1. It's one thing to jump ...
... it's another to stick the landing.
Technically, any school can build a winning FBS football program. No matter where you start, you can keep climbing, winning games, climbing further, and winning more until you reach, at worst, the highest rungs of the mid-major FBS ladder. And once there, with perfect timing and perhaps quite a few great seasons, you might be able to sneak into the upper echelon at some point. The obstacle course you are required to pass to get there is pretty incredible, but you can still get there.
Look at Boise State, which jumped to FBS in 1996 and would have probably made the College Football Playoff in 2009 if it had existed at the time. Look at TCU, which got bumped from the major-conference ranks in 1996 but clawed back into the Big 12 in 2012 following a run of great seasons in numerous conferences. Boise State is proof that anybody can build anything. TCU and Utah are proof that, even if you've been around a while, you can still place yourself among the big boys.
Of course, TCU's offense has cratered since the jump to the Big 12, and the Horned Frogs have floundered. Utah began to slip in its last couple of years in the Mountain West and, aside from a tremendous upset of Stanford, hasn't been much of a factor in the Pac-12. And while the Playoff is now in place, Boise State has slipped a bit over the last couple of years after losing a boatload of talent, both on the field and on the coaching staff.
You have to be nearly flawless to climb up the ladder, and then you have to continue to be nearly flawless to avoid falling.
In reality, the jump itself is typically mistimed. The jump often comes after a long string of success in identifying, landing, and developing diamond-in-the-rough talent, and quite often the delay between when you decide to jump and when you actually can jump is just enough time to prompt a fall. Plus, you might lose your head coach to a bigger school or lose a particularly high-impact senior class or two.
Now, technically the jump isn't always merit-based. You don't have to win for years and years to climb up the major-conference ladder (Maryland, Rutgers), and you don't have to decide to jump from FCS to FBS because you're too good for FCS (Florida International, UTSA, Georgia State).
Without obvious geographic or financial advantages, however, some schools take their time and only decide to jump after years of sustained success at the FCS level. UMass won its conference five times in 10 years, won the FCS title in 1998 and reached the title game again in 2006 before taking the leap and landing in the MAC in 2012. Western Kentucky reached the FCS playoffs for five straight years and won the title in 2002 before showing up in FBS in 2007.
But UMass went just 23-22 from 2008-11 before jumping. WKU went 12-10 in 2005-06. A slide had begun for both schools, and that turned into devastation at the FBS level. UMass is 2-22 so far. WKU went 4-32 from 2008-10.
Timing is both everything and nearly impossible.
2. Which brings us to Appalachian State
Appalachian State is one of the most celebrated small-school programs on the planet. The Mountaineers recorded winning seasons every year from 1994-2012. They went 71-15 from 2005-10. They dominated the Southern Conference, FCS' SEC, from 2005-12. They won three consecutive FCS titles from 2005-07. They beat Michigan and made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2007.
In 24 years on the job, head coach Jerry Moore took a pretty healthy program and made it a dominant one. While some low-rung FBS teams struggle to draw 10,000 for a conference game, Appalachian State drew 30,856 for a game against Montana in 2012. Hell, ASU drew 26,415 for a game against a terrible N.C. A&T squad in 2011. In 2012, the Mountaineers averaged higher attendance (27,964) than any current Sun Belt program despite playing at the FCS level.
The fanbase has been FBS-level for a while, and for most of a decade, Appalachian State was more than FBS-ready. (Remember our Promotion and Relegation series? It was meant for ASU.) In 2013, Sun Belt co-champions UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State ranked 81st and 95th, respectively, in Jeff Sagarin's rankings; from 2005-10, ASU never ranked worse than 76th.
A few years ago, near the height of its power, the school weighed a jump to FBS. Last March, it got its ducks in a row. The transition begins in 2014.
Meanwhile, the slide began three years ago. In 2011-12, Moore managed matching 8-4 records and FCS playoff appearances, but ASU lost in the first round both years. And following the playoff loss to Illinois State in 2012 -- the Redbirds blocked a PAT in overtime to advance, 38-37 -- Moore was more-or-less informed that he was retiring. In stepped Scott Satterfield, a former ASU quarterback who served as offensive coordinator in 2012; Satterfield's first Mountaineer squad went 4-8, losing more than it won for the first time since 1993.
