There are a few iconic moments in sports where you remember exactly where you were when you watched it happen watched it. The US National team frantically dogpiling Landon Donovan after his group winning 2010 World Cup goal, Tom Brady jumping up and down after Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl interception, Steph Curry’s shimmy after his 35 foot pull up in overtime against Oklahoma City, and when Appalachian State knocked off #5 Michigan in Ann Arbor all come to mind for yours truly.
A lot has happened to the Mountaineers since then. One thing that hasn’t happened, however, is that they haven’t played a football game against the Tar Heels. In fact, based on my research, the two schools have only played each other one time... in 1940. The United States hadn’t even entered World War II yet and that was the last time North Carolina played Appalachian State. The Tar Heels did win that game, so they’ll put their undefeated record against the Mountaineers on the line on September 21st.
Junior quarterback Zac Thomas put up good but not great passing numbers last season (21 touchdowns, 169.9 ypg.) I was shocked that his production was that low and his raw stats don’t match up at all with his tape. I actually had him tied for third as the best quarterback Carolina will face this season.
Though his overall productivity wasn’t great last season, Thomas’s red zone production was lethal. He ended the season with 10 rushing touchdowns, and seemingly all of those came off of RPO plays inside the twenty.
Mountaineers head coach Scott Satterfield took the job at Louisville, and former NC State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz is moving from Raleigh to Boone. Drinkwitz runs a pro-style, under center type offense. Thomas has the skillset for that type of offense, but there are going to be some growing pains in the transition from Satterfield’s pistol-heavy, outside zone running game-based scheme. The Mountaineers have two manageable games and a bye before the Carolina game, so it’s conceivable that they will have figured out how to make this transition work by the time September 21st rolls around, but this is just based on what we know so far.
Running back Darrynton Evans Jr. was First Team All-Sun Belt last season after rushing for 1187 yards at a 6.6 ypc clip. The Mountaineers go at least three deep at running back, though, with Camerun Peoples and Marcus Williams also more than capable of carrying the rock, so App State will likely come out in 21 or 20 personnel (two running backs) at least some of the time.
Kansas State transfer Corey Sutton is their best wideout after a year where the passing game was, as I mentioned before, a lower priority for Satterfield. App’s only receiver bigger than 6’3” Sutton is 6’4” tight end Collin Reed. Every player I’ve mentioned by name except the two backup running backs is projected to be First Team All-Sun Belt, along with offensive linemen Victor Johnson and Noah Hannon.
Defensively, Appalachian State was fifth in the country last season in terms of passing yards allowed, tied for eleventh in interceptions, and fourth in scoring defense. Third Team All-Sun Belt cornerback Tae Hayes is gone to graduation, and First Team-All Sun Belt corner Clifton Duck (cousin of UNC freshman Storm) left school early and ended up with Da Bears. Both their starting safeties return, as well as nearly their entire linebacking corps, which rotated liberally in the Mountaineers’ 3-4 base defense.
Breaking in two new cornerbacks is always difficult, but they have enough speed and experience everywhere else on defense where they should be under twenty points per game. The potential switch to a more pro style offense will also help the defense because they should simply have to defend less snaps.
As I mentioned before, the Mountaineers get two manageable games against East Tennesee State and Charlotte before a bye week and then a game against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. After that it’s mostly conference play the rest of the way, except for a November trip to South Carolina to play the Gamecocks.
Troy is their toughest conference game on paper, having been co-Sun Belt East champions last year (both lost one game in-conference, Troy to App State and App State inexplicably got dusted by Georgia Southern) but as both teams have new head coaches, what’s on paper now will be irrelevant by the time the two teams are playing in their last regular season game.
If Appalachian State runs the table in the Sun Belt and goes 1-1 against the Carolina schools, they could be the Group of 5 representative at a New Years Six Bowl. Asking them to beat both the Tar Heels and the Gamecocks is a stretch; they’re 61% favorites against UNC and 34% dogs at South Carolina according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+, meaning their chances of winning both are about 20%. But by the same calculation, they’re more likely than not to win one of the two.
North Carolina vs. Appalachian Outlook
The Mountaineers coming off two less-than-difficult games and a bye week seems like bad timing on paper, but it could work out in Carolina’s favor. Whoever ends up starting for the Mountaineers at cornerback is going to be inexperienced. I haven’t done a full scouting report on Coastal Carolina or East Tennessee State, but I’m guessing they don’t have anyone as talented as Dazz Newsome or anywhere near the depth of Carolina’s receiving corps.
Expect to see Phil Longo try to out-tempo App State’s defense and take advantage of their inexperience at cornerback. That comes with a caveat, however. Last year in the Mountaineers’ near upset of Penn State, App State controlled the ball. They held the ball for about five minutes more than Penn State did in that game, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that over the course of the season, App State out-possessed opponents by an average of 36 seconds. This could have been the offense playing ball control out of its mind, or it could have been a conscious choice to limit the amount of touches a more talented offense could get. If the latter was the case, then we know that this team has the ability to just keep the ball away from UNC.
Just like we know their cornerbacks are inexperienced, Drinkwitz, especially after having been just a few miles down the road for the past few years, knows that whichever of the three quarterbacks Mack Brown ends up starting will be... let’s just say a little green. He’ll likely have a lot of looks designed to confuse inexperienced quarterbacks and bait them into bad decisions.
With that in mind, whoever wins the turnover battle is going to win this game (groundbreaking analysis, I know). If North Carolina can not turn the ball over and score touchdowns instead of field goals, then they’ll win the game.
Realistically, I expect a close game throughout. The Mountaineers’ offense is built to generate explosive plays, and UNC’s defense has had trouble with that kind of thing the past couple of years. In conclusion, despite UNC being 5-point underdogs, I think Carolina’s talent (UNC was 29th in 247Sports’ Team Talent rankings to App State’s 110th), combined with a fresh coaching start that so far seems to be doing all the right things, will allow Carolina to eke this one out in the end.