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Appalachian State’s a team nobody would want, if football had March Madness

The Mountaineers have a winning identity, an easy Sun Belt schedule, and a countdown until they knock off another Power 5 team.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published February 21 and has since been updated.

Part of the draw of March Madness is the formulaic chaos. You know you're going to get buzzer beaters and rushed courts in the mid-major conference tournaments. You know you're going to get a steady stream of upsets, from the Ohio Valley Conference tournament straight on through the Sweet Sixteen. It is what you get when you base your championship on not only a single-elimination tournament, but a lot of them.

One more reliable part: a mid-major with a record like 26-6 drawing a No. 12 seed or so, playing within itself, and outclassing a power conference team with more size and athleticism.

The examples are frequent: Yale over Baylor and Little Rock over Purdue in 2016, Harvard over Cincinnati and North Dakota State over Oklahoma in 2014, etc. There’s one almost every year, and when there isn’t, there are two the next year.

The prototypical 12-over-5 upset reminds us of the importance of knowing what you are and how you plan on winning games.

For the last two years, Appalachian State has played like a 12-seed. The Mountaineers went a combined 21-5 in 2015-16, ranking 40th in S&P+ both years. They have stayed within themselves, leaned on a physical running game, defended the run, and defined most games before opponents could do the same.

The effects have been awfully impressive. The Mountaineers let two games get away — a 41-10 loss to national runner-up Clemson in 2015, a 45-10 loss to Miami last year — but nearly beat Tennessee to start 2016. Most importantly, they have handled business in their weight class. They are 20-2 against fellow Group of 5 teams, losing only a 40-27 decision against a smoking-hot Arkansas State in 2015 and 28-24 to a Troy that nearly beat Clemson.

They're still looking to collect their first power-conference scalp since moving to FBS, but it's only a matter of time. They get shots at Georgia and Wake Forest in 2017, Penn State in 2018, and North Carolina in 2019. Someone's going down at some point.

It's incredible to step back and realize how smoothly Appalachian State has acclimated to a higher weight class. It's easy to skip straight from "The Mountaineers were the class of FCS in the mid-2000s" to "They might be the Sun Belt's surest thing" and ignore what came in between, but this program briefly lost its way.

Following the title run of 2007, the Mountaineers continued to win under legendary Jerry Moore but lost their edge. They went from averaging 13 wins to 11 and fell in earlier rounds of the FCS playoffs to emerging powers like Richmond, Montana, and Villanova. Then, in 2011-12, they went just 8-4 each year.

Moore was eased toward retirement and replaced by a former quarterback of his, Scott Satterfield. And Satterfield initially bombed. The Mountaineers, having already committed to the FBS jump, went 4-8 in 2013, then began FBS life with a 1-5 record, suffering losses to a bad Southern Miss team and FCS' Liberty.

And then, poof. App State was App State again.

The Mountaineers have won 27 of 32. They've done it by being themselves, and looking at what they return this fall — quarterback Taylor Lamb, running back Jalin Moore, leading receiver Shaedon Meadors, two all-conference offensive linemen, six defensive starers (including their TFLs leader and best ball defenders) — there's no reason to think much will change.

App State has questionable depth in certain areas (offensive line, nose tackle, linebacker), which means a targeted run of injuries could be costly. But barring an extended appearance by the injury bug, this should again be at least a top-70 team. And we’ve already gotten to the point where “top 70” feels underwhelming.

Power conference 5-seeds should be happy there isn't a 68-team college football tournament. The Mountaineers would take them down.


2016 in review

2016 Appalachian State statistical profile.

App State was by any definition an awesome Sun Belt team in 2016, but the Mountaineers nearly defined the season on opening day. Taking on preseason No. 9 Tennessee in Knoxville, they bolted to a 13-3 lead and held onto it deep into the second half. The Vols needed a missed field goal by Michael Rubino (who also missed a PAT) to force overtime, then needed to recover one of their own fumbles in the end zone to escape with a 20-13 win.

After a dominant win over what turned out to be a strong Old Dominion and a disappointing blowout loss to Miami, the Mountaineers began to grind. They took their time disposing of teams like Akron, Georgia State, and UL-Lafayette. They held a little in reserve for blowouts of a nine-win Idaho and FCS-to-FBS cohort Georgia Southern.

The only blemish the rest of the way was a stumble against Troy. App State fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter but took a 24-21 lead with about three minutes left. However, the defense suffered a rare glitch. A 43-yard bomb set up an 11-yard Jordan Chunn touchdown, and the Mountaineers’ response stalled at the Troy 38.

