Troy vs. App State Picks & Predictions: Stuckey’s Top Bet for Championship Week
Eakin Howard/Getty Images. Pictured: An App State player.
Troy Trojans vs. App State Mountaineers
This is one of the tougher conference championship weekends I can remember from a betting perspective with so much quarterback uncertainty.
Believe it or not, nine of the 16 quarterbacks who will start under center on Saturday either didn't begin the season as the starter or lost their job at one point.
That includes Appalachian State quarterback Joey Aguilar, who actually began the year behind Ryan Burger on the depth chart — although he took over in the first game of the year and never looked back.
While I don't love as many bets as usual, I do still have some action. My favorite bet comes in a potentially rainy Sun Belt Conference Championship where I took the points with Aguilar and Appalachian State, which will head south for a true road game against the Trojans of Troy.
Let's take a quick look at each team before getting into why I like the 'Neers on Saturday.
Troy started the season 1-2 after losing back-to-back games against James Madison (by two) and at Kansas State but then closed the season on a nine-game winning streak. That's the exact path it took last season en route to a Sun Belt Conference Championship victory over Arkansas State.
While the Trojans made their living off close wins in 2022, they handled their opponents with much greater ease this season with only two of their 10 victories coming by one possession (Western Kentucky and Louisiana).
Offensively, quarterback Gunnar Watson can sling it with a deep and reliable group of receivers. However, he has enjoyed a bit of good fortune en route to 26 touchdowns and five interceptions despite 24 big-time throws and 14 turnover-worthy plays, per PFF.
He's also very immobile, which contributes to his struggles under pressure. That could be an issue against Appalachian State.
The Trojans have a very balanced attack, but the running game has been far too inconsistent. Kimani Vidal is a very solid back, but the offensive line struggles a bit in the run-blocking department.
While Troy's offense is solid but not elite, the Trojans make their hay on the defensive end, where they feature one of the best stop units at the Group of Five level.
The secondary features a trio of outstanding cornerbacks in Reddy Steward and O'Shai Fletcher on the outside with Caleb Ransaw in the slot.
It also has a very steady safety duo in Dell Pettus and Irshaad Davis, who has more than worked out as a portal addition after receiving All-American recognition last year at Alabama State.
Those defensive backs also benefit from relentless pressure generated by Richard Jibunor, Javon Solomon and others. Meanwhile, Buddha Jones and T.J. Jackson man the interior of the defensive line, where they both excel against the run, as does Troy's linebacker corps.
The front seven did take a slight step back from last season after losing defensive tackle Will Choloh and a pair of four-year starters at linebacker in KJ Robertson and Carlton Martial, who currently holds the FBS record for career tackles.
It appeared Appalachian State was heading for a down season after a 3-4 start. However, the Mountaineers shook off those four one-possession losses (at UNC, at Wyoming, vs. Coastal Carolina, at Old Dominion) that all could've been wins and finished the season on a five-game winning streak.
Four of those wins came by double digits, while the close victory on the road over a previously undefeated James Madison squad was the most impressive of them all. That ultimately paved the way for the 'Neers to clinch a spot in the Sun Belt title game.
On offense, quarterback Aguilar runs the show with a bit of a gunslinger mentality. That can get him in trouble at times, but it also leads to plenty of explosive plays from a very underrated wide receiver group.
Similar to Troy, the Mountaineers are pretty balanced on offense, but it's worth monitoring the status of star running back Nate Noel, who is questionable with an injury. While freshman Kanye Roberts has demonstrated he's more than capable of handling the primary back duties, Noel's absence would certainly hurt the backfield depth.
The offensive line dealt with some early season struggles after losing a pair of stud tackles in Cooper Hodges, who got drafted, and Anderson Hardy, who got a chance with an NFL team this summer.
Jack Murphy has filled in admirably at right tackle, but left tackle has been a disaster at times with Markell Samuel. Although, he's played much better in the second half of the season, which has contributed to the overall improvement up front with an already rock-solid interior of Damion Dailey, Bucky Williams and Isaiah Helms.
Aguilar thrives when he's kept clean, which the App State offensive line has been doing of late. That would certainly help a team that's been much better throwing the ball, ranking top-15 in Passing Success Rate.
While running the ball isn't easy against the Trojans, it's worth noting that the Mountaineers rank top-20 in tackles for loss allowed.
The offense has been prolific for most of the season in Boone, but the same can't be said for the defense.
The Mountaineers do have a pair of plus cornerbacks in Ethan Johnson and Tyrek Funderburk, who's one of the most underrated CBs at the Group of Five level.
They also saw a boost in week 9 when EJ Jackson returned to man the slot and provide better help against the run, which has been a glaring weakness for App State all season.
Safety Jordan Favors and the entire linebacker corps are a bit undersized, so they struggle much more against the run than the pass.
While Nate Johnson and Michigan State transfer Michael Fletcher can generate an abundance of pressure off the edge, the interior also lacks bulk, ranking in the bottom five nationally in Line Yards, which has contributed to some of the run defense woes.
That said, the defense has improved dramatically during App State's five-game winning streak.
Playing Montez Kelley more at nose tackle, along with Jackson's return, has definitely contributed to a defense that allowed only 18.2 points per game over its last four. In comparison, it allowed 28.8 over its first seven against FBS competition.
Sun Belt home teams have performed very poorly at home in league games over the past two decades, and I continue to believe home-field advantage in the Sun Belt remains overvalued in the market.
Since 2005, they have gone just 319-414-8 (43.5%) ATS, failing to cover by 1.35 points per game. With a -15.6% ROI, that's the worst of any conference, with only the MAC in the same ballpark.
For what it's worth, Appalachian State has won four straight road Sun Belt games outright as a conference dog since 2014. The Mountaineers won those contests by an average margin of 16.5 points per game with an average spread of 10.6, including an upset over previously undefeated James Madison as a 10-point underdog earlier this month.
They won't be afraid of this stage or environment.
Keep in mind they also should have won in Laramie — a very tough place to play — if not for some late flukes against Wyoming, while they took North Carolina to overtime in Chapel Hill.
This is also a favorable matchup for Appalachian State since the Troy offense can't fully exploit its primary weakness of defending the run. Just take a look at the following splits:
- Troy's Offensive EPA per Run: 120th. App State's Defensive EPA per Run: 127th.
- Troy's Offensive EPA per Pass: 54th. App State's Defensive EPA per Pass: 46th.
The 'Neers can also put pressure on Watson, which is when he tends to break down and make mistakes.
On the other side of the ball, Aguilar has fared much better against zone looks, which he'll see plenty of on Saturday against Troy.
It won't be easy to move the ball on the Trojans, but I think the Mountaineers can have some success by hitting a few explosive plays, which is the one area where Troy's stop unit has struggled, especially since App State's receivers will hold a distinct size advantage against Troy's secondary.
The improved Appalachian State offensive line, which ranks in the top 25 in tackles for loss allowed, can also hold up against Troy's rush with the JMU game being a very good test that the Mountaineers passed with flying colors.
I think Troy comes into this game a bit overvalued after benefiting from a fairly easy league schedule that included four backup quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, the opposite is true for a surging Appalachian State that suffered four losses by seven or less before figuring a few things out on the defensive end.
I like App State and the points in a game I actually think it wins outright.
Pick: Appalachian State +6 (Play to +4.5)
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