Stephens: WKU-Arkansas State an exciting, important series

Brad Stephens

A lack of rivalries has plagued Sun Belt Conference football during its 11-year history.

The way the league is arranged, almost every team has a geographical rival (ex. WKU vs. Middle Tennessee State).

But the Sun Belt has lacked series that are important not because the schools share a region, but because the schools are perennial contenders.

WKU and Arkansas State have the potential to develop just that sort of rivalry.

The Toppers and Red Wolves meet again on Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark. If this meeting is anything like the last three, then it’s guaranteed to be an interesting game.

The last three games between WKU and Arkansas State have had comebacks, gutsy coaching moves and controversy.

There was 2009, when the Red Wolves erased a 20-3 deficit late to beat the Toppers 24-20, sealing an 0-12 WKU season.

In 2010 WKU cornerback Derrius Brooks lined up on offense, took a reverse and dove into the end zone on a game-winning two-point conversion to give the Toppers an exciting 36-35 overtime victory.

 Last year WKU led late and appeared to have the game sealed until a booth review found quarterback Kawaun Jakes had come up short on a fourth down scramble.

Red Wolves quarterback Ryan Aplin then marched Arkansas State down the field for the final score of a 26-22 Topper loss.

The Red Wolves went on to a league title and Bowl berth. The Toppers finished second and were left out of a bowl.

Fast forward to this year, and the WKU-Arkansas State matchup looks to once again be a game that could decide the league race.

Arkansas State returns Aplin and the league’s best receiving corps.

The Toppers take a team to Jonesboro that’s 3-1 and receiving Top 25 votes.

Both feature coaches with bright futures in Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State and Taggart at WKU.

If Malzahn and Taggart stay at their respective programs for a few more years before leaving for a bigger job, they can establish their programs as the teams to beat in the Sun Belt.

“You’ve seen Arkansas State and WKU play some really tough games, some close games these last two years,” Taggart said. “It’s two teams that are hungry and want to win.”

For a league that’s lacked identifiable rivalries, an annual matchup between two perennial contenders could be big for the conference.

Success beyond football

Football’s taken the attention early this school year with a 3-1 start and win over Kentucky.

But somewhat lost in the shuffle have been great starts by the volleyball and soccer Lady Toppers.

Travis Hudson’s No. 23-ranked volleyball squad is the odds-on favorite to repeat as league champions.

Meanwhile, Jason Neidell’s soccer team is 2-0 in league play and has a three-game shutout streak.

WKU stats guru Robert Sampson pointed out an interesting figure this week — WKU football, soccer and volleyball are a combined 35-3-3 in Sun Belt play since Sept. 30, 2011.

Football may grab the headlines, but it’s success across the board that builds a solid athletic department.

For the 2012-2013 year, WKU is off to a good start.