When athletics director Doug Gillin got to Appalachian State last year, one of his top priorities was finding a Power Five school willing to play in Boone, N.C., something that never happened when the school was a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
A handful of months later he had a deal with one of the biggest name brands in college football.
Miami’s visit to Appalachian State on Saturday marks not only the biggest athletics event ever held on campus but also a significant scheduling victory for Gillin in an environment where major programs typically avoid home-and-home series with schools outside the Power Five.
And unless there’s a traditional geographic rivalry such as N.C. State-East Carolina or Ole Miss-Memphis, it’s quite unusual for a school in the so-called Group of Five to draw that kind of respect.
But scheduling is also hard for the Miamis of the world, which explains why Gillin was able to take advantage of a hole on the Hurricanes’ schedule and get a deal done relatively quickly.
“We started calling schools that were close in proximity, east of the Mississippi just to see if anybody would be interested in some type of arrangement,” Gillin said. “It just so happened Miami needed a game in (2016). We had an FCS opponent plugged in (for Saturday), and we weren’t even necessarily looking for 2016. But we knew Miami would be willing to play us and we moved the FCS game and got it all figured out.”
Gillin is expecting a crowd of 35,000-plus on Saturday filling temporary bleachers and a hillside general admission area. Enthusiasm for the program has surged in recent weeks not only because of the opponent but also Appalachian State’s performance on the opening night of the season in a 20-13 overtime loss at Tennessee. The Mountaineers, it would seem, have a legitimate chance to knock off one of college football’s historically elite programs.
The only downside, if it happens, is that it may make other Power Five schools skittish about going to Appalachian State, which made the move from FCS to FBS in 2014. Like Boise State and others have experienced, scheduling gets even harder when your program gets a reputation for being too good.
Wake Forest is coming to Boone next season, and Gillin said he’s had extensive conversations with two other Power Five schools who are interested in playing there. He might want to get those deals done quickly.
“We played really well at Tennessee, but we haven’t seen where people don’t want to schedule us yet,” Gillin said. ”This is a neat area for traveling fans to come. It’s a destination area, a resort area, and part of my sell to other folks is for our level, we travel as well as anybody. Part of my pitch is we’re going to bring fans to your place, and that resonates with some athletic directors knowing we traveled really well to Clemson last year, traveled really well to Tennessee. And our history in the FCS was we would fill it up in Chattanooga for playoff games so we’re somewhat different. There’s a lot of history and tradition here.”
Schools outside the Power Five often have to bend over backward or agree to two-for-one deals to get a big name in their house. One reason is money, as it’s more profitable for a Georgia to bring in Nicholls State for a payday, as it did last weekend, than give up the revenue of 80,000 tickets sold. Plus, every Power Five conference now has a scheduling requirement to play at least one other Power Five opponent in the non-conference as a way to boost strength of schedule metrics for the College Football Playoff.
It doesn’t leave many openings for an Appalachian State to take advantage of, but it’s refreshing to see a school like Miami take the risk. (Appalachian State will play at Miami in 2021.)
“It would be a huge boost (to win),” Gillin said. “We were close (at Tennessee). I was told we were the No. 1 trending brand in America that day. Everybody tuned in as the upset alert was going on so people who didn’t know about Appalachian do now and certainly being on ESPN, the first time the Sun Belt has been on ESPN on a Saturday, there’s a lot of great things going on and being successful would continue to enhance that.”
COACHING CAROUSEL CLIPS
Though he’s not necessarily on the hot seat, conversations with multiple people in the coaching search industry who spoke on the condition of anonymity pointed to Texas Tech as a situation to monitor in the coming weeks.
That’s how bad of a look it was for Kliff Kingsbury to lose at Arizona State last Saturday. It wasn’t necessarily the result that caught the attention of some in the industry but rather the 68-55 final score. It’s the third time in the last 11 games Texas Tech has scored 50 points and lost, and it brings more questions about whether Kingsbury has what it takes to fix the Red Raiders’ defense.
He already changed coordinators before last season, bringing the well-respected David Gibbs over from Houston, but the results aren’t getting better. Kingsbury has a contract through 2020 with $9.4 million guaranteed after this season.
In other words, it seems highly unlikely that Texas Tech would come up with $10 million to fire a popular alumnus who, at 37, is still growing as a head coach. Still, his career record is just 20-20 and 10-17 in the Big 12. If the defense doesn’t get fixed this year, pressure could build significantly for 2017.
FAUX PAS OF THE WEEK
Dabo Swinney’s heart was in the right place Tuesday when he gave his unvarnished opinion about Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protest. In saying why he disagreed with Kaepernick’s method of expression, he talked about big themes like unity and love for thy neighbor and Martin Luther King bringing people together through peace.
“I just think that this just creates more division,” Swinney said as part of a several-minutes long answer. “That’s what I hate to see.”
It certainly sounded good, but Swinney got some blowback — and deservedly so — for a portrayal of race relations that came off as a bit naive to the plight of many African-Americans. He also was criticized for oversimplifying King’s method of changing the world as “love, peace, education, tolerance of others, Jesus.”
Swinney, whose own rise from homelessness and family strife has been well-documented, obviously meant no harm. But he found out how coaches wading into social issues can mushroom into a much bigger media story than they intended, especially with race relations taking on a central place in the current national conversation.
Hopefully that doesn’t discourage Swinney, one of the most colorful and talkative characters in coaching, from giving more opinions in the future.
YOUR WEEKLY HARBAUGH
Legendary Colorado sports information director Dave Plati came up with one of the best media gags in recent memory this week when he put out a depth chart for the Michigan game filled with fictional characters from some of Plati’s favorite movies. It was included in Colorado’s weekly notes because Michigan doesn’t put out a depth chart at the behest of Jim Harbaugh.
Though it was clearly intended for fun, Harbaugh doesn’t really do fun. So it’s no surprise he reacted as if Michigan had been insulted and launched into an austere explanation for why Michigan doesn’t put its depth chart on paper.
"I saw the depth chart, etc. I was trying to imagine how many people sat around and how many hours they worked on that," Harbaugh said during a weekly radio interview on WXYT, according to the Detroit Free Press. "We found, when it comes to the depth chart, modern technology seems to make the depth chart and outdated task by about 20 years. We found that studying last week's film of the opponent is the most accurate way of determining another team's depth chart.”
Thanks for the heads up, Jim.
DUD OF THE WEEK
Georgia State hasn’t capitalized on the momentum from the end of last season, when the Panthers won four in a row to make a bowl game for the first time in school history. In fact, it appears they have regressed after the graduation of quarterback Nick Arbuckle and are sitting at 0-2 after a 48-14 loss at Air Force last week.
Now Georgia State has to turn around and go to Wisconsin, which has allowed 24 points total this season and just beat Akron by 44. This is a mismatch in every possible way, and Wisconsin will very likely be able to name its score. The only question is whether the Badgers be motivated enough to cover the 35-point spread.
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