We get a treat on the first weekend of bowl season with two teams in the Appalachian State Mountaineers and UAB Blazers that both participated in their conference championship games — just with very different outcomes.
The Mountaineers (12-1) dominated the Sun Belt in 2019 under first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz and capped off the year with a seven-point victory against Louisiana, giving App State its second conference title in as many seasons. Drinkwitz is off to Missouri after just one year, but the winning pedigree should remain a constant in Boone with long-time offensive line coach Shawn Clark taking the reins.
UAB, meanwhile, had its worst performance of the season in the biggest moment, as the Blazers (9-4) were trounced by Florida Atlantic in the C-USA title game 49-6. That result should not overshadow what was a successful year for Bill Clark's team, reaching the conference championship a year after losing a number of key playmakers to graduation on both sides of the football.
Two teams that have won a ton of games the past two years will square off on Saturday in what has typically been one of the more entertaining bowl games of the season. The spread is currently favoring Appalachian State by more than two touchdowns, so we will see if the bowl's reputation holds up despite having a heavy favorite.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Appalachian State (12-1) vs. UAB (9-4)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Appalachian State -16.5
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Since losing to Georgia Southern on the last day of October, the Appalachian State offense has been rolling opponents — averaging 40.8 points per game and over 432 total yards. And there is no one area that a defense can focus on, as the Mountaineers have been getting it done both on the ground and through the air. Junior running back Darrynton Evans has been a man among boys all year, finishing second in the Sun Belt with 1,323 rushing yards and a 22 total TDs, including a combined 11 scores in the last four games alone.
If you stack the box to limit Evans, then you have to deal with quarterback Zac Thomas and a passing game that has remained consistent even without No. 1 wide receiver Corey Sutton, who was lost for the year in Week 13 against Texas State. The Mountaineers have gotten plenty of production elsewhere from the likes of Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams, and Jalen Virgil, who have all stepped up to fill Sutton's shoes in his absence.
It will be a battle of balance vs. balance, as the Blazers rank in the top 15 in the country defending both the pass and the run.
When UAB Has the Ball
For the Blazers to have any shot on Saturday, they have to get some semblance of a passing attack working and not be so reliant on the ground game. The combined passing yards for UAB quarterbacks in the last two games? 191. Injuries to starting quarterback Tyler Johnston have played a role in that, but those numbers are abysmal, and not what you want to see getting ready for the 29th-ranked pass defense in the country. A fully healthy Johnston after a few weeks off should aid the passing attack.
While not the dominant rushing offense it was a year ago, UAB can still get the job done on the ground with a trio of talented runners in Spencer Brown, Jermaine Brown and Lucious Stanley, who have all topped 100 yards rushing in at least one game in 2019. Appalachian State stifled opponents on the ground during the month of November, allowing just 2.79 YPC in those four games, but was susceptible to the run outside of that span, including 159 yards allowed against Louisiana in the conference championship.
Bowl games can be unpredictable in nature, but there is a reason that Appalachian State is more than a two-touchdown favorite heading into this weekend as one of the hottest teams in all of college football. The Mountaineers boast balance on offense, very few weaknesses on defense and a winning pedigree that should continue even if the head coach is no longer around. UAB needs a lot of things to click, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to have any shot at pulling the upset. If you are in a bowl game confidence pool, this matchup should be high on your list in favor of the Mountaineers.
Prediction: Appalachian State 34, UAB 16
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Top photo courtesy of App State Athletics)