The top spot in the Sun Belt’s East Division is up for grabs on Saturday, as Appalachian State travels to Conway, South Carolina, to take on Coastal Carolina. The Mountaineers have won three division titles in a row, but that streak is in jeopardy with the Chanticleers ranked as the Sun Belt’s top team through 11 weeks. A couple of weeks remain in the regular season, but it’s a good bet the winner of this game will be playing Louisiana, who has already clinched the West, for the Sun Belt title in December.
New Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark has maintained the level of success that the program experienced under its last two coaches (Scott Satterfield and Eli Drinkwitz). Clark played his college ball in Boone and worked under Satterfield from 2016-18 as the program’s offensive line coach. He remained in that role under Drinkwitz last fall and was promoted to the full-time role prior to Appalachian State’s bowl game. Counting that bowl appearance, Clark is 7-1 as head coach, with the only loss coming at Marshall earlier this season. Appalachian State started its year with a win over Charlotte (35-20) before the loss to the Thundering Herd, but the program has rebounded with five victories in a row. The Mountaineers won by four against Georgia State last Saturday. However, the four previous Sun Belt wins in 2020 were all by 18 points or more.
If you want to win the Sun Belt, you have to go through Appalachian State and Louisiana. Coastal Carolina checked off one of those boxes by beating the Ragin’ Cajuns 30-27 on Oct. 14 as part of a 7-0 start. The Chanticleers handled Kansas (38-23) in the opener and then defeated Arkansas State 52-23 on Oct. 3 in their first Sun Belt game. Coach Jamey Chadwell’s group pounded Georgia State 51-0 on Halloween and cruised to a 23-6 victory over South Alabama last Saturday. Coastal Carolina has never played in a bowl or had a winning record in its short FBS tenure, until this season.
Appalachian State is 3-0 in the all-time series versus Coastal Carolina. Only one of the three matchups was decided by 10 points or less, and the Mountaineers won 56-37 in Boone last fall.
Appalachian State at Coastal Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Coastal Carolina -5.5
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Injuries are a storyline to watch going into Saturday’s matchup. Appalachian State’s high-powered offense is led by quarterback Zac Thomas, but the senior left last week’s win over Georgia State in an ambulance after taking a hard hit in the fourth quarter. Thomas was released later that night, but Clark indicated early in the week he was “day-to-day.” So far this year, Thomas has connected on 66.5 percent of his throws for 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns to five picks. He’s also added 275 yards and two scores on the ground. Thomas has passed for more than 200 yards just once in his last five games, but the senior is certainly capable of putting up better numbers if needed to throw more on Saturday. If Thomas can’t go, backup Jacob Huesman has played in 17 games in his career and would get the nod under center. Regardless of which quarterback takes the first snap, Appalachian State has to get the ball to Thomas Hennigan (22 catches) and Malik Williams (25) on the outside. While the Mountaineers have just nine completions of 30 yards or more, the offense is connecting on 65.9 percent of its throws.
Injuries are also a concern in Appalachian State’s backfield and for an offense that runs the ball on 65.5 percent of its plays. Leading rusher Daetrich Harrington (595 yards) is out for Saturday’s game. The Mountaineers aren’t hurting for options here, but Harrington’s absence will force Camerun Peoples and Marcus Williams into bigger roles. Coastal Carolina’s run defense has surrendered more than 175 yards to three teams this year, and Louisiana (236) had success against this defense in October. However, their last three opponents have all been held under 120 yards. Linemen Tarron Jackson (9.5 TFL) and C.J. Brewer (six) anchor a strong front, with Silas Kelly, Teddy Gallagher and Enock Makonzo headlining a solid linebacker unit.
Coastal Carolina’s offense is getting most of the accolades for its 7-0 start, but don’t overlook the work done by coordinator Chad Staggs on defense. This unit gave up 30.5 points and 6.1 yards per play last season. But through seven games in 2020, the Chanticleers are holding offenses to 4.99 yards a snap and just 16.3 points a contest. Staggs’ group ranks third in the Sun Belt against the run and in pass efficiency defense, while leading in sacks (25).
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall’s development has helped to elevate Coastal Carolina’s offense to a different level this season. The Chanticleers finished 2019 by averaging just 5.5 yards per play and 30.3 points a contest. Fast-forward to 2020, and Coastal Carolina’s group leads the Sun Belt in scoring (37.9), yards per play (6.6), and pass plays of 50 yards or more (five). McCall edged two experienced quarterbacks (Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter) to win the starting nod this offseason and enters Saturday’s game with 1,393 passing yards and 16 touchdowns to just one interception. McCall has also chipped in 271 yards and four scores on the ground.
The impact of McCall’s rise into the starting lineup is easily noticed on the stat sheet. The Chanticleers averaged just 7.1 yards per pass attempt in 2019, but that total has climbed to 9.8 in 2020. An improved passing game has benefited the offense in many ways, especially in allowing it to bring more variety to Chadwell’s scheme to help unlock its potential. Also, there’s a talented group of playmakers on the outside to deploy. McCall’s favorite target has been Jaivon Heiligh (35 catches), with Sam Denmark (12), Kameron Brown (12), and tight end Isaiah Likely (10) each averaging more than 17 yards a reception.
Similar to Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina has a strong offensive line to build around up front and its 2020 play-calling leans towards the run. The Chanticleers run on 64 percent of their plays, and that’s no surprise considering the talent and depth in the backfield. CJ Marable (370 yards) leads the way, but Reese White (6.4 ypc) has provided more big-play ability this season. McCall will chip in around nine carries a game, and Shemari Jones (268) is another name to watch in the backfield. Appalachian State’s run defense has been stingy all year by holding teams to just 4.12 yards per carry and 139.4 yards a contest. Both Marshall and Texas State eclipsed 200 rushing yards against this defense but no other opponent topped 150.
Despite the coaching changes at Appalachian State, the level of success on defense hasn’t changed. The defense has ranked first or second in the Sun Belt in the fewest points allowed every year since 2015. The Mountaineers are holding teams to 16.9 points a game this fall and 4.9 yards per play. Additionally, thanks to the standout cornerback tandem of Shaun Jolly and Shemar Jean-Charles, this group leads the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
These two teams are similar on paper, and the stakes are high for Saturday’s showdown in South Carolina. Both programs boast strong rushing attacks, solid quarterbacks and good defenses. Appalachian State has been the top program in the Sun Belt in recent years, but Coastal Carolina has already knocked off Louisiana and now has its sights set on the top spot in the East. In a matchup of two evenly matched teams, keep an eye on big plays and turnovers. So far, both teams have been about even in these departments but an edge one way or the other will play a role in the outcome. Assuming Zac Thomas plays, this one will go deep in the fourth quarter. The Chanticleers find a way to pull out a close victory over the Mountaineers and take over the top spot in the East.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina 27, Appalachian State 24
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions