When Appalachian State began 1-2 in Sun Belt play, it’s doubtful that the Mountaineers were thinking of booking postseason arrangements for the first week of December.
Yet, here they are, ready to visit Troy in Saturday’s 4 p.m. ET Sun Belt Championship on ESPN. This is familiar territory for Appalachian State, which is making its fourth appearance in the six-year history of the Sun Belt title game.
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The Mountaineers punched their ticket with a 55-27 win over Georgia Southern in the final regular season game. Yet early on, Appalachian State trailed by 14-3 after the first quarter.
Maybe there was an early letdown after handing James Madison its first loss the previous week, 26-23 in overtime.
Appalachian State would wake from its early slumber, outscoring Georgia Southern 38-3 in the middle two quarters.
So Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) will represent the East Division in the Sun Belt championship, even though the Mountaineers didn’t technically win it. That’s because James Madison, despite a 7-1 Sun Belt record, is ineligible to compete in the conference title game for the second year in a row due to its transition from FCS to FBS.
The Mountaineers clinched the berth with a 55-27 win over Georgia Southern in the final regular season game.
A 40-34 double overtime loss to North Carolina early in the season showed that Appalachian State could be competitive with any team on its schedule. That game was only slightly lower scoring than the previous year when Appalachian State suffered a 63-61 home loss to North Carolina. This year’s loss to North Carolina means that Appalachian State has played eight consecutive games decided by seven points or fewer against Power 5 opponents. The Mountaineers are 3-5 in those games.
So, despite the loss, one would assume the Mountaineers would have some early season momentum, but that wasn’t the case with the 1-2 Sun Belt start.
What made rebounding from the 1-2 conference start even more amazing is that the win was a 41-40 triumph at a University of Louisiana Monroe team that finished 0-8 in the Sun Belt. Appalachian State needed a 54-yard field goal by Michael Hughes as time expired to earn the dramatic win.
That’s a ULM team that just fired coach Terry Bowden, who was 10-26 in three seasons guiding the Warhawks.
That win was followed by losses to Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion by a combined 10 points.
And then out of nowhere, the five-game win streak began with a 48-38 home victory over Southern Mississippi. Staying with the nothing is easy theme, Appalachian State trailed Southern Miss 38-28 early in the fourth quarter before scoring the game’s final 20 points.
That was followed by convincing wins over Marshall and Georgia State before the upset victory over James Madison and the clincher over Georgia Southern.
So while little has come easy for Appalachian State, beating the Mountaineers recently has proven to be a challenging task.
During the five-game win streak, the Mountaineers are averaging 40.4 points, while allowing 22.2 points. For the season, Appalachian State is second in the Sun Belt in scoring (35.8 ppg) and sixth in scoring defense, allowing 26.7 ppg.
A major key for the Mountaineers has been the play of Joey Aguilar, a 6-3, 210-pound junior, who played the previous two seasons at Diablo Valley Community College in Pleasant Hill, California.
During his two junior college seasons, he threw a total of 21 touchdown passes.
With four touchdown passes against Georgia Southern, he set the single-season school record with 33 TD passes. He has also rushed for 242 yards and two scores.
He has spread the ball around, with six receivers having 300 or more receiving yards. The top target is Kaedin Robinson, with 53 receptions for 773 yards and a Sun Belt-leading 10 TD catches.
Appalachian State plays an exciting brand of ball, and the Mountaineers also don’t panic if they get down. Their big-play offense can get them back in games quickly.
The defense has been solid. Senior linebacker Andrew Parker Jr. is fifth in the Sun Belt in tackles, averaging 8.6 per game.
This is a team with plenty of playmakers on offense and defense, and it also has the confidence of never feeling out of a game. That’s because the Mountaineers have had plenty of practice overcoming leads or any other obstacles.