The new usual suspects


The Appalachian Online

Matt Krombach

Often, when teams dominate a Division I NCAA conference, it is likely because that school has competed in that conference for several seasons. The Alabama Crimson Tide has been part of the SEC since 1932 and boasts 24 SEC titles to date. Ohio State shows much the same, having won 35 titles since joining the Big Ten in 1916.

But that’s not always the case.

Despite both schools’ successes at the FCS level, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have both taken the conference by storm since arriving to the Sun Belt last season.

Since 2004, 11 teams, including App State (2014) and Georgia Southern (2014), have made the jump to the FBS level of Division I. Almost half of those, including South Alabama (2012), Texas State (2012), and Georgia State(2013) are currently in the Sun Belt Conference.

In both of the Mountaineers appearances against Georgia State, they have had no problem putting up tremendous numbers, shutting them out 44-0 in 2014 and holding them to a field goal this season in a 37-3 win over the Panthers.

Georgia Southern dominated the same team 69-31 in 2014, and the two square off Saturday with bowl eligibility on the line for the Panthers.

The Panthers haven’t amassed a winning record since entering the Sun Belt with an 0-12 (0-7 conf.) record in 2013, 1-11(0-8 conf.) in 2014 and a 5-6 (4-3 conf.) record on the season currently, showing just how different the experience in jumping to FBS Division I can be.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have history dating back to 1932. Recently, however, both teams both have mirrored each other with similar identities. Good players are of course the foundation, but the structure in which both teams are able to run the ball is the driving force.

“I think both of us have done a couple of things. Number one, we’ve been able to run the football and when you do that you can control the game and we both play good defense,” head coach Scott Satterfield said. “That’s been a formula for success for many, many years — running the football and playing good defense.”

Last season, Georgia Southern had the edge out of the gate as they went 3-2 in their first five games, finished 9-3 on the season and 8-0 in the Sun Belt. Appalachian State didn’t manage a winning record until their 11th game with a win over Louisiana-Lafayette in their fifth-straight win. The Mountaineers lost five of their first six, but finished their season on a six game winning streak to finish 7-5 on the season and 6-2 record in the Sun Belt.

“When we first got here last year there were a lot of young guys starting off and we didn’t really know our identity,” defensive end Ronald Blair said. “Halfway through last season we pretty much found our identity as a ‘grind-and-punch’ kind of defense and an offense that likes to run the ball and a defense that likes to run to the ball and tackle. I feel like our communication has matured the most and helped us be successful.”

The Mountaineers trounced their way to the end of their first season of Sun Belt play, winning six straight games by an average score of 41-20. Despite their hot streak to end the season, the team still had a summer ahead of them dedicated to coming out stronger, in hopes of getting to their first bowl game and potentially winning their first Sun Belt Championship.

“Our weight program had to gain some more weight and get faster because obviously it’s a different animal at this level than FCS,” quarterback Taylor Lamb said. “That’s just the main thing. We stuck with our game plan and put some wrinkles in here and there for our offense and defense to be successful at this level.”

This season, until these two teams matched up against each other, they only had one loss, respectively. App State just couldn’t compete for a full four quarters in a week two matchup against the Clemson Tigers, who now sit at No.1 atop the College Football Playoff poll. The Eagles fell 44-0 to the other Mountaineers of West Virginia.

Both the Mountaineers and Eagles have averaged 37 points per game in 11 games. In their nine wins, Appalachian State outscored their opponents by 27, while Georgia Southern outscored opponents by 28 in their eight wins.

Running back Marcus Cox has been the catalyst for the Mountaineers since he stepped on the field as a freshman in 2013. He notched his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season in the Mountaineers 28-7 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.

However, Georgia Southern’s option run offense has been absolutely bewildering over the last two seasons. Running back Matt Brieda and quarterback Kevin Ellison rushed for over 1,000 yards respectively helping the Eagles post a Sun Belt best 4,573 total rushing yards in 2014-15, also good for second in the nation. This year, the Eagles sit atop the NCAA rankings, having rushed for 4,132 yards, surpassing the 4,000-yard mark once again.

“They’ve got a lot of athletes on their offense,” Blair said. “Between their quarterback and running back, Ellison and Brieda, that’s an incredible duo and it’s hard to stop them.”

As of this moment, both teams have shown how identical they are to one another, like fraternal twins. Some differences on the interior, but visibly alike. Both teams are 6-1 in the Sun Belt and are tied for second behind Arkansas State, who Georgia Southern does not face this season.

Despite having a dominating debut in the Sun Belt, in which his team went 8-0 in conference and was crowned conference champion, Georgia Southern’s head coach Willie Fritz didn’t find the feat all that impressive.

“I was at [an FCS] program before I came to Georgia Southern and I always felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the high level [FCS] schools and most of Division I schools, and you talk about us and App that are traditionally two of the best one [FCS] football teams making the vault,” Fritz said.

Fritz said he believes big wins at the FCS level, combined with a good coaching staff, assured the team they’d be successful when they decided to make the move to the FBS.

“I think its just been the fact that we have good players and good coaches we have a history with beating Florida and Appalachian has a history of beating Michigan and I think it gives confidence that you can play at the next level and be successful,” Fritz said.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern proved this season that they are among the highest caliber teams in the Sun Belt Conference and are some of the most rapidly ascending teams in the current NCAA landscape.

Story by: Matt Krombach, Sports Reporter