Ethan's welcome letter

This one's a big one. And it's also not. It really just depends on who you're asking and which way the wind is blowing.

Appalachian State gets to play at North Carolina, and it's more than overdue.

Ask Coach Eliah Drinkwitz of App State, and he'll tell you that it's just one of 12 games the Mountaineers will play this season. It's a nonconference game, it affects absolutely nothing in the Sun Belt, and life will go on afterward. To Marcus Williams, a junior running back from Rocky Mount, it's a chance for more of his extended family to watch him play while he's closer to home. And to Trey Cobb, a sophomore linebacker from Georgia, it's the most important game of the season because it's the next game. 

At face value, it's a Group-of-Five opponent slugging up at a Power-Five foe. In reality, it's a toss up.

This game will be understated and overstated up until kickoff, and the result will prompt crowing by one fan base or another until the schools meet again. 

It's hard to deny that this game is a next-step game for App State. The Mountaineers have more than earned respect as a program now. When you talk about App State, you're talking about a near flawless transition from the FCS to the FBS level. You're talking about multiple conference championships. You're talking about a bowl winning streak that has yet to end. 

But the Power-Five matchups have been just out of grasp. Against teams like Tennessee, Wake Forest and Penn State, Appalachian was right there. In two out of three of those games, the Mountaineers were probably given no chance to win even though the TV highlight packages surely included images from a certain 2007 upset and TV pundits saying, "Hey, you can't take them lightly."

The difference with Saturday's game? This game is not a measuring stick. It's a proving ground for something that's already true.

There's no scientific equation to determine when a program has proven itself. Winning this one means that old and tired perception dies and a new one emerges.

App State is no longer the little program that catches people off guard (it hasn't been that for a long time, honestly). It's now validated something that's already true: no FBS school in the state can match the consistency App State has experienced the last few seasons.

It's about validating that to everyone else who, for some reason or another, might still need a little convincing.

Drink is right: this game really doesn't do much to the yearly goals of conference championship and bowl victory. But it does help build a case on the national stage for a New Years Six bowl. Should the UCFs and Boise States of the landscape stagger, there's App State with a win over an ACC opponent, steadily rolling through the Sun Belt yet again.

Boise State is a program that App State has looked toward as a model. The connections, now with Drinkwitz (a former Boise State assistant) and formerly with Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson (a Boise State grad and former Western Athletic Conference commissioner), have been there. Eventually, App State has to step into the way of the most recognizable G5 college football brand of the 21st century. The talent is there to do it.

So it is a big game until it's not, but it kind of is in some ways. It's a big deal for the state, and I think we can all agree with that.

Take care and thanks for reading,

Ethan

ejoyce@wsjournal.com

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