Florida International @ Arkansas State, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Because two nights a week without football is two nights too many, Week 8 gets ushered in early with the season’s first Tuesday night game. (FIU will also feature in the second such contest next week, hosting Troy in primetime. We’re also a week out from the first seven-day football week of 2011 with Wednesday games beginning on October 26, so up your weeknight wings-and-beer conditioning reps between now and then.) Tonight in Jonesboro, two 4-2 Sun Belt teams will jockey for position behind surprisingly resurgent Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns handed the Golden Panthers their lone conference loss of the season, a defeat that slots them into fourth place in the conference standings despite being tied with the second-place Red Wolves for the second-best record.
Thus far in 2011, the Panthers have beaten Louisville in a surprising early upset and presumed C-USA division champ Central Florida, both by a touchdown, and lost to Duke and the Cajuns by less than a touchdown. The Red Wolves have played a considerably more rigorous nonconference slate, losing to Illinois in Week 1 and Virginia Tech in Week 3. FIU was predicted by many keen onlookers, including several SI staffers, to win the Sun Belt, but the Red Wolves are favored by a field goal here and a two-game hole would be difficult to climb out of the way Louisiana’s playing.
If you like your football pointy, this would be a good time to tune in. With two middling rushing offenses, two decent run defenses and two well-regarded passing attacks, we’re likely in for a shootout. Key figures in tonight’s action: You will recall that FIU has on its roster one T.Y. Hilton, an early-season trendy Heisman pick for Stewart Mandel and me, whose campaign was curtailed by a hamstring injury in September. He’s back at something approaching full strength, which is welcome news for a Panthers team that will have to score early and often, call on Wes Carroll to throw early and often and perhaps risk re-injuring Hilton utilizing his formidable return skills to keep pace with State’s big-play offense, led by quarterback Ryan Aplin and favored target Dwayne Frampton. One crucial matchup will pit FIU’s pass rush, ranked 19th nationally in sacks doled, against an ASU offensive line that’s allowing close to three sacks per game.
Finally, a confession of insurmountable bias: I have never liked the Red Wolves, ever since they were coerced into abandoning the “Indians” nickname by the NCAA in 2007 and cruelly rebuffed my suggestions of such replacement mascots as the Arkansas State Flat Alluvials, the Arkansas State Vine Ripe Pink Tomatoes and the Arkansas State Man-Made Lakes Of Massive Proportion. So I’m picking FIU in a close-game upset out of pure spite and moxie.