Among the top players in the Southern Conference are, from left, Davis
Tull (Chattanooga), Hank McCloud (Furman) and Jaquiski Tartt (Samford).
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director/Senior Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
George Orwell might have paid close attention to Southern Conference football last season.
With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern getting set to take their oppressive rule out the door, Chattanooga earned its first share of the conference title since 1984.
This year, with both powers up to the FBS level, the same Mocs team hopes to land an FCS playoff bid for the first team since 1984. The Mocs enter the season as the SoCon's preseason favorite.
"I like our team a lot," Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. "I think we have some talented players. I'd say depth is a little bit of an issue in certain spots, but not everywhere. I am sure everyone at our level has depth issues in certain areas. I'd say our team goals are the same as they always are. We want to be in the playoffs, we want to win a conference championship and we want to compete for a national championship. Hopefully, our team has made those strides to get there. I think we are progressing the way we should be."
That the Mocs, Furman and Samford tied for the title was particularly surprising. Each was 6-2 and both ASU and GSU were two games behind along with The Citadel. Furman earned the automatic bid to the playoffs, while Samford went in with an at-large bid.
Elon also has departed the SoCon this year - moving to the Colonial Athletic Association - but VMI returns to the conference and Mercer's young program joined as well. A year from now, East Tennessee State will be in with a new team.
Regardless, 2013 was a year of change for the SoCon. When the postseason rolls around in November, Chattanooga hopes to party like it's 1984.
"I think (last season) basically made everyone believe that everyone had a chance," said Wofford coach Mike Ayers, the dean of SoCon coaches. "The league, whether Appalachian State and Georgia Southern were going to leave or not, stepped up."
PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHERN CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive MVP - Jacob Huesman, QB, Chattanooga Defensive MVP - Davis Tull, DE, Chattanooga
QB - Jacob Huesman, Jr., Chattanooga; RB - Hank McCloud, Sr., Furman; RB - Keon Williams, Sr., Chattanooga; OL - Charles Emert, Sr., Furman; OL - Gunnar Bromelow, Jr., Samford; OL - Synjen Herren, Jr., Chattanooga; OL - Josh Wineberg, Jr., Western Carolina; OL - T.J. Chamberlin, Jr., Wofford; TE - Faysal Shafaat, Sr., Chattanooga; WR - Andrej Suttles, So., Furman; WR - Karnorris Benson, Jr., Western Carolina
DL - Justin Oxendine, Sr., The Citadel; DL - Gary Wilkins, Sr., Furman; DL - Davis Tull, Sr., Chattanooga; DL - Tarek Odom, Sr., Wofford; LB - Carl Robinson, Sr., The Citadel; LB - Marcus McMorris, Sr., Furman; LB - Carl Rider, Jr., Furman; DB - Reggie Thomas, Jr., Furman; DB - James Bradberry, Jr., Samford; DB - Jaquiski Tartt, Sr., Samford; DB - Sertonuse Harris, Jr., Western Carolina
PK - Warren Handrahan, So., Samford; P - Greg Peranich, Sr., Samford; RS - Shaun Warren, Sr., Western Carolina
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2014 Southern Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
5. The Citadel
6. Western Carolina
1. CHATTANOOGA MOCS
LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tennessee
STADIUM: Finley Stadium
COACH: Russ Huesman (31-25 in five seasons at Chattanooga)
LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st); No. 23 TSN final ranking
OUTLOOK: A share of their first SoCon title since 1984 was sweet, but the Mocs still want to get back to the FCS playoffs for the first time since that season. This year is their best chance. They return the conference's preseason offensive (QB Jacob Huesman) and defensive (DE Tull) players of the year. Their team looks to play efficient ball control and tight defense. In fact, the Mocs led the conference in total defense (328.9 ypg) and scoring defense (20.4 ppg) last season, and Tull already is their all-time sacks leader with 26.5. The return of Lott to the middle of a superb defensive line is huge. Although the offense was sluggish at times last season, Huesman makes plays with his feet as much as his arm. With a healthier Williams at running back and an improved line, the rushing offense should be dominant. The Mocs have a particularly strong non-conference schedule - sans Austin Peay - and have to go to Furman in their regular-season finale. They probably hope their playoff fate won't hinge on that game.
