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College Football Bowl Preview: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

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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

No. 21 Appalachian State wins second-straight Sun Belt Championship Game, awaits bowl fate

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For the second consecutive season, No. 21 Appalachian State (12-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) managed to defeat Louisiana (10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt) in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game. And now, after holding on for a 45-38 victory on Saturday, the Mountaineers have a chance to sit back, watch the rest of the Group of Five race cross the finish line and wait to see if the College Football Playoff selection committee will reward them with a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

Appalachian State cruised its way to a big halftime lead on Louisiana (35-17) and then the offense lost some of its explosiveness in the second half. A handful of punts and a lost fumble by Zac Thomas allowed Louisiana to continue to hang around. The Appalachian State defense was the only way the Mountaineers reached the end zone after halftime with Josh Thomas returning a picked off Levi Lewis pass 15 yards for a score in the third quarter. But the damage in the first half was enough to help get the job done on this day even as Louisiana put together a strong second-half effort to pull within one score.

Lewis did his part to keep Louisiana in the game with 354 passing yards and four touchdowns. Appalachian State also gave up over 500 yards of offense to the Ragin’ Cajuns, with 31 first downs given up. It wasn’t quite the performance that solidified any last-second case for the selection committee to consider Appalachian State for the Cotton Bowl, but none of that ultimately takes away from the latest achievement in the school’s history since moving up from the FCS to FBS.

Appalachian State has now won 12 games for the first time since moving up to the FBS, and they will now have a chance to win their fifth consecutive bowl game (which would be a clean 5-0 all-time). the program, in its first year under Eli Drinkwitz after Scott Satterfield left for Louisville, is now 44-12 since the start of the 2015 season, its second at the FBS level and as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

A Cotton Bowl invite will likely not be in the cards for Appalachian State, although having a pair of victories over power conference competition (South Carolina of the SEC and UNC of the ACC) and just one loss and a double-digit victory in the conference championship game is nothing to quickly dismiss. But given the most recent College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, Appalachian State jumping ahead of the AAC champion (Memphis or Cincinnati) and potentially Boise State (if Boise State wins the Mountain West Conference) are not exactly odds that give Appalachian State too much of a chance to play in the biggest bowl game in program history.

A spot in the New Orleans Bowl is probably the most likely destination now for Appalachian State, although the New Orleans Bowl would not mind getting to host Louisiana if Appalachian State can get another bowl matchup that will make for an attractive TV matchup with another power conference opponent.

No. 25 Appalachian State pummels Troy to remain in Group of 5 race

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They may be the fourth team in the running (or third after today’s results), but No. 25 Appalachian State (11-1, 7-1 Sun Belt) did what it needed to make sure they remain in the conversation for a spot in the Cotton Bowl. The top team in the Sun Belt took care of business in their regular-season finale with a 48-13 victory at Troy (5-7, 3-5 Sun Belt). the loss by Troy eliminates the Trojans from bowl eligibility this season, while Appalachian State will play for a conference title next week with hopes of potentially wiggling into the Cotton Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five champion.

Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas had a five-touchdown day with four touchdown passes (to go with 326 yards on 28-of-34 passing) and one more on the ground in the blowout road victory. Thomas Hennigan was the go-to receiver with 11 receptions for 140 yards, while Malik Williams hauled in two of the touchdown passes. Appalachian State’s defense gave up some yards and plays to Troy, but the Trojans managed just five third-down conversions in 15 attempts, and Appalachian State out-gained Troy 522-339 (Appalachian State was an efficient 10-of-13 on third down). Troy picked up just 35 rushing yards in the game on 21 attempts.

Appalachian State will now begin preparing for the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game next week against Louisiana. A win will be necessary to keep any hopes of playing in the Cotton Bowl, but the Mountaineers will likely need a considerable amount of help as well. The Sun Belt Conference Championship Game will be played at 12 PM ET next Saturday, which means Appalachian State will do some scoreboard watching if they manage to top Louisiana next week.

