- Butch Jones has won five total games at Arkansas State since 2021.
- Arkansas State won five Sun Belt titles from 2011-2016.
- Sun Belt football has become arguably the best G5 conference since 2016.
It wouldn’t be college football if fans and analysts weren’t thinking about firing coaches before the start of a season.
Naturally, I’m thinking about a few of the names that my colleague Andrew Doughty has highlighted in his 2023 college football hot seat guide.
As a WVU guy, Neal Brown’s status is very well-known to me. But beyond the perilous position of Brown, one name really jumped out at me here: Butch Jones.
On the one hand, Butch Jones is a reasonably big name (by G5 standards) that has vastly underachieved at Arkansas State. He has won five total games in his first two years.
On the other hand, Jones may have gotten more than he bargained for when he took a job at a fading Sun Belt power.
How do we sort all this out?
Sun Belt Football History: Important Context For Arkansas State
The main problem at Arkansas State has nothing to do with recruiting, boosters, or Butch Jones. It’s just that the Sun Belt has gotten a whole lot better than the pre-expansion days of yore, when Arkansas State wielded much more regional power in its conference.
In six seasons, from 2011-2016, ASU won at least a share of the Sun Belt championship five times. It was the zenith of the program, with players thriving and winning amid unprecedented levels of coaching turnover.
Hugh Freeze captured the program’s first FBS conference title with a 10-win season in 2011, then bailed for Ole Miss. In 2012, Gus Malzahn took the reins, delivering another conference title among 10 more wins. In 2013, it was Bryan Harsin who served one year in Jonesboro before bailing for Boise State.
Blake Anderson finally steadied the program in 2014, sticking around through 2020. Anderson brought mild but consistent results, scoring between seven and nine wins every season through 2019.
But Arkansas State has delivered just nine wins total since the start of the 2020 season, and localized disruption probably has little to do with it.
#SunBelt +4 against NCAA Ranks for Revenue:
61. #JMU, $58.2 M
69. Old Dominion, 49.4 M
73. Coastal Carolina, 42.1 M
84. Texas State, 36.4 M
85. Arkansas State, 36.3 M
88. App State, 34.9 M
97. Marshall, 32.7 M
100. Georgia State, 32.2 M https://t.co/e02vjSaUB3
— Chase Kiddy (@chaseakiddy) October 20, 2021
A decade ago, when the Red Wolves’ run started, the Sun Belt was a 10-team conference with very little national clout. In 2012 – a typical year for the conference, and one of ASU’s early championships – half the conference ranked outside the top 100 of Jeff Sagarin’s final college football rankings.
The top-level competition just wasn’t there. Arkansas State stepped into a clear power vacuum and took advantage.
The situation has changed drastically over the past half-decade, with the conference infused with premiere FCS programs. With App State, Georgia Southern, and James Madison all entering the East, as well as established middle-class programs like Marshall and Southern Miss also coming in, the path to a winning season was suddenly much harder than it once was.
Arkansas State Football Schedule
Let’s take a look at the Arkansas State football schedule for 2015, which was the second-to-last year the Red Wolves claimed a piece of the Sun Belt championship.
Arkansas State opened up a non-conference slate that included losses at USC, Missouri, and Toledo. (It also played FCS Missouri State.) Against the three FBS teams, ASU went 0-3, losing by an average of 29 points.
So the Red Wolves entered Sun Belt play in October without an FBS win in hand. They then casually posted a perfect 8-0 record in conference play – a schedule that included wins over New Mexico State (kicked out of the conference), Louisiana-Monroe (Todd Berry fired after losing to ASU), App State (first full season in FBS), and Idaho (eventually downgraded itself to FCS).
Compare that train wreck to last season’s schedule, when it went 0-3 against new arrivals (ODU, JMU, Southern Miss) and ultimately finished last in the Sun Belt West.
There could be reasons to be optimistic about Arkansas State in 2023. But any reasonable discussion of Jones and A-State has to acknowledge that the Sun Belt has gotten way, way better over the last decade.
Butch Jones Hot Seat
I don’t mean to absolve Butch Jones and the current team of all wrongdoing. Even after conceding that the Sun Belt has gotten a whole lot better since the mid-2010s, last season was still filled with disappointments.
Losses to Old Dominion and Texas State – arguably the least talented teams in the conference – were unacceptable. A two-point home win over UMass is embarrassing.
Jones was a big name when the ASU administration brought him in prior to the 2021 season, and he has certainly underdelivered with only five total wins thus far. He enters 2023 firmly on the hot seat, and the path to bowl eligibility will be very difficult.
But when evaluating Jones, ASU fans and the Sun Belt community as a whole have to remember that the 2023 Sun Belt is not the same as the 2013 Sun Belt. Getting to six or seven wins is a whole lot harder than it used to be.
Year 3 Butch Jones
11-2 Central Michigan
?-? Arkansas State
— Howlraiser (@AStateFanRules) July 15, 2023
Arkansas State Win Total
For an over on the 4.5 wins, Arkansas State likely needs a 3-1 record during a key early stretch that includes home games against Memphis, Southern Miss, and FCS Stony Brook, plus a road game at UMass.
Later in the season, A-State likely needs a split with the Louisiana schools (at UL-Monroe, home vs. Louisiana) and a win over Texas State on Senior Day.
Personally, this is a pass for me, as there are just too many unknown variables on a pretty good line. If I had to bet it, I’d probably take the under.
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