The Appalachian State Mountaineers and Marshall Thundering Herd were each the standard-bearer for Div. I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) in different eras. In 2020, both programs boast considerable success at college football's top division.
For Appalachian State, now is the pinnacle of its brief FBS existence. The Mountaineers finished ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 a season ago and returned to the polls this year after beating Charlotte in the season opener, 35-20. The Mountaineers' current performance is reminiscent of that of Marshall after the Thundering Herd moved up in the 1990s.
From Randy Moss' Heisman finalist season in 1997 to the undefeated '99 campaign and a Top 25 finish with Byron Leftwich at quarterback in 2002, Marshall has its own illustrious FBS history to match its FCS national championships. A win over Appalachian State on Saturday would mark a significant step back toward such heights for the Thundering Herd in a new era — and they get the opportunity to show out on the national stage, with CBS announcing Tuesday it will broadcast the game in its marquee timeslot.
Appalachian State at Marshall
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -4
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Appalachian State's Top 25 finish in 2019 was a byproduct of one of the most prolific scoring offenses in college football. The Mountaineers posted 38.8 points per game, good for the ninth-best average in the nation. Quarterback Zac Thomas has been a stalwart for the program over the past four years, combining an ever-refined passing touch with explosiveness rushing out of the pocket.
Thomas' dual-threat playmaking complements a well-rounded attack, with last year's change-of-pace back Marcus Williams Jr. and Camerun Peoples both coming off 100-yard games against Charlotte. Add Daetrich Harrington, who scored two touchdowns in the opener, and the rushing options seem almost limitless.
Tavante Beckett, a heat-seeking linebacker who last season racked up 112 tackles, leads the efforts to contain Appalachian State's multifaceted approach. The Herd need to generate as much pressure on Thomas as possible to limit RPO looks before they can develop. Darius Hodge keys Marshall in that regard off the line.
When Marshall Has the Ball
Marshall comes into Saturday's national broadcast off an unanticipated bye week, the result of East Carolina postponing due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The last time the Herd played, however, the offense balled out against a woefully overmatched Eastern Kentucky side. Freshman quarterback Grant Wells needed just 16 completions to clear 300 yards, and a quarter of his completions went for touchdowns.
The wealth spread effectively, too, with five different targets getting into the end zone. Five different Herd receivers also hauled in between 42 and 68 yards.
Marshall can anticipate more resistance from the Appalachian State defense, which generated six tackles for loss a week ago and 86 in 2019. Defensive end Demetrius Taylor, who made 13 tackles for loss a season ago, started the 2020 campaign on the same trajectory with 1.5 last week.
Appalachian State's endured the revolving door typical of Group of Five programs with as much sustained success as it's enjoyed in recent years, losing its last two head coaches to the ACC and SEC. In hiring alum Shawn Clark, an assistant for the previous four seasons, the Mountaineers maintained as much stability as possible amid another season of change — say nothing of the uncertainty all of college football faced.
With the veteran Thomas at quarterback and a corps of explosive playmakers, this Appalachian State bunch should prove that 2019 wasn't an aberration. The Mountaineers are contenders not only to stay in the Top 25 a while but perhaps run the table.
Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Marshall 24
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.