Appalachian State Mountaineers

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 01: The Volunteer mascot waves the flag in the edzone after a Tennessee touchdown as the Tennessee Volunteers defeated  the Mississippi Rebels 27-10 at Neyland Stadium on October 1, 2005 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Tennessee announces change to academic schedule to accommodate opener

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Tennessee students got good news Tuesday with the announcement they not only get to see the Volunteers football team return to action Sept. 1, they also won’t have to worry about any distractions.

And by “distractions,” of course we mean “class.”

The school announced there will be none of those when the Volunteers play host to Appalachian State in a game set to kick off under the lights.

UT athletics director Dave Hart explained the move in an email to the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

“I believe that everyone involved in the ongoing collaboration that led to this logistical conclusion feels good about the fact that we were able to meet our collective priority to not interrupt the academic schedule on that Thursday,” he said in the email statement. “We look forward to the exciting opportunity to represent our conference on the SEC Network to open the 2016 season on the first night in September.”

Of course we would be remiss not to mention that day of classes was not eliminated. It was merely moved to the end of the semester.

The question of whether or not Tennessee football is “back” figures to be asked quite often this offseason.

Changing the academic schedule for a football game can only be viewed as an indication the answer is yes, right?

WATCH: Sun Belt hails arrival of championship game with hype video

STATESBORO, GA - NOVEMBER 29:  Head coach Willie Fritz for the Georgia Southern Eagles hoists the Sun Belt Conference trophy after his team defeated the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks on November 29, 2014 at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Georgia. Georgia Southern won 22-16.  (Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)
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Summer is the time for blockbusters, so it makes sense the Sun Belt marked yesterday’s blockbuster announcement with a movie trailer-styled hype video.

Beginning in 2018, the Sun Belt will become the 10th and final FBS conference to hold a championship game, once Idaho and New Mexico State have seen the door shut behind them and Coastal Carolina takes their place.

“It’s exciting to know that we’ll join the other nine FBS conferences in holding a championship game,” commissioner Karl Benson said. “The first weekend of December has truly become ‘championship weekend’ in college football. To be able to participate in such a great event is something that coaches, student-athletes and fans will all embrace.”

While details are still being iron out, splitting into two-five team divisions with an eight-game schedule and a championship game at a campus site is the leader in the clubhouse at the moment.

“I think in the early stages, the route that we will take will be on one of our campuses — (not) to predict or speculate five years or seven years into it — but right now, we can expect that it will be on one of those campuses,” Benson said.

Sun Belt announces creation of title game; last league to do so

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Welcome to the postseason party, Sun Belt.

Earlier this month, the Big 12 announced that it had voted unanimously to reinstate the conference’s title game following the 2017 regular season.  A couple of days later, and following up on multiple reports, the Sun Belt has decided to create its own league championship game, only theirs will wait to kick off until after the 2018 regular season.

The league made the announcement at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

“This is a historic moment that represents yet another step forward for the Sun Belt Conference,” said commissioner Karl Benson. “The membership of the Sun Belt has been engaged in a significant number of advancements for the betterment of the league – to an extent this is the culmination of those efforts. …

“Sun Belt football student-athletes will make everlasting memories playing in the championship game during the upcoming years. This championship will be a first-class experience –- and we look forward to it being a launching-pad for a team to reach the College Football Playoff’s ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl games.”

Prior to today’s announcement, the SBC was the only FBS league that either didn’t already contest a league title game or have one in the works.

Like the Big 12, the SBC benefitted from the deregulation of championship games earlier this year, with the nine FBS conferences, by a 7-2 margin, voting to permit leagues with fewer than the mandated 12 members to hold title games.

The SBC is currently an 11-team conference, but will lose Idaho and New Mexico State following the 2017 season.  However, Coastal Carolina will become a full-fledged FBS member for the 2018 season — they’re joining the conference in football on a provisional basis in 2017 — bringing the league back up to the minimum of 10 members.

The conference has not yet decided whether it will split into two, five-team divisions.  Also to be worked out: whether the title game will be played at a neutral site or at the home stadium of the team that finished with the best record.

