Back Matchup Breakdown: Louisiana-App State

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Matchup Breakdown: Louisiana-App State

By Jim Johnson
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For the first time ever, this Saturday, the Sun Belt title will be awarded by way of a championship game.

For the first time ever, this Saturday, the Sun Belt title will be awarded by way of a championship game. There will be no sharing, no funky scenarios, no splitsies, and no takesies backsies… just a winner and a loser.

App State will represent the East, to the surprise of no one. The Mountaineers were picked to win the division in the preseason, although by a thin margin over Troy, and by the midway point it would have seemed foolish to even think about anyone else winning the league. Then, following a season ending injury to Jalin Moore, coupled with the brief loss of Zac Thomas, App finally looked mortal for a few weeks. That said, since Thomas rejoined the lineup, Scott Satterfield’s group has played as well as ever. The offense sputtered against Troy’s elite defense last week, but App’s own historically good defense was more than enough to overcome the test from the Trojans.

From the West, however, comes an unlikely contender in Louisiana. Picked fourth in the division in the preseason Coaches’ Poll, the Ragin’ Cajuns were a mess throughout the month of September, falling in a now shocking loss to Coastal Carolina, sandwiched between SEC West foes Mississippi State and Alabama. Ever since, though, albeit with a couple of slip-ups on the road against the two aforementioned top teams from the East, Billy Napier and company have been on a pretty linearly upward trajectory. Thanks as much to stars like Trey Ragas, and budding ones like Andre Nunez, as the Cajuns’ unsung heroes, this team now has an opportunity to shock the league and put the rest of the Sun Belt on notice.

Obviously, these teams have played already this season, and there’s certainly some information to be garnered from App’s good, albeit less than convincing, win back in October, but these are also both different teams than they were over a month ago. Plus, using one game sample sizes as the end-all, be-all is the height of stupidity. Utilizing the full breadth of a season’s worth of data points, including the one in which they actually played, these are the most advantageous matchups within the matchup for each team in all three phases of the game:

When the Ragin’ Cajuns have the ball

Louisiana: In the Trenches

Louisiana has arguably the best offensive line in the conference. The right side, from Cole Prudhomme to Kevin Dotson to Robert Hunt, is particularly devastating. All three are among the best in the league at their respective positions. They’re also all really big and really strong. App State’s defensive line, built more towards speed than size, isn’t very big. Granted, better is always an advantage over just bigger, but all else being equal, bigger and stronger usually wins out. Nevertheless, App State genuinely has one of the best defenses in all of college football, and for as widely heralded as the secondary is, they’re just as good against the run as they are again the pass. Even so, the run defense is predicated on the linebacking corps. Now, that has clearly worked extremely well, but that doesn’t mean App State isn’t a little bit susceptible at the line of scrimmage, especially on passing downs when they go far more conservative than usual, and the front three is left to their own devices.

App State: Limiting Scoring Opportunities

This is not only something App State excels at, and did especially well against Louisiana the first time around, but will also be an integral part of the battle on Saturday because the Cajuns are one of the premier drive finishing offenses in college football, ranking 9th in the nation in points per trip inside the opposing 40-yard line, with 5.37 points per trip. Even in the first go-round, Napier’s group managed 5.67 points per opportunity despite going against a defense that is an elite drive finishing unit in its own right. The problem was, they only crossed that threshold on three of their 14 drives last time. It’s hard to stop Louisiana’s offense when it’s rolling, but App State defense is good enough in open play to keep that from ever happening.

When the Mountaineers have the ball

App State: Corey Sutton

Sutton, a former Kansas State Wildcat, has emerged as arguably the big play receiver in the Sun Belt. App State generally operates within an extremely run heavy offense, moved pretty well on the ground last time these two teams faced off, and probably will be able to again versus a less than stellar run defense. However, the last contest was also App’s worst offensive percentile performance of the season, excluding the games that Zac Thomas missed. Corey Sutton having just one catch in the game probably contributed to that. Plus, though Louisiana’s run defense is not great, the pass defense is legitimately one of the worst in the FBS, ranking 120th in S&P+. They do a little better job of limiting efficiency, but this group has been susceptible to big plays downfield. Thomas has a bevy of pass catchers at his disposal, but none with the explosiveness of Sutton. He has to be more involved in round two.

Louisiana: Limiting Rushing Efficiency

Darrynton Evans is an absolute playmaker at the second level, but neither he nor Marcus Williams provides the down to down reliability that Jalin Moore was capable of. Moore gained at least five yards on just under 50% of his carries, prior to getting hurt. Evans does so on less than 40% of his runs. Williams is a little better at nearly 45%, but he lacks the dynamic open field ability of either of the other two. Louisiana’s defense has done a good enough job of not letting those successful rushes hurt too badly, thus far, so a more aggressive commitment to limiting App State’s rushing efficiency could go a particularly long way against this team.

Special Teams

Louisiana: Place Kicking

Kyle Pfau ranks third in the Sun Belt in field goal percentage, has yet to miss an extra point, and sits in the national top 25 in field goal value per kick. In other words, his .32 net points per kick mark the 25th greatest disparity, based on distance, between he and the expected output of the average college kicker. App State’s Chandler Staton looks solid on paper, just about 4% lower in field goal percentage than Pfau, however the Mountaineers rank 105th with -.25 net points per attempt. A field goal fight is one that the Ragin’ Cajuns can win.

App State: Kick Returns

Louisiana is really solid on special teams, almost across the board, with the lone exception of kickoffs and the subsequent coverage thereof. As good as Pfau is when it comes to field goals and PATs, he only records a touchback 24.2% of the time and he’s hit four out of bounds. Louisiana also allows the fifth most yards per return in the Sun Belt and has given up the second most returns of 40+ yards, and 119th in the FBS in kick return success rate allowed. On the flipside, App State averages the most yards per return in the league and ranks 13th, nationally, in kick return success rate.

All things considered, App State is favored and rightfully so. Louisiana’s offense might actually be more effective than the Mountaineers’ offense, but Louisiana’s offense isn’t playing App’s offense. Louisiana’s offense is playing App’s defense, which is, again, one of the best in the game. Offensively, on paper, App State should correspondingly be able to take care of business in the opposite matchup. Still, last time these teams played, it was even closer than the final score indicated, and the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t even play their best game of the year on defense. It’s an uphill climb, and will necessitate a herculean effort, but the inaugural Sun Belt Championship might just be a little closer than people think.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP