was the Auburn wide receivers coach from 2009-2012.
“Our biggest challenge right now is ourselves,” Anderson said following the Toledo loss. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win against Toledo because we didn’t execute well — just as simple as center-quarterback exchanges or communication. We’ve got physical matchup issues in this game going in, we know that. The environment is going to be hostile and chaotic, we know that as well. But we’ve got to move all that aside and just concentrate on playing fundamentally good football to give ourselves a chance to be competitive, and that would be against Auburn or anybody else. We’re our biggest challenge right now.”
Malzahn recruited several players at Arkansas State. If they can execute, the Red Wolves — they have 12 preseason All-Sun Belt selections and were picked to finish second — could post a Jacksonville State-type threat.
“They’ve got some very good skill guys on the offensive side of the ball,” Malzahn said. “And they’ve got a very good defense, one of the best defenses statistically last year and I believe they have seven of those guys back. We know we’re going to get their best.”
Auburn and Mississippi State have similarities. Both entered fall camp with a quarterback competition. The Bulldogs rotated quarterbacks in their first game against Alabama State. Auburn did the same against Clemson.
Adjustments and improvement will be huge factors for both teams Saturday, but the deciding factor could be what helped South Alabama stun Mississippi State on opening weekend.
“I think the confidence is very contagious,” Jones said. “If those leaders are out there and they’re confident out there on the field and in the huddle, walking across from the guy they’re getting ready to block, the guy next to them sees that. The whole key is for those guys to be confident in how they play. Our guys were, they weren’t intimidated by that environment at all.”