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App State Rising

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Long a hypothetical discussion point, there is suddenly a practical pathway into the New Year's Six for the Mountaineers and Sun Belt alike.

It's late October, Appalachian State is undefeated at 6-0 and the Mountaineers are the third-highest Group-of-Five team in the national polls, the highest-ranked Sun Belt team ever, 21st, per the AP. Though a number of key games remain, it's time to consider the possibility of Appalachian State making both history and making a statement by earning a coveted New Year's Six bowl game bid. Along with also-perfect SMU and one-loss Cincinnati, Boise State and Memphis, the Mountaineers are in a position, rising and ready, to make a run.

Yet again, Appalachian State has impressed with its balance and consistency. Five of the Mountaineers' six wins have come by at least ten points, with their lone close contest standing as their signature performance of the year; a 34-31 victory at ACC member North Carolina. The Mountaineers outgained the Tar Heels 469 total yards to 385, holding a double-digit point lead late in the fourth quarter before blocking a field goal attempt to preserve the win. Appalachian State's victory in Chapel Hill came mere days before North Carolina took defending national champion Clemson down to the final play on that same field. 

The first half of the season has been a resounding success for new head coach Eli Drinkwitz, previously the offensive coordinator at North Carolina State. In addition to being unbeaten, Appalachian State leads the Sun Belt in scoring offense and 42.8 points per game and ranks second in the league in scoring defense, allowing 21.7 points per game. Notably, the Mountaineers have been convincing in each of their three conference games to date in winning by multiple scores, including a hard-fought triumph at Louisiana in a rematch of last season's Sun Belt Conference Championship Game.

All that Appalachian State has done has been underlined by a situational effectiveness that reflects preparation and poise. The Mountaineers rank number three nationally in third down conversions, reaching the sticks on over 54.7% of their tries. Furthermore, Appalachian State has been the nation's second-most proficient team at scoring touchdowns in the redzone, reaching paydirt over 89.2% of the time. Add in the fact that the Mountaineers are tied for third in the country with just four total turnovers and this is a team that, clearly, is ready for the bright lights.   

Meaningful momentum is in place after a 52-7 rout of Louisiana-Monroe, a game in which Appalachian State compiled 572 offensive yards, the program's highest total in an FBS outing since the end of 2017. It was a dominating performance across all fronts. Now settling into the meat of their Sun Belt schedule, the Mountaineers have very much entered the national conversation. 

Already having had reached multiple milestones in the rankings, the next barrier, for Appalachian State, is the latest iteration of the big stage.  

An appearance in the New Year's Six would be a fitting storyline for a program that has multiple chapters in college football's history book. From winning three consecutive national titles from 2005-2007 to the famed triumph over Michigan that final year to winning the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, Appalachian State has established its standing by climbing, reaching and striving to get to the top.

The Mountaineers, beyond reaching and claiming another league crown, will have a chance to further their resume with a potential win at South Carolina, who beat Georgia earlier in the season, on November 9th. Though awaiting as a significant challenge, a victory in Columbia, along with finishing conference play perfect, just might be enough to catapult Appalachian State onto the postseason's top shelf.

Long a hypothetical discussion point, there is suddenly a practical pathway into the New Year's Six for the Mountaineers and Sun Belt alike.         

It's unclear whether a perfect schedule would result in a higher ranking for Appalachian State than an undefeated SMU, or a one-loss Cincinnati, Boise State or Memphis, but, ahead of the final leg of the season, the Mountaineers are in the market for prime college football real estate. Currently, Hawaii and Temple are the only G-5 teams with multiple P-5 wins and Drinkwitz's bunch is the only side with the chance to join them. Quite the accomplishment for any program, this emerging opportunity is simply another progression for relative FBS newcomer Appalachian State. The Mountaineers, still scaling obstacles, continue to climb.   

Tough games, beyond the obvious headliner of South Carolina, remain for Appalachian State and, internally, the week-to-week focus is something the Mountaineers will have to maintain. That said, the spotlight is on; it's there where Appalachian State has often been at its best.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports