The no. 20 Appalachian State Mountaineers will try to put the finishing touches on an amazing season when they take on the UAB Blazers, runners up in Conference-USA, in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Kickoff is set for 9:00 EST on Saturday, December 21 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
According to this year’s bowl game betting odds, the Mountaineers are favored by 17 points. The over/under for the game is set at 47.5 points.
Appalachian State continues to be the pre-eminent program in the Sun Belt and one of the best in the Group of Five. This year, first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz took the Mountaineers to new heights after taking over for Scott Satterfield. Not only did Appalachian State win their fourth straight Sun Belt title, but they also knocked off a pair of power-conference teams, beating both North Carolina and South Carolina. More importantly, the Mountaineers became a top-25 team for the first time.
Of course, the program’s success led to Drinkwitz leaving to take the open coaching job at Missouri. However, Shawn Clark, who has been the team’s offensive line coach for the past four seasons, has been named the new head coach, giving the program stability. He will lead the Mountaineers in their fifth straight bowl game. Appalachian State is 4-0 in bowls during that stretch, including a 45-13 win over Middle Tennessee in last year’s New Orleans Bowl.
As for UAB, their season has been nearly as impressive. Keep in mind the Blazers didn’t field a team in 2015 and 2016, yet head coach Bill Clark is taking UAB to a bowl game for the third straight season since the program was reinstated. The Blazers are 28-12 following that two-year hiatus and even won last year’s Conference USA championship.
This year, the Blazers put together another solid campaign. They went 9-3 and 6-2 in conference play, winning the C-USA West division and reaching the conference championship game for the second straight year. Unfortunately for UAB, they ran into a buzzsaw in the C-USA title game, losing to Florida Atlantic 49-6. However, they’ll be looking to put that game behind them and go after their 10th win of the season in the New Orleans Bowl.
This is one of the biggest spreads you’ll find this bowl season, but I’m not going to be afraid to lay down the points. The Mountaineers are a level above most other Group of Five programs, even one that played in a conference championship game. Plus, Appalachian State went through a coaching change ahead of last year’s bowl game and it didn’t stop them from blowing out the Conference USA runner-up, so I’ll expect a similar result this year.
For a team that won nine games this season, the Blazers have considerable shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball. That was evident when they managed just six points in the C-USA title game against Florida Atlantic. Tyler Johnston started at quarterback for most of the season, giving way to Dylan Hopkins late in the season. Both had a chance against Florida Atlantic but struggled to produce much. On the season, the two combined for more interceptions than touchdown passes and completed less than 56% of their passes.
In fairness, the Blazers have been able to rely on their rushing attack in recent years. However, the UAB ground game has struggled this year, averaging less than four yards per carry on the season. That’s not even close to good enough for a team with such obvious deficiencies at quarterback. The UAB offense is going to have a hard time generating much against the Appalachian State defense, which struggled early in the season but came on strong, giving up just 16 points per game over their final nine games.
As was the case in the C-USA Championship Game, the Blazers will need their defense to lead the way. Obviously, that didn’t work out well for them. On the season, UAB gave up just under 21 points per game. However, they played just five bowl teams in their 13 games. The Blazers were 1-4 in those five games and gave up an average of 30 points per game, so they hard trouble when the competition level kicked up a notch.
Meanwhile, the App State worked like a well-oiled machine for much of the season. The Mountaineers scored over 40 points seven times and reached the 30-point plateau 10 times in their 13 times. Quarterback Zac Thomas isn’t flashy, but he’s efficient as a quarterback and had a fine season throwing the ball. The Mountaineers are also able to stay balanced with Thomas being a running threat and Darrynton Evans rushing for over 1,300 yards this season.
In my opinion, Appalachian State would have to play one of their worst games of the season for UAB to have a chance in this game. The Blazers will have their hands full defensively and lack the kind of offense that can create explosive plays and keep up in a shootout. In the end, I expect the Mountaineers to have a comfortable win that covers the 17-point spread.