MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — App State's preseason began with summer workouts in small groups of four players. Before its Myrtle Beach Bowl practice Sunday in Brooks Stadium, the complete collection of players and coaches finally lined up for the first team picture of 2020.

It's been a unique, long and challenging season with the potential to close in familiar fashion: with the Mountaineers (8-3) winning a bowl game.
 
While they are returning to Coastal Carolina's on-campus stadium after playing a Sun Belt Conference game there on Nov. 21, there's a different feel as they finish the 2020 season with a bowl matchup against North Texas (4-5) on Monday at 2:30 p.m.
 
The ESPN game is a reward at the end of a trying year — and season — as well as a chance to make more history relatively close to home following bowl victories in Montgomery, Ala. (2015, 2016), Mobile, Ala. (2017) and New Orleans (2018, 2019).
 
With a 5-0 bowl record since the 2014 transition, App State is the only FBS program with no losses or ties in at least five appearances. The Mountaineers will attempt to increase the total to six against a high-scoring North Texas team as they kick off a 2020 bowl season already marked by opt-out decisions from other programs.
 
"Not everybody in the country makes a bowl game, so to get the privilege to come out here and play, it's something we worked hard for and earned as a team," senor center Noah Hannon said. "There's football to be played, so we're going to come out and try to win this game."
 
North Texas went 3-4 in Conference USA and lost 49-21 against Charlotte, the only common opponent among the Myrtle Beach Bowl participants.
 
The Mountaineers and Mean Green have no prior history, unless you count the connection involving Hall of Fame coach Jerry Moore, whose first head coaching job was at North Texas for two seasons from 1979-80. He went 215-87 as App State's head coach from 1989-2012.
 
Current App State head coach Shawn Clark played for Moore in the 1990s, and the 2020 bowl game will offer some sense of normalcy for him late in a strange year.
 
An offensive line coach for the previous four seasons, he briefly filled the offensive coordinator role for a 45-13 bowl win in 2018 because of a coaching change with Scott Satterfield, and Clark made his head coaching debut in a 2019 bowl victory that occurred eight days after he was officially hired to replace Eliah Drinkwitz. Those New Orleans Bowl wins occurred against Conference USA teams Middle Tennessee and UAB.
 
This year, Clark will have the same game day role he's had all season.
 
"We're really excited to get down here to Conway and play a bowl game," Clark said. "We came here to win championships, and our goals are in front of us. Our players are excited."
 
Coached by former North Carolina assistant Seth Littrell, North Texas will look different on offense given the postseason opt-out from star receiver Jaelon Darden, who amassed 74 catches for 1,190 yards and an FBS-leading 19 touchdown receptions (two more than Alabama's DeVonta Smith) in just nine games.
 
The Mean Green rank seventh nationally by averaging 515.0 yards per game offensively, with 230.2 on the ground and 284.8 through the air — Darden averaged 132.2 receiving yards a game. While scoring 35.1 points a game, North Texas allows an average of 41.3 points and 509.4 yards.
 
App State, which ranks 12th nationally in total defense (313.5 yards allowed per game) and 18th in scoring defense (19.3 points allowed per game), always prioritizes stopping the run as a means to success. The Mountaineers are moving forward from a 34-26 victory against an option-based Georgia Southern offense, and North Texas' primary running threats are Oscar Adaway III (79.2 yards per game) and DeAndre Torrey (72.9).
 
Jason Bean has started the last four games at quarterback and is a capable runner with an average of 48.0 yards per game on the ground. He split time in the regular season with Austin Aune, but published reports stated Sunday that Aune will not play Monday. 

The 27-year-old Aune signed with TCU in 2012, was a second-round draft pick of the New York Yankees that year and played six seasons of minor league baseball before returning to college football. He threw for 302 yards and five touchdowns against UTEP to end the regular season.
 
North Texas has struggled to protect its quarterbacks in several of its losses, and the Mountaineers have posted six sacks in each of their last two bowl wins, including 2.5 from Tommy Dawkins Jr. a season ago. And with the Mean Green passing so effectively, non-secondary players such as outside linebacker Brendan Harrington (four interceptions with five PBUs) and inside linebacker D'Marco Jackson (two interceptions with six PBUs) could have more chances to test their coverage skills.
 
Offensively, App State brings a balanced attack into its matchup with a defense that is allowing more than 240 yards per game on the ground and through the air. Sophomore running back Camerun Peoples and true freshman Nate Noel have combined for 742 rushing yards over the last four games, while senior receivers Thomas Hennigan and Jalen Virgil have increased their productivity with improved late-season health.
 
The Mountaineers have reached the postseason with a rivalry win to their credit after Virgil returned a kickoff return 100 yards for a touchdown at Georgia Southern and App State's kickoff coverage unit forced the Eagles to have an average starting field position of their own 21 following the Mountaineers' seven kickoffs — three of those drives started inside the 17.
 
"Just being able to go out there and finish out this season with a bowl game and hopefully get a victory," Virgil said, "even though 2020 has felt so different, it would make it feel right finishing it off like that."

Photo Courtesy: Zac Thomas, App State Sports