By Tim Gardner
Having already clinched the league’s East Division title and a second straight appearance in the Sun Belt Conference’s championship game, the Appalachian State Mountaineers will wrap up their regular season schedule at Troy (AL) this Friday, November 29. The game will kickoff at 6:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) in Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The championship game will pit Appalachian State against West Division winner Louisiana. Appalachian State won 17-7 this season at Louisiana, which has a 9-2 overall record. The Mountaineers will earn the right to host the Dec. 7 championship game in Boone if it defeats Troy or Louisiana loses at home to Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday night.
An Appalachian State loss coupled with a Louisiana win ensures the Ragin Cajuns will host the championship game.
But first thing’s first. The Mountaineers need to focus on beating Troy.
“We’ve (our team) has talked about not being done yet,” Mountaineer head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “Yet is a powerful word. There’s more still to occur and we’re focused on what we need to do, which is to be 1-0 and hold the home-field advantage.”
Appalachian State is ranked in all three major polls: No. 22 in the AP Top 25, No. 22 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 24 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. Among the Group of Five teams currently ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25, App State is the only one with two wins over Power 5 teams (both on the road), two wins over ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) Top 40 teams or three road wins over ESPN FPI Top 50 teams (none of the others have two road wins over ESPN FPI Top 50 teams).
Appalachian State, which is 6-1 in conference play, is the first Sun Belt team to start a season 10-1 over-all since the league was established as a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) member in 2001. The Mountaineers have reached double-figure wins four times in their last five FBS seasons, going 11-2 in 2015, 10-3 in 2016 and 11-2 in 2018. Appalachian State’s 11-2 records in 2015 and 2018 are the best by a Sun Belt team in league history.
At No. 11 in scoring offense (38.1) and No. 19 in scoring defense (19.3), Appalachian State is one of seven teams that rank in the top 20 nationally in both categories, a list that also includes Alabama, Clemson, Louisiana, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon.
The Mountaineers rank in the top three nationally in several team stats: fourth-down conversion percentage (No. 2, 81.1 by going 9-for-11), blocked kicks (Tied-No. 2, five), fewest fumbles lost (T-No. 2, two), fewest
turnovers committed (T-No. 2, seven) and defensive three-and-outs per game (T-No. 3, 5.45).
Darrynton Evans ranks ninth nationally in all-purpose yards per game (147.5), 14th in points per game (9.3), 16th in rushing yards per game (106.2), 17th in kick return average (27.1) and fifth in runs of 50-plus yards (three). He’s one of 10 players nationally with at least 17 overall touchdowns.
The Mountaineers will play Troy without wide receiver Corey Sutton, who tore an ACL in their 35-13 win over Texas State last weekend.
But they have other good receivers, including Malik Williams, Thomas Hennigan and Keishawn Watson.
Senior linebacker Jordan Fehr has a team-leading 86 tackles for Appalachian State. Senior Bowl invitee Akeem Davis-Gaither has added 82 tackles. Demetrius Taylor has 6.0 sacks, 12.0 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, six quarterback hurries, four passes broken up, one blocked punt, one blocked field goal, one interception, one fumble return for a touchdown and 35 tackles this season.
Troy is having an uncharacteristic down season. The Trojans were routed by Louisiana 53-3 last Saturday, leaving them one win shy of bowl eligibility. Sitting at 5-6 over-all and 3-4 in the Sun Belt on the year, Coach Chip Lindsey’s Trojans must beat Appalachian State in the season finale to become bowl eligible.
Troy allowed 598 total yards of offense against Louisiana and the loss snapped a two-game winning streak for the Trojans. Also, the 53 points allowed were the most they surrendered since it lost to Boise State in the season opener 56-20 in 2018. And it’s the most points they have allowed in a conference game since they lost to Appalachian State 53-14 in 2014.
The Trojans came into the game breaking the 30-point threshold in five-straight games. Troy’s three points were the lowest point total since they only scored three points in a 35-3 loss at home to Arkansas State in 2016.
Nevertheless, Troy’s offense, particularly through the airways, could present problems for the Mountaineers. The Trojans average 35.7 points and a whopping 314.0 passing yards per game.
Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker is known for his impressive arm strength and accuracy. He has thrown for 3,347 yards, 30 touchdowns and has completed 65.6 percent of his passes.
Troy’s top receiver is Kaylon Geiger, who has 74 receptions for 846 yards and five touchdowns. Addition ally, Kahalil McClain has caught 41 passes for 504 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.
The Trojans average 152.9 rushing yards and their running game is led by D.K. Billingsley, who has gained 887 yards and scored nine touchdowns in 2019.
Linebacker Carlton Martial leads the Troy defense with 113 tackles (61 solos; 52 assists). He has a remarkable 16.5 tackles for loss with four sacks. He also has three interceptions
Despite a potentially major test for Appalachian’s defense, the Mountaineers have played consistently well on that side of the ball except for allowing Georgia Southern to roll up 335 rushing yards to yards with it option offense in their only loss (24-21). And they should have consistent success moving the ball against the Trojans, who are giving up 426.2 yards per game. The Mountaineers have too much firepower for Troy and should roll to a win and host their second straight Sun Belt Championship game.
Prediction – Appalachian State 47, Troy 13.