Tennessee vs. Appalachian State moves to Thursday night

Butch Jones
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Fans of Tennessee and Appalachian State will not have to wait as long as they expected for their 2016 season opener. The Vols and Mountaineers have moved their season-opening date up two days to a Thursday night. The game, originally scheduled for Saturday, September 3, will now be played on Thursday, September 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.

“The conference approached me during our recent athletics director meetings in Jacksonville about a request they had received from ESPN to move our season-opening game to Thursday night on the SEC Network,” Tennessee Athletics Director Dave Hart said in a released statement. “I visited with Butch Jones about it upon my return to gauge his interest prior to my conversations with appropriate campus personnel. He was very interested in making the change.”

This will mark the first time since 1938 the Vols will host a Thursday football game. Tennessee defeated Kentucky in a Thanksgiving game that season. The last time Tennessee played a home opener on a Thursday was in 1896. You remember that one, right?

The decision to move the game to a Thursday night timeslot helps move Tennessee’s home game out of the shadows of what is going to be one massive Saturday of college football. The Labor Day weekend is jammed with great contests, and moving a game to a Thursday night helps get the Vols, one of the potentially trendy preseason picks, some extra exposure. The Thursday line-up is becoming more crowded though, with South Carolina facing Vanderbilt on ESPN that same night. It feels kind of strange seeing a move like this to put two games involving SEC teams up against one another on that Thursday night, but I’m not ESPN’s program director.

One Big House afternoon, App. State was 2016 Leicester City

Michigan-App. State Scoreboard
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Bear with me on this, even as you may not follow the “other” football. Or give a spit about that futbol.

Leicester City is a soccer club in the English Premier League, the former an organization much more familiar with — and heretofore worried about — relegations than championships. In fact, headed into the 2016 season, Lester City was given 5,000-1 odds to win the EPL championship; those are the same odds the British books gave Kim Kardashian to be in the White House as President by 2020.

In 2015, they narrowly averted relegation.  And then The Perfect Storm of 2016 happened, with the Foxes needing to win just three of their remaining five matches to become EPL champions for the first time in the club’s not-so-storied 132-year history.  In fact, Leicester City would become the first EPL team ever to win a title the year after finishing outside the top four in England’s top league.

For all intents and purposes, it’s the ultimate Cinderella story in any sport ever — but, given the fact that the EPL airs on the NBC Sports Network, it got us thinking about underdogs in our own beloved sport, college football.  Normally, the sport CFT focuses on doesn’t lend itself to season-long Cinderella stories, although you could make an argument for the likes of the 1984 BYU Cougars (national champions from a non-Power Five conference) or the 2006 Boise State Broncos (stunning blue-blood Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl).

Still, the Cougars were on or around the national stage in the seventies and on into the eighties.  The Broncos, meanwhile, have been the Little Football Program That Could for most of the 21st century, so the undefeated run capped off by knocking down the Sooners was hardly a fairy tale, let alone the likes of what’s currently going on in the EPL.  For one game in 2007, though, Appalachian State was 2016 Leicester City.

Yes, App. State was in the midst of a three-year run as FCS champions.  That didn’t stop the oddsmakers from making ASU 33(ish)-point underdogs for their game against No. 5 Michigan in the Big House that September afternoon — especially as said oddsmakers were armed with the knowledge that no FCS had ever beaten an FBS team ranked in the Top 25.

Playing for 60 minutes and using less than 30 players — UM had 85 scholarship players at its disposal — playing in the Big House against both the iconic Maize & Blue and their 100,000-plus fans, the five-touchdown underdog from Boone, NC (pop. 17,000), did the seemingly impossible: they knocked off the winningest program in football history.  A field goal gave the Mountaineers, who held a two-touchdown lead in the first half, a 34-32 lead with under 30 seconds left; the block of the Wolverines’ game-winning field-goal attempt as time expired gave the FCS program the most stunning upset in the history of the sport.

It may not be Leicester City’s sustained, season-long excellence at the highest level of their respective sport, but, for three hours one Ann Arbor afternoon, Appalachian State was every bit the Cinderella their underdog cousins from across the pond have been this season.

(You can watch Leicester City’s improbable run to what would be an even more improbable championship continue this Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET as they take on West Ham United on NBC Sports Network.  You can also click HERE for NBCSports.com’s coverage of all things soccer.)