Appalachian State is well on its way toward staking its claim as the best college football team in North Carolina again this season.
The question that is yet to be answered is whether the Mountaineers are still the best team in the Sun Belt Conference.
They’ve won four straight league titles and have looked strong in opening this year’s conference schedule with lopsided victories against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. But with Coastal Carolina ranked 15th in the nation and Louisiana having upset then-ranked Iowa State earlier this season, the toughest tests are yet to come.
That, said coach Shawn Clark, makes games like the one coming up on Saturday at 1-7 Texas State all the more important.
“We have a very good conference from top to bottom, and if you don’t come ready to play you’re going to get beat,” Clark said. “That’s the beauty of the Sun Belt. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, if you can’t take care of the football and can’t run the football, you’re going to get beat.”
The Mountaineers (4-1, 2-0) have done a good job of both since suffering their only loss in a nonconference game at Marshall on Sept. 19.
They lead the Sun Belt in rushing at 316 yards per game in their two conference wins and are also tops with five takeaways — including three interceptions in last Saturday’s 31-13 victory against winless ULM.
But as good as App State has looked on both sides of the ball, ranking second in the league in scoring offense and first in scoring defense at just over 17 points per game allowed, Clark said there’s still a lot of room to improve before the schedule begins growing some teeth later this month.
“We haven’t played a complete game as a program yet and we have to do that,” Clark said. “The longer it goes to the back end of the season, if you’re going to do that, you’re going to set yourself up for defeat.
“In saying that, winning is hard in college football. I don’t care where you’re at. I’m very satisfied with getting the win, but as always, we have a lot to improve on.”
The back end of the schedule Clark mentioned begins on Nov. 21 with a trip to Conway, South Carolina, then continues with home games against Troy and Louisiana before wrapping up with a road game against traditional nemesis Georgia Southern.
As much as its season will be riding on those four games, App State can’t afford to look too far ahead.
Although the Bobcats’ record is anything but impressive, they took Boston College of the ACC down to the wire before losing 24-21 while another of their defeats came in double overtime against Texas-San Antonio.
They’re especially good at forcing turnovers with 12 takeaways through their first eight games.
According to App State quarterback Zac Thomas, though, the Mountaineers’ focus this week is on improving what they do, rather than counteracting what the opposition does well.
“Texas State has a very good defense, nothing to look past,” said the senior, who rushed for a career-high 109 yards in last week’s win and ranks fourth on App State’s all-time list with 55 career touchdown passes. “We just have to go out there, play our style of ball and come out with a victory.”
One thing that has helped the Mountaineers start building momentum, other than the schedule, is the fact the team has finally begun to gain some continuity by playing regularly again.
Because of a COVID-19 outbreak among its roster, App State had two games postponed and went nearly a full month from a win against Campbell on Sept. 26 to the Arkansas State game on Oct. 22 without a game.
It was a difficult stretch, one from which App State is still working to overcome. But according to Thomas, the disruption could end up being a benefit to the team in the long run.
“Since we’ve started here, Coach Clark has said ‘together,’ so as a player and a captain of this team, we stay together,” Thomas said. “This season can throw anything at you. You’ve got the pandemic, the election, everything coming up. What he preaches is together, and I think as a team we’ve done exactly that.”