Whether Appalachian State's football program realized it or not, it was flirting with a prophecy. And that prophecy is connected to Karl Benson.
In 2013, while talking with reporters at a basketball tournament, the former Sun Belt Conference commissioner levied both a deliberate and wishful thought. It was early March, roughly three weeks before the conference officially announced the addition of App State.
“There’s no reason that a Sun Belt team cannot accomplish what Boise State did over the last 10 years or so,” Benson said, talking about the proud Broncos football program.
So the 2019 season became validation in that respect, with the way the two programs jockeyed with each other in the polls. And especially how things shook out today.
App State finished No. 18 in the USA Today coaches poll and No. 19 in the AP top 25 — above Boise State in both (Nos. 22 and 23). It’s the first time in the Mountaineers’ FBS history that they’ve ended a season ranked. They’re also the first Sun Belt team to accomplish that.
The comparison has been a natural one between the two mountain schools, both former I-AA/FCS powers that made their moves up and found different forms of success. And Benson was never afraid to draw it during his tenure leading the Sun Belt, which ended last summer.
“I don’t know if I was nervous,” Benson told the Journal in October when asked about making the parallel. “I’m sure some people thought it was all talk.”
And Benson was the guy who could accurately make it. He’s a Boise State graduate. As commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference (from 1994 to 2012), he watched Boise State join the league in 2001 and then leave for the Mountain West Conference after the 2010 season, the year after it won its second Fiesta Bowl.
Boise State moved up to then-Division I-A in 1997, finding a steady stream of success. But the stretch to which Benson alluded in 2013 — which started with Dan Hawkins in the head coaching spot and finished with Chris Petersen — gave Boise State its breakthrough. Plus, for the time being, it gave the conference a crown jewel.
Benson inherited a Sun Belt with staple programs such as Arkansas State and Louisiana. But thanks to many similarities, he quickly saw the promise App State had.
First, he felt good about the facilities he first visited the campus. To him, App State was ahead of Boise State in that department when the latter joined the WAC. Appalachian had just completed the start of renovations to Kidd Brewer Stadium, which included the addition of the athletics tower behind the west-side stands.
Second, staff continuity kept tradition vibrant, Benson believed. App State’s program had just been passed from head coach Jerry Moore to Scott Satterfield.
Plus, App State had two major calling cards: Its three I-AA/FCS national championships, from 2005 to 2007, and its upset win against Michigan in 2007.
“The App State brand probably was more established coming into the Sun Belt than when Boise State came into the WAC,” Benson said.
But that was just the start. App State had to convert on the chance. And since the second half of the 2014 season, it has. One of the things Benson remembers most about Petersen’s tenure with Boise State, with the first five seasons taking place in the WAC, was the way the Broncos dominated conference play.
They won the conference title in four of those five seasons, winning at least 10 games every year. They also won three bowl games, including the 43-42 overtime thriller over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in 2006.
App State has won the last four Sun Belt titles and five straight bowl games under Satterfield, Eli Drinkwitz and now Shawn Clark. The only thing missing is a new coronation moment that will buck the small-school-that-beat-Michigan label into a full-fledged power recognized by the nation.
Appalachian has been in the mix for the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six bowl group the last two seasons, most notably in 2019. Both seasons have featured losses to Georgia Southern that helped thwart those chances.
Benson talked with the Journal more than a week before Georgia Southern beat App State 24-21 on Oct. 31. But he mentioned App State's winning clip, plus that it could earn victories over two Power Five programs in 2019, as a reason the Mountaineers deserved the attention they were starting to receive.
It made him think back to where it started — the 2014 App State-Michigan matchup, the first game at which the Mountaineers had the Sun Belt patch on their jerseys. Appalachian got shellacked, 52-14. But it became the beginning of something Benson considers special.
“It was the return to Michigan and all the hoopla, the recognition, the memories and whatever,” Benson said. “And it was spectacular. It was probably one of the greatest pregames — I probably had as much anticipation and anxiety and whatever leading up to that game as either of Boise State’s Fiesta Bowls that I was a part of.”