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Know your enemy: Appalachian State Mountaineers

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Georgia State v Appalachian State Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

College football season is coming like a crashing defensive end. Your Georgia Bulldogs will open the season on September 2nd, and between now and then we’ll be previewing every opponent, starting with the Appalachian State Mountaineers.

The Mountaineer File

Location: Boone, NC

Head Coach: Scott Satterfield (fifth season, 32-18 overall)

2016 record: (10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt Conference)

Fun fact: While relatively small Appalachian State has produced a slew of well-known alumni, including Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner, basketball legend Belus Smawley (credited by some with the invention of the jump shot), football coaching legend Ron Prince, musicians Eric Church, and Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf), and History Channel reality TV star Eustace Conway.

App State is the team you don’t want to play. Again.

Everyone remembers the Mountaineers season-opening, dream-ending defeat of the Michigan Wolverines in 2007. But unless you were paying attention you may not have noticed that the Mountaineers then fell on some (relatively) hard times. After demolishing the FCS field in 2007 the Boys from Boone didn’t win another FCS title, finally stumbling to an 8-4 mark in 2011 and in 2012, their last season under legendary coach Jerry Moore. Former Mountaineer QB Satterfield took over, and things didn’t improve immediately. In fact the Mountaineers, having already committed to jump to FBS and join the Sun Belt, were an abysmal 4-8 in Satterfield’s first season, then 7-5 in 2014.

But over the last couple of seasons, the Mountaineers are the Mountaineers again. And for teams like Georgia, that could be a problem. App State began 2016 by losing in overtime to Tennessee, 20-13. And while they got thumped 45-10 by Miami, they’re 14-2 in-conference over the past two seasons, with the losses by a total of 17 points. Satterfield’s team is consistently prepared to play, and have picked off favored teams and larger schools. This team has the look of a giant killer on the hunt for its next giant.

And the bad news for Bulldog fans is that the 2017 Mountaineers should look at lot like the 2016 Mountaineers, only more experienced. Redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Lamb, son of Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb and grandson of longtime UGA high school relations director Ray Lamb, is second only to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in career wins (27) among active college quarterbacks. Lamb’s 63 career touchdown passes is second in App State history, and barring injury he’ll likely end his career as both the all-time leader for App State and the Sun Belt (he only needs 18 to reach the latter record). Lamb is calm, collected, experienced, and accurate as a passer, and more dangerous than some realize as a runner (he scampered for 126 yards against Toledo in 2016). He’s sort of a Smoky Mountain Aaron Murray, if you will. The kind of veteran QB with big game experience who will come to Athens prepared for the environment. This is worrisome.

Lamb’s statistics actually conceal the fact that Appalachian State is a run-first team, even in obvious passing downs. Lamb averaged 6 carries and 49 yards on the ground and the team as a whole ran it roughly 44.5 times a game for 250 yards in 2016. Explosive tailback Marcus Cox (158 carries, 1015 yards) is gone, but leading rusher Jalen Moore (237 carries, 1402 yards) returns. Moore posted eight 100+ yard rushing games as a sophomore in 2016, including a 257 yard effort in the Mountaineers’ 45-38 road win versus Akron.

Up front App State returns four of five offensive line starters, and adds Kent State transfer Brock Macauley, who started 20 games for Nick Saban’s alma mater and is eligible this season. If Lamb needs to go to the air, he’ll have targets. 2016’s leading receiver, senior Shaedon Meadors (45 receptions, 716 yards) returns, as do fellow seniors Ike Lewis (18 catches, 236 yards) and Zy Letman (10 receptions, 165 yards). Again, Satterfield will bring a veteran team to Athens. Worried yet?

What if I told you the Mountaineer defense was arguably better than the offense. They finished 2016 ranked 17th in FBS in total defense (one spot behind . . . the Georgia Bulldogs), and 20th in rushing defense. Boone’s finest were “only” ranked 31st in passing defense in 2016, but their 13 interceptions was tied for the 6th most in the country. And, stop me if you’ve heard this one, the Mountaineers bring back a good bit of that unit, too. Senior linebackers Rashaad Towns and Devan Stringer bring leadership and athleticism, and will be joined by the team’s leading tackler from 2016, Eric Boggs.

The front three brings back defensive ends Tee Sims and Caleb Fuller, as well as senior Antonious Sims. All told App State returns eight of its top fourteen tacklers from last season. That includes Cornerback Clifton Duck, coming off an outstanding freshman season, who will be joined in the defensive backfield by Tae Hayes and Brandon Pinckney.

While there’s not a lot of depth on this side of the ball, Georgia is not likely to benefit from that one weakness, what with the Mountaineers coming to town fresh and rested for the first game of the year. Again, you should be worried. Have I already mentioned that?

If there’s a weakness, it may be on special teams. Punter Bentlee Critcher has moved on, as has punt returner Jaquil Capel. Kicker Michael Rubino returns for his sophomore season. While Rubino missed a couple of crucial kicks in last year’s opener to help the Vols escape (#CollegeKickers, amirite?), he was fairly reliable for the remainder of the season, hitting forty-seven of forty-eight extra points and making every field goal attempt from inside forty yards.

Should Georgia win this game? Absolutely. The Bulldogs are deep and talented in 2017, even by recent standards. There’s every reason to believe they may be the class of the SEC East. Could Appalachian State still pull the upset? You bet your collection of Phish concert bootlegs they could (if you’ve spent any time in Boone, this will make more sense to you). The Mountaineers have won twenty-seven of their last thirty-two games. They are a consistent, veteran team that will come in fresh and looking to make a statement. This is how early season FBS upsets happen.

On the flipside, if the Bulldogs struggle a little with the Mountaineers but prevail in the end I wouldn’t take it as a harbinger of doom. Appalachian State will give Kirby Smart’s team a stout early season test, and will likely be a better team than they get credit for from the average fan. Final score prediction: UGA 34, App. State 20. Until later . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!