For years, the game between the Appalachian State Mountaineers and the Georgia Southern Eagles would have post season implications. The two teams formally played in the FCS's Southern Conference, and they were both among the best teams in the entire Football Championship Subdivision (formally 1-AA). Every time these two played each other, it seemed like the biggest game of the season.
Both teams have moved on to the FBS, but the implications of the rivalry are renewed.
Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are coming off their two year postseason ban, which was put in place due to an NCAA rule that gives FCS schools a two year transitioning period into the FBS before becoming eligible to play in the post season. Usually, teams inside that transitioning period don't have to worry about the post season ban, as those teams are rarely able to win enough games while trying to adapt to the new schedules and competition.
That was not the case with these two former FCS National Champions. Appalachian State began last season 1-5, but then rattled off six straight victories to end the season. For Georgia Southern, the post season ban was actually a big hindrance, as the Eagles went undefeated in the Sun Belt Conference and won the conference championship in their first year as a member. They appealed to the NCAA to allow for the team to play in a bowl game, but they were denied.
Both teams enter this contest with identical 5-1 records. They are both undefeated in conference play, with both of their losses coming on the road to Power Five schools - Georgia Southern to West Virginia, and Appalachian State to Clemson. They have blown clear past the rest of the conference in the standings, and neither look ready to slow down, making this game potentially the Sun Belt Championship game.
These two teams have faced each other 31 times, with Appalachian State owning a 16-13-1. Georgia Southern won last year's contest 31-14, a revenge for Appalachian State's 38-14 beat down of the Eagles the year prior. Prior to those two games, six of the previous seven contests were decided by a touchdown or less. This game should be more like those previous close contests than the more recent outings.
Georgia Southern is lead by their triple option running game, which is the best in the nation. The Eagles average 400 yards a game on the ground, and are lead by junior Matt Breida, who has rushed for 875 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Breida has broken 100 yards rushing in his last five games, including 137 yards on just 13 carries against New Mexico State last week. NFL scouts have already been discussing Breida as a future pro.
Breida is Georgia Southern's best weapon in the running game, but he is not the only one. LA Ramsby and Wesley Fields have all been given touches, and quarterback, and have found holes in the defense. Ramsby is more of a bruising back that sees carries up the middle, while Breida has explosiveness on the edges. Fields, a former option quarterback in high school, offers a good third weapon for the Eagles.
The quarterbacks are also heavily involved in the run game, as well. Kevin Ellison is an effective runner out of the option, carrying it for over a hundred yards last week. He has shared snaps with Favian Upshaw. Neither quarterback is asked to throw much - Ellison has the only passing touchdown on the season. The two quarterbacks have combined to throw 70 passes, which is not a good sign if the Eagles find themselves in a hole early in a football game. Luckily for them, with the exception of the West Virginia game, Georgia Southern has not found themselves trailing in a football game.
Defensively, the Eagles have some question marks. Teams have been effective passing on the Eagles, who rank 60th in total defense. They gave up 26 points to winless New Mexico State at home, and 31 points to Louisiana-Monroe the week before. Appalachian State will be the best Sun Belt offense the Eagles have faced all season.
For the Mountaineers, they enter the game with a balanced offense. They are ranked ninth in the nation running the football, with junior running back Marcus Cox receiving a majority of the workload. He has rushed for 687 yards on 116 carries, including a 122 yard performance against Louisiana-Monroe last week. Cox has broken a hundred yards rushing in every game but one this season, including against the stout Clemson defense. He is averaging six yards per carry, but his numbers drastically improve at home, where he averages over 10 yards per carry at Kidd Brewer Stadium. Those stats are slightly inflated, however, considering Appalachian State has only played twice at home.
Appalachian State's strong running game doesn't mean they can't air it out if they need to. Quarterback Tyler Lamb has been incredibly efficient this season, passing for 15 touchdowns and five interceptions, three of which came in that Clemson game. Lamb has nearly a 70% completion percentage against Sun Belt Conference teams, with his 53% rate last week against Louisiana-Monroe being the worst of the season. He made up for it, however, rushing for over 100 yards.
Defensively, the Mountaineers are incredibly stout, entering the game as the fifth best defensive team in the country. Defensive back Latrell Gibbs has five interceptions this season, tied for third most in the country. Everyone will be watching at Appalachian State's 13th ranked rushing defense goes against Georgia Southern's top ranked rushing offense.
The game kicks off at 7:30 Eastern Time and can be seen on ESPNU.