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Appalachian State Isn’t Just That Small School That Beat Michigan Anymore

It’s going to be hard for any future Appalachian State football team to outshine the moment that the 2007 Mountaineers produced on Sept. 1, 2007, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Appalachian State already owns what many think of as the biggest upset in college football history, and at that point, the program was already coming off two Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) national championships and on its way to a third.

But say this for the present-day Mountaineers: They are putting together a run that might make even those famous underdogs jealous. This year’s team is 7-0, with the pinnacle of its undefeated start coming in a road win at North Carolina — its first win over a Power Five opponent since the upset of Michigan. Appalachian State is No. 20 in both the coaches’ and Associated Press polls, the highest ranking in history for a Sun Belt Conference team, and this is no accident. The Boone, North Carolina, school is 48-11 since the start of 2015. Only Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma have a higher winning percentage in that span.

The Appalachian State teams that won three-straight national championships established the program as one of the best in the FCS. Since the Mountaineers used those years as a springboard up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, they’ve redefined what’s attainable for a school of their stature. The perennial overachievers have finished 12 of the past 14 seasons with a higher Football Power Index than they started with. They’ve won bowl games in four straight seasons, the first four in which they were eligible, and their unblemished record this season has brought yet another stunning possibility into play. They could sneak into one of the marquee New Year’s Six bowl games, which means, arguably, that they might soon have a win better than the shocker at Michigan.

Here’s the situation: Appalachian State plays Georgia Southern on Thursday night, and then comes the Mountaineers’ last game as an “underdog” this season: at South Carolina on Nov. 9. South Carolina is 3.3 points better on a neutral field according to FPI, but Jeff Sagarin’s model would have Appalachian State as a 1.2-point favorite in Columbia. The Mountaineers already beat North Carolina, which beat South Carolina in the season opener for the two teams. “The fact that we do that with the resources that we have and the limits that we have on resources, compared to those that we compete against, at least in the state, it just adds to our blue-collar, chip-on-our-shoulder mentality,” athletic director Doug Gillin told me Tuesday.

FPI gives Appalachian State an 11.9 percent chance to win out, but that’s up from 0.5 percent on Aug. 31. If the Mountaineers beat Georgia Southern and South Carolina, take care of business against Georgia State, Texas State and Troy and then win the Sun Belt title game, they’ll be in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.1 That would likely be in the Cotton Bowl against an at-large selection from one of the five major conferences.

The Mountaineers have gone from a middle-of-the-pack Southern Conference squad to an FCS dynasty to an FBS newcomer to a Sun Belt standard bearer, all in the past 30 years, largely because of continuity. From 1989 until last December, they had only two different head coaches: Jerry Moore from 1989 to 2012 and Scott Satterfield, Moore’s offensive coordinator, from 2013 to 2018. They’ve adapted their offensive scheme, sure, but they haven’t undergone a full-scale rebuild, partially due to personnel. The five recruiting classes (2015-19) that make up this year’s team each finished outside the top 100 in 247sports.com’s composite rankings, and this is still not a program oozing with NFL talent. “We’re a developmental program,” Gillin said. “Always have been, always will be.”

Then there was the biggest question yet about the sustainability of Appalachian State’s rise. Satterfield, who shepherded the program through the transition to the FBS with 48 wins in the first five years, left to become the head coach at Louisville and took five Appalachian State assistants with him. “You’re kind of riding a high, having a lot of success, getting more and more people on board and invested in the vision of being the best that we can be in the Sun Belt,” Gillin said. “And then we had to go hire a new football coach in December. I think you never really know how that’s going to go.” He chose a first-time head coach in North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, who has kept the momentum building.

When asked about the effect on his new program of the national recognition, Drinkwitz kept the focus on Appalachian State’s goals of winning the Sun Belt and winning a bowl game. In that sense, the program seems content to stay on its current course for now, rather than knock on the door of a bigger conference or stump for an opportunity to compete for the national championship. After all, the next conference realignment may not be until at least 2023, and no Sun Belt team is within striking distance of the playoff.

“Right now, we’ve just got to keep winning,” Gillin said. “Ninety-five percent of this is just, win.”

Still, the opportunities to win keep getting bigger, starting with the upcoming bowl game — and the Mountaineers could even face a familiar foe. Michigan is 6-2, and if it wins out, it would be in line for the at-large spot in the Cotton Bowl. Twelve years after Appalachian State first announced its presence, a second win over the Wolverines would likely push it to the next level. Though this time, it would hardly be a surprise.

Looking ahead: Week 10

Game of the Week: Georgia (16 percent playoff odds) vs. Florida (12 percent), 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday (in Jacksonville)

How Georgia vs. Florida swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Nov. 2 UGA-Florida game

Change in odds if UGA…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Loses Weighted Difference*
Georgia 15.7% +11.2 -14.7 +/-12.7
Florida 11.8 -10.1 +13.3 11.5
LSU 44.1 -2.6 +3.4 3.0
Auburn 2.5 +0.7 -1.0 0.8
Alabama 53.2 -0.7 +0.9 0.8
Utah 14.3 +0.5 -0.7 0.6
Baylor 14.5 +0.4 -0.6 0.5
Total† 31.9

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

With one loss apiece, Georgia and Florida are both in very precarious positions right now. Each still has a playoff probability in the low-to-mid teens, and each would almost certainly make it if they win out.2 So the Dawgs and Gators can still play their way into the national championship picture — but at the same time, another loss would pretty decisively end each team’s playoff bid. That basically makes this year’s installment of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” a playoff elimination contest. Florida is formidable: The Gators’ only blemish so far has been a loss to current AP No. 1 LSU, and Florida QB Kyle Trask has played every bit as well as Georgia’s Jake Fromm. UGA, meanwhile, is still licking its wounds after a shocking double-overtime upset loss to South Carolina three weeks ago. But ESPN’s Football Power Index considers the Dawgs the superior team, and our model gives Georgia a 57 percent chance of winning. As far as outside interests go, LSU — which has already beaten Florida (and would probably prefer not to face UGA in a hypothetical SEC title game) — would most benefit from a Gator win here.

The most important games of Week 10

Week 10 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game Other Team Most Affected (Rooting interest)* Total Swing
1 Georgia-Florida LSU (Florida) 31.9%
2 Oregon-USC Oklahoma (USC) 26.5
3 Utah-Washington LSU (Washington) 20.8
4 Baylor-West Virginia Oklahoma (West Virginia) 8.4
5 Memphis-SMU Florida (SMU) 4.7
6 Kansas State-Kansas Oklahoma (Kansas) 4.6
7 Michigan-Maryland Alabama (Michigan) 4.1
8 Wake Forest-NC State Clemson (NC State) 4.1
9 Auburn-Mississippi LSU (Auburn) 4.0
10 UCF-Houston LSU (UCF) 3.7

*This is the team outside of the game in question whose playoff odds project to change the most, depending on the outcome. Listed in parentheses is the team whose victory would increase the affected team’s odds.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. One bid goes to the team rated highest in the College Football Playoff rankings from the American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt. Southern Methodist, also undefeated, is the highest-rated team from those conferences in the coaches’ poll, at No. 14. But the Mustangs still have tests at Memphis and at Navy. If they slip up, there’s room for Appalachian State to sneak into the fold.

  2. UGA would have a 99 percent chance, and Florida would be at 94 percent.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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