BOONE, N.C. — When coach Jerry Moore took his Appalachian State University football to Michigan for a contest to open the 2007 season, he told his players and coaches to embrace it as a game of opportunity.
Nine years to the day of the Mountaineers’ earth-rattling 34-32 upset of the fifth-ranked Wolverines in front of 109,218 screaming fans at Michigan Stadium, ASU faces another propitious moment in the history of its program.
App State opens the 2016 campaign Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in historic Neyland Stadium — with more than 100,000 fans expected to attend — against the No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers.
The game will also be shown to a national audience as the kickoff contest for the SEC television network.
Coming off an 11-2 record and a Camellia Bowl win, the Mountaineers bring back high expectations, along with 17 returning starters and probably the deepest roster in school history.
Opportunity awaits Appalachian again on Thursday, but this time the Mountaineers probably won’t be sneaking up on an unsuspecting, overconfident opponent in the first-ever meeting between two schools that are separated by just 160 miles.
“Every time we play a Power Five school, it gets brought up,” ASU coach Scott Satterfield told the media in a press conference last week. “I think, in a way, it kind of hurts us, because everybody always references that game to their team.”
Two of Tennessee’s coaches, Vols offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and defensive line/associate head coach Steve Stripling watched that 2007 shocker first hand as members of the Michigan staff.
Reports out of Knoxville this week have suggested that DeBord and Stripling have tried to avoid that subject, with only a modicum of success.
“That’s so far in the past, I don’t even remember all that,” DeBord said in an interview with SEC Country’s Mike Griffith. “I’m here to talk about them this year.”
The Mountaineers can hope, however, that the Volunteers might look past them with a groundbreaking game at Bristol Motor Speedway — dubbed the “Battle at Bristol” — against Virginia Tech looming next week.
Like Michigan in 2007, Tennessee is a team that has aspirations of a potential national championship. As a veteran squad that hopes to win the Southeastern Conference, the Vols are looking at the opening game with a bigger picture in mind.
But then so are the Mountaineers.
The 2016 schedule offers Appalachian the opportunity — there is that word again — to position itself for something that a Sun Belt Conference squad has never achieved, the chance to play in a major bowl game as a member of the Group of Five, lower-level Football Bowl Subdivision leagues.
Should the Mountaineers navigate past Tennessee and then beat Miami in a much-anticipated home game in a couple of weeks and make it through the non-conference schedule unscathed, an undefeated Sun Belt championship could put this FBS newby in position to play on New Year’s Day as the top team among the Group of Five.
App State coaches and players know what is at stake on Thursday is not simply another opening game.
Satterfield, who led ASU to a 24-22 victory over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, Wake Forest, as a senior quarterback in 1995, remembers how important a season opener can be. The Mountaineers, then members of I-AA, used the springboard of that win to capture 12 consecutive games, claim the Southern Conference and earn a No. 2 national ranking before losing to Stephen F. Austin in the playoff quarterfinals.
As an assistant coach, Satterfield was on hand when ASU squandered its chances to upset Auburn in the 1999 season opener when it had a coverage bust that led to a final-minute touchdown and the painful 22-15 loss.
With the move to FBS, the Mountaineers are again in the spotlight against a traditional college football powerhouse. The difference, however, is ASU is on more even footing with 85 scholarships, instead of the 63 it had for the Michigan game.
But the Mountaineers will face a Tennessee squad that has one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks in senior Joshua Dobbs (2,962 total yards and 27 touchdowns), the bruising rushing of tailback Jalen Hurd(2,187 career yards) and what is expected to be a much-improved defensive unit under new coordinator Bob Shoup, who was recruited from Penn State with the task of making that group championship-caliber.
Shoup has promised to improve the Volunteer run defense, stating “Nobody will run the football on Tennessee.”
That premise will get tested by an Appalachian squad that features one of the top running baks in the country in Marcus Cox, who is nearing the school’s all-time rushing record with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and 4,088 career yards. Waiting in the wings are two additional for ASU, speedster Jalen Moore (731 yards as a freshman) and Terrence Upshaw (442 yards).
Defensive end Derek Barnett has 20 sacks in two seasons to lead a deep defensive front, while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin joined him on the All-SEC squad last season after piling up more than 100 tackles for the second consecutive year.
ASU’s poised junior quarterback Taylor Lamb has three returning starters, Parker Collins, injury-free Bo Nunn and Colby Gossett, giving him protection up front, but the Mountaineer offensive line figures to be under pressure during the opener.
Appalachian’s calling card, as much as anything else last year, was its defense, which was nationally ranked in several categories. The Mountaineers lost defensive end and Sun Belt defensive player of the year Ronald Blair to graduation and the NFL, but linebacker John Law was chosen as this season’s preseason conference defensive player of the year and heads up a veteran unit.
Beside Law is playmaking inside linebacker Eric Boggs (104 tackles last year) and speedy Devan Springer is a big-play performer on the outside. Defensive tackle Tyson Fernandez will anchor a defensive line that will rely more on depth than the star-making ability of one player this fall.
Appalachian lost its best coverman in the secondary when Latrell Gibbs was sidelined with academic issues, but the remaining defensive backs make up one of the most talented groups on the team with players such as cornerback Tee Hayes and free safety Alex Gray.
This game will feature two potential game-breaking receivers in Tennessee’s Josh Malone and ASU’s Shaedon Meadors and the performance of these two players could have a big impact on Thursday’s game. If Meadors, who averages more than 20 yards per reception, can break some big plays (anyone remember Dexter Jackson’s play against Michigan?) and the App State secondary can contain Malone, this could be a lot closer contest than the 20-point betting odds would suggest.