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App State has won 27 of its last 30 Sun Belt games. Now for another kind of transition

Can Scott Satterfield keep winning despite changes at quarterback and defensive coordinator?

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo Robert McDuffle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s really hard to nail the timing of a jump from FCS to FBS. Western Kentucky couldn’t. UMass couldn’t. Both went from FCS titles to lesser seasons even before they reached FBS.

Appalachian State appeared to be stumbling at exactly the wrong time, too. The preeminent FCS program in the 2000s, the Mountaineers established unfathomable success under Jerry Moore. They won three consecutive national titles from 2005-07, then finished in the top 10 for the next four seasons, reaching a semifinal and two quarterfinals.

Again, just as the school considered making the leap, the waters got choppier. App State went 8-4 in both 2011 and 2012, and Moore was pushed into retirement. Scott Satterfield took over but went 4-8 in the Mountaineers’ final FCS season.

The delay is often what kills you. When you elect to leap, it’s often because of an extraordinary run of success. Because they are extraordinary, they are hard to maintain. And since it takes a few years to go from the feasibility study to the decision to the move itself, you’ve got time to regress. In App State’s case, Moore’s age probably didn’t help — he turned 73 in 2012.

Sure enough, the Mountaineers’ FBS residence began as feared. In their first FBS contest, a symbolic meeting with Michigan (whom they famously upset in 2007), they lost by 38. And Michigan wasn’t even that good. Appalachian State lost to Southern Miss and fellow FBS newbies Georgia Southern and South Alabama, then got upset by Liberty for good measure. The team was 1-5, and both Satterfield’s tenure (he was 5-14 to that point) and the FBS jump were looking like really bad ideas.

Since the moment the Liberty game ended, App State is 36-9, 27-3 against Sun Belt foes. They won their last six games in 2014 and never looked back. They hit a funk this past October, then responded by playing at such a high level that they surged into the S&P+ top 20.

Appalachian State vs. Vegas

Almost literally overnight, Appalachian State became the class of the Sun Belt. It was the most impressive FCS-to-FBS jump since Marshall’s. And now comes the next series of tests.

Winning presents its own set of challenges. Even if you manage to keep your head coach — always a challenge in the Sun Belt — he might end up losing key assistants. Add that to the inevitable loss of key stars, and you’ve got plenty of opportunity to fall off of your pace a bit.

Satterfield remains in Boone, a victory in and of itself. But he has to replace four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb, and perhaps more importantly, he has to replace ace defensive coordinator Nate Woody, who’s now at Georgia Tech. He promoted longtime cornerbacks coach Bryan Brown to the DC job, and everything might continue apace.

It’s hard to worry too much, though. Obvious QB questions aside, the Mountaineers return a ton elsewhere on the depth chart. Star running back Jalin Moore is back, and a receiving corps that had to lean heavily on freshmen last year (and survived doing so) now gets to lean on sophomores. All-conference left tackle Victor Johnson is back, and while there are a few pieces to replace in the defensive front seven, the secondary is loaded.

There’s more turnover here than what fellow SBC heavyweights Troy and Arkansas State are dealing with, so maybe the Mountaineers merely go 6-2 or so in conference this year. But that’s still a long leap from 5-14.

Offense

App State offensive radar

With Lamb behind center, Appalachian State formed a reliable identity. The Mountaineers were going to run first and run second, and in the few instances per game in which Lamb was asked to make a play, he’d do so. He was a terrific scrambler, and he completed between 60 and 61 percent of his passes each year as a starter.

The formula obviously worked. But in 2017, we saw both a better and more volatile version of the App State attack. Volatility tends to be a product of massive turnover in the receiving corps.

Leading 2016 receiver Shaedon Meadors missed the season with injury, and slot receiver Deltron Hopkins transferred, meaning Lamb was without each of his top four targets. Freshmen Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, and Malik Williams combined for nearly 40 percent of Lamb’s targets and finished with 84 catches, 1,121 yards, and 10 scores.

It took a while to get rolling, though. In App State’s first four games against FBS opponents in 2017, Lamb’s passer rating was just 108.7, his completion rate just 56 percent.

It picked up from there. Senior Ike Lewis had a series of big games, and Virgil went off for five catches and 186 yards against Coastal Carolina. After averaging 23 points through the first five FBS games, the Mountaineers averaged 38 over the last seven. The defense suffered some leaks, allowing 111 points to Coastal, UMass, and ULM (the latter two of which both pulled tight upsets), but both units found an extra gear in November.

Lewis and Lamb are gone, though. The receiving corps has obvious potential, especially when factoring in tight end Collin Reed, Kansas State transfer Corey Sutton, and a foursome of three-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen.

The combination of Moore and sophomore backups Marcus Williams Jr. and Daetrich Harrington (combined: 156 caries for 796 yards last year) gives the Mountaineers lovely depth in the skill positions. Moore logged 1,200 combined rushing and receiving yards despite missing two games, and Williams had 255 rushing yards in the two games Moore missed. Lots of potential here.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo
Jalin Moore
Robert McDuffle-USA TODAY Sports

You still need a QB, though, and Zac Thomas gets first crack at the job. The sophomore led a garbage-time field goal drive against Georgia last year, but that’s about the extent of his experience. He appears to be pretty mobile, and co-coordinators Shawn Clark and Frank Ponce don’t appear to be changing much of the system.

