BOONE, N.C. – The extreme likelihood is Clemson will win the football game Saturday. That’s my stance. What’s also my stance is I will not be shocked if there’s a nervous murmur throughout Memorial Stadium into the fourth quarter.
Which part fails to grab you? The seven-game winning streak? The 20 returning starters? The balanced offense, the break-but-don’t-bend defense, the stinginess on third downs going both ways, the first year of bowl eligibility, the chance to ruin College Football Playoff dreams?
Take Appalachian State seriously. If somehow the Tigers don’t, Saturday could be problematic.
We turn to Winston Salem-Journal reporter Brant Wilkerson-New for further insight on the Mountaineers, in recent years and in recent days. Brant’s done a nice job covering all angles of the Devan Stringer story – Stringer’s an App State linebacker and Deshaun Watson’s close friend who’s dealing with unspeakable tragedy – and can be followed on Twitter right here.
Also, be sure to check out the latest podcast recorded for Clemson Sports Radio.
Aaron Brenner, The Post and Courier: First off, for Clemson fans who might not know, could you review Appalachian State’s timeline of transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level? Has that affected their recruiting timeline, being postseason-ineligible the past two years?
Brant Wilkerson-New, Winston Salem-Journal: The first word that comes to mind is difficult. App State went from a perennial FCS title contender, to suddenly playing for nothing for two seasons during the transition. Top that off when ex-head coach Jerry Moore, who led the Mountaineers to three titles, retired/resigned/was forced out in December 2012. Scott Satterfield, a former player and assistant, was hired, and three months later App State announced the move to FBS and the Sun Belt.
The 2013 season was tough, going 4-8 in a lame duck season in the SoCon. It was the program’s first losing season since 1993, with the one prior coming in 1984. Last season, the Mountaineers started 1-5 before closing on fire, thanks to some lineup changes that got a number of true freshmen on the field.
From that perspective, App State has definitely seen the talent level rise. A number of starters are sophomores and juniors, but have plenty of experience from last season.
In Satterfield’s more candid moments, it’s obvious the toll the past two seasons took on him, and everyone. I’d imagine it’s pretty taxing to keep 18-22 year olds, with nothing to play for, focused on the task at hand.
Brenner: What type of impact did the Michigan upset eight years ago have on the Mountaineers? (We’ve seen what it did to Big Blue.) And generally, how have other games vs. FBS power programs played out?
Wilkerson-New: App State had won two straight national championships when they walked into the Big House that day, but since, the program has become a national brand. There aren’t a lot of Sun Belt programs with that kind of brand recognition in the national level.
For the remainder of the Mountaineers’ time in FCS, opponents were ready. There have been losses at East Carolina, Florida, LSU, Michigan and Virginia Tech.
What that win meant for the program is immeasurable, though — fundraising has soared since then, and the $50 million Appalachian Athletics Center opened in 2009, housing a new press box, locker room, weight rooms and offices.
Kidd Brewer Stadium is routinely above capacity, which is especially impressive because the majority of fans drive in from Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. Football is big-time here, and people expect a conference contender every season. I would expect a packed section of Mountaineers fans on Saturday.
Brenner: Let’s have a look at some of the team’s skill player weapons. Do you expect to see more emphasis on the passing or running game?
Wilkerson-New: App State’s bread and butter is the run game, and when the Mountaineers went all in on the run last season, good things happened. During the six-game winning streak to finish last season, the Mountaineers averaged 51 carries and 293 yards. Granted, some of that came against the bottom of the Sun Belt. Still, impressive.
Running back Marcus Cox is electric — coaches rave about his vision as a ball carrier, and he should be fresh Saturday after 11 carries last week. Terrence Upshaw is the change-of-pace bruiser, and it looks like Josh Boyd will be the third man up.
That doesn’t mean the Mountaineers can’t pass it, though. Taylor Lamb (son of former Furman coach Bobby Lamb) was the Sun Belt freshman of the year last season, and picked up where he left off with an efficient performance on Saturday. Receiver Simms McElfresh is the slot threat, scoring a receiving and rushing touchdown last week, and Malachi Jones is the big guy on the outside. Shaedon Meadors, a Duncan native and Byrnes graduate, is the X-factor. He makes ridiculous catches look easy in the vertical passing game, and he’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder this weekend. Clemson only contacted him late in the recruiting process, and he’s pretty fired up for Saturday. Meadors made a few appearances on ESPN’s top 10 last season, and is worth the price of admission.
Brenner: Clemson’s got a high-octane offense when steered by Deshaun Watson; how do the Mountaineers plan to slow down the Tigers?
Wilkerson-New: If I had a good answer for that, I’d probably be in line to make a lot of money as a defensive coordinator. The Mountaineers feel good about their defense, allowing averages of 154 passing yards and 88 rushing yards during last year’s winning streak. They picked up where things left off on Saturday, minus a few plays early when Howard had success on misdirection on the backside.
They’re in the third season of a 3-4 defense, engineered by former Wofford defensive coordinator Nate Woody. It seems they’ve mastered the concept, and are now working to refine it. With that, Devan Stringer — Watson’s childhood best friend — will be huge on Saturday. He’s the prototypical OLB in the scheme: big enough to make an impact at the line, but speedy enough to drop back in pass coverage and contain rushers on the edge. Safety Doug Middleton is probably an NFL guy, and will be key in support. Mondo Williams made his first start at cornerback on Saturday after a run as a juco All-American. This is a big opportunity for him.
Realistically, I think we all know there’s no stopping Watson and that cast of receivers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mountaineers bring a healthy pass rush and see what the secondary can do, at least early.
Brenner: What constitutes a successful Saturday at Death Valley? Do the Mountaineers believe they can win the game outright?
Wilkerson-New: They absolutely think they can win. This is a confident and cohesive bunch, with 20 starters back from last season and seven straight wins. Satterfield’s focus through fall camp was building depth, with many starters taking fewer reps to let the younger guys work in.
Ultimately, I think that will be the difference on a warm day down in Death Valley. The Mountaineers practiced during the hottest portion of the day here, with temperatures generally topping out in the upper 70s. Mike Sirignano, the Mountaineers strength coach who came from South Carolina, wanted to bring the SEC to the Sun Belt. Players have raved about the offseason program, and feel like they’re in the best condition of their lives.
I think App State will make a game of it through the first half, and from there, things come down to depth. Top-notch ACC programs like Clemson have four-star recruits coming off the bench, which is tough to keep pace with for a team that recently moved to 85 scholarships.
Successful day in my estimation? The Mountaineers hang around into the second half. Ultra success? Fans can’t go back to their tailgates until the fourth quarter.