A pair of familiar foes will square off in the fourth rendition of the Sun Belt Championship Game on Saturday, as the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns host the Appalachian State Mountaineers in Lafayette for all the marbles.
It will mark the 11th meeting all-time between the two schools, with Appalachian State holding an 8-2 lead in the series. It will be the seventh time these teams have met since 2018 alone and the third time that the Ragin' Cajuns and Mountaineers have faced off in the four-year history of the Sun Belt title game, with Appalachian State taking home the Sun Belt championship in both 2018 and 2019. It also marks the second meeting between the two schools this season after Louisiana scored a decisive 41-13 victory over Appalachian State in Lafayette back on Oct. 12, which gave the Cajuns their second straight win over the Mountaineers.
Appalachian State (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) finds itself back in the Sun Belt title game after missing out last season. It will be the first one for second-year head coach Shawn Clark, who has led the Mountaineers to an impressive 10 wins this season. That includes six straight victories to close out the 2021 regular season — outscoring their last four opponents by a margin of 151-31. However, there is one significant blemish on the slate — the 41-13 blowout loss to Louisiana back in October. Can the Mountaineers exact a little revenge on the Cajuns to win their fifth Sun Belt championship in six years?
Louisiana (11-1, 8-0) returns to the Sun Belt title game for the fourth year in a row after matching a program-best 11 wins during the regular season and going undefeated in conference play for the first time ever. The Ragin' Cajuns also enter as co-defending Sun Belt champs, but that comes with a grain of salt after last year's conference championship game against Coastal Carolina was canceled due to COVID-19 — declaring both teams as co-champs by default.
Of course, the big storyline heading into Saturday's title matchup is the departure of Louisiana head coach Billy Napier, who has already been named the next head coach at Florida following Dan Mullen's firing. The good news is that Napier will be on hand one last time on Saturday to lead his Ragin' Cajuns against the Mountaineers in the Sun Belt title game. The 2019 SBC Coach of the Year has been instrumental during his four seasons at the helm — leading Louisiana to 39 wins, four straight Sun Belt West titles, and three consecutive 10-win seasons. And the 2021 campaign might be his best work yet. The question is — can Napier go out on top, knocking off fellow Sun Belt heavyweight Appalachian State for the second time this season? If he can, the Cajuns will secure their first outright Sun Belt championship, along with their first 12-win season in program history.
Sun Belt Championship Game: Appalachian State at No. 24 Louisiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -3
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
Quarterback Chase Brice orchestrates a potent Appalachian State attack that averages 439.9 yards and 35.8 points per game. The former Clemson and Duke transfer has put together a solid campaign in his first year behind center for the Mountaineers — completing 63.8 percent of his pass attempts for a Sun Belt-leading 2,901 yards to go along with 22 touchdowns. He's also added 121 yards and three scores on the ground. However, Brice's 10 interceptions, including two picks in a lackluster performance against Louisiana earlier this season, are a noticeable eyesore on the stat sheet.
Brice is fortunate to have an outstanding supporting cast at his disposal. The Mountaineers boast one of the best offensive lines in the country — allowing just 10 sacks all season (fourth fewest in the FBS). They also feature a standout receiving corps that features three different pass catchers who rank among the top 10 in the SBC in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Wide receiver Corey Sutton headlines that group with a team-high 59 receptions for 876 yards and seven touchdowns, followed by Malik Williams (49 rec., 776 yds., 6 TDs) and Thomas Hennigan (49, 705, 5). The Appalachian State rushing attack is stout as well, churning out 189.1 yards per contest — led by a potent one-two punch in running backs Nate Noel (184 att., 1,036 yds., 4 TDs) and Camerun Peoples (145, 764, 13). Noel leads the SBC in rushing yards and is the only player in the conference to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark during the regular season. Meanwhile, Peoples is tied for the Sun Belt lead in rushing touchdowns (13).
