By Tim Gardner
The Sun Belt Conference Champion Appalachian State University Mountaineers are headed back to The Big Easy.
The 20th-ranked Mountaineers accepted an invitation to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they will play Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) of Conference USA this Saturday, Dec. 21 at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 CT.
The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
It will mark the first meeting between Appalachian State and UAB.
Appalachian State (12-1) is the first ranked team to play in this bowl and may be talented enough to have earned a New Year’s Day 6 bid.
UAB (9-4) won the Conference USA’s West Division.
Former Appalachian State head coach Eli Drinkwitz left Appalachian State two weeks ago after serving only one season in the post to become head coach at the University of Missouri. He was replaced on an interim basis by Mountaineers assistant Shawn Clark, who then had the interim tag removed a few days later and will lead a team in his first game as a head coach in the bowl.
Appalachian State defeated Louisiana-LaFayette 45-38 in the Sun Belt Championship Game Dec.7, setting the stage for a return to the New Orleans Bowl. The Mountaineers routed Middle Tennessee, 45-13, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last year after defeating Louisiana-LaFayette in the inaugural league championship game in 2018.
Since joining the Major College Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ranks five years in 2015, Appalachian State has earned a bowl berth every year. Only Marshall, which made six straight bowl games after its FBS transition, can claim the same feat. But Appalachian State is the only program to win each of their first four bowl games in consecutive seasons.
And the 2019 season has been the best yet and perhaps the best in the school’s rich and elite football history. The Mountaineers’ achievements this season are rather impressive.
Appalachian State is the first program to win 12 games in Sun Belt history as well as the first FBS program from the state of North Carolina to win 12 games.
Additionally, the Mountaineers: claimed a fourth straight Sun Belt championship; achieved the highest national ranking in Appalachian State and Sun Belt history (No. 20); became the first Sun Belt team to beat two Power Five schools (North Carolina and South Carolina) in the same season; is the only Group of Five school with two Power Five road wins this year; recorded the best road record (6-0) in Sun Belt history and among all FBS teams this year.
Another achievement for the Appalachian State program is of intangible status but it is also noteworthy as the Mountaineers appeared in the most nationally televised games in school history (7).
Appalachian State’s historic season has included its first win over North Carolina (34-31 in Chapel Hill) and its first win against a Southeastern Conference school with a 20-15 victory at South Carolina. The Mountaineers rolled through its conference schedule with a 7-1 record, suffering only a three-point loss to Georgia Southern while claiming the East Division title and thus earning the opportunity to host the Sun Belt Championship Game for the second consecutive season.
Appalachian State has won 18 of its last 19 games, and 43 out of its last 50 games against Sun Belt teams since joining the league in 2014. Since their inaugural FBS season (2015) began, the Mountaineers are No. 5 nationally in win percentage (81.5) and are tied for No. 5 in total wins with their 53-12 record. The win total trails only Clemson (68-4), Alabama (65-6), Ohio State (61-6) and Oklahoma (57-9) and is tied with Georgia (53-15).
The only FBS programs besides Appalachian State with streaks of four or more straight conference titles are Clemson (ACC) and Oklahoma (Big 12).
But as for this year’s New Orleans Bowl matchup, the game could be one of the best of the entire 32-bowl game season. But to win, UAB’s defense will have to play almost error-free as they’re facing an outstanding Appalachian State offense that averages 39 points and 435 total yards per game.
Headlined by Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and Championship Game Most Valuable Player Darrynton Evans, as well as Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Akeem Davis-Gaither, the Mountaineers have not only been productive offensively but stingy defensively. They rank in college football’s Top 25 in both scoring offense (ninth) and scoring defense (22nd, 20.2).
UAB went 6-2 record in its conference, but the Blazers lost 49-6 against Florida Atlantic University in the league’s championship tilt.
Appalachian State and UAB have one common opponent this year, as the Mountaineers won 30-3 at South Alabama and the Blazers posted a 35-3 home win against South Alabama.
Bill Clark has a 34-18 record as the head coach at UAB, which beat Middle Tennessee in Conference USA’s title game a year ago. This season, the Blazers rank 25th nationally in scoring defense (only four spots behind Appalachian State) by allowing 20.8 points per game.
UAB has a very opportunistic and good defense, which also ranks No. 3 nationally in fumbles recovered (13) and No. 7 in sacks (43).
And the Blazers’ defense must do a great job at commanding the line of scrimmage. It’s facing an excellent running back in Evans, who has 1,323 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season. He averages more than five yards per rush.
Given that UAB only allows 107 rushing yards per game this is one of the battles to watch. If the Blazers can force the Mountaineers to be more one-dimensional on offense, they could upset the favored Mountaineers.
Offensively, the Blazers average 23.6 points per game. Tyler Johnston III has passed for 15 touchdowns while averaging 195.2 passing yards.
The key for the Mountaineers to mitigate his effectiveness is to tenaciously and consistently pressure Johnston III. If they do so, it could result in longer distances on second and third-down. The Blazers converted only 15 percent of their third-downs against FAU.
While UAB doesn’t feature the most potent of offenses, it has a balanced one. One player the Mountaineers must especially account for at all times is Blazers’ wide receiver Austin Watkins, who has 47 receptions for 933 yards and five touchdowns. What makes Watkins such a threat to Appalachian State’s secondary is his ability to make big plays, as his 19-plus yards per reception attests.
UAB averages 159.3 rushing yards as a team.
UAB has had a good season and is a formidable opponent for the Mountaineers—but not formidable enough. Offensively, the key for the Appalachian State to get off to a quick start. Outside of the FAU game, UAB’s defense has been especially tough in the first half of games, holding opponents to 11 points or fewer. But expect the Mountaineers to use their offensive versatility to pull out to a comfortable early lead and overpower UAB’s defense. Also, look for the Mountaineers’ aggressive defense to consistently hold UAB’s offense in check.
The Mountaineers have the better team and will win the game in Shawn Clark’s coaching debut as they set yet another school and state of North Carolina record for wins in a season (13). Prediction: Appalachian State 48, UAB 24.
BOWL TICKETS: Tickets are available by visiting Appalachian State’s Bowl Ticket page. For additional information or help with purchasing tickets, phone the Appalachian State athletics ticket office at 828-262-2079. Appalachian State officials urge those with tickets who cannot attend the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, to consider donating their tickets. That will enable Appalachian State to provide opportunities to students and charity organizations that will showcase the pride of the App Nation. You can donate by selecting the “Donate” ticket type under the “Premium” selection on appstatesports.com or by calling the ticket office.
For additional information on tickets, bowl week events, game day information, travel and lodging, visit Bowl Central on appstatesports.com.
BOWL TRAVEL: App State Athletics has partnered with Sports & Entertainment Travel (SET) to provide a turnkey bowl travel and lodging experience for Mountaineer fans. Those interested can also log onto appstatesportstours.com for packages. Bowl tickets must be purchased separately.