Still, App State finished with a 31-28 Camellia Bowl win over a strong Toledo, reaching 10 wins for the second straight year.

Per S&P+, the Mountaineers hit at least the 70th percentile seven times, and their defense hit at least the 68th percentile nine times. This was a balanced, pragmatic, and dangerous-as-hell team, the Kansas State of the mid-major ranks.


Offense

Run for decent yards on first down, avoid passing downs and negative plays, gash away with runs and short passes, win. That's been the recipe, and judging by the win total, it's worked.

Satterfield and co-coordinators Shawn Clark and Frank Ponce have a conservative system that meshes well with the conservative defense it complements.

Appalachian State Offense Radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The Mountaineers were among the most run-heavy non-option teams in 2016, rushing 66 percent of the time on standard downs (27th in FBS) and 47 percent on passing downs (11th). They kept this up even when star running back Marcus Cox was out for four games, and Moore assured that the success continued.

Moore and Cox combined to rush 30.5 times per game for an average of 186.3 yards, and not including sacks, longtime starting quarterback Lamb threw in six more carries each game for about 49 more yards. Even some of the passes were quick and short — slot receivers averaged about 4.5 catches per game and 9 yards per catch.

App State was predictable and effective, but avoiding passing downs was a must. On second-and-long, the Mountaineers would run to set up third-and-manageable. If it didn't work, they would run the ball on third-and-long to set up a more manageable punt. They avoided risk and leaned on efficiency, and while that caught up to them against Tennessee, it rarely backfired the rest of the way.

Appalachian State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Cox is gone, but with Lamb and Moore still lined up, one imagines not much will change. Moore wasn't quite as efficient as Cox but was equally explosive, and he not only found an extra gear when Cox was out but maintained it upon Cox's return.

After averaging 3.4 yards per carry through three games, Moore averaged 6.8 per carry over the final nine games of the regular season. He rushed for 257 yards against Akron and posted eight games of 100 yards or more.

Of course, he had quite the seasoned line in front of him. App State ranked a decent 49th in Adj. Line Yards, 15th in opportunity rate, and 48th in stuff rate. The line stats were worse than the overall rushing stats (28th in Rushing S&P+), suggesting the backs were responsible for quite a bit of the success. But one what might happen without all-conference center Parker Collins and guard Jamie Collmar lined up on the interior or if there's an injury up front? Four players with starting experience return, but behind them is a wave of freshmen and redshirt freshmen. The starting five will probably hold its own, but with a couple of wobbly knees or ankles, App State could be starting first-year guys. [Update: And it added 20-game Kent State starter Brock Macaulay, eligible immediately.]

That would put more on Lamb’s shoulders.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo
Taylor Lamb
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Over three years as App State quarterback, Lamb has trademarked the Game Manager role. He is not asked to throw much on third-and-long, and when he does, things don’t turn out well (career passer rating on third-and-10 or longer: 91.7). But he makes smart decisions, he gets the ball out quickly, he lowers his shoulders for tough yards when he needs to, and he keeps the plane in the air.

Lamb gets some key weapons back, too. Shaedon Meadors was by far App State's No. 1 target in 2016, with nearly double the targets and catches of the No. 2 target and nearly triple the yards. He and fellow seniors Ike Lewis and Zy Letman will provide the big-play threat in play action. (Watch out for three-star sophomore Mock Adams, as well.)

Watch out for Darrynton Evans in the slot, however. Two of last year's top three slot receivers are gone (junior Deltron Hopkins is back), but Evans was recruited as an "athlete," and after spending most of 2016 as a backup running back and kick returner, he's taking reps at receiver this spring. Meanwhile, another athlete — three-star freshman Malik Williams, a high school quarterback and maybe the jewel of the 2017 class — could carve out an interesting role. Whatever it takes to peel a defender or two out of the box. [Update: Joining in 2018 will be WR Corey Sutton, the player Bill Snyder briefly blocked from a transfer out of Kansas State.]


Defense

Tennessee's Josh Dobbs finished the season with a 150.6 passer rating; he managed a 115.3 against App State. ODU's David Washington had a 156.6 for the season and a 78.7 against the Mountaineers. Georgia State's Conner Manning: 123.1 and 54.2, respectively.

