The last two Sun Belt Conference Championship Games pit Louisiana against Appalachian State, and the Ragin' Cajuns are headed to a third straight. Appalachian State will not be playing for another league title after losing out on the East division spot to Coastal Carolina, but the Mountaineers still can close out 2020 with a statement.
The Mountaineers welcome the Ragin' Cajuns to Boone for a Friday night affair on the national stage. Louisiana can solidify its Top 25 ranking heading into the Dec. 19 Sun Belt Championship Game, but the Mountaineers are built to spoil that pursuit — even though they are not technically spoilers. Our friends in the Mojave Desert have Appalachian State projected as a slight favorite.
No. 25 Louisiana at Appalachian State
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -2.5
When Louisiana Has the Ball
When one thinks of the Nick Saban Tree, they might jump to assumptions about a run-first, physical brand of offense used to offset dominant defense. Think Kirby Smart and Georgia for the quintessential example. Under Billy Napier, however, Louisiana has played an exciting offensive style that pushes the tempo and feeds off of a turnover-creating defense.
The Ragin' Cajuns are well-balanced with an approximately 30-pass to 38-run per game play-calling differential. Quarterback Levi Lewis factors into both. He's completed 62.2 percent of his attempts with 16 touchdowns and has run for 233 yards with five more scores. The added layer of a dual-threat quarterback into the rushing attack makes it all the more dangerous, with running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas both going over 600 yards on the season and powering the nation's No. 6-ranked offense in yards per carry.
Appalachian State's rush defense has taken a slight step back this season compared to the previous two when the Mountaineers ranked in the top 30 nationally. They're still holding opponents to 4.12 yards per carry, though, a respectable yield — particularly in light of them ranking No. 12 nationally against the pass at just 180.2 yards per game. Brendan Harrington and Ryan Huff come into Friday's contest each with three interceptions, leading the nation's No. 11-most prolific intercepting defense.
Lewis, who's thrown seven picks on the season, needs to play a clean game.
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Appalachian State comes into Friday's contest averaging 32.8 points per game — a healthy number to be sure, but almost eight points per game fewer than last season's output, and the program's lowest average since 2016. Quarterback Zac Thomas has thrown more interceptions through nine games than he did in either of his previous two seasons, but Thomas is still completing two-thirds of his attempts and contributes to one of the few rushing offenses in college football more multifaceted than Louisiana's.
The Mountaineers rank seventh nationally in rushing yards per game at 256.4, and their per-carry average of 5.59 is only slightly below that of Louisiana. Camerun Peoples has carried the load effectively, while Marcus Williams Jr. has a pair of 100-plus-yard games. Appalachian State has been without Daetrich Harrington for the past month, but it's done little to hamper the Mountaineers' effectiveness.
Louisiana has given up a decent chunk on the ground throughout the season, but the Ragin' Cajuns defense flourishes with its takeaway ability. Bralen Trahan and Eric Garror have combined for seven interceptions to set the pace.
In the 2018 Sun Belt Championship Game, Appalachian State effectively grounded Louisiana in a 30-19 win. Last year's title game was more competitive and with a pace that would have seemingly favored the Ragin' Cajuns, but the Mountaineers ultimately won a 45-38 shootout.
This year just might be Louisiana's time for revenge. While a higher-scoring game would seemingly favor the Ragin' Cajuns, the defense's greediness this season suggests Louisiana can win in more of a defensive battle. The run game is going to be central for both sides; whichever can effectively get the ball moving on the ground should set the tone.
Prediction: Louisiana 28, Appalachian State 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.