Get used to seeing Appalachian State, the new Sun Belt frontrunners
Appalachian State beat rival Georgia Southern on Thursday night to get the inside track on a Sun Belt title in its first full season of FBS membership.
BOONE, N.C. -- When Appalachian State and Georgia Southern took the field for what was set up as one of the biggest games of the year in the Sun Belt, an unknowing outsider may have tuned in to the Thursday night nationally televised game -- a mostly new exercise in scheduling for both programs -- expecting to find some plucky up-starts fighting for bowl eligibility for the first time as full-fledged FBS members.
But to think that bowl eligibility was the only thing on the line between these two teams is to ignore the long-running rivalry between the former Southern Conference and FCS national powers. The two teams have played 23 times in the last 22 years and combined for nine Division I-AA/FCS national titles and 22 SoCon titles between 1985-2012.
The rivalry holds a deep meaning through the entire program. From head coach Scott Satterfield, a former ASU quarterback (1991-95) and offensive assistant (1998-2008, 2012), to senior defensive end Ronald Blair, arguably the game's defensive star with eight tackles (7 solo, 3 TFL).
"We felt like we owed them one from last year," Blair said with a smile after Appalachian State's 31-13 win, adding "there was a lot of trash talking."
Appalachian State's first season in the Sun Belt, one which they were ineligible for the postseason because of an NCAA-mandated transition year, got off to a horrible start. The Mountaineers lost five of their first six games, including a 34-14 loss to Georgia Southern where the Eagles jumped out to a 17-0 lead early and never looked back.
Georgia Southern's offense made it look easy early, as the No. 1 rushing offense in the country (averaging 399 yards per game on the ground heading into Thursday night) swiftly marched down the field on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead. Stopping the Eagles on the ground, and turning quarterback Kevin Ellison into a passer, has been the focus since the coaching staff was drawing up GSU's plays on the plane ride back from Monroe last Saturday.
"If you had to pick a team to play on a short week, five days preparation, it probably wouldn't be Georgia Southern with how effective they are in the run game, but our coaching staff did a phenomenal job getting our kids ready to play. It's a hard task to stop those guys," Satterfield said.
Blair said the defense made adjustments on the back end of the defense, freeing up the linebackers and secondary to flow to the ball and make tackles. The result was an aboslute domination at the line of scrimmage and a season-low 188 team rushing yards for Georgia State. To outgain the No. 1 rushing offense in the country on the ground (231-188), was Satterfield's goal coming into the game. By winning at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, Appalachian State made the Eagles press, forced turnovers and cruised to a relatively comfortable win in a rivalry that has been decided by a touchdown or less in six of the past nine meetings.
Satterfield was sure to mention that being bowl eligible guarantees nothing for the Mountaineers. There are teams that reach the six-win mark at the FBS level and don't receive an invitation to the postseason every year. This team's goal is to win the Sun Belt, and add another conference championship placard to a long hallway in the team's facility that celebrates years of Southern Conference dominance.
"It's awesome to be sitting here with six wins and to be bowl eligible," Satterfield said. "It's awesome to be at that milestone. That's what everybody looks at, that six-win mark. And for it to be the first season we can go to a bowl and we're there in seven games, that's pretty sweet."
So where does Appalachian State fit in the national picture? When asked if he had a Top-25 team, Satterfield shrugged. It wasn't a shrug of indifference as much as an acknowledgement that such "honors" are out of his control.
The one phrase repeated from coaches, players and ASU staff on Thursday night when assessing the season is that the Mountaineers have played "one bad quarter" all year: a 28-0 Clemson run that put the game well out of reach in the only loss of the season.
Is Appalachian State a Top 25 team? I'm not sure, but a 6-1 record with a win over the nation's top rushing offense and the only loss coming to a potential playoff contender is a pretty good résumé to take into the final stretch of the season. The Mountaineers first FBS bowl game is far from guaranteed, but if this play continues Thursday night won't be the only time you see Scott Satterfield's bunch on national television.
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