Miami's Brad Kaaya and Toledo's Logan Woodside managed to carve out solid performances against this defense, but they were exceptions. The Mountaineers were tremendous against the pass, ranking 11th in Passing S&P+ with a 57 percent completion rate against and 12 touchdowns to 20 interceptions.

This was a problem for opponents because a) they were usually playing from behind against App State, and b) they couldn't really run either. The Mountaineers ranked 42nd in Rushing S&P+, and while big plays were an issue, they ranked 13th in rushing success rate allowed and ninth in power success rate.

Appalachian State defense radar

Aside from needing to make a few more stuffs against the run, the App State defense was incredibly well rounded.

A lack of injury helped. Coordinator Nate Woody was able to get away with a rather tight rotation -- only five linemen made more than 7.5 tackles, only four linebackers made more than 14, and only six defensive backs made more than 11. In all, 17 players averaged at least one tackle per game, and those 17 combined to miss six games.

That probably won't happen again. And depending on what units get hit, regression to the injury mean could have an impact.

Georgia State v Appalachian State
Devan Stringer & A.J. Howard
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

App State appears to be fine at defensive end, where Tee Sims and Caleb Fuller combined for 17.5 tackles for loss (a large total for ends in a 3-4 system), and junior Okon Godwin made a pair of TFLs in reserve time. Plus, youngsters like redshirt freshman Matthew McClurg and freshman Jermaine McDaniel Jr. came well-regarded.

Outside linebacker seems suitably stocked, too. Leader Kennan Gilchrist is gone, but seniors Devan Stringer and Rashaad Townes bring experience to the table, and three-star sophomore Akeem Davis is ready for a star turn. Safety might be fine, too -- senior A.J. Howard, junior Josh Thomas, and sophomore Desmond Franklin are solid.

Cornerback could be a strength. Clifton Duck was one of the best freshman corners in the country last year. While his dance partner, Mondo Williams, is gone, and only Tae Hayes and Brandon Pinckney bring experience to the table, there’s a good chance the Mountaineers get Latrell Gibbs back. Gibbs had a monstrous 19 passes defensed in 2015 but missed 2016 with academic ineligibility. [Update: Gibbs transferred out.]

Injuries elsewhere could cause problems, though. At inside linebacker, two of the top three are gone, leaving Eric Boggs and less proven pieces. Most worrisome, perhaps: Two of last year's top three tackles are gone. Junior Myquon Stout lives up to his name, but behind him will be either freshmen or converted ends.

NCAA Football: Miami at Appalachian State
Clifton Duck
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

If you noticed freshman Rubino last year, it was while he was missing two kicks during the Tennessee game. Upon return from Knoxville, though, he was mostly fine. He missed only the one PAT and was perfect on field goals inside of 40 yards.

"Mostly fine" describes the unit as a whole, actually. App State ranked 75th in Special Teams S&P+ -- neither good nor bad. Punter Bentlee Critcher and punt returner Jaquil Capel are gone, but I figure this unit will be about the same in 2017.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Georgia 20 -14.2 21%
9-Sep Savannah State NR 48.5 100%
23-Sep Wake Forest 64 2.8 56%
28-Oct at Massachusetts 111 11.0 74%
TBA Coastal Carolina 114 17.7 85%
TBA Georgia Southern 98 14.1 79%
TBA New Mexico State 124 21.1 89%
TBA UL-Lafayette 112 17.2 84%
TBA at Georgia State 113 11.6 75%
TBA at Idaho 119 13.1 78%
TBA at Texas State 129 21.5 89%
TBA at UL-Monroe 121 14.5 80%
Projected S&P+ Rk 62
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 69 / 44
Projected wins 9.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.8 (40)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 112 / 107
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / -1.7
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 76% (80%, 72%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (0.6)

I do worry about injury. App State had less of it than most teams last year, and a change could mean relying on freshmen at running back, offensive line, defensive tackle, or cornerback. It's hard to overcome that.

Of course, if anybody could, it would probably be the ridiculously steady Mountaineers. Satterfield has put together a unified squad that combines a high ceiling with a really high floor.

Perhaps best of all, App State misses both Arkansas State and Troy on the conference schedule. (Well, that's "best of all" for the Mountaineers, but not necessarily for football fans.) And none of their four conference road opponents projects better than 113th in S&P+. (I assume Idaho will be better than the projected 119th, but App State is still an obvious favorite there.)

That means, in theory, a really high win total. Say, 10 or 11. Just like last year and the year before.


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