Safe to say, the jump was mistimed.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Yards Per Play
(ASU vs. Opp)
|Per Play Margin||5-game FCS Avg|
|8/31||at Montana||6-30||L||5.6 to 6.6||-1.0|
|9/7||North Carolina A&T||21-24||L||4.6 to 3.8||+0.8|
|9/21||at Elon||31-21||W||7.7 to 5.5||+2.2|
|9/28||Charleston Southern||24-27||L||8.3 to 5.3||+3.0|
|10/5||at The Citadel||28-31||L||5.5 to 5.7||-0.2||+1.0|
|10/12||Samford||10-34||L||3.3 to 6.9||-3.6||+0.4|
|10/19||at Furman||10-27||L||5.6 to 6.5||-0.9||+0.1|
|10/26||Georgia Southern||38-14||W||7.4 to 5.3||+2.1||+0.1|
|11/2||Chattanooga||28-35||L||5.7 to 5.5||+0.2||-0.5|
|11/9||at Georgia||6-45||L||3.6 to 7.9||-4.3|
|11/16||at Wofford||33-21||W||5.4 to 5.5||-0.1||-0.6|
|11/23||Western Carolina||48-27||W||8.2 to 4.9||+3.3||+0.9|
|Points Per Game||23.6||76||28.0||69|
3. A young team improved.
Moore's 2012 ASU team was young enough that it was still young last year. The Mountaineers began the year in frustrating fashion, losing winnable games to N.C. A&T, Charleston Southern, and The Citadel. Then they fell into a nasty funk for much of October. But with a sophomore quarterback, a freshman running back, and a defense loaded with freshmen and sophomores, they rallied to win three of their last four against FCS teams, nearly beating conference co-champion Chattanooga and taking down Wofford and WCU.
Enough experience returns in 2014 to hope that 2013 was a reset of sorts instead of a new normal. We'll see if that matters as the schedule gets rougher. (And yes, even though there's not a significant jump in quality from the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt, it's still a jump.)
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Kameron Bryant||6'1, 210||Jr.||N/A||237||333||2713||71.2%||14||4||8.1|
|Logan Hallock||5'11, 185||Sr.||N/A|
|Taylor Lamb||6'2, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|JP Caruso||6'0, 198||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Marcus Cox||RB||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)||245||1,250||5.1||15|
|Ricky Fergerson||RB||5'8, 182||Jr.||N/A||55||215||3.9||0|
|Kameron Bryant||QB||6'1, 210||Jr.||N/A||91||158||1.7||3|
|Terrence Upshaw||RB||5'10, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Josh Boyd||RB||5'10, 173||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
4. A young offense ... was young
If youth can explain ASU's worst offensive performance in a decade, then one can find plenty of reason for optimism here. Kam Bryant set a school record with a 71 percent completion rate as a sophomore and threw just four picks in 333 pass attempts, and Marcus Cox averaged better than five yards per carry as a freshman. ASU attempts relative 50-50 balance between the run and pass, and the backfield gives ASU hope in both, especially considering the competition on the two-deep. ASU brings in reasonably well-touted freshmen at both quarterback (JP Caruso) and running back (Josh Boyd), and the Mountaineers seem pretty excited about redshirt freshmen at each position as well.
Another reason for optimism: ASU returns one of the most experienced lines in the country. Granted, that experience has come at the FCS level, but six returnees have started at least 11 games, and the line has combined for 143 starts in all. As I like to say, injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense; well, the present tense was unkind to ASU's offensive line for basically two straight years. Welcome to the future tense. Bryant was barely sacked (yes, while throwing a lot of quick passes) with last year's patchwork line protecting him; he should have plenty of time this year, too.
|Marcus Cox||RB||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)||43||558||13.0|
|Malachi Jones||WR-X||6'1, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||31||293||9.5|
|Barrett Burns||TE||6'4, 220||So.||N/A||22||205||9.3|
|Simms McElfresh||WR-Z||5'10, 173||Jr.||N/A||20||269||13.4|
|Bobo Beathard||WR-Z||5'10, 191||Jr.||N/A||3||28||9.3|
|Trey Kavanaugh||WR-Y||6'1, 180||Jr.||N/A|
|Jaquil Capel||WR||5'11, 190||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Dante Jones||WR||5'11, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Montez McGuire||WR||6'1, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Shaedon Meadors||WR||6'2, 177||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Nikia Cathey||WR||5'9, 177||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Brandon Watson||TE||6'5, 223||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
5. One big question mark
Bryant had both possession options and some big-play threats in 2013. In Andrew Peacock, he had a high-efficiency, low-explosiveness possession receiver; in Tony Washington, he had an intermediate threat who averaged nearly 15 yards per catch. The two combined for nearly 12 catches per game and caught six touchdown passes, and now they're both gone.
