Trip to first-ever Sun Belt title game on line
For the first time in conference history, the Sun Belt will hold a conference championship game in December. And the winner of Saturday’s Appalachian State-Troy contest will be awarded a berth.
Appalachian State (8-2, 6-1 Sun Belt) has enjoyed a productive season, cracking the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in school history. Appalachian State began the season with an overtime loss to Penn State, and save for a road loss to Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers have been consistently spotless.
Troy (9-2, 7-0) escaped Texas State with a five-point win last week, and like Appalachian State, has been solid all season. The Trojans dropped a head-scratcher to Liberty in October, and Boise State earned a decisive victory against Troy in Week 1. However, in contests against Sun Belt opponents, Troy has been flawless. The Trojans have won 13 consecutive contests against conference foes.
Troy and Appalachian State have met just six times since 1970, and the series is even at 3-3. Troy earned a 28-24 win last year at home.
Troy at Appalachian State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Appalachian State -10.5
Three Things to watch
1. Top-flight defenses
The Sun Belt’s No. 1 and No. 2 defenses will have at it Saturday afternoon. Appalachian State boasts the Sun Belt’s top-ranked defense, and Troy’s defensive unit checks in at second. The Mountaineers are allowing 15.9 points per game this year, while the Trojans are yielding 21.2 points per contest.
Troy’s Hunter Reese is the current Sun Belt sack leader with 6.5. For Appalachian State, Jordan Fehr leads the Mountaineers with 4.5 sacks. The Trojans have accumulated 35 sacks this year, which leads the Sun Belt and ties them for ninth in the country. Compare that to Appalachian State, which has totaled 18 in 10 games.
Both secondary units are talented, as well. Troy's Cedarius Rookard and Appalachian State's Desmond Franklin have tallied four interceptions apiece this season.
2. Appalachian State’s dominant backfield
No Sun Belt team has produced a more productive ground game than Appalachian State this season. The Mountaineers are averaging 246.6 yards per game and their backs have accounted for 2,466 yards (No. 16 in FBS).
Darrynton Evans has run for a team-best 860 yards and seven touchdowns, which is good enough to give him the second-most yards rushing in the Sun Belt. The conference’s rushing leader, coincidentally, is Troy running back B.J. Smith (1,040 yards and 12 touchdowns). Evans has crossed the 100-yard threshold four times this year, and he ran for 127 yards and one touchdown in last week’s win against Georgia State.
3. Troy LB Hunter Reese
Entering Saturday’s regular-season finale, Reese, a former walk-on, has posted tackles for a loss in 19 consecutive games. He’s tallied 28.5 since the 2015 season.
In 11 games this year, Reese has accumulated 51 total tackles, 12.5 for a loss, 6.5 sacks and one interception. He’s also forced a fumble and recovered two loose balls.
Appalachian State is a perfect 4-0 at home this season, and the Mountaineers have historically thrived in high-stakes conference games. While much consideration is often given to Appalachian State’s efficient offense, its defense this year has been just as dominant. That balance makes the Mountaineers a difficult out.
Neal Brown is a name that is usually thrown around when coaching vacancies in the Southeast arise. He’s been highly successful in his four years at Troy, and this season’s success only adds more legitimacy to his coaching acumen. Troy will give Appalachian State its toughest conference game of the season, but the Mountaineers should escape with the win.
Prediction: Appalachian State 31, Troy 28
— 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.