App State football is looking for their fifth straight Sun Belt title, but first open its season against an up-and-coming program in Charlotte.
App State has turned into one of the best Group of Five programs in recent history. Since 2015, the Mountaineers have gone 54-12, and have won at least a share of the Sun Belt title five times. They’ve become a factory for head coaches to make the jump into the Power Five.
After a five-year run, Scott Satterfield took the head job at Louisville, while Eli Drinkwitz took it at Missouri after one season in Boone, N.C. Former lineman for the Mountaineers from the 1990s Shawn Clark now has the keys to the program. Most programs struggle in the first year of a new head coach, not App State though. Clark is now the third head coach in as many seasons and winning has stayed constant here.
Quarterback Zac Thomas is back for his senior season as one of the top guys in the conference. In the last two years he’s thrown for 4,757 yards, 49 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He’s got his top receiving weapon back in Thomas Hennigan who caught 61 balls for 773 yards in 2019. Fellow top receiver senior Corey Sutton opted out of the 2020 season, but this offense is still very experienced. Senior Malik Williams will step in and get an increase in targets now.
The offensive line is loaded with experience and All-Sun Belt honors. Center Noah Hannon was a first-teamer while Cooper Hodges and Baer Hunter made the second team. One of the building blocks of this dynasty has been strong offensive line play, and that won’t change under Clark.
There’s likely going to be a bit of a committee at running back with Marcus Williams and Daetrich Harrington splitting carries trying to replace the work of Darryton Evans.
On defense, App State was the top group in the conference last year, finishing first in total and against the rush, second in scoring and third against the pass. They lost a lot of talent from that group including five of the top six tacklers.
Still though, they brought back some key pieces including defensive end Demetrius Taylor, who lived in the backfield disrupting plays last year. Caleb Spurlin and George Blackstock join Taylor upfront on what should be the best defensive front in the conference. At corner, Shaun Jolly is a lockdown guy who had five interceptions last year and made first-team All-Sun Belt. Linebacker D’Marco Jackson is the leading returning tackler and a key piece to this defense.
On the other sideline, Charlotte is coming off its best season in the program’s short history. The 49ers went 7-6 and made the program’s first bowl game in 2019 in Will Healy’s first season.
Dual-threat quarterback Chris Evans broke out last year, throwing for 2,564 yards and 22 touchdowns and running for another 767 yards and six touchdowns. He has a stud to throw to in Victor Tucker, who’s one of the best receivers in Conference USA. Losing 1,000-yard rusher Benny LeMay was a huge loss for this offense. Seniors Aaron McAllister and transfer Tre Harbinson will look to replace LeMay’s production, and we might see more runs for Evans, too.
On the defensive side, the program’s all-time sack leader Alex Highsmith and all time tackle leader Jeff Gemmell are both gone and will obviously be tough to replace. The line looks the strongest unit on this defense led by Markees Watts who had 9.5 sacks last year. Austin Peay transfer Jaison Williams could get some immediate action and is now reunited with his former head coach.
Here’s how to watch:
Date: Saturday, Sept. 12
Time: 12 p.m. ET
Location: Boone, N.C.
Venue: Kidd Brewer Stadium
TV: ESPN 2
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Keys to Victory
App State needs to win in the trenches. They’ve built this program behind strong offensive line play and should be able to control the line of scrimmage all game. Watts is a guy who can cause disruption in the backfield and keeping him out to avoid Thomas from taking hits will be important.
Defensively, they can’t let Victor Tucker beat them. He’s a guy who can turn into a real game-changer and if he catches a few deep balls and the 49ers’ offense gets rolling, App State could be in trouble. Winning that battle in the trenches and getting pressure on Chris Reynolds and not letting him find Tucker deep will be key.
For Charlotte to pull off this upset they’ll likely need to turn it into a shootout. I don’t see this defense keeping App State off the scoreboard in a tight defensive battle, so they’ll need to put up a lot of points. We could see some designed runs from Evans, hoping to get into space and make guys miss.
On defense, they need to force a few turnovers and get pressure on Thomas. Getting the ball in favorable field position and stalling an App State drive is a must.
Odds via The Action Network
Spread: App State -16.5
App State is the much more talented team on both sides of the ball and should pull this win out. I think Jolly will do a good enough job covering Tucker and I don’t see Charlotte scoring enough to keep up with the Mountaineers. Thomas should have no problems picking apart this 49ers secondary and putting up points.
I think we could be in store for a track meet, Charlotte knows they have to score and if this App State offense gets going they’ll be tough to stop. Mountaineers take this one pretty easily
Final Score: App State 48, Charlotte 24