The Sun Belt Conference revealed its preseason poll Friday, and defending champion Georgia Southern edged perennial contender Louisiana-Lafayette for top billing. No surprise there, but the lack of first-place votes for Appalachian State?
— Sun Belt Conference (@SunBelt) July 17, 2015
The Mountaineers are tabbed fourth behind Georgia Southern, ULL and Arkansas State, which enters its second season under head coach Blake Anderson. Quick sidenote: This marks the first season the RedWolves have had the same head coach from the previous campaign since 2010, the last of Steve Roberts’ nine years at the helm. Jeff Greenberg has an outstanding feature on Anderson and his Arkansas State staff at Scout. Not coincidentally, it makes mention of how outsiders like making mention of Arkansas State’s coaching carousel — but I digress.
Back to the topic at hand, which is Appalachian State. The standard-bearer of the FCS throughout the mid-2000s, the Mountaineers’ move to the Sun Belt last season failed to generate as much buzz as fellow Southern Conference refugee Georgia Southern. And, certainly, it’s easy to be overshadowed when your counterpart wins the conference title, nearly upsets the eventual Orange Bowl champion and finishes a few plays away from an 11-1 FBS debut.
But Appalachian State’s transition went smoothly, and serves as a springboard into a potentially historic second season in the Sun Belt. As coincidence would have it, the opponent that launched Appalachian State into national consciousness — Michigan — helped push the Mountaineers out of the place. Last year’s Week 1 rematch of the landmark 2007 encounter was a dud, ending in a 52-14 Wolverine win that was one of the rare highlights of Brady Hoke’s swan song in Ann Arbor.
From there, Appalachian State lost to Sun Belt counterparts Georgia Southern and South Alabama in three-touchdown routs, and dropped a one-point decision to a Southern Miss team that was the nadir of college football in recent years. ASU even lost an overtime game to Liberty of the FCS.
Save a thrashing of non-scholarship Campbell in Week 2, Appalachian State was winless nearly two months into FBS membership, and Scott Satterfield was 5-13 in a season-and-a-half after replacing Mountaineer coaching legend Jerry Moore.
Then, unexpectedly and out of the public eye, it just started clicking. Appalachian State rolled over Troy for its first-ever Sun Belt win, easily handled Georgia State, and edged Louisiana-Monroe before scoring a pair of milestone wins. The Mountaineers beat Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette in consecutive weeks, both on the road and both teams they now look up at in the Sun Belt media poll.
Appalachian State heads into 2015 with a six-game win streak after taking care of Idaho in last season’s finale. While previous year’s results can sometimes too easily obfuscate preseason projections, the second half of 2014 factors prominently into Appalachian State’s 2015 outlook. That’s because Satterfield returns 20 starters, 10 on each of the side, for the most experienced starting lineup in all of college football.
That has to account for something, and it also explains the midseason transformation.
Marcus Cox, a breakthrough performer and key to Appalachian State’s wins over Arkansas State and ULL, was a sophomore. He’s coming off a year with more than 1,400 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns.
Quarterback Taylor Lamb, a freshman in 2014, threw eight of his 17 touchdowns and just three of his nine interceptions in the final month. Leading tackler John Law was a sophomore. And, of 14 Mountaineers who caught passes in 2014, just one was a senior.
Appalachian State is a team rich in experience and rolling with positive momentum. It draws each of the three teams projected to finish ahead of it in the Sun Belt at Kidd Brewer Stadium. Maybe the Mountaineers shouldn’t be the favorites in the Sun Belt, but not a single first place vote?
I suspect the Sun Belt will have to eat crow come November.