Appalachian State’s football team practiced last week with “Rocky Top” blaring from speakers at one end of Kidd Brewer Stadium and the assembly of temporary bleachers making noise at the other end.
The Mountaineers open their third FBS season Thursday with an SEC Network game at Tennessee. Despite high-level success in the recent past, with three FCS national titles, an historic upset of Michigan and a Camellia Bowl victory at their disposal, they remain part of a big-picture construction project.
The trip to Neyland Stadium, coupled with Miami’s groundbreaking visit to Boone on Sept. 17, will provide the Mountaineers with multiple chances for exposure in the national spotlight. They play an FBS-only schedule for the first time and, thanks to an 11-2 record in 2015, enter this fall as the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt Conference.
Appalachian already has accomplished a lot as a football program. There’s an opportunity to take another step forward this season.
“To me, we’re still kind of growing the program,” said fourth-year coach Scott Satterfield, who played quarterback at Appalachian in the 1990s and was an assistant coach during its run to three straight FCS titles from 2005-07. “We’re not there yet.”
A Southern Conference power for nearly three decades from the mid-1980s until the FBS switch in 2014, Appalachian State has successfully navigated the difficult transition phase and become a relevant program within the highest level of college football.
Replacing a revered Hall of Fame coach in Jerry Moore wasn’t easy, as Satterfield led the Mountaineers to a 4-8 record in their final Southern Conference season and lost five of his first six games in their FBS debut. Since then, Appalachian State is 17-2 with one bowl victory.
The tough start to Satterfield’s tenure had many fans questioning the decision to leave the traditional rivalries and title-winning aspirations that accompanied playing FCS football in the Southern Conference.
The Mountaineers now have games against strong SEC and ACC teams early in their 2016 schedule, with Miami’s home-and-home series agreement setting the stage for a memorable, record-breaking day at Kidd Brewer Stadium in about three weeks.
“The decisions before I got here, the decision to go and play FBS football, this kind of legitimizes it,” said athletics director Doug Gillin, who replaced Charlie Cobb in February 2015. “When I talk to people, I ask, ‘Would you ever have envisioned a (home) schedule with all FBS opponents on it? Would you ever have envisioned a schedule with the Miami Hurricanes coming to Boone?
“We wouldn't have thought it would happen this quick. Maybe down the line, but not this quick, and our fan base is rallying around it.”
Facing high-profile opponents from “Power 5” conferences isn’t new – or playing them on the road isn’t, at least. The Mountaineers have traveled to Florida, Georgia, LSU and Michigan (twice) since 2007. They went to Clemson last year, losing 41-10 to the eventual national runner-up.
The first meeting with Michigan in 2007 forever changed the perception of Appalachian State.
It received $400,000 to appear in Ann Arbor, Mich., and exited “The Big House” with a stunning 34-32 upset. The Associated Press changed its Top 25 protocol five days later, making FCS teams eligible for the poll, and the Mountaineers received 19 voting points after the Michigan game.
That victory had a lot of benefits, many of which contributed to a relatively quick rise to FBS football, but it had no bearing on Appalachian State's pursuit of a 2007 conference championship, playoff berth or national title. The Mountaineers, after all, started 1-2 in conference play before winning their final eight games.
Arkansas State enjoyed an unbeaten run through the Sun Belt last year and played in the New Orleans Bowl despite losing to Southern Cal, Missouri and Toledo during a 1-3 start, so there are some similarities in the separation between non-league performance and league-driven goals.
Still, the outcomes of non-league games against Tennessee, Old Dominion, Miami and Akron will contribute directly to Appalachian State’s bowl eligibility and long-shot odds of emerging as the “Group of Five” representative in the “New Year’s Six” bowls. The highest-rated champion from the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mountain West, Mid-American and Sun Belt leagues is guaranteed a spot in the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl – the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl are this year’s semifinal games in the college football playoff.
What are the chances of Appalachian State going unbeaten against its difficult schedule and becoming the “Group of Five” team? That possibility could cease to exist by halftime of Thursday’s season-opening game at Tennessee, but at least the Mountaineers are in a position that allows them to dream big and determine their destination.
“It’s one of those things, when you start putting it all together, you’re like, ‘Wow, maybe this FBS thing isn’t all that bad,” a joking Gillin said with a laugh.
Appalachian State is receiving $1.15 million from Tennessee to appear in 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium and face a team that’s the SEC West favorite following a 9-4 season under coach Butch Jones. It’s the first meeting between schools separated by only 160 miles, in part because the Volunteers didn’t play lower-division teams from 1984-2009, when the Mountaineers were Southern Conference members.
Old Dominion, which went 5-7 last year with one of the nation’s youngest teams, visits Boone for a “Whiteout” game one week before the Hurricanes roll into the High Country. Former Georgia coach Mark Richt returned to his tradition-rich alma mater after it fired Al Golden following an 8-5 season, and the Kidd Brewer Stadium attendance record of 31,531 from a 2010 game against Elon will assuredly be broken.
There’s no time for the Mountaineers to collectively take a deep breath. They play a week later at Akron, which won its bowl game during an 8-5 season in 2015, before competing again the next weekend in a Sun Belt opener against Georgia State.
“You’ve got your nonconference schedule and your conference schedule, and I think they’re two different seasons,” Appalachian quarterback Taylor Lamb said. “The first four games you’re feeling yourself out and trying to win those games. Yeah, those guys across the field, you’ve got two (Power) 5 teams. Then it’s different, you get into conference play, you can win all of those and be Sun Belt champs, which is our goal.
“The first four games definitely set the tone for the next eight.”
Being a preseason league favorite is familiar territory for Appalachian State, which won 10 Southern Conference titles from 1991-2012, but the Mountaineers are seeking their first championship at the FBS level.
That chase, preceded by a nonconference schedule with plenty of star power, has created unprecedented excitement in Boone.
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to http://www.journalnow.com/sports/asu/
Appalachian State’s football schedule
September: 1, at Tennessee, 7:30; 10, Old Dominion, 3:30; 17, Miami, noon; 24, at Akron.
October: 1, Georgia State; 12, at La.-Lafayette, 8; 22, Idaho (homecoming); 27, at Georgia Southern, 7:30.
November: 5, Texas State; 12, at Troy; 19, La.-Monroe; 26, at New Mexico State.