Arkansas State pulled off an impressive 51-24 win over Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night in its first ever nationally televised home game, but both teams are still going to have to scramble if they want to make a bowl game.
The Sun Belt has no team bowl eligible yet but two guaranteed bowl spots. Arkansas State, ULM and Troy each have four wins. The Red Wolves (4-5, 4-2) have to win two of three, and that is entirely plausible with games remaining against Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic. Quarterback Ryan Aplin has proved to be one of the best in the league, and Tuesday night was no different.
He threw for a touchdown and ran for another. But more impressively, the defense forced seven turnovers. The Blue Raiders turned the ball over on five straight possessions in the second half, blowing any chance they had of winning the game. The 27-point margin of victory was Arkansas State's largest ever over Middle Tennessee. The Red Wolves have won three straight conference games.
"The defense had a heck of a night flying around and playing great football," Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said.
The misery of the season continued for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders went into the year coming off a 10-4 season and a bowl victory and were the preseason favorites to win the league. But dual-threat quarterback Dwight Dasher was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games of the season for improperly accepting a loan. Since his return, he has not shown any of the flashes that last season made him the fourth player in NCAA history to pass for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
The Blue Raiders (3-5, 2-2) are 1-3 since his return. He tied a career-high with four interceptions against Arkansas State and lost a fumble. He has three passing touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and is averaging a career-low 3.4 yards a carry. It hasn't helped that the Blue Raiders have had major injuries to the offensive line, but what has hurt them most in the last two games is turnovers.
The seven against Arkansas State are the most in the FBS era for the Blue Raiders. Add that to six turnovers against Georgia Tech, and the Blue Raiders have almost handed games to their opponents. Coach Rick Stockstill called the performance "embarrassing and disgusting."
But there is still hope for bowl eligibility. Middle Tennessee needs three wins in its final four games and should be favored in all of them -- North Texas, Western Kentucky, FAU and FIU. The four teams have combined for seven wins this season.
With Troy (4-3) and ULM (4-4) also vying for bowl spots, it is conceivable the Sun Belt could have four teams that have six wins or more. But they are only guaranteed two spots, including one to the league champion. Even though Troy lost last week, if the Trojans win out, they win their fifth straight conference title. Troy also has North Texas, Western Kentucky, FIU and FAU left.
Then the scramble will be on for the second spot.