If Thomas can’t cut it, there are other options. Sophomore Jacob Huesman and redshirt freshman Peyton Derrick have good size, and incoming three-star freshman Stephon Brown, at 6’5, 220, has great size. But the best-case scenario is probably that the third-year Thomas figures things out.

Defense

App State defensive radar

Nate Woody’s last game was maybe his most impressive. Part of the reason for App State’s surge all the way to No. 18 in S&P+ is that the Mountaineers utterly destroyed an awesome Toledo team, 34-0, in the Camellia Bowl. That one game led to a jump of 17 spots in the overall rankings.

Scoring 34 points on Toledo was impressive enough, but shutting out an offense that ranked No. 20 in Off. S&P+? Goodness.

During the immaculate four-game winning streak to end the season, App State allowed just 30 total points and 4.4 yards per play.

Under Satterfield and Woody, App State established itself as the most reliable defense in the conference. Like Troy and Arkansas State, the Mountaineers played with a large rotation — Satterfield signs mostly high school prospects and tries as hard as possible to get them on the field early in their respective careers.

That could pay off handsomely this year. Both starting ends and three starting linebackers are gone, but the replacements have been tested.

At end, senior Okon Godwin and a foursome of sophomores (Chris Willis, Demetrius Taylor, Tommy Dawkins, and Elijah Diarrassouba) combined for 44.5 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss last year. At linebacker, a foursome of juniors (Akeem Davis-Gaither, Edward Davis, Jordan Fehr, and Noel Cook) combined for 64 tackles and 6.5 TFLs. All of this production came from backup roles.

Add a few of these guys to the mix with seniors Myquon Stout (nose tackle) and Anthony Flory (linebacker), and you’ve probably got enough production to avoid a major drop-off. It’s weird saying, “They lose five of seven starters up front ... eh, they’re probably fine,” but here we are.

If the front seven holds up, the secondary could be dynamite. The Mountaineers got torched by ULM’s Caleb Evans last year but shut down pretty much everyone else, including well-regarded Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside, who went 16-of-29 for 124 yards and three picks in the bowl.

Corners Tae Hayes and Clifton Duck combined for 7.5 TFLs, 10 interceptions, and 18 breakups; they are the most proven tandem in the conference — we don’t know if Bryan Brown will make a good coordinator, but we know he can coach the hell out of the cornerback position.

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

At safety, stalwart A.J. Howard is gone, but junior Desmond Franklin (2.5 TFLs, six passes defensed) returns, and top backups Austin Exford and Josh Thomas are seasoned.

Woody used his defensive backs aggressively. App State ranked No. 23 in defensive back havoc rate, and 40.3 percent of opponents’ incompletions were because of either an INT or breakup (No. 13). Three DBs took part in at least two run stuffs each, and Franklin took part in six of them. If Brown proves worthy of his promotion, this should again be a top-40 defense.

Special Teams

Over the last two years, App State has fallen from No. 22 to 75 to 99 in special teams S&P+. Last year’s tumble was due mostly to an extreme makeover — the punter was a freshman (Xavier Subotsch), kicking duties were shared by a freshman (Chandler Staton) and a sophomore (Michael Rubino), and the punter returner was a freshman (Thomas Hennigan).

Punting was an issue (the Mountaineers were No. 120 in punt efficiency), but otherwise the unit was merely mediocre instead of simply bad. That’s technically encouraging? Everybody’s back, but we’ll see if big improvement, or merely incremental improvement, is possible.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Penn State 8 -20.9 11%
8-Sep at Charlotte 126 14.5 80%
15-Sep Southern Miss 94 10.4 73%
22-Sep Gardner-Webb NR 43.8 99%
TBD Georgia State 113 15.5 81%
TBD UL-Lafayette 121 17.7 85%
TBD South Alabama 109 13.9 79%
TBD Troy 78 5.5 62%
TBD at Arkansas State 66 -2.1 45%
TBD at Coastal Carolina 118 11.5 75%
TBD at Georgia Southern 106 7.8 67%
TBD at Texas State 123 14.0 79%
Projected S&P+ Rk 63
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 88 / 43
Projected wins 8.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.5 (47)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 109 / 103
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 12 / 4.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (46%, 63%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.3 (-0.3)

Because of the built-in barriers to sustained success that mid-major teams tend to encounter, S&P+ projects App State to be merely a good Sun Belt team this year, not a top-20 team overall. The Mountaineers are projected 63rd, just ahead of Arkansas State (66th) and Troy (78th), and they therefore will have a chance at another conference title run.

Of the three, they’re the only team to play both of the other top teams. That alone limits their title odds. I like both Arkansas State and Troy more than S&P+ does, too, but the Mountaineers still have a chance both qualify for and win the first SBC title game.

Despite a few hitches in the approach, App State stuck the landing in jumping from FCS to FBS, and in keeping Satterfield for another year, the Mountaineers have another chance to further establish both a winning style: conservative, physical offense paired with defenders who come at you in waves. It will probably continue to work for as long as Satterfield is in town (and maybe beyond).

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