Appalachian State (12-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs Alabama-Birmingham (9-4, 6-2 C-USA)
Saturday, December 21st, 2019 9:00pm EST
Radio: Boone/Blowing Rock: WATA 1450 AM & 96.5 FM; North Wilkesboro/Hickory/Charlotte WKBC 97.3 FM; Asheville WZGM 1350 AM; Hendersonville WHKP 107.7 FM & 1450 AM; Charlotte/Gastonia WCGC 1270 AM; Charlotte/Rock Hill WAVO 1150 AM; Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point WSJS 101.5 FM & 600 AM
Surface: Act Global UBU Speed S5-M Synthetic Turf
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 81.02
App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by 21.16 points
Line: App State -17
Series: First Meeting
WxCrum Forecast: N/A
Take a deep breath. We did it again. It was an agonizing, stressful and frustrating 60 hours, or was it minutes? It was both actually. App State sealed their fourth straight Sun Belt crown with their title game win over Louisiana on Saturday December 7th. The Sun Belt Championship game, also known as the Second Annual Boone December Football Invitational, was a wire-to-wire win for the Mountaineers that included little drama. Two teams battled to 24 total points earlier in the season, but combined for over twice that by halftime. And then, we had to do that other thing again. Appalachian had to find a new football coach, one who wanted to be here, and luckily we did not have to look far. Shawn Clark was already in town, and more than willing to become the 22nd head coach in App State history. It was by far the easiest coaching search in Doug Gillin’s tenure, and perhaps the most timely. After taking close to a year to find out who the new guy was, App State made the correct decision, and went back to the family tree, where the roots and foundation are as strong as they ever have been.
The fun part about bowl season is getting to play teams you have never played before. In 2015 and 2016, App State played Ohio and Toledo, and in both instances, it was the first time the schools had met. Alabama-Birmingham makes it three schools in five years that App will play for the first time in bowl season. This will be UAB’s fourth bowl game in their somewhat brief FBS history. Speaking of their FBS history, it is somewhat short, yet not as brief as App State’s FBS history. UAB started their football program in 1991, playing two seasons in Division III before the NCAA forced the Blazers hand and reclassified them to I-AA, or what is now FCS. After three seasons as an I-AA independent, UAB jumped to FBS in 1996. With the Blazers other sports already playing in Conference USA, Birmingham finally had a conference to call home in 1999. So if you are keeping track at home, UAB went from Division III football to FBS in less than a decade.
Throughout the season, we pick on opponents schedules to show strengths and weaknesses, why they may be good, or bad, or better than perception. Birmingham’s schedule might take the the 2019 cupcake. Now listen, nine wins is nine wins. You do not win that number of games accidentally, but you can schedule intentionally. You also can’t help it when your conference is super weak. The combined record of the Blazers nine opponents in which they beat is 29-78. Nine of those twenty-nine wins were by Louisiana Tech, a team that was without starters at quarterback and wide receiver, in a convincing 20-14 victory. Please note the sarcasm. The Blazers played seven teams from the bottom dozen in FBS, and got wins from all of them. That alone would have been enough to be bowl eligible. The two wins from teams not in the bottom dozen of FBS, you ask: FCS Alabama State and the aforementioned and handcuffed Louisiana Tech.
The Blazer offense has been their weakest link all season long. It’s a unit that has managed to score just 23.6 points a game, which is just 100th nationally, and 10th in Conference USA. If the Blazers were in the Sun Belt, they would 9th in scoring. A few points ahead of South Alabama and Texas State, and a few points behind Georgia Southern. Conversely, the UAB defense has kept them afloat most of the season, with a unit that allows just 20.8 point per contest. That’s good enough for second in the conference and 26th in the country. That number would have been good enough for third in the Sun Belt. Once again, we have to go back to scheduling and who they played. UAB scored a total of 28 points in their four losses, against teams that were clearly better than they were. In their nine wins, the Blazers scored 31 points a game, against the absolute bottom of the barrel.
In 2018, we got a sneak preview of the Clark Era in this exact game, and now we have the whole deal. A new head coach at Appalachian used to be a rare scenario, but we now have our third head man in less than a decade. Believe this one might stick around for a little bit. The beauty is that Shawn Clark knows this team, and this program as well as anyone. He knows what his play makers can do, and he’ll put them in position to succeed. You’ll see all four primary running backs getting their chance with the ball in their hands. Darrynton Evans, Marcus Williams Jr, Daetrich Harrington & Raykwon Anderson have combined for 2,507 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns. As a group they average 5.9 yards per carry. The Mountaineers run the ball on average 43 times a game. The wide receivers may not have the game breaking prowess they once did prior to Corey Sutton’s injury, but they’ll kill you at the intermediate level all day long. Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams have done most of the work all season catching 110 passes and eight touchdowns this season. Jalen Virgil has caught 11 passes for 153 yards in his last four games, which is nearly half of his seasons total.
It’s been quiet on the Birmingham front since the announcement of this game last weekend. Of course, it’s been a busy couple weeks on the mountain, but this is what happens when you lose your conference championship game by six touchdowns. The Blazers hardly put up a fight in their 49-6 defeat to Florida Atlantic. This Blazer team is a curious one. It really is hard to imagine a team that is so bad on offense be able to win nine games. Birmingham’s leading rusher has 527 yards on the season. As a team, they average 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. The Blazers do spread the love with carries, but only one back averages over five yards per carry, and he has just 83 carries on the year. Part of the UAB struggle on offense have been a inconsistency at quarterback. Injuries have kept the preferred starter out many games, and neither has been able to build a real chemistry. The quarterbacks as a group have thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes on the year and have completed less than 60% of their passes. However, the Blazers are not scared to take some shots down the field. The big play makes up for their running game that shuffles along. Of their three primary receivers, they average an insane amount of yardage per catch. Kendall Parham leads the group with 21 yards per catch, but only 46 yards per game. That guy needs the ball in his hands more, and UAB will need that kind of offense to keep it close. The Blazers are not a team that is going to score on you fast. On the season, averaging close to thirty-two minutes of possession a game, they want to grind you down, but as the field gets smaller, its tougher for UAB to score. The Blazers are just 49% (21/43) on the season on red zone touchdowns. One reason is the fourteen red zone field goals they have made, which works out to one per game. That has to be tough to watch as a fan, and it’s unlikely to be easy to flip that trend on Saturday.
The First Pick