WHO: No. 20 Appalachian State (12-1) vs. UAB (9-4)
WHAT: The 19th R+L New Orleans Bowl
WHEN: December 21st at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana
THE SKINNY: For the second striaght season, Appalachian State is playing in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl as the Sun Belt Conference champion. The Mountaineers certainly enjoyed their experience in this bowl game last season with a 45-13 victory over Middle Tennessee of Conference USA. This year, the Mountaineers face another team from Conference USA when they face UAB for the first time.
Appalachian State will be coached by Shawn Clark, who was elevated to head coach following the departure of Eli Drinkowitz to Missouri. Don’t expect a bunch to change amid the coaching change. The Mountaineers have been betaing up on opponents all season long, including hard-fought wins against power conference opponents South Carolina and North Carolina. The offense is led by experienced starting quarterback Zac Thomas, a junior who has thrown for 2,576 yards and 26 touchdowns and run for 412 yards and seven touchdowns. The Mountaineers like to use their power as their strength. Helping that cause is running back Darrynton Evans, who has rushed for 1,323 yards and 17 touchdowns. Of all the Group of 5 programs outside of the top teams in the AAC or Boise State, Appalachian State may have the best offensive line going, and they have the physicality that could make for a tough battle for even the top teams in the Group of 5. If not for one slipup in conference play against rival Georgia Southern, Appalachian State might be the team heading to the Cotton Bowl instead of Memphis.
Bill Clark has done a tremendous job with the UAB program, and he and the Blazers are looking forward to moving on from a disappointing showing in the Conference USA Championship Game. FAU humbled UAB in a 49-6 blowout for the C-USA championship, and Clark will be the first to admit his team was not ready for the game. UAB may be lacking firepower on offense (just 23.6 points per game this season), so it is up to the defense to keep the game within reach for an upset. UAB has held opponents to an average of 20.8 ppg this season, although the overall competition faced wasn’t exactly like taking on offenses like Clemson and Ohio State, or even Memphis and Boise State. On offense, clock management will rely on moving the ball on the ground with Spencer Brown and avoiding any mistakes from quarterback Tyler Johnston III (15 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions this season).
This might have been a more competitive game two years ago, but this one could get away from UAB in a hurry. Appalachian State has been on a roll and that looks to continue for a second consecutive New Orleans Bowl.
THE PICK: Appalachian State 38, UAB 17