In the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game, the Appalachian State Mountaineers will face the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. Kickoff is set for noon EST on Saturday, December 1, at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, North Carolina, Appalachian State’s home field. Fans can watch the game on ESPN.
Oddsmakers list the Mountaineers as 17.5-point favorites at home. There is also an over/under of 58.6 points. Click here to check out betting lines and game previews for all of the championship games and the rest of this week’s college football action.
Being in the Sun Belt East division, the Mountaineers had the more difficult path to this game. Appalachian State finished 7-1 in conference play this year but didn’t clinch a spot in the title game until last week when they beat Troy, who was previously undefeated in conference play. With the win, App State finished the year 9-2 overall, losing only to Penn State and Georgia Southern. After winning the East division, the Mountaineers have a chance to win the Sun Belt title outright after earning a share of it the past two seasons.
The Ragin’ Cajuns also clinched their spot in the Sun Belt Championship Game last weekend. UL-Lafayette knocked off rival UL-Monroe on the road to get to 5-3 in conference play, ultimately winning the West division on a tiebreaker with Arkansas State. Overall, Louisiana is just 7-5 under first-year coach Billy Napier. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns weren’t afraid to challenge themselves with games against Alabama and Mississippi State on their schedule. But that tough schedule ended up paying off when in the end. They won their last three games to reach the inaugural Sun Belt title game.
It’s worth noting that in five all-time meetings between these two teams, Louisiana has never beaten Appalachian State. The two teams have met in each of the last five seasons, with the Mountaineers winning every time. That includes a 27-17 win at Kidd Brewer Stadium a little over a month ago.
I admit that Appalachian State is probably the best team in the Sun Belt. But I’m having some trouble wrapping my head around this spread. It’s hard to imagine this conference championship game being that lopsided. Even if the Mountaineers end up winning, I like the Ragin’ Cajuns to beat the spread.
The game between these two teams in mid-October was virtually even from a statistical standpoint. Louisiana scored a late touchdown to make it a 10-point loss rather than a 17-point loss. But even without that touchdown, the Mountaineers wouldn’t have covered what the current spread is for Saturday’s game. That has me a little puzzled and hesitant to swallow 17 points, even if Appalachian State gets the title game on their home field.
One thing I like about the Ragin’ Cajuns is their ability to run the ball. Starting running back Trey Ragas has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this year, which is impressive with Louisiana having two other backs with over 700 yards on the season. The Ragin’ Cajuns have impressive depth in the backfield, as well as impressive productivity, as they gain nearly six yards per carry.
To complement that rushing attack, Louisiana has a true pocket passer in Andre Nunez. While he’s had some rough outings this year against some of the better teams the Ragin’ Cajuns have faced, Nunez has come on strong late in the season. He’s usually not asked to do too much, but he’s remained efficient and reliable. Nunez has played particularly well the last three weeks, so I think he’s set up for a good day on Saturday.
Admittedly, the Appalachian State defense is the best in the Sun Belt. They’ve allowed 10 points or less in five of their eight conference games this season. However, there have been a few times when they’ve been vulnerable defending the run, which is Louisiana’s biggest strength. The Ragin’ Cajuns also saw the App State defense earlier this year, so they’ll have a chance to make some adjustments.
On the other side of the ball, the Appalachian State offense isn’t necessarily the kind that will blow teams away, which makes me hesitate to eat so many points. In their four games against Sun Belt teams that are bowl eligible, the Mountaineers averaged a modest 24 points per game. Even with a solid defense, that doesn’t make it easy to cover 17.5 points.
Much like the Ragin’ Cajuns, Appalachian State excels at running the ball. However, quarterback Zac Thomas has had some subpar outings throwing the ball against the better teams in the Sun Belt. During the first meeting against Louisiana, he was just 10 for 20 throwing the ball for 106 yards. He’ll have to be a lot better than that if the Mountaineers hope to win comfortably and cover the spread.
Ultimately, I expect Appalachian State to win this game because their defense is exceptional. But I still have some questions about the Mountaineers on offense. I also wouldn’t rule out the Ragin’ Cajuns having some success on offense. In the end, I have too many doubts to eat 17.5 points. I like Louisiana to beat the spread, even in a losing effort.