CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Mack Brown hopes to make this weekend one more feel-good milestone in his return to the sideline.
The winningest active coach in the FBS faces the school that gave him his first head coaching job when North Carolina plays host to Appalachian State on Saturday in the instate programs' first meeting in nearly 80 years.
Brown has 246 career victories in his 31-year head coaching career, and six of those wins came in 1983 — his lone season coaching the Mountaineers.
"To see what that program has turned into is really rewarding to me," Brown said.
Of course, there's way more to the matchup than just a warm and fuzzy storyline. The Mountaineers (2-0) — who are just 3-point underdogs — have enough talent to threaten the Tar Heels (2-1) and beat a power-conference school for the first time since their unforgettable upset of Michigan in 2007.
Appalachian State expects to have its top receiver, Corey Sutton, in the lineup for the first time. Sutton, who had 44 catches for 773 yards with 10 touchdowns last season, missed the first two games after violating undisclosed team rules. First-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz says Sutton is "ready to roll."
The Mountaineers return 10 offensive starters from a team that went 11-2 and won a third straight Sun Belt championship, joining Clemson (Atlantic Coast Conference) and Oklahoma (Big 12) as the only FBS programs to win their leagues in each of the previous three seasons.
"This is a great game for us as far as a program and an opportunity to play an ACC opponent at their place, so obviously that's a lot of fun," Drinkwitz said. "But at the end of the day, it's one of 12 opportunities to play the game. ... We're not trying to make one game bigger than the rest."
And after the Tar Heels lost to an instate ACC team (Wake Forest) in a nonconference game, Brown says his team has to be ready for a non-league opponent that would fit right into the conference.
"App State's good enough that they could be in the ACC," Brown said.
Some other things to know about the App State-North Carolina game:
Brown isn't the only familiar face in this one. Sparky Woods, a senior advisor to Brown, succeeded him as the Mountaineers' head coach from 1984-88. Drinkwitz came to App State after spending three seasons as the offensive coordinator at rival North Carolina State and defensive coordinator Ted Roof held that position with the Wolfpack last season. They helped lead N.C. State to a 34-28 overtime victory over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last November.
UNC says starting right tackle Jordan Tucker and tight end Carl Tucker are questionable with lower-body injuries. Defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge is probable with a lower-body injury.
North Carolina ranks 126th nationally in converting third downs (21.4 percent) and Brown says the problems come on the two plays before them: "Third downs on offense have been atrocious because we're not putting ourselves in a position to make them. It's first and second down that causes third down to be so hard." In its last game, App State allowed Charlotte to convert just 4 of 12 chances on third down.
APP VS POWER 5
The Mountaineers have been a popular pick to spring an upset ever since their shocker 12 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan. App State has lost 11 straight games against power-conference schools since then, with two losses coming in overtime (Penn State in 2018, Tennessee in 2016) and a third by one point (Wake Forest in 2017).
This is the first meeting between the schools since 1940, when North Carolina claimed a 56-6 victory. It's the first in a two-for-one series that includes the Tar Heels' first trip to Boone (2022) and a return trip to Chapel Hill the following year.