Aug. 28 - at Central Michigan
Sept. 6 - Jacksonville State
Sept. 13 - at Austin Peay
Sept. 27 - Samford
Oct. 4 - VMI
Oct. 11 - at Tennessee
Oct. 18 - at The Citadel
Oct 25 - Mercer
Nov. 1 - at Western Carolina
Nov. 8 - Wofford
Nov. 15 - at Tennessee Tech
Nov. 22 - at Furman
2. FURMAN PALADINS
LOCATION: Greenville, South Carolina
STADIUM: Paladin Stadium
COACH: Bruce Fowler (17-19 in three seasons at Furman)
LAST SEASON: 8-6 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st); No. 22 TSN final ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
KEY LOSSES: WR Ryan Culbreath (39 receptions, 515 yards, 4 TD); LT Dakota Dozier; C Eric Thoni; Nickle Jairus Hollman (112 TT, 11.5 TFL, 3 INT, 7 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 3 FF, 1 BLK); SS Greg Worthy (132 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 3 FF); PK/P Ray Early (20-of-25 FG, 94 yards; 65 punts, 43.5 ypp)
OUTLOOK: The power of persistence - Fowler and his team put it on glorious display last season, when they overcame a 2-4 start and earned the SoCon's automatic bid to the playoffs. Once there, they won at South Carolina State in the first round. Hollmon was expected to play a big part in this season but was dismissed from the team in June along with Thoni. Offensively, the Paladins prefer to grind out drives behind 1,000-yard RB McCloud and QB Hannon, who's steady but not spectacular. The Paladins will utilize Wildcat packages with Robinson. With the loss of Hollmon, Hayes has switched back to nickel to help steady the defense. There's a potential All-American in DE Wilkins, while LB Rider was the tackle leader on a unit that had four players go over 100 tackles. The loss of Early also means the kicking game needs an overhaul. Expect a better season from the start and another run at the SoCon title and a playoff appearance.
Aug. 30 - Gardner-Webb
Sept. 6 - at Mercer
Sept. 13 - at Presbyterian
Sept. 20 - at South Carolina State
Sept. 27 - Western Carolina
Oct. 4 - Coastal Carolina
Oct. 18 - at South Carolina
Oct. 25 - Samford
Nov. 1 - at VMI
Nov. 8 - at The Citadel
Nov. 15 - Wofford
Nov. 22 - Chattanooga
3. WOFFORD TERRIERS
LOCATION: Spartanburg, South Carolina
STADIUM: Gibbs Stadium
COACH: Mike Ayers (176-121-1 in 26 seasons at Wofford; 187-142-2 overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/4th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
KEY LOSSES: RB Donovan Johnson (192 TT, 854 yards, 4 TD); OL Ty Gregory; C Jared Singleton; LB Mike McCrimon (90 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FF); LB Alvin Scioneaux (75 TT, 9.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF); S James Zotto (65 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF); S Josh Holt (59 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF); PK/P Kasey Redfern (6-of-10 FG, 44 points; 48 punts, 42.4 ypp)
OFFENSIVE STAR: HB/PR Will Gay, Jr. (70 carries, 486 yards, 2 TD)
OUTLOOK: A subpar season never sits well in Spartanburg, so the Terriers are motivated to post a turnaround. They had a winning record in 10 of the previous 11 seasons and had made the playoffs for three straight seasons until last year. But the Terriers never quite replaced All-American Eric Breitenstein in their triple option, even though they ranked fifth in the FCS in rushing yards per game (269.9). This season, HB Gay and FB Martin will share the lead role, but the Terriers still need better play at quarterback, where, surprisingly, a redshirt freshman, Butler, went into preseason camp at No. 1 amid a tight four-way race. It's likely a fluid spot; plus, the Terriers are breaking in three new starters on the offensive line. On defense, there are veteran returnees, but the Terriers lost some solid linebackers. Speller on the inside and Odom on the outside are part of a strong D-line. There's no doubt the traditionally strong Terriers will get back to a winning season, but where they might end up is debatable.
