Appalachian State football should compete at the top of the Sun Belt again but a tough schedule won’t make it easy for the Mountaineers. 

Despite the turnover at head coach over the past decade, Appalachian State football has been a consistent force in the Group of 5. They’ve now won at least nine games in each of the last seven seasons and have won 10 or more games in five of those campaigns. Head coach Shawn Clark enters his third season with the goal in mind of keeping this train rolling.

With some big questions on both sides of the ball, though, you do have to wonder if App State is set to fall back even a bit from the standard that’s been set in Boone, NC throughout the past few years in the Sun Belt Conference. Suffice it to say, though, there should still be high hopes.

Coming in at No. 45 on FanSided’s Preseason Top 50 Rankings, the Appalachian State Mountaineers.

Appalachian State football 2021 season in review

Anytime that the Mountaineers aren’t winning the Sun Belt, the Boone faithful likely consider that a bit of a shortcoming for their expectations. However, there is always nuance to an argument such as that and that’s certainly the case when it comes to App State in 2021.

Yes, they lost in the Sun Belt Championship Game and were blown out by a Western Kentucky offensive explosion in the Boca Raton Bowl. On the whole, though, they continued to look like one of the better Group of 5 teams in the country as they notched another 10-win season for the program and two of their losses came against the same (and very good) Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns team — once in the regular season, once in the conference title matchup.

While the arrival of former Trevor Lawrence understudy Chase Brice helped the offense tremendously, the identity of Appalachian State was on the other side of the ball with an aggressive, free-flowing defense that consistently made plays. Now, it’ll be about trying to find a new identity as they search for double-digit wins yet again in the 2022 season.

Previewing Appalachian State offense for 2022 season

  • Returning starters (7/8): QB Chase Brice, RB Nate Noel, RB Camerun Peoples, TE Henry Pearson, OT Anderson Hardy, OG Damion Daley, OG Isaiah Helms, OT Cooper Hodges
  • Newcomers: RB Ahmani Marshall (Wake Forest), WR Tyler Page (SMU), QB Brady McBride (Memphis/Texas State)
  • Impact player: Chase Brice

On the whole, Clark’s team is in a good spot in terms of the returning talent on offense. While many would say that starts with Brice, perhaps the bigger key is four returning starters on the offensive line, which should retain a great deal of continuity up front, a factor that can never be overlooked.

As for Brice, he’s coming off of a season in which he threw for 3,337 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions along with over 170 yards rushing and three scores on the ground. The graduate student seemed to finally find his footing with the Mountaineers and looks to build on that with another year in the program, a plight that will aided with Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples returning as the co-starters at running back and being joined by explosive Wake Forest transfer Ahmani Marshall.

The big hindrance and question for Appalachian State, however, is at wide receiver. The top three pass-catchers from last season — Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan, and Malik Williams — are all gone, leaving Christian Wells as the leading returning receiver with just 243 yards last season. That will put a ton of pressure on Wells and SMU transfer Tyler Page to step up, but Brice and the running back combination has enough talent to help make the transition easier for that position group.

Previewing Appalachian State defense for 2022 season

  • Returning starters (6): LB Trey Cobb, EDGE Nick Hampton, CB Steven Jones Jr., NT Jordan Earle, EDGE Brendan Harrington, S Ryan Huff
  • Newcomer: LB Andrew Parker (Arkansas)
  • Impact player: Steven Jones Jr.

Three of the top-six tacklers from last years vaunted Mountaineers defense are gone, the most notable being Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year D’Marco Jackson. However, even with replacing five starters on the defense, there are reasons for optimism that this unit won’t take a big step back, if they take one at all.

Trey Cobb figures to be a force at inside linebacker, as will Arkansas transfer Andrew Parker, while Nick Hampton, who produced well on the edge last season, is expected to take an even bigger step forward in the 2022 campaign. The biggest playmaker coming back, though, is cornerback Steven Jones Jr. While not a perfect coverage player, he proved to be a ballhawk after hauling in five interceptions in 2021 and taking three of those to the house. They’ll look for more of that game-swinging ability from him as he is the elder statesman of the secondary.

The one concern to point out would be a lack of size and experience in the trenches. Jordan Earle is undersized for the nose and the projected defensive end starters, Hansky Paillant and Deshawn McKnight, have a lot to prove. The hope is that McKnight, stepping into a huge role as a sophomore, can be a real force to anchor this unit and keep the baseline level of defensive play high.

Appalachian State football players awards watch for 2022 season

Chase Brice, Maxwell

It’s no surprise that Chase Brice, given his success in the 2021 season and his journey throughout his college football career from Clemson to Duke to now App State, that he’s earned a spot on the Maxwell Award watch list as one of the best players in the country.

