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JONESBORO -- It's a disappointing day for the Arkansas State University Red Wolves.

The Sun Belt Conference's first-ever championship game is being played in Boone, N.C., between Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Missing is ASU, the preseason conference favorite.

"When you consider we were picked to win, and people obviously said if everything goes perfect that we had a chance to finish in the top 25," said ASU Coach Blake Anderson. "It'd be easy to say that it was a failure of a season."

The Red Wolves (8-4, 5-3 Sun Belt) definitely had their chances to be one of the final two playing in the league's championship game.

There was Georgia Southern's 28-21 victory in their Sun Belt opener on Sept. 29 when the Eagles scored on a 47-yard reverse with 19 seconds left in the game to defeat the Red Wolves.

ASU completed non-conference play 3-1 just the week before. It defeated Southeast Missouri State, Tulsa and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to clinch a winning non-conference record for the first time since 1995.

Injuries began taking their toll on the Red Wolves. There was a 35-9 home loss to East Division champion Appalachian State on Oct. 9 and a 47-43 loss at Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 27 -- which eventually doomed ASU's chance to appear in the league championship game. Along the way, the Red Wolves were left without 19 players due to injury.

"Our goal is always to compete for the conference championship," said ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir. "We fell short of that goal.

"Considering the injuries and the way we started the conference and how we ended it. It taught our guys a lot. It taught our coaches a lot. It taught our administration a lot, to continue to grind through things. They finished strong."

In November, knowing three losses was the maximum it could afford to remain in contention for the title game, ASU won four in a row. The Red Wolves had done everything they could to salvage a season that was broken in late October by the Ragin' Cajuns and was rejuvenated despite the number of injuries and a shrunken roster.

ASU's Sun Belt Championship Game fortunes relied on Louisiana-Monroe in the regular season's final weekend. It needed the Warhawks to defeat Louisiana-Lafayette (7-5, 5-3).

It didn't happen.

The Warhawks missed a game-tying field goal as time expired and lost 31-28 to the Ragin' Cajuns.

Even after ASU's 33-7 season-finale victory at Texas State and when the Warhawks' failure to defeat Louisiana-Lafayette became known in San Marcos, Texas, the Arizona Bowl-bound Red Wolves felt as if they were shouldering a failed season, Anderson said.

"I was really honest with them in the beginning about what we were up against," Anderson said. "We had great talent, but [we have] a very small roster and a lot of inexperienced positions. And nobody can calculate [if] you're going to have 19 guys taken out of the roster to injury.

"In terms of overcoming adversity, I'd say [this season has] been a huge success, especially because we can still salvage it and win nine games."

Sports on 12/01/2018

Print Headline: Season of what-ifs haunting to ASU

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