Appalachian State still holding out hope for spot in New Year’s Six bowl

The Mountaineers need to win out and get some help to earn the Sun Belt its first bid in a major bowl

Appalachian State has a chance to be the first Sun Belt team to earn a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. (Brian Blanco / AP Photo)

Appalachian State beat Texas State 35-13 on Saturday to clinch its spot atop the Sun Belt East Division standings and a trip to the conference championship game in two weeks.

But those aren’t the only standings and postseason opportunities the Mountaineers are keeping their eyes on these days.

Coach Eliah Drinkwitz and his players might not have been glued to their television or computer screens when the weekly College Football Playoff rankings were announced on Tuesday. But you can rest assured that they were keenly aware of where their team landed.

It’s not that the Mountaineers hold out any hope of making it into the College Football Playoff. Their focus is more toward the middle and bottom of the poll, where they are in competition with several other so-called Group of Five teams for the most coveted prize available to a program affiliated with either the Sun Belt, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American or Mountain West.

A bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

It’s the compromise made by the CFP for unofficially shutting non-Power 5 schools — including an undefeated Central Florida two seasons ago — out of the four-team national championship playoff process.

The Group of Five conference champion that’s ranked highest in the final CFP rankings earns an automatic bid to one of college football’s prestige bowls. This year, it happens to be the Cotton Bowl in suburban Dallas.

Given App State’s current resume, combined with its success over the previous four seasons since its move up to the FBS, it would seem to be a no-brainer for Drinkwitz’s 10-1 team to earn that spot if it runs the table and wins another Sun Belt title rather than making a return trip to the New Orleans Bowl.

The Mountaineers deserve better than that, but, apparently, they still haven’t earned enough of the national name recognition required for such rewards.

Just as Alabama — and anyone else in the SEC — Ohio State and, to a lesser extent, Clemson are given most favored program status when it comes to the top of the CFP rankings, there is also a similar pecking order among the usual suspects of the second tier of schools.

That’s why Cincinnati, Memphis and Boise State are all ranked higher than the Mountaineers despite similar records with one week remaining in the regular season.

The knock against App State is that it plays in a weaker conference than the Bearcats and Tigers of the AAC, and that Boise State has proven itself time and again against big boy competition.

It is a fact that the AAC is strong this season and that both Cincinnati (against UCLA) and Memphis (against Ole Miss) boast wins against P5 opponents. And Boise is a perennial contender that is playing well again.

But is the Sun Belt really that much less competitive than, say, the Mountain West? Or is it simply better known because of Boise’s sustained run of success?

The latter scenario is why many of the Mountaineers’ rivals are pulling for them to get the New Year’s Six Bowl.

“I’d like to see (them) make a run at it because it’s putting a name for the Sun Belt,” Texas State coach Jake Spavital said after Saturday’s game. “I do think this is a really good league.”

For everything it has going against it, App State does have one accomplishment none of the other challengers for the Cotton Bowl bid can match. That is its two victories against P5 competition, both on the road against schools from the ACC and SEC.

It should be noted that the Mountaineers could have avoided their current predicament by beating Georgia Southern at home on Halloween Night. But even with that unexpected hiccup, there’s still a scenario that will get them to Dallas on Dec. 28.

They just need a little help.

The good news is Cincinnati and Memphis play each other this week, so one of them will lose. In a perfect world, the Tigers will beat the Bearcats then reverse the result the following week when they meet again in the conference championship game. They also need Boise to lose either its regular season finale against Colorado State or the Mountain West title game against Hawaii.

All the above will only matter, of course, if the Mountaineers take care of the one element they can actually control by winning out.

If they can, it will be up to the CFP committee to decide where they fall in the final rankings. You can bet that’s a show Drinkwitz and his players will be tuning in to watch.