The 18th edition of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl will feature a match-up between two schools that haven’t faced each other since Gerald Ford was President and a dramatic television series called “The Six Million Dollar Man” was the #1-rated show in America.
That year was 1974, and it was the last time that Appalachian State (located in Boone, North Carolina) and Middle Tennessee (located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee) have played each other, now some four and a half decades ago. The (10-2) Appalachian State Mountaineers, the Sun Belt Conference champion, will face off against the Conference USA runner-up Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (8-5) at 7 p.m. on Dec. 15th inside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
— New Orleans Bowl (@NewOrleansBowl) December 2, 2018
Both teams played in conference championship games to advance to this week’s game; with Appalachian State defeating Louisiana-Lafayette by a score of 30-19 in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game; and Middle Tennessee losing to Alabama-Birmingham 27-25 in the Conference USA Championship Game.
This Friday Night’s showdown at the Superdome will be the first-ever New Orleans Bowl for the Mountaineers, who weren’t even bowl-eligible until becoming an FBS school in 2015. Meanwhile, the Blue Raiders have played in the game just one time — when they defeated Southern Miss 43-32 in 2009, back when Middle Tennessee were still members of the Sun Belt Conference themselves.
There are several intriguing story-lines surrounding this Friday’s contest, but perhaps none bigger than that of the Appalachian State coaching staff, which is undergoing an upheaval in advance of this contest. Scott Satterfield, who had led the Mountaineers program for the past 6 seasons (since 2013) and also helped them make the successful transition from FCS level to the FBS level, abruptly resigned as Mountaineers head coach last Tuesday (December 4th) to accept the new head coaching position at the University of Louisville.
— Winston-SalemJournal (@JournalNow) December 3, 2018
Satterfield replaced controversial former Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino (who was fired) and reportedly is bringing two of his high-level staff assistants, defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce, along with him as initially reported by Winston-Salem Journal writer Ethan Joyce.
As a result of the shake-up, the Mountaineers will be coached in this Friday’s game by defensive line coach Mark Ivey. Nevertheless, Appalachian State is currently favored to win by nine points. Additionally, they’re the only school in college football history to win bowl games in each of its first three seasons while competing at the FBS level.
Despite being the heavy favorite, however, this won’t exactly be a proverbial “cake walk” for the Mountaineers. Middle Tennessee is more than capable of pulling off the mild upset; and they’re also battle-tested, after having played in three games this year against SEC schools Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Kentucky (all losses).
— Middle Tennessee FB (@MT_FB) December 6, 2018
The Blue Raiders will be led by Brent Stockstill (son of Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill), who has thrown for 3,214 yards, 28 touchdowns, and eight interceptions this season.
Stockstill is the school’s career leader in touchdown passes (105) and as of this moment is ranked 2nd overall in career passing yards with 12,165. However, the Mountaineers pass defense will provide a rather stiff challenge for Stockstill, since Appalachian State ranks 3rd overall nationally at defending the pass, giving up a minuscule 148.1 yards per game.
Nevertheless, the Blue Raiders won’t be intimated by what some would consider a “superior” program in Appalachian State; and you had better believe that they’ll be thoroughly prepared for the challenge that lies ahead for them.
While Middle Tennessee is battle-tested because of their games against SEC opponents, the favored Mountaineers have a 10-win season and a conference championship to their credit.
Coming into this match-up Friday Night, Appalachian State has won 5 consecutive games in a row, and they nearly knocked off Big 10 ‘powerhouse” Penn State in their season opener (a 45-38 loss in overtime). The Mountaineers are averaging (36.7) points per contest (ranked 20th overall) and have scored at least 30 points or more in three of their past four games coming into Friday Night.
Top-15 national rankings for @AppState_FB's offense:
3️⃣ Darrynton Evans' runs of 50+ yds (5)
4️⃣ Evans' runs of 20+ yds (15)
1️⃣1️⃣ Zac Thomas' rushing TDs by a QB (10), App's avg. rush (5.72)
1️⃣2️⃣ Thomas' QBR (79.3)
1️⃣5️⃣ Corey Sutton's YPC (19.3), App's rushing YPG (241.0) pic.twitter.com/jaBUNbWKbx
— Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow) December 7, 2018
The Mountaineers have been largely successful not only because of their suffocating defense that has broken the backs of several opponents this year but also because of the powerful 1-2 punch provided by their two top weapons on offense.
While starting Mountaineers QB Zac Thomas has struggled under center at times, he’s still had the luxury of having RB Darrynton Evans; who’s rushed for a total of 1,079 yards rushing and 7 TD’s, while averaging (6.5) yards per carry; and former Kansas State University WR Corey Sutton — who transferred to the Mountaineers program last year and has given Thomas a reliable target this season with 36 receptions for 695 yards and 8 TD’s.
The three combined to lead the Mountaineers on a 5-game winning streak following their season-opening loss to Penn State, and then after they lost to Georgia Southern 34-14 on Oct. 25th, they haven’t lost another game since.
In all, this should shape up to be one of the more competitive match-ups in New Orleans Bowl history.
The 2018 #RLBowl match-up has been set!
Let the good times roll! pic.twitter.com/CNBnfuwC6P
— R+L Carriers (@RLCarriers) December 3, 2018
“We’ve got an excellent game,” New Orleans Bowl director Billy Ferrante said to reporters last week during the official press conference announcing the match-up. “These are two programs with solid histories, good records, and outstanding followings.”
“App State is a great brand, and having the Sun Belt champion is a step up for us,” Ferrante said. “It’s all worked out and this is going to be a fun and exciting game.”
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view the rest of his Saints coverage and several feature articles here.