The Mountaineers will be paired against a disciplined Ragin' Cajuns defense that has given up 349.7 yards and just 18.5 points per game. In the first meeting this season, Louisiana limited the Appalachian State offense to a season-low 211 yards and 13 points. The Cajuns also forced four App State turnovers, which could once again be a critical factor in Saturday's matchup. For the season, Appalachian State is even in turnover differential, while Louisiana ranks among the best in the nation in that category at plus-12. Third downs are a concern as well. The App State offense ranks 87th nationally in third-down conversions and failed to convert a single one in 11 attempts in the 41-13 loss to the Cajuns back in October. While the Mountaineers should fare much better on the offensive side of the football this time around, they will surely have their work cut out for them again on Saturday. Louisiana is led defensively by linebacker Chauncey Manac (team-high 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss) and all-conference defensive end Zi'Yon Hill (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries in five career games against App State).
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Quarterback Levi Lewis spearheads a veteran Louisiana attack that generates 406.6 yards and 31.3 points per game. Lewis hasn't put up jaw-dropping numbers this season — completing 61.2 percent of his pass attempts for 2,437 yards with 18 touchdowns against four interceptions. But he does have an extensive track record of success — leading the Ragin' Cajuns to a 33-7 record as a starter and holding school records for total offense and career touchdown passes.
Lewis relies on a collective effort from a receiving corps that has featured 18 different pass catchers and 10 players with at least one touchdown reception. Wide receiver Peter LeBlanc leads the team in receptions (33) and receiving yards (350), while wideout Kyren Lacy leads the Cajuns in touchdown catches with five. All-conference tackle Max Mitchell headlines a stout Louisiana offensive line that has given up a respectable 20 sacks in 12 games while leading the way for a dangerous four-pronged rushing attack that produces 192.3 yards per contest. That group consists of running backs Chris Smith (134 att., 834 yds., 8 TDs), Montrell Johnson (135, 776, 11), and Emani Bailey (71, 431, 5) to go along with Lewis at quarterback (79, 226, 4).
Louisiana will face a stingy Appalachian State defense that ranks 12th in the FBS in total defense (315.3 ypg) and 14th nationally in scoring defense (18.9 ppg). Appalachian State has fared well against the pass — allowing 206.3 passing yards per contest. More importantly, the Mountaineers have accumulated 15 interceptions (sixth in FBS), while giving up just 11 touchdowns through the air in 12 contests. Defensive back Steven Jones' five interceptions are tied for the most in the nation. App State's aggressive defense has been particularly greedy against the run this season — allowing a Sun Belt-low 108.9 rushing yards per game. They've also racked up 98 tackles for a loss (third in the FBS). That being said, the Mountaineers had no answer for the Louisiana rushing attack in the previous meeting — surrendering a season-high 246 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Much like the offense, the Mountaineers' defense should fare much better in the rematch. Nevertheless, they will need to be in top form to contend with a dangerous Louisiana offense on Saturday. Linebacker D'Marco Jackson will lead that effort (team-high 103 tackles, 15 TFLs, 5.0 sacks).
Emotions will be running high for Louisiana in what will likely be Napier's last game as head coach of the Ragin' Cajuns. It's difficult to say how that will affect the team on Saturday. But this isn't an unprecedented situation, as Appalachian State was in the same boat in both 2018 with Scott Satterfield and in 2019 with Eli Drinkwitz. And the Mountaineers still managed to persevere and win the Sun Belt championship in each of those instances before the aforementioned head coaches moved on to their new destinations, ironically knocking off Louisiana in both cases.
In terms of the matchup, Appalachian State has the superior team on paper. However, if there is one thing I have learned this season — it's to never underestimate the Ragin' Cajuns, especially at home. Louisiana hasn't been the most consistent squad from a performance standpoint, often playing down to its competition and narrowly escaping against inferior opponents on too many occasions. However, the Cajuns always seem to find a way to win, particularly when it comes to big matchups. It's also difficult to discount the Ragin' Cajuns' blowout win over the Mountaineers back in October. It should be much closer this time around with revenge playing a key role for the Mountaineers. But at the end of the day, Louisiana will once again find a way to come out on top and win its first outright Sun Belt title before Napier rides off into the Florida sunset.
Prediction: Louisiana 30, Appalachian State 27
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.