Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
Arkansas State senior quarterback Corey Leonard knows the one thing that separates him from Florida Atlantic senior quarterback Rusty Smith and Troy senior quarterback Levi Brown is a Sun Belt Conference championship.
It's the reason why both Smith and Brown are being talked about nationally and why Leonard, who has had statistically comparable seasons, isn't getting much pub.
"Rusty's had a great career, two bowl wins and a conference championship. Levi last year with a conference championship with Troy," Leonard said. "With those guys, the one thing they have and I don't is a conference championship. They deserve the recognition that they get. But I use it every day as motivation. When you hear about other guys and they're projected as this, this and this, and then you don't hear yourself, it's tough because you're a competitor and you want to show people your skills."
Leonard showcased his skills during nonconference play last year with a big win over Texas A&M. The year before he had good games against Texas and Tennessee. But the Red Wolves haven't been able to carry that strong nonconference play through the entire season.
Last year, Arkansas State started the year 4-2, but had a tough three-game slide against Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama and Florida International. The Red Wolves rebounded and went into their season finale against Troy with the necessary six wins for bowl eligibility. But the Red Wolves lost the game, 35-9, and ultimately lost a shot at a bowl berth. Since the Sun Belt only has one guaranteed bowl, which is automatically awarded to the conference champion, the teams with the necessary six wins for bowl eligibility must duke it out for an elusive at-large bid.
And Arkansas State was outdueled by Florida Atlantic, which the Red Wolves had beaten earlier in the year.
"That was the first time I felt like college football was very political in who they chose and what their reasonings were," Leonard said. "It was just a learning lesson. When you think you might have something for certain and it doesn't work out that way. We've got to use that as motivation now. That stays in the back of our mind. It helps that we bring back that entire team."
Arkansas State does have the benefit of returning several starters and key backups from last season. Leonard said it's made camp more about refining than learning, which he said would allow the team to get out to another fast start.
And perhaps, Leonard said, he can finally get that conference championship that has eluded him the past four years and join the conversation the conference's other strong senior quarterbacks seem to be monopolizing.
"We learned that we can hang [last year]," Leonard said. "It really doesn't matter who we're playing or where we're playing, if we're on our game and we're executing the schemes that we run, we can be tough."