The sun barely had crept over the Jonesboro, Ark., horizon Wednesday when the Arkansas State football players loaded their bags onto the red and white buses outside ASU Stadium.
The Arkansas State marching band, several news outlets and a pack of fans clad in red and black lined the street in 30-degree weather to see the Red Wolves off to Mobile, Ala., for the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Northern Illinois.
Ryan Aplin never had experienced anything like it.
In the junior quarterback’s first three years on campus, the Red Wolves struggled, winning only 14 games. Arkansas State didn’t sniff the postseason during Aplin’s first two years as a starting quarterback, going 4-8 in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Those excited fans reminded him how far the Red Wolves have come in such a short time.
“It was unbelievable,” Aplin said. “To see all of the people getting up at 6:30 in the morning to wish us good luck and send us off was very humbling.”
Aplin has seen more attention than ever heading his team’s way, and with good reason – the Red Wolves finally have given their fan base something to cheer about.
Arkansas State has been shut out of the postseason since 2005, its first year in FBS, when the Red Wolves lost to Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl to close out a 6-6 season.
Led by Aplin, named player of the year in the Sun Belt Conference, Arkansas State swept through its eight-game conference schedule this season.
That dream run almost didn’t happen.
In the Red Wolves’ conference opener against Western Kentucky, Aplin engineered a 66-yard, game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter after the Arkansas State defense stopped the Hilltoppers on fourth-and-1.
“That was a game that really showed us what our true identity was going to have to be, and that was invaluable,” senior linebacker Demario Davis said. “That game seemed like it was over. It seemed like a miracle. Ever since then, we’ve been unbeaten.”
Davis has witnessed 29 Arkansas State losses since his freshman season in 2007.
This year, he sees a different attitude from teams in the past.
“We’re not a cocky team. We’re not a team that can just show up and win,” Davis said. “We have to put in the work every day. We don’t have cockiness, we just have a confident swagger.”
The Red Wolves’ meager past is starkly contrasted by NIU’s history – the Huskies have played in five bowl games since Arkansas State joined college football’s top division six seasons ago.
A win Sunday would go a long way to establishing the Red Wolves’ as a top mid-major program.
“There’s nothing keeping Arkansas State synonymous with Top 25. We believe that,” interim coach David Gunn said. “This would certainly be a significant step toward that, and a significant step toward keeping our fan base excited.”