Appalachian State Could Be A Group of Five Heavyweight

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Just two years removed from the Football Championship Subdivision, which Appalachian State dominated for the second half of the 2000s, the Mountaineers treated the Sun Belt similarly.

Last season’s Sun Belt Conference championship was no aberration. While Appalachian State missed opportunities to score one of the biggest wins in program history — on the nine-year anniversary of its signature victory — the Mountaineers showed that this year’s Sun Belt has a high hill to climb.

In my Six-Pack preview, I downplayed Appalachian State’s chances based on the disparity in line size — in particular, the Mountaineers’ offensive front five matching up with the ballyhooed Tennessee defensive line. App State didn’t merely hold its own against the Volunteers, but at times looked physically dominant.

More impressive, however, was the play of the Mountaineer defensive front. Tennessee’s inability to get anything going offensively was no fluke, nor a byproduct of offseason rust.

That was a good, old-fashioned whipping. Appalachian State’s defense treated an SEC offense like it used to opponents in the SoCon, getting to Josh Dobbs for two sacks — one by Antonious Sims and the other by Caleb Fuller — and limiting the Vols to just 127 yards rushing.

That’s five yards fewer than the Mountaineers’ 2015 per-game yield, which was good enough to rank 27th nationally. Considering Appalachian State will not see any other backfields with a running back combination like Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, say nothing of adding a dual-threat quarterback like Dobbs, this Mountaineer defense could be in line to finish 2016 near the top nationally in rush defense.

Coming off last year’s 11-win finish, if Appalachian State has indeed made further strides, it’s worth considering the possibility of the Mountaineers finishing 2016 in the conversation for another top distinction: the New Year’s Six Bowl bid, designated for the top Group of Five team.

Yes, yes, I realize it’s Sept. 1 (Sept. 2 for those of you in the Eastern time zone), and talk of a Cotton Bowl four months and 11 games away is premature. Were it any more premature, I’d probably have to speak with a physician.

But if Tennessee regroups to meet expectations and win the SEC East, Thursday’s near-miss looks awfully impressive. The Mountaineers get another opportunity to knock off a Power Five opponent in two weeks when they face Miami, and they do so with the unlikely benefit of home-field advantage.

Add a road trip against an Akron squad that should be in the mix in the MAC East race, and Appalachian State could put together a nonconference resume that compensates for the disadvantages of the Sun Belt slate.

And there are disadvantages.

The Sun Belt routinely ranks at the bottom of the FBS conference power rankings. If it ascends to ninth this season, it’s only because Conference USA really struggles. Perhaps by some twist of fate, the MAC takes a massive step backward. Eighth is the Sun Belt’s absolute best-case scenario for overall league power ranking.

Meanwhile, every other Group of Five conference plays a league championship game. That denied opportunity for a 12th win, should Appalachian State get through the regular season unscathed, could be a back-breaker when weighing resumes against the American or Mountain West.

Perhaps a New Year’s Six bid is a pipe dream — an especially unrealistic pipe dream. Attainable or not, Appalachian State proved itself capable of playing with upper echelon Thursday in Knoxville. And it won’t be another nine years before we’re talking about the Mountaineers in a similar situation.

Probably more like two weeks.