Almost every year–at least since the dissolution of the WAC–the MAC and the Sun Belt are the two weakest conferences in FBS football. That is nothing against these two conferences. Each conference has strong programs that are competitive year-in and year-out. Each conference has those programs that can challenge and upset Power 5 teams. And, of course, each conference is still an FBS conference, and carries with it pride and tradition. These two conferences play good football; top-to-bottom it just isn’t quite as good as the rest of FBS.
This fact has led to a few things, which college football fans should enjoy and appreciate. First of all, there is a budding rivalry between the conferences that plays out in bowl games. When the top teams from these conferences meet in the Camellia and the Dollar General (formerly GoDaddy) Bowls, we see two talented teams–two teams that rose to the top of these respective conferences and built strong seasons.
Again, being in a weak conference doesn’t make a team a weak team. What it often means, though, is that the teams that rise to the top from these conferences do so by adjusting to their situation–be it Western Michigan’s Row the Boat attitude or any other form of acknowledging that you won’t be the fastest or strongest team, so you have to play to your strengths in order to have a successful season. The teams playing in these bowl games are usually strong teams–they are usually teams that could definitely compete a few times a year with middle-of-the-pack Power 5 programs. And, in this year’s Camellia Bowl, we are getting two of the Group of 5 programs with some pedigree and real potential battling it out for a tenth win of the season.
2016 Camellia Bowl
Toledo has been the most consistent program in the MAC this decade, but has zero conference titles to show for it. The Rockets, under three different head coaches but mainly under Jason Campbell, have had a winning record in every season since 2010, and have won nine or more games in five out of those seven years. Northern Illinois won the MAC West every season from 2010-2015 and Western Michigan won it this year, but with NIU falling off the map under Rod Carey, it is clear that Toledo is currently the MAC’s most consistent program.
Toledo has built this program around skill players. Yes, the Rockets, sitting on the Ohio-Michigan border and close to a lot of great recruits, can usually recruit decent players at every position–including the lines–but Toledo has been successful by finding skill players that can make plays and light up the highlight reels in the MAC. These players may not make a name or even play in the NFL, but college football fans will recognize names like Eric Page, Damion Jones-Moore, Bernard Reedy, Adonis Thomas, and Kareem Hunt. This, along with solid quarterback play from players like Terrance Owens and Philip Ely, has been what has kept Toledo on the map and challenging P5 teams when they meet.
Appalachian State has built its program in a very different way. The Mountaineers were a premier FCS program in the 2000s, but it was really one game in 2007 (we all know what game that was) that propelled the Mountaineers to relevance. With that relevance came recruits, money, and a desire to move to FBS. Even now, almost a decade later, Appalachian State is one of the most-recognized Group of 5 brands, and it has nothing to do with App State’s success in FCS or initial success after transition to FBS.
The Mountaineers, led by quarterback Taylor Lamb, have a strong offense, good defense, and almost started off this season with a huge splash against Tennessee–falling in overtime, just short of what then appeared to be a major upset. Appalachian State also fell just short of running the table in the Sun Belt, losing to Troy and splitting the title with Arkansas State (the Sun Belt does not use tiebreakers to determine conference champions), but this was certainly a successful season in Boone, North Carolina.
Farewell to Kareem Hunt
Those who are not avid college football fans may not recognize the name Kareem Hunt, but they should. Everyone should make sure to utilize this final opportunity to watch the star Toledo running back. Hunt has had two seasons hampered by injuries, but he still averages over 6.3 yards per carry for his career, which includes over 750 rushes and 4,800 yards. It will be a sad day for Toledo fans when Hunt walks off the field, but he had a career worthy of so many accolades that he just never received, playing under the radar at Toledo.
The Game Itself
As we said before, when the top teams from the MAC and Sun Belt meet, we usually get to see to a great game. Sometimes it’s because the teams are evenly matched. (Remember last year’s Ohio vs Appalachian State game?) Sometimes it’s because the two conferences have more talent at the skill positions than on defense, leading to incredibly fun track meets. And sometimes it’s somewhere in between–a game with just enough defense to keep it interesting, but enough scoring to be exciting.
There really isn’t one key matchup to focus on in this year’s game. Appalachian State probably has more talent in the trenches, but we rarely see teams–even those with much more strength–physically dominate Toledo. The Toledo defense will have to stop a good Appalachian State offense–no easy task but something the Rockets are capable of. Appalachian State will need to stop an explosive Rockets offense–the Mountaineers might not quite be built to stop fast and physical skill players.
This game could come down to anything. Maybe one unit has a bad day. We could see a special teams error be enough to make a real difference. All I know is that these are two talented, evenly-matched teams. More often than not, that provides us with a great football game.