Clemson opponent preview No. 2: Appalachian State

In this Sept. 1, 2007 file photo, Appalachian State running back Kevin Richardson celebrates a 34-32 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

CLEMSON – It’s been eight years, and Appalachian State still is best known for The Big Upset in The Big House.

Being the first Football Championship Subdivision team ever to beat a ranked Football Bowl Subdivision – and doing it against a top-five team, and beating the bluest of bloods in Michigan, a program which truly still hasn’t recovered since the loss – meant Appalachian State now commandeered respect. Thusly, we had to summon a different punching bag in conversation (i.e. “Whether you’re playing Florida State or Appalachian State” no longer made sense. Now we go with “Directional U” or the Brent Venables-endorsed “East Popcorn State”.)

Anyway, the Mountaineers have become Pioneers. Just ask James Madison (2010, over Virginia Tech) or Georgia Southern (2013, over Florida) or North Dakota State, which is a remarkable 8-3 against FBS competition with wins over Minnesota (thrice), Iowa State (twice), Kansas and Kansas State.

It all started with Appalachian State, proving 63 is just as good as 85 in the name of athletic scholarships.

Alas, ASU has moved on up to the FBS level. After collecting 45 wins between 2007-10, the Mountaineers played their one emerging year (non-postseason-eligible) as part of the Sun Belt in 2014, and now are able to fight for their right to go bowling.

Opponent preview No. 1: Wofford

*Phil Steele’s Projected Preseason AP Top 25, posted April 27

Appalachian State coach: Scott Satterfield (11-13, 3rd season)

Returning starters: 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)

2014 record: 7-5, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference

Scoring offense: 35.7 points per game (26th in FBS)

Scoring defense: 27.3 points allowed (71st)

Series: Clemson leads 4-0, entirely in Clemson (1984-97)

Last meeting: Clemson 23, Appalachian State 12: Sept. 6, 1997 in Clemson

Opposing beat writer to follow: @TheAppalachian

1. Tricky task: Early September should be easier than it has been the past three years, when the Tigers opened at Georgia, hosted Georgia in an all-top-10 matchup and clashed with Auburn in Atlanta. However, Clemson coaches will talk up a different set of challenges here in 2015, and they’ll be justified. Clemson has to prepare for Wofford’s triple option in week one, quickly adjust for App State’s spread attack seven days, and then get ready for a road trip to Louisville (which features multiple offensive looks) in just five days’ turnaround.

2. The gang’s all here: Thought Wofford’s 19 returning starters was impressive? Appalachian State can top that. Only two starters from last year’s squad have departed – a left tackle and a cornerback – so the Mountaineers will have 20 returning starters ready to roll early in the season. There’s another reason Clemson’s first couple games will be more treacherous than they look on paper. This trend is one to watch: the Mountaineers were 71st in scoring defense last year, but 25th in total defense. They were also top-15 in the nation in yards per rush, 3rd-down offense and 3rd-down defense. Oh, and after a 1-5 start in 2014, Appalachian State finished the year on a six-year winning streak. Clemson’s week two opponent knows how to play ball.

3. It takes two: In yet another form of topping Wofford, there’s not just one Clemson product on coaching staff; there’s a pair. First-year wide receivers coach Justin Watts is, according to his ASU bio, one of two players ever to earn five letters from the Clemson football program (he received a medical redshirt in 1997.) He caught 51 passes from 1996-2000, before serving two years as a Clemson graduate assistant and then cutting his teeth at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee. Meanwhile, secondary coach Scot Sloan was a walk-on from 1988-91 and a graduate assistant from 1992-95 at Clemson. He bounced around coaching circles in the state of Georgia for 14 years before landing at Appalachian State in 2010.

Next week: at Louisville (Thurs. Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.)

On the horizon: bye week, vs. Notre Dame

-AB