Marcus Cox is already one of the best out-of-the-backfield receiving threats in the country, but there will be a lot of pressure on newcomers to play reliably early on. Juniors Malachi Jones and Simms McElfresh had some moments last year, but junior college transfer Montez McGuire, youngsters Dante Jones and Jaquil Capel, and perhaps a freshman or two will need to fill in rather quickly.
|Kendall Lamm||LT||6'6, 292||Sr.||N/A||30 career starts, 2013 1st All-SoCon|
|Graham Fisher||C||6'2, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.0)||28 career starts|
|Alex Acey||RG||5'11, 268||Sr.||N/A||28 career starts|
|Shaq Counts||LG||6'2, 295||Jr.||N/A||24 career starts|
|Will Corbin||RT||6'6, 311||Sr.||N/A||20 career starts|
|Davante Harris||RT||6'6, 295||Jr.||N/A||11 career starts|
|Ian Barnard||LT||8 career starts|
|Tucker Lee||LG||5 career starts|
|Jesse Chapman||C||6'1, 270||Jr.||N/A||1 career start|
|Parker Collins||RG||6'3, 290||So.||2 stars (5.2)||1 career start|
|Tyson Fernandez||OL||6'2, 325||So.||N/A|
|Colby Gossett||OL||6'6, 310||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Beau Nunn||OL||6'4, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Deuce Robinson||DE||6'5, 252||Sr.||N/A||12||29.5||4.3%||7||2||0||0||1||0|
|Thomas Bronson||DE||6'3, 275||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||21.5||3.1%||3.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Stephen Burns||NT||6'2, 280||Jr.||N/A||12||19.5||2.8%||4||1||0||0||0||0|
|Tyson Fernandez||NT (OL)||6'2, 325||So.||N/A||11||12.5||1.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Olawale Dada||DL||6'0, 225||So.||N/A||4||11.5||1.7%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Greg Milhouse||NT||6'3, 275||Jr.||N/A||12||11.0||1.6%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Nathaniel Norwood||DE||6'2, 225||So.||2 stars (5.2)||12||7.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ronald Blair||DE||6'4, 275||Sr.||N/A||2||4.0||0.6%||1.5||1||0||0||0||1|
|Tashion Singleton||DE||6'3, 245||So.||N/A||7||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Alanmichael Harkness||DE||6'3, 235||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Myquon Stout||DT||6'1, 260||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. Wanted: Pass rushers
Georgia game aside, Appalachian State had a decent defense, especially over the last half of the season. The Mountaineers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and only 11.5 yards per completion -- both entirely acceptable numbers. But they had no pass rush whatsoever, bringing down opposing quarterbacks just eight times in 303 pass attempts. Against Georgia, whose scorekeeper is one of the most hilariously liberal recorders of QB hurries in the country (let's put it this way: Georgia supposedly had 109 hurries last year while Florida State had 29; how do you feel about the accuracy of that?), ASU recorded zero sacks and zero hurries in 42 Dawg passes.
The front four returns nearly everyone of consequence in 2014 and adds a couple of interesting true freshmen as well, but Adam Scott, the closest thing to a pass rusher on the squad, is gone. Deuce Robinson has potential, but he'll need some help from either some sophomore ends or a more effective blitz.
