Each year, countless hours go into crafting league schedules in order to provide a result that is both fair and exciting.
But sometimes the season has a way of working things out on its own.
Appalachian State and Troy figured to be the two teams that would vie for the Sun Belt’s Eastern division this season and a supposed showdown is scheduled for the final weekend of the regular season. But Troy recently lost its starting quarterback for the season and its first game with a backup resulted in an embarrassing non-conference loss to Liberty.
Appalachian State - on the other hand - has lived up to the hype and rolls into this week with its first ever appearance in the Associated Press’ weekly top-25 poll.
And who better to put the Mountaineers to the test in their first game as a ranked team than their oldest rivals and the Sun Belt’s upstart title contender?
Georgia Southern sits at 6-1 overall and is a perfect 3-0 in Sun Belt play as it prepares to host Appalachian State on Thursday night. Too much of the season remains for anything to be settled this week, but the winner of the rivalry game will take away not just the bragging rights, but a stranglehold on the division lead.
“You try to treat it like another game, but we know who we’re playing,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “We’ve played App, I think, 34 times in our history. You look at our schedule and don’t see that kind of history anywhere else, so you know it’s a little different.”
The Eagles came into the season hoping for the best, but not knowing quite what to expect.
Morale was high as Lunsford - named head coach at the end of 2017 after assuming the interim head coach role midway through the season - and a handful of new coaches brought a positive and infectious attitude to the team as it tried to forget about and bounce back from a 2-10 showing.
Everyone from the equipment room, to the locker room and all the way up to Lunsford’s office will say that the Eagles still have a long way to go to reach their goals and standards, but it’s getting too late in the season to ignore the fact that Georgia Southern remains at the top of the standings.
On the opposite sideline will be an Appalachian State team that began the season with a near upset of a top-10 Penn State squad and that has been the odds-on favorite to win the Sun Belt ever since.
The Mountaineers have earned that praise, dismantling one opponent after another before finally breaking into the national poll this week. Then again, Appalachian is grounded enough to know that past wins don’t guarantee future success.
“It’s great recognition for the work we’ve been doing,” ASU coach Scott Satterfield said of his team’s national ranking. “But it doesn’t win you any football games and it’s not going to beat Georgia Southern.”
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State spent more than a decade biting at each other’s throats for Southern Conference championships and higher rankings in the Football Championship Subdivision. Both made the jump into the Football Championship Subdivision in 2014 and each has seen ups and downs since then, yet the two rival teams are once again in a familiar spot.
Thursday night will feature a bitter rivalry game. It will play a huge role in a conference race and it could shake up a national poll.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.