Sun Belt Championship Game Is (Finally) Here: Appalachian State versus Louisiana.
The first ever Sun Belt Championship game pits the Sun Belt Elite versus a reemerging power.
Appalachian State’s arrival to the Sun Belt in 2014 coincided with the steady decline of Louisiana and its membership to the conference elite. The Cajuns haven’t enjoyed a winning season since 2015, while the Mountaineer rose from FCS to deliver one dominating season after another, culminating with a 9-2 record in 2018 (a game with Southern Miss was canceled).
But fortunes are returning to form in Lafayette, with a new head coach in Billy Napier and a murderous, three-headed run game that few outside of Alabama have been able to neutralize. On paper, the Mountaineers are clearly the better team on all sides of the ball. But paper don’t play Sun Belt Championship games!
When Last These Titans Met
It happened way back on October 20th, with the Cajuns navigating the hills of Appalachia to take on the Mountaineers in Boone. Having just pounded 66 points on former Sun Belt mate New Mexico State, the Cajuns performed better than average against Appalachian State’s impregnable defense, but still fell 27-17.
Mountaineers’ star RB Darrynton Evans was incredible, running for 183 yards and a score. The defense was just as stout, limiting the Louisiana run game to a mere 140 yards. Scott Satterfield will happily accept a facsimile of these efforts on Saturday.
The Mountaineer are seemingly without weakness
When Appalachian State gave up 34 points in a mid-season loss to Georgia Southern, it appeared that the Mountaineers were human beneath those pads. Since that loss, Scott Satterfield’s bunch are undefeated, averaging 32 points per game while surrendering only ten. Junior defensive back Desmond Franklin leads the Sun Belt with picks (4) and junior linebacker Jordan Fehr has menaced quarterbacks for 5.5 sacks. The two juniors lead a defensive unit ranked 4th in the nation.
Furthermore, first-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas has been every bit as good as departed QB Taylor Lamb, finishing the year as the Sun Belt’s highest rated signal caller (156.5). But the Mountaineer’s real offensive weapon is sophomore Darrynton Evans, who ground out 968 yards and 8 total TDs – and that’s without receiving a full plate of carries until Week 6.
The Mountaineers make a case as the best Group of Five team in the nation, with that bitter loss to the Eagles unfortunately silencing that conversation.
The Cajuns are (Nearly) Reborn
When Louisiana parted ways with longtime head coach Mark Hudspeth, they struck gold with former Arizona State offensive OC Billy Napier. Under Napier, senior quarterback Andre Nunez flourished, tossing 19 touchdown passes and providing much need stability under center. Combined with a exceptional run game led by Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais, the offense is putting up a season average 34 points per game.
The flip side is that the defense is giving up 34 points per game. In fact, the 27 points the Cajuns allowed to the Mountaineers is the second fewest points the defense allowed all year. Until Napier finds more playmakers on defense, the Cajuns are only half-back. Until then, they’ll have to find a way to win a shootout with a Mountaineers team that both scores and defends with equal skill.
Evans vs. Mitchell/Ragas/Calais might be tremendous
The SBC Championship Game will feature three of the conference’s top 5 rushers. However, the Mountaineers’ ultra stingy run defense could grind the talented Cajuns to a complete halt. Meanwhile, Evans gets a Louisiana defense that gives up 208 yards on the ground every game. Look for Evans to get his yards, and look for the Cajuns three-helmeted beast to need a little help from Nunez and his receivers to be more effective.
What’s Gonna Hap’n, Cap’n?
The Mountaineers have the advantage on offense. They have the advantage on defense. They have the home field advantage. All the advantages are with Appalachian State, who Vegas favors to win (-16.5). That said, Louisiana has surprised everyone all year. Don’t expect the Cajuns to lay down on Saturday morning.
Appalachian State welcomes Louisiana to Kidd Brewer Stadium on Saturday, 11:00 AM. The game can be viewed on ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.