Sun Belt champion Mountaineers face Conference USA runner-up Blue Raiders in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Appalachian State enters its R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl matchup against Middle Tennessee without a permanent head coach. The Mountaineers beat Louisiana 30-19 in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship Game on Dec. 1 only to see head coach Scott Satterfield leave three days later to take over at Louisville.
Satterfield’s impact at Appalachian State (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) is no secret. In six seasons, he went 51-24, including a sparkling 36-4 in Sun Belt play, and led the Mountaineers to four consecutive bowl appearances. Defensive line coach Mark Ivey, who has been with the program for seven years, will serve as interim head coach for the New Orleans Bowl.
On the other sideline, Middle Tennessee (8-5, 7-1 Conference USA) head coach Rick Stockstill is finishing up his 13th year at the school. This is the eighth postseason appearance for the Blue Raiders during his tenure. Middle Tennessee lost by two points (27-25) to UAB in the Conference USA Championship Game on Dec. 1.
These two teams have played each other three times since 1974. The Mountaineers won the first game with the Blue Raiders coming away victorious in 1989 and '92.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Appalachian State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Appalachian State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Blue Raider QB Brent Stockstill vs. Mountaineers' pass defense
Last week, Stockstill was named Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player after throwing for 3,214 yards and 28 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Stockstill’s 70.4 percent completion rate is a career best, and he’s averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. For his career, he has thrown 105 touchdown passes and his averaging 276.5 yards per game.
Stockstill, the son of Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill, has thrown for more than 300 yards on four occasions this season, with a season-best 396 yards and five touchdowns against FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin on Sept. 8. Last week in the conference championship game against UAB, Brent Stockstill went 29 of 45 for 362 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
He’ll face a tough task on Saturday, as Appalachian State ranks third in the FBS in passing yards allowed. The Mountaineers are allowing just 148.1 passing yards per game. The most they have given up in a game this season are 229 to Penn State's Trace McSorley and 225 to South Alabama's Evan Orth. Stockstill’s a gifted passer and the Blue Raiders’ success will depend on his ability to find holes in Appalachian State’s defense.
2. Appalachian State’s interception machine
Mountaineer safety Desmond Franklin’s four interceptions this year are tied for tops in the Sun Belt and place him in the top 20 (tied for 13th) in the nation as well. Franklin has returned one of those for a touchdown and has recorded seven interceptions during his time at Appalachian State.
However, he’s not the only Mountaineer defender with sure hands. Appalachian State is tied for 14th in FBS with 15 interceptions. Franklin leads the way with his four, but Tae Hayes and Josh Thomas have tallied three apiece. Five other Mountaineers — Noel Cook, Austin Exford, Clifton Duck, Kaiden Smith and Thomas Hennigan — are responsible for the others. This is not a new trend for this defense either. Appalachian State has recorded 71 interceptions over the last four seasons.
Stockstill tossed two picks in the Conference USA Championship Game loss to UAB two weeks ago, the first game he's had more than one interception this season. For the year he's thrown eight interceptions in 427 total pass attempts
3. The impact of Scott Satterfield’s departure
Satterfield graduated from Appalachian State as a student-athlete in 1996 and was the human embodiment of the Mountaineer way. He never won less than seven games throughout his six-year tenure. Under him, Appalachian State was a perfect 3-0 in bowl games and were winners of the last three Sun Belt Conference crowns. His leadership will be missed.
Interim head coach Mark Ivey, who also is an Appalachian State alumnus, will be tasked with leading the team against Middle Tennessee. Emotion is sure to run high, especially for those seniors playing in their last game. How will the players respond to Satterfield’s absence from the Mountaineer sideline? Even though he's already left will that be a distraction for the team? It will be interesting to see how Appalachian State comes out and plays in the first quarter of this game.
It’s been more than a quarter century since Middle Tennessee and Appalachian State have faced each other, and what better treat than to do so in New Orleans. Faithful fans from both schools are sure to flock to the Big Easy for the final game of the season.
Appalachian State has been the premier team in the Sun Belt all year long, and the departure of its beloved head coach shouldn’t jeopardize the Mountaineers' chances in this one. Appalachian State is 27 points shy of an undefeated season. The Mountaineers are solid on both sides of the ball but really made its mark on defense.
Saturday will mark Rick Stockstill’s final time coaching his son, Brent. The younger Stockstill has won 26 games with his father. The New Orleans Bowl marks Middle Tennessee's fourth consecutive postseason trip, and a victory would give the Blue Raiders back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in program history. But in the end, the Sun Belt champs have too much talent for the Conference USA runners-up to overcome
Prediction: Appalachian State 28, Middle Tennessee 24
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.