Appalachian State was the preseason favorite to win a fifth straight Sun Belt Conference football title. Coastal Carolina was picked to finish last in the East Division.
But when the teams meet Saturday in Conway, South Carolina, it’s the Chanticleers that are undefeated, ranked 15th in the nation and favored to represent the division in the Sun Belt championship game.
“Going into the season, I knew they wouldn’t be last in the conference as they were picked,” Mountaineers coach Shawn Clark said. “I just knew we’ve played them the last couple of years, and they kept getting better and better. Jamey (Chadwell) is a great football coach. There’s a reason they’re ranked that way. We have a big challenge ahead of us.”
Coastal has become one of the feel-good stories of the disjointed 2020 season by winning its first seven games — including an opening week victory against Power 5 opponent Kansas and a 51-0 shellacking of Georgia State, a team App State struggled to beat 17-13 last Saturday.
The Chanticleers’ success is all the more impressive considering they didn’t begin playing football at any level until 2003 and are only in their fourth season as a full-fledged member of the FBS.
Although the Mountaineers are almost as new to the FBS, having moved up to college football’s highest subdivision just one year before Coastal, they are much more familiar with the pressure involved in games with championship implications.
They’ve played in more than their share on the way to winning at least a share of the past four Sun Belt crowns.
That experience could turn out to be an advantage against an opponent in title contention for the first time in school history. The game will also get national exposure with television coverage on ESPN2.
“Our guys have played in big games and know what to expect,” Clark said. “(But) every week’s different, and it’s going to be who doesn’t turn the football over and who executes better this week.”
App State (5-1, 4-0 Sun Belt) had been building momentum since its only loss, a 17-7 defeat at Marshall on Sept. 19, and a nearly monthlong layoff caused by a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak before taking a step back last week.
The Mountaineers had to rally late to beat a pedestrian Georgia State team at home.
Already without leading rusher Daetrich Harrington, who in the words of Clark will be out for “an extended period of time” with an undisclosed injury, App State also lost star quarterback Zac Thomas after taking a hit while running out of bounds midway through the fourth quarter.
Thomas was taken to the hospital as a precaution and could play on Saturday.
Even if he can’t, Clark and his team have confidence in backup Jacob Huesman after the 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior came off the bench to finish an 11-play, 77-yard drive that put the Mountaineers ahead for the first time with just over five minutes remaining.
Still, changes to the offensive game plan will have to be made if Huesman is pressed into service again against Coastal.
“If Huesman is in there, we’ll probably go more triple option and try to get back to old-school stuff,” Clark said. “That will probably be the biggest difference, trying to get him to run the football a lot more than Zac. We’ll probably change a lot of our offense, to be honest with you.”
While the quarterback situation this week isn’t the most optimal situation while preparing for a big game, App State won’t be the only team dealing with a potential change in leadership.
With Chadwell’s name already being mentioned as a leading candidate for the newly opened job at South Carolina, the Chanticleers could be distracted by the possibility that their coach will be leaving at the end of the season.
It’s a situation Clark downplayed. And he ought to know, having gone through a similar situation in each of the past two years as an assistant to both Scott Satterfield and Eliah Drinkwitz before they departed for Louisville and Missouri, respectively.
“Your players, your coaches kind of put your heads down,” Clark said. “We know what’s at stake. That’s part of the business. He’s got to do what’s best for his family. But I know he’ll be preparing for this team, for this game.
“I don’t think it makes a difference. I know his players are ready for a great competition this weekend.”