The weirdest team in college football (2022-23)
Appalachian State has a chance to do the funniest thing possible.
In 2022, college football’s most bizarre season belonged to Appalachian State. It was weird in so many ways: App started the year with one of the wildest games of the season, a 63-61 home loss to North Carolina that the Mountaineers let get away in the final minutes. (UNC also tried to give it away. That game was bananas, you may recall.) The next week, App beat No. 6 Texas A&M, which was, at the time, thought to be a pretty good team. Next, App hosted College GameDay and beat Troy on a miraculous Hail Mary at the buzzer, 32-28. They won all of two FBS games after that, against lousy Georgia State and Old Dominion teams. App finished with six wins, but two of those were against FCS teams (The Citadel and Robert Morris), and the NCAA only lets teams count one of those toward bowl eligibility. App had a win over A&M in College Station, a win over a Troy squad that finished with 12 wins and a No. 19 ranking, and … very little else. No bowl game. Lots of disappointment.
In 2023, the biggest oddball season in the country has arguably again been App State’s. The Neers had another near-miss against UNC, losing in overtime in Chapel Hill in Week 2. They took three other brutal losses in the last few minutes (or literally the last second) against Wyoming (a blocked field goal going the other way), Coastal Carolina (a 24-yard field goal at the buzzer), and Old Dominion (the winning touchdown ceded with 48 seconds left). That last one was October 21, and it was not challenging to find App fans who wanted head coach Shawn Clark to go somewhere far away from Boone.
App was 3-4 at that point. Now App is 8-4, heading to Troy as a 5.5-point underdog for the Sun Belt Championship on Saturday. Of course, it still gets weirder: App is both an illegitimate Sun Belt East champ—because the banned James Madison had the best conference record—and an entirely legitimate one. Rules are rules, and at least App won when the teams played in JMU’s house. This weekend is a fitting capper to a two-year period in which App has been a giant-killer, one of the most exciting teams in the country, a host of GameDay, a considerable disappointment, and now maybe a Sun Belt champion. For the second year in a row, there hasn’t been a more complex program to pin down than this one.
Clark has done enough to get off The Eyes List, our coach carousel podcast where we talk about jobs that might open. This five-game winning streak has been his best work yet. App’s best player is running back Nate Noel, but Noel got hurt in early October and has been a shell of himself since returning at the end of that month. App has made it work with his backup, Kanye Roberts, doing the heavy lifting on the ground. And Joey Aguilar, a junior college transfer, has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the Group of 5. Before this year, Clark brought back a couple of old App assistants as coordinators: Frank Ponce on offense, Scot Sloan on defense. Clark’s unit has been good almost all year, and Sloan’s has rounded into form in the past month against Marshall, Georgia State, JMU, and Georgia Southern (all wins). Backfilled depth at essential positions and units that improve as the season goes on: both excellent signs that a coach is running his team well.
Clark reminds me of Toledo’s Jason Candle, who spent a few years losing every close game imaginable at a program that expects to be the best in its conference. Eventually, things started breaking Toledo’s way on the margins, and now the Rockets are on the verge of a second MAC title in two years. I don’t know how much winning Clark has to do to convince every App fan that he’s the guy, the way Scott Satterfield was the guy there in the years around the Mountaineers’ move from FCS to FBS (much less the way I-AA dynasty coach Jerry Moore was the ultimate guy). But winning on Saturday would be a good start. At the least, Clark has maintained App’s ability to get off the mat and fight another day.
That little column was inspired by subscriber Tom C., who asked: “Any chance to reassess App vibes after four weeks ago many were calling for a change? … A possible 10-win season after the 3-4 start seems miraculous.” Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week. A few more are below.