After winning the 2016 and '17 Sun Belt Conference championships, it’s only fitting that Appalachian State will host the conference’s inaugural championship game against Louisiana this Saturday.
Appalachian State (9-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) capped its regular season with a 21-10 win against Troy in last Saturday’s de-facto conference championship play-in game. The win was the Mountaineers’ fourth consecutive and gave them the East Division title. Appalachian State draws a familiar foe for the Sun Belt Championship Game, as the Mountaineers and Ragin' Cajuns faced off on Oct. 20, a game Appalachian State won 27-17.
Louisiana (7-5, 5-3) punched its ticket to Saturday’s title tilt as the West Division champion with a 31-28 road win against Louisiana-Monroe. The Ragin’ Cajuns went 1-3 in the month of September, but have been near unbeatable since. Louisiana won the 2005 Sun Belt Conference title and was forced to vacate its portion of the '13 conference crown as a result of NCAA penalties.
History hasn't been kind to Louisiana in games against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers have gone 5-0 against the Ragin’ Cajuns since 2014 and have outscored them 177-54.
Sun Belt Championship Game: Louisiana at Appalachian State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -16.5
Three Things to Watch:
1. Louisiana running back Trey Ragas
Make no mistake, Louisiana’s backfield is filled with talented rushers, but Ragas has been the most dynamic this year. In fact, Ragas’ 1,040 rushing yards this season are second to only Troy’s B.J. Smith (1,093) in the Sun Belt. Ragas is averaging 86.7 yards per game and 5.7 yards per rush, and he’s tallied eight touchdowns on the ground.
Ragas enters Saturday’s game off of a 115-yard rushing performance against Louisiana-Monroe. And although the sophomore didn’t register a rushing touchdown, he caught a TD pass to go with 27 yards as a receiver. Ragas this year has run for more than 100 yards on six occasions.
In Appalachian State's and Louisiana’s Oct. 20 meeting, Ragas ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
2. Appalachian State’s ferocious defense
There aren’t enough words to highlight just how productive the Mountaineer defense has been this year. It’s no coincidence that Appalachian State has faltered in its defense’s two worst showings this year: a 45-38 overtime loss to Penn State and a 34-14 road loss to Georgia Southern. Outside of those two mishaps, the Mountaineers haven’t surrendered more than 17 points to any opponent. In seven games this year, Appalachian State’s opponents haven’t scored more than 10 points.
Appalachian State and the nation's fifth-ranked scoring defense will go up against a Louisiana scoring offense ranked 34th in FBS. The Ragin’ Cajuns are scoring 33.7 points per game and have scored a total of 404 points this year. Appalachian State’s defense is allowing just 15.4 points per contest, so some something’s bound to give.
Louisiana has even picked up the scoring pace recently, averaging 38.3 points per game during its three-game winning streak.
3.Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans
Ragas won’t be the only back in Boone, North Carolina, Saturday with widespread conference acclaim. Evans also has put together an impressive season. The sophomore has run for 968 yards, which places him among the top 50 in the nation, and seven touchdowns. It’s easy to surmise that Evans would have 1,000 rushing yards this year had Appalachian State not had its Sept. 15 contest against Southern Miss canceled due to Hurricane Florence.
Evans is coming off back-to-back 100-yard efforts. He ran for 108 yards last week against Troy, and on Nov. 17, Evans tallied 127 yards and a touchdown against Georgia State.
In his first meeting this year against Louisiana, the talented back ran for a season-best 183 yards and one touchdown while also catching one pass for 20 yards and another score. He’ll be eager to replicate those efforts with the stakes even higher on Saturday.
As if the conference crown wasn’t enough, the winner of Saturday’s showdown will be rewarded with a berth in the Dec. 15 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
When looking at the Mountaineers (37.3 ppg, 441.4 ypg) and the Ragin’ Cajuns (33.7, 448.4) on offense, both squads nearly mirror the other. Defense, however, is what separates the two.
Louisiana has turned a slow start into a phenomenal season, and it will have a chance to end it with another Sun Belt title. The path to doing so, however, won't come easy as Appalachian State not only has the Ragin' Cajuns' number, but the Mountaineers have played at a high caliber in all but one instance this year.
Appalachian State wins a hard-fought battle in the Sun Belt Conference's first championship game.
Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Louisiana 14
— 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.