By Tim Gardner
Things have been really good for Appalachian State Football the past few years. The Mountaineers have made a strong mark on major college football entering just their fourth FBS season and third year as a bowl-eligible program.
They are 27-5 in their last 32 games, including a 10-3 record that included winning a share of the Sun Belt conference championship and beating Toledo in the Camellia Bowl in 2016. Appalachian State has won 14 of its past sixteen conference tilts and came up one recovered fumble short of upsetting Tennessee at Knoxville last season. The Mountaineers were especially stingy defensively against the Southeastern Conference Volunteers, holding them to only 127 rushing yards. And Appalachian State’s offense lost only 13 turnovers last season, ranking ninth in the country.
All indications point to the Mountaineers continuing their successful ways this season under the direction of fifth-year head coach Scott Satterfield. Just how good Appalachian State can be in 2017 will likely be evident in Saturday’s season opener against major college power Georgia. Kickoff is slated for 6:15 p.m. at Sanford Stadium in Athens, GA with the game broadcast nationally on ESPN.
Appalachian State is a fourteen-plus point underdog to 15th ranked Georgia, led by second-year head coach Kirby Smart.
But this could be anything but a sure win for Georgia if the Mountaineers play well and don’t make many miscues as Smart acknowledges with the following statement: “Appalachian State has a really good team and we expect quite a battle. Their offense is very explosive with much experience and production returning. And defensively, Appalachian plays with incredible speed, toughness, and tenacity. Their defensive front speed jumps out at you. We’ve got to be careful about putting them in 1-on-1 situations as their players guys use their great quickness to create a disadvantage sometimes for an opposing offensive line. They slash, they tackle for a loss and they’re very disruptive in what they do.”
The Mountaineers welcome back seventeen starters, are solid favorites to repeat as Sun Belt champions and have been given poll consideration as possibly one of the nation’s Top 25 teams. They return quarterback Taylor Lamb, who completed 197 of 325 passes for 2,281 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He threw only eight interceptions.
Also, junior running back and 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of The Year Jalin Moore (1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns) returns behind a strong offensive line.
However, Appalachian State has had to replace five of its top 10 tacklers from a unit that finished last season 17th in the country in total defense. Senior linebacker Eric Boggs is a key returnee after leading the Apps with 98 tackles (43 solos; 55 assists) a season ago. Sophomore cornerback Clifton Duck is another defensive standout for the Mountaineers. He led the team in interceptions last year with five. He also made 57 tackles.
Kicker Michael Rubino (sophomore) is back for the Apps after making 75 percent of his field goal attempts and all of his extra points in 2016. Special teams should be an over-all strength for the Apps.
Georgia finished 8-5 over-all last season, including 4-4 in the SEC, and beat TCU in the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs return eight starters on offense and ten on defense and appear steady in the special teams. They are favorites to win the league’s Eastern Division title and have plenty of talent necessary to accomplish that and perhaps even loftier feats.
But Georgia’s passing attack in particular struggled to evolve in 2016, making quarterback development a team’s focal point this season. Sophomore Jason Eason possesses remarkable quarterbacking skills including a rifle-throwing arm. But he must polish up his decision-making, footwork and throwing accuracy.
Speedy seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 1,970 yards and 12 touchdowns last year to give Georgia one of the best running back duos in the nation. Chubb is a Heisman Trophy candidate and generally considered among the nation’s finest players. But the Mountaineers gave up only 125.5 rushing yards per game in 2016. A key matchup will be the ability of Georgia’s running game to push the chains against a tough Appalachian State run defense. If the Bulldogs have consistent success with its running game, it could be a long game for the Mountaineers.
But Georgia had one of its least-best offensive lines ever last season and the Bulldogs must make significant improvement at those positions to have a chance to improve on their record of a season ago and seriously challenge for any championships.
Defensively, Georgia is solid. They return their top five tacklers from last year—linebackers Roquan Smith (junior), Natrez Patrick (junior) and Davin Bellamy (senior)—along with junior tackle Trenton Thompson and senior safety Aaron Davis. Smith made 95 tackles (52 solos; 43 assists); Patrick had 59 (29 solos; 30 assists); Bellamy tallied 49 (24 solos; 25 assists); Thompson made 56 (24 solos; 32 assists); and Davis had 54 (34 solos; 20 assists).
Satterfield is most impressed with Georgia and knows while the game is a welcome challenge; it’s still a mighty one. He said: “If you think about it, there’s probably not one player on Georgia’s team that we had a chance at recruiting and there’s not a player on our team that Georgia wanted (to recruit). So, certainly, on paper we shouldn’t even be able to stay with those guys. But that’s what’s great about college football. You always play the game and then you see what happens.
“Georgia is coming off a solid year last year and they’ve got a ton of players back, basically their whole defense and, of course, their quarterback. And they have arguably the best backfield and running back in the country this year. So there’s certainly high expectations for Georgia. But we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do against those guys.”
Look for Appalachian State to give the Bulldogs all they can handle for much of the game. Don’t even be surprised if Appalachian State wins. With a win, the Mountaineers would almost assuredly crack the nation’s Top 25 poll, perhaps even being ranked in the Top 20 next week. However, it’s still likely the Bulldogs will win. So expect Georgia to prevail over the Mountaineers behind its clear superiority in over-all talent and depth. Prediction: Georgia 32, Appalachian State 20.