Saturday, September 12, 2009

SPORTS >> Hogs take rest, Red Wolves will be wanting one after ‘Huskers

Leader sports editor

Arkansas and Arkansas State don’t play each other — and we all know they should — but the state’s major-college football programs at least walked the same side of the street last week.

It is probably the last time this season they will have much in common.

The grid-Hogs of Arkansas thumped Missouri State 48-10 in the season-opener at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium while Arkansas State’s Red Wolves clobbered Mississippi Valley State 61-0 at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro.

Missouri State and Mississippi Valley play in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as NCAA Division I-AA, while Arkansas and Arkansas State run with the big boys in the Football Bowl Subdivision once known as Division I-A.

The Arkansas Schools did what they were expected to do against a smaller opponent — win big — and neither team did anything to discourage fans’ hopes for a conference title, postseason bowl bid or both.

This, however, is where Arkansas and Arkansas State part ways.

While the Razorbacks enjoy a weekend of rest before their SEC opener with No. 21-ranked Georgia, the Red Wolves will be at No. 22 Nebraska today as part of the Sun Belt Conference’s annual, take your medicine weekend.

While the Razorbacks have really yet to show how much they have improved from last year’s 5-7 run in coach Bobby Petrino’s first year, fans can at least, without much ridicule, expect the Hogs to be in the game with Georgia if not win it.

Nebraska, on the other hand, will most likely leave the Red Wolves and their fans howling.

The Red Wolves threw a scare into No. 4 Texas, of the Big 12, in the 2007 season opener and they upset the Big 12’s Texas A&M at Kyle Field to start last year. But, while improving against schools from the bigger conferences, Arkansas State has never beaten a ranked opponent and there are few reasons to expect things to change today.

Last week Nebraska roughed up Arkansas State’s fellow Sun Belt member Florida Atlantic, 49-3. Florida Atlantic, under veteran coach and former national championship winner Howard Schnellenberger, lost 28-14 to Arkansas State last year but finished 7-6 and beat Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.

If Arkansas State is 14 points better than Florida Atlantic this year, that means the Red Wolves still lose to Nebraska today by margin in the neighborhood of 30 points.

But Arkansas State won’t be alone in its long afternoon. Fellow Sun Belt member and defending champion Troy is at No. 1 Florida, Florida International travels to No. 4 Alabama, Ohio is at North Texas, Kansas State is at Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis is at Middle Tennessee and South Florida is at Western Kentucky.

It’s a good sign Sun Belt schools are able to draw major college powers into home-and-home contracts these days, but it may yet be awhile before the scheduling translates into consistent victories.

Since the Sun Belt was founded as a football conference in 2001, its members have gone 26-235 against major college, non-conference opponents. In honesty, that’s a rough count, my eyes got a little blurry when I went through the old standings and some of the scores were so hideously one-sided I couldn’t stomach a recount.

Why do Sun Belt schools and their counterparts in lesser leagues like Conference USA put up with the yearly beatings?
Money, of course.

They call games like these “guarantee” games because the larger school pays a prearranged amount in order to have an early season opponent it can handle. It happens at all levels of college football, and Arkansas State has made a similar deal or two to play schools from smaller divisions, like when it hosted Central Arkansas back in the late 1990s.

The guarantee games still exist for the Arkansas States of the world because those schools don’t yet command the huge revenues that come with network television packages and the advertising money they generate. The Sun Belt is working on that and can now get an occasional game on ESPN2 or, more regularly, on one of ESPN’s regional spin-offs.

But Arkansas State is still a long way from the spotlight, and until the Red Wolves are regularly seen on TV, until they have to remodel ASU Stadium to hold 70,000 plus because the gate is consistently that good, Arkansas State will have to make its money the hard way, with afternoons like this one.

But hey, today’s check is for $750,000, and the Red Wolves will make a record $900,000 for their Oct. 3 game at Iowa.

That’s a little something to howl about.