Aug. 30 - at Georgia Tech
Sept. 6 - Jacksonville
Sept. 13 - North Greenville
Sept. 20 - at Gardner-Webb
Oct. 4 - The Citadel
Oct. 11 - at Western Carolina
Oct. 18 - at Samford
Oct. 25 - VMI
Nov. 8 - at Chattanooga
Nov. 15 - at Furman
Nov. 22 - Mercer
4. SAMFORD BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Birmingham, Alabama
STADIUM: Seibert Stadium
COACH: Pat Sullivan (40-39 in seven seasons at Samford; 64-81-1 overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st); No. 19 TSN final ranking
WR Karel Hamilton, So. (38 receptions, 657 yards, 7 TD)
LT Kyle Champion, Sr.
C C.H. Scruggs, Jr.
RG Jordan Boatright, Sr.
RT/LS Gunnar Bromelow, Jr.
NG Jerry Mathis, Sr. (35 TT, 8 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 FR, 1 BLK)
DE Michael Pierce, Jr. (47 TT, 5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)
DE Calvin Ruff, Sr.
DE Brandon Wilkinson, Sr.
LB Justin Cooper, Jr. (81 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack)
LB Bobby Wilson, Jr. (100 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 FF)
SS Trey Wesley, Jr. (98 TT, 4 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FR)
CB James Bradberry, Jr.
PK Warren Handrahan, So. (19-of-24, 97 points)
P/LB Greg Peranich, Sr. (68 punts, 42.9 ypp)
OUTLOOK: Samford graduated too many key players on offense (QB Summerlin, RB Truss, WR Pope) to be considered a realistic threat for another SoCon title. However, QB Eubank is expected to drop right in and play at a high level this season. The breakout player could be WR Hamilton, who was solid as a freshman. The defense also lost a standout in LB Shade, but there's terrific athleticism throughout the unit, including Buck Buchanan Award candidate Tartt on the back end. Despite the loss of Truss in the return game, the Bulldogs are set up in the kicking game with both PK Handrahan and P Peranich. With two tough FBS opponents (TCU and Auburn) in only an 11-game schedule, the Bulldogs will likely need to win the SoCon's auto bid to find its way back to the playoffs.
Aug. 30 - at TCU
Sept. 11 - Stillman
Sept. 20 - VMI
Sept. 27 - at Chattanooga
Oct. 4 - Mercer
Oct 18 - Wofford
Oct. 25 - at Furman
Nov. 1 - Concordia (Alabama)
Nov. 8 - Western Carolina
Nov. 15 - at The Citadel
Nov. 22 - at Auburn
5. THE CITADEL BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina
STADIUM: Johnson Hagood Stadium
COACH: Mike Houston (first season at The Citadel; 29-8 overall)
OUTLOOK: Coach Kevin Higgins departed following his ninth season, allowing Houston to step in just over a month after leading Lenoir-Rhyne to the NCAA Division II national championship game. Houston will still use Higgins' triple option at the military school, clearly welcome news to the two Millers, RB Vinny and QB Aaron, who were part of a SoCon-leading rushing offense (273.3 ypg) last season. But in Dupree and Darien Robinson, they lost over 1,500 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. The standouts on defense are seniors, DE Oxendine and ILB Carl Robinson. The multiple unit will really be put to the test by a difficult non-conference schedule (including a trip to national champion Florida State) that leads into opening SoCon games against Wofford and Chattanooga.
Aug. 30 - Coastal Carolina
Sept. 6 - at Florida State
Sept. 20 - at Charleston Southern
Sept. 27 - Gardner-Webb
Oct. 4 - at Wofford
Oct. 11 - Charlotte
Oct. 18 - Chattanooga
Oct. 25 - at Western Carolina
Nov. 1 - at Mercer
Nov. 8 - Furman
Nov. 15 - Samford
Nov. 22 - at VMI
6. WESTERN CAROLINA CATAMOUNTS
LOCATION: Cullowhee, North Carolina
STADIUM: E.J. Whitmire Stadium
COACH: Mark Speir (3-20 in two seasons at Western Carolina)
OUTLOOK: The Catamounts believe this will be their breakout season under Speir. They have a veteran team with plenty in the skill positions to make others take notice. It's Mitchell's team to lead now as a dual-threat quarterback. Benson could be the SoCon's best wide receiver, although Police and Robinson joined him with at least 40 receptions. RB Ramsey also will get better behind the offensive line. But the offense was fickle, often moving the ball without producing on the scoreboard. Regardless, the defense has to improve dramatically because the Catamounts surrendered 38.9 points per game a year ago. The safeties (Clark and Harris) are a dangerous unit and OLB Gill flies to the ball. There's a good chance the Catamounts will start to win more of the close games and at least double last year's win total.
