Before joining the Sun Belt conference and the FBS for the 2014 season, Appalachian State made a name for itself as a national power in the FCS and as that team that upset Michigan in 2007. Despite recent success under head coach Scott Satterfield, including back-to-back league titles, the Mountaineers haven’t upset a Power Five opponent since bumping themselves up a level.
That doesn’t mean that this team can’t give Penn State trouble, though. Appalachian State’s deep stable of tailbacks gives it a chance to move the ball on Penn State’s rebuilt front seven, and a loaded secondary might make it tough for Trace McSorley to find his top targets. There’s a reason the Nittany Lions are favored by more than 20 points, though. James Franklin’s squad is talented enough to make a serious run at the Big Ten crown, so even an upper-level Sun Belt team like the Mountaineers shouldn’t be able to keep the game close for all four quarters.
On the other hand, strange things happen in college football all the time. To get a closer look at Penn State’s Week 1 opponent, we spoke with Aikman Chambers from SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty. Thanks to Aikman for taking the time to answer our questions!
Black Shoe Diaries: Taylor Lamb was a very efficient quarterback last year, completing over 60 percent of his passes and throwing more than four times more touchdowns than interceptions. How different will the offense look with Zac Thomas under center? What sort of quarterback is he expected to be?
Underdog Dynasty: Zac Thomas is going to be a quarterback to watch this year in the Sun Belt. He is a kid who head coach Scott Satterfield and company have full confidence in, and Zac himself has confidence in his ability to step up and lead this program. I don’t think the offense will be that much different because Thomas has a very similar style to Lamb. He can pass and use his feet, and with a strong run game I expect much of the same offense as in years past with Taylor.
BSD: Last year’s top receiving target Ike Lewis has graduated, but Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, and Malik Williams performed very well as freshman. How big of a leap do you expect the wide receiver trio to make as sophomores?
UD: Hennigan became a household name as a freshman and he will lead the group going into 2018. Virgil is my pick for this group as the breakout guy because he flashed his speed and playmaking ability in 2017 and I believe he could put a very strong 2018 campaign together. A name to watch is Kansas State transfer Corey Sutton. He sat out in 2017 and at 6’3”, 200 pounds a lot of people are curious to see what a Power Five recruit will bring to Boone. Also, the true speedster to keep an eye on is Darrynton Evans, who missed 2017 due to injury.
BSD: With its top three tailbacks all returning, will Appalachian State lean even more heavily on the run this season? Will the rushing attack be affected by the loss of two all-conference performers on the right side of the offensive line?
UD: Moore is the heartbeat in 2018 for this App State offense. He battled through an injury-filled 2017 from Week 1 on and I fully think he is primed for a good senior season. Marcus Williams is a really good number two back and can spell Moore with no issue. The right side of the offensive line is a curious spot to watch they are as many as four kids to watch for the two right-side spots. I believe App will stick to its run-first approach to ease Zac Thomas into the starting job.
BSD: Defensive coordinator Nate Woody has moved on to Georgia Tech. How big of an impact do you think this will have on a unit that shut out Toledo in its bowl game last season? Will the secondary be just as impressive in 2018 as it was down the stretch in 2017?
UD: Woody is a tough coach to lose because he was a great defensive mind. I think at first there will be growing pains, but Bryan Brown, who is the new defensive coordinator, was the secondary coach the past few years, so expect the unit led by Clifton Duck to be fine. I worry most with the linebackers because we lost so much there mostly with Eric Boggs, but Anthony Flory will be the leader of the crew now. Also Myquon Stout lives up to his last name and is our top defensive tackle by far.
BSD: Three of the Mountaineers’ top four tacklers have moved on. How does new defensive coordinator Bryan Brown go about replacing that production? Is returning lineback Anthony Flory set up to have a monster season?
UD: Much like I said with the previous question, Flory will be the leader of the crew. Flory could be a dark horse for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year if things go right. He has good quickness and is a really strong hitter and loves to make the big plays. The new names to watch will be Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr as they will be the two guys with Flory to anchor the linebacker unit.
BSD: Satterfield has done a tremendous job guiding Appalachian State to success in the FBS. Do you see him sticking around if the team wins another Sun Belt title this year?
UD: My head tells me that Scott will stay in Boone and continue to build App into a nationally talked about Group of Five school. But my heart says its just a matter of time before the right Power Five school who needs a new culture and a restart comes calling with a nice checkbook and he will advance his career. My guess is by 2020 we will know for sure.
BSD: The Mountaineers are three-touchdown underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for them?
UD: Well, in my preseason preview my prediction score was 45-17 Penn State and it could very well be bigger. I know with playing App State we always carry the mantra of 2007 but that is more media pump than anything. I feel Penn State may pick apart our new-look defense and that you will just have too many athletes for us to deal with along with quarterback Trace McSorley. All I can hope for is some good things out of Zac Thomas and a few defensive plays would be positive signs in this game for App, but hey every App fan would love to dub Happy Valley “Appy Valley!” But you have to think with common sense, hence my 45-17 prediction.
Thanks again to Aikman Chambers for giving us insight into the Appalachian State program. For more on the Mountaineers and other Group of Five schools, be sure to follow Underdog Dynasty all season long!