For him to make a serious push, frankly, might be a stretch. However, he amassed over 3,500 total yards and 30 touchdowns individually last season. Should he be able to better those numbers with his first time being a starter two years in a row for the same offensive system, there is at least an outside chance that he could crash the party among some of the bigger programs and bigger names in college football.

Cooper Hodges, Outland

Also added to the Rotary Lombardi Award watch list, Cooper Hodges gets the nod as a veteran offensive lineman on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the best interior lineman on offense or defense in college football.

Hodges has been an all-conference player over each of the past three seasons and is projected First Team All-Sun Belt for the 2022 season. Should he continue to be a dominant force in the trenches, he should get legitimate consideration for both the Outland and Lombardi awards this season.

Steven Jones Jr., Bednarik

In light of the production of Jones last season with three pick-sixes to his credit, it should be of no surprise that he’s on the preseason watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the country each season.

For Jones to end up in serious consideration for the honor, he’ll not only need to continue to be a ballhawking defensive back who makes plays on the ball, but Jones will also need to be a more consistent shutdown corner who is affecting games and shutting down opposing top receivers even when he’s not getting his hands on the ball.

Appalachian State football biggest game on 2022 schedule

With how strong the Sun Belt is looking this season, this is a much more difficult question than it would be in some other years.

Many Mountaineers fans will be looking at a home game against North Carolina or a road trip to play Texas A&M as another chance to shock the world a la the Michigan upset, but the real tests come in the conference and, most notably, with the Nov. 3 trip to Conway, SC to play Coastal Carolina.

While games against Troy and Georgia State (and perhaps a road trip to Marshall as well) could be tricky and crucial for App State, they were able to topple the Chanticleers in Boone last year, which helped propel them to the Sun Belt title game. If they’re to have any chance of repeating that and if they want to remain reeling off double-digit win seasons, getting another victory over Coastal is going to be pivotal.

Appalachian State football best-case scenario

There is absolutely a world in which the Mountaineers are the best team in the Sun Belt for the 2022 season, even with the overall depth and strength of the conference. That should be the guiding principle if we’re looking at the best-case scenario for the Mountaineers this season.

Despite how good this team can be, the increased level of difficulty in the conference does make me a bit skeptical as to the possibility of going unbeaten in the Sun Belt this season. Whether it’s that game in Conway or the aforementioned other matchups that could be tricky, it feels much more likely that a repeat 7-1 performance in the conference is unlikely. With that said, if we’re looking at the best-case scenario, opening up with an experienced team facing a UNC squad undergoing big changes, they get that win.

That best-case scenario — because the Mountaineers aren’t getting a win in College Station no matter how you slice it — as App State sitting at 10-2 in the regular season and likely in the conference title game once again.

Appalachian State football worst-case scenario

One of the hallmarks of Appalachian State football throughout their rise to prominence has been the consistency of the program and, in turn, the high floor for what the team can accomplish. That isn’t wholly changing this year as it’s difficult for me to imagine a world in which the Mountaineers aren’t comfortably bowling.

Having said that, we’ve already talked about the improved quality of the Sun Belt as a collective this season with new additions and just good quality programs in a spot to enjoy competitive years.

Thus, the worst-case scenario for Appalachian State probably looks something like losing to UNC and Texas A&M and then dropping at least two of the games against Troy, Georgia State and Coastal Carolina. That would put them at 8-4 on the year and would surely have them outside of the Sun Belt Championship Game — and would leave App State needing a bowl win to keep their string of nine-win seasons going.

Appalachian State football 2022 season prediction

Looking at the best- and worst-case scenarios for this season in Boone, the likely outcome for the regular season probably falls right in the middle of that.

My instinct is that the physicality of North Carolina and Texas A&M overwhelm the Mountaineers early in the season for an 0-2 start but then App State will find its footing in the Sun Belt. My gut says they actually get up for the Coastal game and pick up that win, but lose either to Troy or Georgia State to still pu them at 7-1 in the conference but with a 9-3 overall finish for the year. Again, that should be good enough for another Sun Belt Championship Game appearance and a quality bowl appearance to get to double-digit victories once again.

Appalachian State football 2022 bowl game prediction

College Football News has the Mountaineers projected to go bowling at the Myrtle Beach Bowl in Conway, SC, playing their postseason in familiar territory as they’d be on the teal turf of Coastal Carolina’s home stadium for this game. The projections, which take into account a loose Sun Belt Conference tie-in that gets App State into the game, has the team facing the BYU Cougars.

Up next: No. 44: Auburn Tigers

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