We filled you in on some basic info of the Appalachian State football program yesterday, but we have decided to dig a bit deeper and speak to someone who knows the ins-and-outs of the school.
Mike Holloway of AppNation247 was kind enough to speak to TBHR about Saturday’s match-up and the fallout from the Mountaineers’ last visit to Ann Arbor back in 2007.
TBHR: Describe the impact the upset over Michigan had on the Appalachian State football program.
MH: The 2007 win over Michigan, and the season as a whole, was the culmination of a great time in App football history. It kicked off the season that would end up with the program’s third consecutive FCS National Championship and although winning the title was the ultimate goal, it paled in comparison to winning in the Big House in terms of media exposure and putting Appalachian on the college football map. The victory garnered national attention, was a great selling point to recruits and kept the wheels turning on funding big facilities upgrades that came about a few years later. It also made the casual fan familiar with App State, which is something you can’t put a price tag on.
TBHR: What direction has the program gone since 2007?
MH: 2013 was a down year where the team finished 4-8 but overall, the program has sustained success since 2007. Appalachian went 48-17 from 2008-12, made the FCS playoffs all five years and won four Southern Conference titles. They’ve also done a nice job of developing players for the next level, with seven NFL draft picks since 2010 and 13 former players currently on NFL rosters.
TBHR: How is App State handling the transition to FBS football?
2014 will be the second of a two-year transition to the FBS level and Sun Belt Conference. 2013 was a tough year for the team, just a perfect storm in all the wrong ways with injuries and off-field problems for some of the team’s biggest weapons and a very young defense learning a new system. However, I think the pieces are in place for a successful transition to the FBS. The staff put together the top-ranked 2014 recruiting class in the Sun Belt (as rated by the 247Sports Composite) and redshirted some talented freshmen a year ago that would have played otherwise if the team was playoff eligible. They will definitely take some lumps but there is a solid foundation in place with great fan support and a winning tradition, which I think will allow Appalachian to be a consistent winner as a mid-major FBS program.
TBHR: What kind of team does App State have heading in 2014? What is their ceiling as a team this year?
MH: I expect to see a markedly improved Mountaineers team in 2014. After stumbling to a 1-6 start a year ago, they looked much better down the stretch and won three of their last four SoCon games including a 24-point win over Georgia Southern, their biggest rival who later took out Florida in The Swamp and is also moving to the Sun Belt. Along with having some consistency at quarterback and running back, it is the second year in a 3-4 defense which the guys really seemed to settle into late in the season after they found their nose tackle rotation.
The big question, however, is whether that improvement will translate into more wins than a year ago with the team playing an FBS schedule. I could see them finishing anywhere from 4-8 to 8-4, depending on how they are able to finish out games against Sun Belt teams that are fairly evenly matched from an athletic standpoint.
TBHR: What are App State’s biggest storylines for this year?
MH: The biggest story line has to be the return to the Big House. Regardless of how the game turns out this time around, it is the site of one of the biggest upsets in college football history and certainly one of the fondest memories for any Appalachian fan. Mountaineer fans raved about how well they were treated by the Michigan folks not only before but also after the game in 2007 and there should be a few thousand App fans excited to make the trip up.
The other big story of the season is obviously the FBS move and first year of a full Sun Belt schedule. Although the competition will be tougher, expectations are still high from the fans. Last year was the program’s first losing season since 1993 and they have not had consecutive losing seasons since 1981-82. It is not a fan base that is accustomed to losing and while the move up could buy some slack, it will be very interesting to see how the fan base handles the move along with the guys on the field.
TBHR: Who are their impact players to look out for?
MH: On offense, hard to start with anyone but sophomore running back Marcus Cox. He came in as a true freshman last year, grasped the offense very quickly and never let go of the starting job. Cox had a monster freshman year with 1,809 net yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns despite not starting the first two games. He is a dynamic player both out of the backfield and as a receiver, very elusive in space. He arrived on campus last year at 5-11 and 185 pounds, has hit the weight room and is now up to 200 pounds, which should help him continue to be durable.
Quarterback Kam Bryant is also a player to watch on defense. He started the final eight games of the 2013 season, completed 71% of his passes for 2,703 yards and 14 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions.He doesn’t have a huge arm but is very accurate, makes good decisions and is mobile in the pocket. His receiving corps has a good amount of youth in it but also lots of speed.
On defense, two guys to watch are defensive end Ronald Blair and outside linebacker Kennan Gilchrist. Blair missed nearly all of last season with a hand injury along with some off-field issues but is back at 100%. In his first two full seasons, he had 6.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Very talented guy at 6-4, 275 pounds with good quickness: he was a Preseason All-Sun Belt selection by Phil Steele.
Gilchrist played behind a senior last year and only got two starts but still finished with 59 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Very good athlete coming off the edge who is primed for a breakout year. He’s about 6-2 with long arms and a motor that just doesn’t stop. Fun kid to watch, always plays with his hair on fire and has a nose for the ball.
TBHR: What will they have to do to compete and surprise the world for a second straight trip to Ann Arbor?
MH: That will be a monumental task! Needless to say, Michigan will enjoy significant physical advantages on both sides of the ball. Coach Hoke and his staff have put together some monster recruiting classes the past few years and have excellent athletes all over the field. While there is not a position group that App will have an advantage on paper, I do think the Mountaineers’ skill position players will be able to hold their own. The biggest challenge will be in the trenches, where the Wolverines have size and depth that Appalachian simply cannot match.
For the Apps to keep this one close and have a chance to pull off another shocker, they will have to be opportunistic and force some turnovers on defense while limiting the big plays and getting off the field on third down. Offensively, they will have to take some chances down the field and see if Bryant can open up the defense a bit by making plays with his legs. As good as Marcus Cox is, lining up and running at Michigan between the tackles all day isn’t going to be an option.
The 2007 App team was a veteran group fresh off two national titles with seven guys on the roster who went on to play in the NFL. Because many of the guys with next level potential are very young, no way to tell whether this group will approach that number of future professionals but unlike the first time they visited Ann Arbor, Appalachian does not have that championship experience that really showed itself in their ability to hang on late with Michigan charging hard.
The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is that both teams will come out amped up but maybe with a little jitters as well. Much like when App went down to Athens and faced Georgia last year, I could see them making some Michigan fans nervous in the first half before the home team wears them down up front and pulls away. As we saw back in 2007, anything is possible and I think they will look much better than you may expect from a team who was 4-8 in 2013 but Michigan will be out for blood and it will take some big plays early to get them on their heels and leave the door open for an upset.