Aug. 30 - at South Florida
Sept. 6 - Brevard
Sept. 13 - Catawba
Sept. 27 - at Furman
Oct. 4 - at Presbyterian
Oct. 11 - Wofford
Oct. 18 - at Mercer
Oct. 25 - The Citadel
Nov. 1 - Chattanooga
Nov. 8 - at Samford
Nov. 15 - VMI
Nov. 22 - at Alabama
7. MERCER BEARS
LOCATION: Macon, Georgia
STADIUM: Moye Complex
COACH: Bobby Lamb (10-2 in one season at Elon; 77-42 overall)
LAST SEASON: 10-2 overall, 6-2 Pioneer Football League (3rd)
OUTLOOK: The 10 wins last year set the NCAA record by a first-year program, but Mercer has quickly elevated to the SoCon from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. Lamb spent a number of years at Furman, including nine seasons (2002-10) as head coach, so he's well aware of his new/old conference. All of his initial team's starters return. The Bears run the pistol offense behind QB Russ and the tag-team of RBs Donald and Usher, with Lakes possibly joining the rotation. The unit ranked second in the FCS with 277.9 rushing yards per game last season. Of course, Lamb has to build up both of his lines to play well at the scholarship level. The Bears' 3-4 defense struggled to stop the pass last season, so that's been a focal point leading up to the season. The Bears will still play three sub-Division I opponents, Stetson and struggling Austin Peay out of conference, so they definitely can finish at least .500 again.
Aug. 28 - Reinhardt
Sept. 6 - Furman
Sept. 13 - at Stetson
Sept. 20 - Ave Maria
Sept. 27 - at VMI
Oct. 4 - at Samford
Oct. 11 - Austin Peay
Oct. 18 - Western Carolina
Oct. 25 - at Chattanooga
Nov. 1 - The Citadel
Nov. 15 - Warner
Nov. 22 - at Wofford
8. VMI KEYDETS
LOCATION: Lexington, Virginia
STADIUM: Alumni Memorial Field
COACH: Sparky Woods (15-52 in five seasons at VMI; 78-98-5 overall)
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
KEY LOSSES: QB Eric Korenbrock (137-for-239, 1,619 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT); QB A.J. Augustine (93-for-158, 1,149 yards, 9 TD, 7 INT); WR James Rogers (38 receptions, 646 yards, 8 TD); OL Patrick Goulden; OL Will Lucas; DL Justin Smith (64 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR); ILB Weston Reber (82 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 QBH, 3 FR); ILB Ty Garvin (73 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF); OLB Chris Harper (26 TT, 4.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR); OLB William Hyman (52 TT, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 FF); P David Eberhardt (64 punts, 38.8 ypp)
OUTLOOK: After an 11-year absence while competing in the Big South Conference, VMI returns to a SoCon in which it was a member for 79 years. The Keydets are expected to struggle in the conference, although they are thrilled to reunite with military rival The Citadel. Woods will replace a four-year starting quarterback in Kordenbrock with either Cobb or Alford. Whoever starts will have the benefit of strong pass catchers, led by Patterson. RB Ziglar also catches passes out of the backfield, but he prefers to follow the lead of Marcotte and the offensive line. The defense has to cut down on allowing 455 yards per game. Opponents averaged five yards a carry - way too much. The secondary returns all four starters and is the strength of the defense. PK Christopher is a weapon, having blasted two 52-yard field goals last season. The Keydets have won only two games in each of the last three seasons and four of the last five seasons. Expect something similar this season.