Some of the names and faces have changed, along with one of the participating teams, but there sure are a lot of similarities between last year’s Sun Belt Conference Championship Game and the one that will be played at Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium on Saturday.
First and foremost, the Mountaineers will be involved, looking to successfully defend the league title they won on their home field a year ago.
And for the second straight year, there are strong rumors that, win or lose, their coach might be moving on to another opportunity after the game.
But there’s also a twist to Saturday’s showdown against West Division champion Louisiana. Although coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s team would still need help from other sources, a win Saturday would at least keep App State in play for a possible Cotton Bowl bid.
Not that the Mountaineers’ postseason destination — or his own future — is of immediate concern to Drinkwitz, who is sticking with the “1-0 each week” mentality he’s had since the season started nearly four months ago.
“(We’re) excited to be playing this week,” Drinkwitz said at a press conference in Boone this week. “It’s a tribute to our players and staff for the focus and hard work they’ve put in from the time we started this journey in January to right now.”
App State comes into the game ranked 20th in the AP poll with an 11-1 record that includes wins against Power 5 opponents North Carolina and South Carolina. Its only blemish is a 24-21 loss to Georgia Southern on Halloween night.
If not for that, the Mountaineers would already be in the driver’s seat for the Cotton Bowl berth that goes to the highest-ranked conference champion from a non-Power 5 league. As it is, they likely need both Memphis to lose in the American Athletic title game and Boise State to lose in the Mountain West on Saturday to earn that designation.
Otherwise, they’ll have to take the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the less-prestigious New Orleans Bowl for the second straight year.
First, they’ve got to take care of business against a Louisiana team that has won six straight. The Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t lost since a 17-7 setback to App State in Lafayette, La., all the way back on Oct. 8.
The Mountaineers are a 6½-point favorite this time around. But Drinkwitz warns that the results of that previous meeting won’t have any bearing on how the rematch plays out.
“They’re not the same team we played,” he said. “I think they’ve improved since the first time we played. To assume the game will be similar in nature would be a false narrative going into the game.
“Both teams have changed, whether it’s because of injuries or whatever the season has brought about. Their coaching staff has done a good job of pushing them to what their strengths are, and I think we have too.”
As for the injuries, App State suffered a major one two weeks ago when leading receiver Cory Sutton was lost for the season with a knee injury in a win against Texas State.
One thing the Mountaineers will have going for them is the home field advantage, something that’s likely to be enhanced by the prospect of cold weather and a large, supportive crowd.
“Any time you can get a big-time game like that in front of your home crowd, it does measures, not only for you as a player, but for your fans,” junior quarterback Zac Thomas said. “What we’ve done this year, we’ve done some great things, and getting it back in Boone for our fans, it’s a credit to them for showing out whenever it’s been bad weather. We’re just ready to get back to ‘The Rock’ for this championship game.”
No matter what, this will be App State’s last game this season at Kidd Brewer Stadium. Whether it will also be Drinkwitz’s last as the Mountaineers coach is a matter for speculation.
Although this is just Drinkwitz’s first season as a college head coach, his name is being mentioned in connection with several recently opened Power 5 jobs — just as former coach Scott Satterfield’s was a year ago at this time.
The Arkansas job might be of particular interest since Drinkwitz is a graduate of Arkansas Tech and has previously served as an assistant at Arkansas State.