The Sun Belt Conference has confirmed Appalachian State will host the game.

The Mountaineers will need Cincinnati to win at Memphis in next week’s American Athletic Conference championship game in the middle of the afternoon, but even then the fate may be left in the hands of the selection committee, and both AAC contenders may finish ahead of Appalachian State anyway. Appalachian State would also need some help from Hawaii, who will look to score a big upset at Boise State. The Broncos, like Memphis and Cincinnati, entered the week ranked ahead of Appalachian State and it’s still possible all three remain in front of the Mountaineers when the next College Football Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday night.

The bottom line for Appalachian State is just win next week and then let the rest of the pieces fall where they may. It may be a bit of a long shot, but the hopes and dreams will live on for one more week at the very least.

Appalachian State leading Troy, 34-13, at halftime to stay on G5 radar

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On what has been a pivotal day in the Group of Five race, Appalachian State is doing all it can to stay in the picture. The Mountaineers are closing out the regular season in style right now with a 34-13 lead at Troy.

Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas has passed for 206 yards and two touchdowns and he has also run for a score as the Mountaineers have been over-powering Troy. Darrynton Evans leads all players with 74 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns for Appalachain State as part of the effort. The defense has shut down the Troy running game as well by allowing just three yards on 14 rushes. Troy has found some room in the passing game, however, with Kaleb Barker throwing for 202 yards to seven different receivers in the first half.

Appalachian State scored 20 points in the first quarter to set the tone and establish control early on. The scoring advantage continued in the second quarter with a 14-3 edge.

Appalachian State will play in the Sun Belt Conference championship game next week. That matchup has already been locked in with Appalachian State set to face Louisiana.

Appalachian State stays in the Group of 5 race with big win at Georgia State

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No team from the Sun Belt Conference has ever appeared in one of the New Years Six bowl games since the implementation of the BCS, but No. 25 Appalachian State (9-1, 5-1 Sun Belt) will remain in the running to bring that drought to an end this season. The Mountaineers roared back to turn a 21-7 deficit in the first quarter to rout Georgia State (6-4, 3-3 Sun Belt) Saturday night in Atlanta, 56-27. The win moves Appalachian State one big step closer to playing in the second annual Sun Belt Conference championship game at the end of the season.

Appalachian State took over the game in the second quarter with a 21-0 advantage on the scoreboard, turning a 21-14 game in favor of Georgia State into a 35-21 halftime lead. The Mountaineers weren’t up 56-21 before the Panthers managed to score again in the fourth quarter. Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas may not have had the best start to the game but ended his night with 256 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air and one more on the ground (along with 52 rushing yards). Both Thomas and Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington threw interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, but that was the only mistake that hurt Thomas all night. Ellington tossed a second interception in the game as the Panthers could not manage to carry the momentum of their fast start past the first quarter.

App State receiver Corey Xavier-Sutton led all players with eight catches for 173 yards and three of the touchdown passes thrown by Thomas. Appalachian State had 553 yards of offense in the win, with 280 on the ground and 273 in the passing game.

Only conference champions from the Group of Five are eligible for a spot in the New Years Six bowl lineup. If Appalachian State ends the season with the Sun Belt title and just one loss, they would likely be a strong candidate even if they need a little help from the other conferences, namely the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference. Appalachian State can punch their ticket to the Sun Belt Conference championship game next week at home with a win against Texas State or a Georgia Southern loss. A tie between the two programs would send Georgia Southern to the conference championship game due to a head-to-head tiebreaker. Georgia Southern defeated Appalachian State 24-21 a few weeks ago.

We’ll find out on Tuesday night where Appalachian State ranks in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings compared to other Group of 5 contenders Cincinnati (beat USF with a last-second field goal), Memphis and Boise State. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion will be selected to play in a New Years Six bowl game.

Georgia State will look to rebound next week at home against South Alabama (1-9, 0-6 Sun Belt).