ATHENS – The folks at Appalachian State know Georgia plays at Notre Dame in Week 2 this football season. So they’re hoping and praying that the Bulldogs will have their minds fixed on South Bend when the Mountaineers visit Sanford Stadium for the season opener on Sept. 2.
But they don’t expect that to be the case.
“Well, I think the fact that the Michigan thing always gets thrown up every year we play a Power 5 school and the fact that what we did at Tennessee last year has a lot of correlation [to Georgia this year], their kids are not going to overlook us because of those two things,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield told me this week. “Kirby’s also telling them, reminding every day about what’s happening. So, they’re not going to overlook us. I know it’s a big game for them. They want to start the season off on a good note.”
“The Michigan thing” to which Satterfield refers is that rather famous upset that the Mountaineers pulled off against the Wolverines on Sept. 1, 2007. Satterfield was the offensive coordinator and play-caller for that game. Appalachian State kicked a field goal with 26 seconds remaining, then blocked Michigan’s game-winning attempt as time expired to pull off a 34-32 victory at the Big House in Ann Arbor. At the time, the Mountaineers were still competing in the FCS, formerly known as I-AA, and to this day it is considered one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
Fast forward 10 years, and App State plays at Georgia on Sept. 2 at Sanford Stadium.
And, once again, App State has a team that’s capable of pulling off an upset. As Georgia coach Kirby Smart points out every chance he gets, the Mountaineers have been one of the most successful FBS teams in the country the last three years. They made the transition to FBS in 2013 and are 27-5 over their last 32 games, with back-to-back Sun Belt Conference championships. They finished 11-2 last season and 10-3 the year before, and won the last six games of the 2014 season.
Meanwhile, App State is the favorite to win the Sun Belt again this season. They return 17 starters from last year’s squad, including fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb of Calhoun, Ga., and 1,400-yard rusher Jalin Moore.
Generally, such a team is not going to strike fear into any SEC squad or its fan base. But tell that to the Tennessee Volunteers, and they’ll probably advise to approach with caution. They had to fight for their lives and use up a good deal of their generous supply of luck for last season to pull off a 20-13 season-opening victory in overtime at Neyland Stadium.
The similarities between Georgia this season and Tennessee heading into that game are uncanny. Like this year’s Bulldogs, the Volunteers entered the App State contest as the pick to win the SEC East with a notable game against an out-of-conference, Power 5 opponent looming the following week.
“It’s very similar circumstances,” Satterfield noted. “I mean, [Georgia is] coming off a solid year last year,and they’ve got a ton of players back, their whole defense and, of course, the quarterback’s back. And they have arguably the best backfield and running back in the country this year. So there’s certainly high expectations for Georgia.”
Generally, App State always has had a reputation for playing the Big Boys tough. This is a program that has won three of the last five against Wake Forest and has a victory over South Carolina to its credit. The year they knocked off Michigan, the Mountaineers went on to record their third consecutive FCS national championship. So they know a little about winning up in the mountainous village that is Boone, N.C.
They’ll also have plenty of motivation coming to Sanford Stadium for a visit. Twenty-seven players on App State’s roster call Georgia home, most notably the aforementioned quarterback, whose grandfather, Ray Lamb, was the longtime high school liaison for the Bulldogs. His father, Bobby Lamb, coaches the Mercer University football team and was at Furman for years.
Lamb, who accounted for 2,786 total yards and 24 touchdowns last year, told me in a separate interview that he got neither a scholarship nor a preferred walkon offer from UGA. So he’s pretty fired up about playing there. I’ll tell you more about him later.
“If you sit back and look at it, I mean, there’s not one kid on Georgia’s team that we had a chance at recruiting and there’s not a kid on our team that Georgia wanted,” Satterfield said. “So, certainly, on paper we shouldn’t even be able to stay with those guys. But that’s what’s great about college football, I think. You always play the game and then you see what happens.”
The latest lines as of Wednesday have Georgia has 14-point favorites. You can be sure, though, that Smart would sign up right now for a one-point victory if it could be assured.
But Satterfield’s right. If the Bulldogs struggle, it’s not going to be because they were overlooking App State and looking ahead. It will be because this Appalachian State bunch knows how to play football and doesn’t get intimidated by big stadiums and big moments.
Be assured, they’re coming to Athens hoping to repeat history 10 years later.
“People use the term ‘culture’; they throw that term around a lot,” Satterfield said of his program. “We have a very, very solid culture here. Our kids play with a chip on their shoulder, and we train that way on a yearly basis. We have confidence that we can go out and compete with anybody that we play against. … We’ve just got a bunch of blue-collar players that play extremely hard, try to stay within ourselves, play the way we play and we hope that’s good enough. Sometimes it has been good enough and other times it hasn’t.”