ASU operated out of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody's 3-4 alignment last year, and the transition was far from smooth. Youth and misplaced parts resulted in a rather passive unit. We'll see what happens this time around, with Woody able to put a few more of his preferred pieces onto the field.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|John Law||ILB||6'0, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||50.5||7.3%||2||1||3||0||1||1|
|Kennan Gilchrist||OLB||6'2, 200||So.||2 stars (5.2)||12||43.5||6.3%||4.5||0||0||1||2||0|
|Brandon McGowan||ILB||6'2, 231||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||9||31.5||4.6%||2||0||0||2||0||1|
|Rashaad Townes||OLB||6'2, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||7||20.0||2.9%||2||0||0||1||0||0|
|Toronto Thomas||ILB||6'0, 220||So.||N/A||12||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Denzel Ward||ILB||5'11, 230||Jr.||N/A||8||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|George Vinson||ILB||6'0, 205||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Lee Wright||OLB||5'11, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Okon Godwin||LB||6'2, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. Law and Gilchrist held their own
When you're operating from a new defensive scheme, you're often forced to go young. And while the linebacking corps was reasonably experienced overall -- seniors Karl Anderson (the leading tackler and a strong pass defender), Michael Frazier and Patrick Blalock among the top five tacklers in the unit -- freshmen John Law and Kennan Gilchrist commanded quite a bit of playing time as well. Like Frazier and Blalock, Gilchrist was quite undersized for an attacking OLB, but he still logged 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He's a potential playmaker, though it's at least a little bit of a concern to lose Anderson.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Joel Ross||CB||5'10, 188||Sr.||N/A||12||46.5||6.7%||0.5||0||0||3||1||0|
|Doug Middleton||SS||6'0, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||38.0||5.5%||2.5||0||2||1||2||0|
|Kevin Walton||SS||6'0, 190||Jr.||N/A||12||37.0||5.3%||1||0||1||1||0||0|
|Dante Blackmon||CB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||11||13.0||1.9%||0.5||0||0||2||0||0|
|Aaron Krah||CB||5'11, 175||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||11||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Anthony Covington||DB||5'10, 195||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jordan Ford||DB||6'2, 185||Jr.||N/A|
|Jordan Noll||DB||6'3, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Bentlee Critcher||6'1, 175||So.||51||45.9||5||11||15||51.0%|
|Zach Matics||6'2, 186||Jr.||1||44.0||0||0||0||0.0%|
|Zach Matics||6'2, 186||Jr||55||61.8||21||38.2%|
|Bobo Beathard||KR||5'10, 191||Jr.||7||22.1||0|
Appalachian State brings both a fine history and some fantastic names to the FBS ranks. In addition to Toronto Thomas at linebacker, Alanmichael Harkness and Olawale Dada at defensive end, and Simms McElfresh and Bobo Beathard at receiver, they return Bentlee Critcher at punter.
Critcher's not only a name -- he's also a hell of a punter, combining a strong leg (46-yard average) with solid placement (15 of 51 punts downed inside the 20). He and Zach Matics give ASU a decent special teams unit, even if there are question marks in the return game and at place-kicker, where steady Drew Stewart departs.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|9/20||at Southern Miss||110|
|TBA||at Arkansas State||84|
|TBA||at Georgia Southern||N/A|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||N/A|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||N/A|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||17 (9, 8)|
9. 17 starters = nearly guaranteed improvement
When we talk about returning starter data, the middle doesn't mean much. From about 11 returning starters to 16 returning starters, the projected improvement or regression is minimal. But if you get to 17 or 18, you're all but guaranteed to improve, perhaps significantly. This is good news for a team that celebrated its jump to FBS with its worst season in two decades. The other good news:
10. The Sun Belt isn't exactly murderous
The Sun Belt's lot in life improved in recent years thanks to some impressive hires and enhanced depth. But between program defection (North Texas, FAU, FIU, and MTSU left for Conference USA before 2013) and coaches getting hired away (Arkansas State has lost three in three years, WKU has lost two in two), the conference as a whole has taken a step backwards again. The top teams -- Louisiana-Lafayette and perhaps Arkansas State -- could still be interesting, and South Alabama is rapidly improving, but the bottom of the conference could be quite bad (something that wasn't helped by the addition of Idaho and New Mexico State).
Home games against Georgia State, Idaho, and UL-Monroe are all winnable, and trips to Georgia Southern and Troy are in no way out of reach. If ASU is indeed able to improve to even 2011-12 levels, the Mountaineers could match last season's win total.
Still, one has to wonder about this jump. At their peak, the Mountaineers outclassed most of their new conference. Now, they're starting over a bit. The money makes sense, but the timing might not.