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Why Wasn’t App State Ranked?

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Aside from the defending national champions, Appalachian State is the best Group of Five team in the country right now.

 It’s hard to argue with what Central Florida has done this season, their resume only bolstered by the team’s performance a year ago. However, aside from the defending national champions, Appalachian State is the best Group of Five team in the country right now.

The Mountaineers’ lone loss thus far came at the hands of Penn State, during week one, in a game in which they outgained the preseason #7 Nittany Lions, largely dictated the tempo, and perhaps deserved to win, all despite playing beneath their full potential -- heavily penalized, occasionally uncharacteristically undisciplined, and a few times too careless with the ball.

Since then, no one on the schedule has looked even remotely like they belong on the same field.

Even after consecutive systematic destructions, dismantlings, and dismissals of Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, and South Alabama, the boys from Boone entered the matchup with Arkansas State unranked in the most recent AP Poll. That should, obviously, no longer be the case when the votes are tallied next week, but it was stupid to begin with. S&P+ on the other hand, an entirely metric based entity devoid of misguided preconceptions, platitudinal ideas of conference strength, and the other various trappings of human ignorance properly acknowledged App’s dominance, moving them up to 13th in the nation, with UCF as the only more highly rated G5 squad.

Sure, doubters could, at that juncture, point to Penn State as having been the only worthwhile competition, and to the fact that App State did ultimately lose that game. Yet, to look only at who teams have beaten, as opposed to how teams are performing, is overly simplistic, superficial, and arguably lazy. At a certain point, scheduling is largely beyond a given team’s control. The level at which they play those games is not.

Now, fresh off of absolutely beating down the projected favorite to win the league, what’s left to nitpick?

Arkansas State’s widely heralded quarterback Justice Hansen was held to just over 200 yards on 40 attempts, with three interceptions and no touchdowns.

In fact, not one single Red Wolf made their way into the end zone. This was the first time in over three years that Arkansas State failed to score a touchdown.

Meanwhile, App State’s offense torched A-State for 260 rushing yards and three scores on the ground, including a 62 yard dash by quarterback Zac Thomas. And, while Thomas was not as efficient throwing the ball as he had been in the previous four contests, he still didn't turn the ball over and managed to toss a couple of scores -- one to Corey Sutton who may well be the best big play receiver in the Sun Belt. Plus, in fairness to him, Arkansas State was 22nd in the FBS in marginal passing efficiency allowed prior to that game.

There really are no weaknesses on this App State team. Even if star running back Jalin Moore will have to miss some time, Darrynton Evans, who just went for 121 yards and TD, and Marcus Williamson, who has been one of the steadiest backs in the league, albeit on a smaller sample size, have proven to be plenty capable in his stead.

Thomas, behind center, has filled Taylor Lamb’s quite cavernous shoes extremely well, and currently has a higher efficiency rating than his predecessor ever had over a full season.

Alongside the aforementioned Sutton, while none are as explosive as he is, Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams, and Dominique Heath are among the most reliable pass catchers in the conference. The only wideout that had really underwhelmed this season was Jalen Virgil, and then he went out and led the team in receiving versus Arkansas State. Factor in solid tight end play led by Collin Reed who just caught his second touchdown of the season, and Thomas has more weapons than he knows what to do with.

Oh, and because Scott Satterfield’s program is like a conveyor belt of strong offensive line play, it’s almost easy to overlook that group’s continued excellence.

Defensively, the secondary is about as good as it gets in the Group of Five. The cornerback duo, especially, between Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes, is among the best in all of college football.

At linebacker, both Aikeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr had potential star making showings, simply bolstering what were already a couple of solid campaigns, while Anthony Flory was typically reliable, and while the heavily rotated defensive line will usually struggle to put up overwhelming defensive stats, only one of the top six tacklers from that unit is allowing more than 3.5 yards per play.

Even the special teams is without any truly glaring holes. There was a missed field goal against A-State and the punt coverage could be better, but App State is one of the better teams in the country on kickoffs and the return game is lights out.

There are still two unbeaten G5 teams besides UCF -- Cincinnati and South Florida -- but all three of those teams play one another. It won’t be long until Cincy gets exposed, and while UCF should beat both of them and Memphis, is it really reasonable to expect them to go undefeated two years in a row? South Florida and Memphis are probably the next two best G5 teams after App, but Memphis already has two losses, and South Florida is lucky to be 5-0, after having just a 25% postgame win expectancy against Georgia Tech.

Even looking at the other top one loss G5 contenders for that New Year's Six bid, Houston’s loss to Texas Tech is much worse than App’s and they still have to play both Memphis and USF. UAB got housed by Coastal Carolina, so that’s a nonstarter. Same thing for Buffalo after losing to Army, especially given that they play in a clearly worse conference than the Sun Belt. Some of the Mountain West teams are interesting: Utah State, Hawaii, Fresno State, and San Diego State, but they’ll probably cannibalize each other to some extent, and even if one survives, Boise State is still out there to clean up the leftovers. Speaking of which, Boise already has two losses even though they’re probably better than all of those teams, and regardless, App’s one loss is better than any of theirs.

As far as the other two one-loss Sun Belt teams, Georgia Southern and Troy, Appalachian State will be able to take care of them on their own. It’s hard to imagine anyone on the Mountaineers’ remaining schedule playing them to even within a score, much less actually pulling off the upset. At this point, it would be more surprising if they didn’t win out. Georgia Southern appears to be the most challenging foe left, especially having to go to Paulson Stadium, but that’s a fairly favorable matchup, just from a purely schematic standpoint. And who knows what to expect from Troy now that their starting quarterback is done for the year. Assuming some regression without Kaleb Barker, it would honestly even be a surprise for anyone other than Georgia Southern to play App within two or three scores.

It’s hardly a foregone conclusion, and Appalachian State would need UCF to slip up somewhere, but if that happens, and everything else goes according to schedule, there’s no doubt as to who would deserve that New Year’s Six bid. Obviously that would mean the committee would have to accurately do its job, something that, as it pertains to the group of five given their “evaluation” (or, more aptly, pretend evaluation) of Central Florida in 2017, seems to be of little concern to them. It will also be interesting to see how the cancelled game against Southern Miss will factor into the equation.

Nevertheless, Scott Satterfield and company are, based on what we’ve seen so far, one of the two best teams in the Group of Five, one of the 15 to 20 best teams in the country (with room to grow), have the best loss of any one-loss G5 team, and barring another UCF run without a loss, will prove to have the best resume of any of their peers.

Not having them ranked last week was stupid. If they aren’t ranked next week, it’ll be a national travesty. Wake up, America, Appalachian State is a juggernaut.

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