Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) vs Troy (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt)
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023 4:00pm EST
Radio: FLAGSHIP 97.3 FM (North Wilkesboro), 96.5
FM/1450 AM (Boone), 99.1 FM/1060 AM/1030 AM (Charlotte),
105.3 FM/1320 AM (Greensboro), 790 AM (Johnson City),
107.7 FM/1450 AM (Hendersonville), 103.9FM/1250AM (Marion), Varsity Network App
Veteran Memorial Stadium
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 72.54
Troy is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 3.95 points
VegasInsider Line: Troy -6
Series: App State leads 8-3
Last Meeting: App State 32, Troy 28, September 17, 2022, Boone, NC
For the ninth consecutive year, App State has won at least five home games. Three straight years averaging over 30,000 fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium, and just a couple hundred away from eclipsing 35,000. There is no doubt, when you come to Boone for college football, you leave entertained. However, Kidd Brewer Stadium is quiet for now, and the Mountaineers will take their show on the road for the final two games of the season. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Two more games. Only twenty FBS schools will play their thirteenth game this weekend. For the fourth time, App State will represent their division in the conference championship in just six opportunities. This feeling is the familiar territory we missed last year. It hurts to think about it the past, but it should make the current moments worth it more in the end. Whether the Mountaineers win or lose on Saturday will not define their season. Troy is a worthy opponent, and they won the conference a season ago. But that was last year, and nothing that happened a year ago will have an impact on this game.
Ten of the fourteen Sun Belt coaches picked Troy to represent the West division back in late July. The other four coaches picked South Alabama. Troy led their division for most of the season and cleared the division by three games. Only two of their conference games were decided by less than seven points being a two-point loss to James Madison and a touchdown win over Louisiana just a couple weeks ago. Only FCS Stephen F. Austin scored more than 30 points on the Troy defense, and that was the first game of the season. Western Kentucky and Louisiana were the only teams that scored 24 points on Troy. Everyone else: 17 points or fewer. For the season, Troy has allowed just 13 points per game to conference opponents, but that number has ticked up slightly the last three weeks to 18.3 points per game. Considering their opponents were two of the worst teams in the conference in Southern Miss and UL-Monroe, that might throw some caution to the wind. Louisiana was playing for bowl eligibility and got there, while the others were playing out the string.
The Troy defense is elite. Easy to see there. Does not a take genius to figure that out. The Trojan offense is one of the better offenses in the league, but it does not compare to leading statistical categories like their counterparts do. Quarterback Gunnar Watson has played in parts of six college football seasons, all at Troy. Watson was on the 2018 Troy team that lost to App State 21-10, which was a winner-take-all game to represent the East in the inaugural Sun Belt Championship. Watson did not play against App State in 2018 or 2019 but has played in the last three matchups. None of them have ended well for Watson although last year was the closest, he and Troy had come. In those three games, Watson has completed just over 60% of his passes for 526 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has thrown an interception in each game he has played against the Mountaineers, who coincidentally lead the Sun Belt with 15 interceptions this season and have eight interceptions in their last four games. The Mountaineers are 7-1 this season when intercepting a pass.
With senior day recognitions, Armanti Edwards’ number retirement and generally cool weather, the Mountaineers started a little slow last Saturday, but took advantage of four Georgia Southern turnovers to pull away. The Mountaineers scored immediately after each Eagle turnover, with two scores quickly responded by one play touchdowns. The Mountaineers also dominated the middle eight minutes of the game, scoring an unheard of 17 points even with a turnover of their own. After the score was tied at 17-17 with just 2:33 remaining in the second quarter, App State reeled off 34 consecutive points before allowing a kickoff return touchdown and field goal that cut a three score lead to a three score lead by Southern. Yes, you read that right. It has been amazing, week after week, how the Mountaineers offense can put up 532 yards and it feel like everyone got a piece of the pie. Eight receivers caught passes, with seven catching two or more. Three different running backs eclipsed 60 yards, which was more than the Eagles leading rusher.
The win last week coupled with James Madison taking out their frustrations on Coastal Carolina has put the Mountaineers in the spot they always hoped to be in by playing for a conference championship. The turnaround has been a true team effort. The offense can always play better, but when buoyed by their defense, a team can take on a completely different look. Weeks ago, we discussed slow starts with offense and it was hardly even noticeable this past week. If anything, this game resembled a microcosm of the entire season. A slower start that led to convincing win. Once the floodgates opened the Eagles were toast. Saturday marked the third straight game the Mountaineers recovered a fumble. They had just three in the previous nine games. Troy does not give up a ton of sacks, but all twenty-three sacks have come in six games. Turnovers or other impact plays, whether by attacking the ball at the line of scrimmage, on special teams, or in the secondary is what has made it tough for teams to overcome the Mountaineers and their offense.
What more could anyone ask for in a championship game? In the era of the Sun Belt championship game, the participants are usually decided by results that mattered in the regular season. Sometimes, there was a head-to-head battle that broke a tie in each division. In 2018, App State beat Troy in the regular season finale in a game that decided who would host the title game. In 2019 & 2021, the App State and Louisiana regular season winner would eventually host and win the conference championship. Last season, Troy defeated South Alabama in the regular season and hosted. Coastal Carolina defeated Marshall in the regular season which gave them the opportunity to participate. Hosting has mattered over the years. A road team has yet to win a conference championship game and usually the hottest team has also claimed the title. In 2018 and 2019, App State won their last six games in respective years. Louisiana won their last thirteen games in 2021, and Troy won their last eleven games last year. If you have noticed, we do not talk about 2020, because there was no game, cough, cough. Arguably, this is shaping up to be the best matchup in the history of the conference championship because we have two teams who are streaking right now. Troy is riding a nine-game streak, while the Mountaineers have won five in a row. The Trojans won the division going away and App State has had their back against the wall for last half of the season. In the last five weeks, Troy has been scoring touchdowns almost exclusively in the air. Gunnar Watson has fifteen touchdown passes during that span, and other Troy quarterbacks have tossed for two more scores. The Troy ground game has steadily run for a single touchdown in each of the last five games as well. Troy has determined their offensive course of action and have not strayed from it. That’s an easy path to take when their defense has been so consistent all year long. But what happens when that Troy teams sees the most balanced opponent they have faced in a long time. The last five Troy opponents are not exactly lighting the world on fire. Sure, both schools have had common opponents. The timing of when App and Troy played those four games gives us zero indication as to what we could expect this weekend. What we do know is that Kimani Vidal is a good running back who does not go down on first contact. He averages 112 yards a game, but Vidal gained 493 yards in two games against Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas State, who was dead last in the conference in rushing defense. In fact, over a third of Vidal’s rushing yards for the season come in those two games. Against James Madison, Vidal was held to 27 yards and there are plenty other examples where Vidal was limited, yet Troy was able to prevail. Keeping Vidal contained will do wonders for the backside of the Mountaineer defense. This is the true game within the game. Whether or not Troy can find enough rhythm on offense could be a deciding factor. Troy is well balanced, and if the Mountaineers can keep them off balance, and can roam the secondary, it will be a huge boost. Eventually the road team woes in the conference championship will come to and end. This might as well be this week.
The First Pick