(SportsNetwork.com) - Southern Conference football teams staged one of the more impressive title races in the FCS last season.
Now they want to extend such play outside the conference schedule again.
The loss of perennial powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern has arrived this season. But as good as last season was in the SoCon, when Samford, Wofford and Chattanooga shared first place despite the departing big two being eligible for the title, conference coaches know their teams have to do better to stay among the elite FCS conferences.
Chattanooga was installed as the preseason favorite in both the SoCon preseason coaches and media polls on Wednesday - the first season in which ASU and GSU has moved up to the Sun Belt in the FCS and Elon has gone to CAA Football with VMI returning to the conference from the Big South and Mercer coming aboard from the Pioneer Football League. When East Tennessee State returns to football next year, the SoCon will be back to having nine teams.
"I think the big thing that we have to do is to be competitive outside of our league. We have to be a dominant league when we play outside and if we are playing these other conferences and being successful, then people are going to forget that Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are gone," Wofford coach Mike Ayers said.
"The thing that I know and I believe that our conference is still an outstanding conference. There are teams coming in that I believe will make us better and stronger and give us a broader base as far as marketing and I think that will go hand in hand in getting the reputation of the league out there."
In one way, the new SoCon arrived a year early last season. It was surprising that Samford, Furman and Chattanooga all went 6-2 in conference games, while ASU and GSU were both 4-4. It showed there would be life after the two programs left.
But Georgia Southern was the only team among the eight to have a winning record in non-conference games. The SoCon finished 14-24 out of conference, even struggling against the smaller Big South which shares some of the same geographical footprint.
Furman earned the SoCon's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs and won at South Carolina State before being knocked out by eventual champion North Dakota State. Samford earned an at-large bid and was handled by Jacksonville State. Chattanooga was left outside the field to remain in search of its first bid since 1984.
"For us, Furman and Samford to win the league while (ASU and GSU) were still in it gave some credibility to our programs," Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. "I think the league stepped up, and I don't believe people outside our league realized that other teams got better as a group. Everybody wanted to say Appalachian State and Georgia Southern were down, but I think some teams stepped up in the league big-time."
"Last year's results showed increased parity in our league," Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said. "Several of those teams that traditionally weren't at the top of the conference were able to make the improvements necessary to compete for a title. From top-to-bottom, our league has continued to improve."
Chattanooga - picked first in the preseason poll for the first time since 1982 - returns the SoCon's preseason offensive (quarterback Jacob Huesman) and defensive players (defensive end Davis Tull) of the year. Furman is just as experienced as the Mocs despite the unexpected loss of standout safety Jairus Hollman this past spring for an undisclosed reason. The Paladins and Samford, which lost numerous key players, tied for second in the preseason poll.
SoCon teams will have plenty of marquee opportunities to make noise outside the conference. Chattanooga will host Ohio Valley Conference power Jacksonville State and make a trip to Tennessee. Furman has big instate games with Coastal Carolina and South Carolina State. The Citadel also will take on Coastal as well as make a trip to defending FBS champion Florida State. Samford gets both TCU and Auburn, while Western Carolina faces Alabama.
But those kinds of matchups may be what the SoCon needs as it moves forward and tries not to dwell on what was lost.
"We have to have success - the whole league - with the non-conference schedule," Russ Huesman said. "That's what hurt us last year. We lost some games to some really good football teams that I don't think people realized how good they were.
"There were a couple from the Big South and, obviously, we lost to an OVC team (Chattanooga). I don't know if people realized just how good those teams were, but I think we have to be successful for our conference to continue to be traditionally strong. And we have to do some damage in the playoffs."
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS
Head Coaches Poll
1. Chattanooga (6), 48
2T. Furman (1), 40
2T. Samford (1), 40
4. Wofford, 30
5. Western Carolina, 24
6. The Citadel, 22
7T. Mercer, 10
7T. VMI, 10
1. Chattanooga (29), 235
2. Furman (1), 203
3. Samford, 174
4. Wofford, 155
5. Western Carolina, 105
6. The Citadel, 103
7. Mercer, 67
8. VMI, 38
PRESEASON ALL-SOCON FOOTBALL TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Jacob Huesman, QB, Chattanooga
Defensive Player of the Year - 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
QB - Reese Hannon, Jr., Furman
RB - Darius Ramsey, Jr., Western Carolina
RB - Will Gay, Jr., Wofford
OL - Joe Turner, Jr., Furman
OL - C.H. Scruggs, Jr., Samford
OL - Corey Levin, So., Chattanooga
OL - Andrew Marcotte, Sr., VMI
OL - Anton Wahrby, So., Wofford
TE - Tony Philpot, Jr., Samford
WR - Karel Hamilton, So., Samford
WR - Terryon Robinson, So., Western Carolina
DL - Ira McCune, Sr., Furman
DL - Jerry Mathis, Sr., Samford
DL - Josh Freeman, Jr., Chattanooga
DL - Derrick Lott, Sr., Chattanooga
LB - Bobby Wilson, Jr., Samford
LB - Christon Gill, Sr., Western Carolina
LB - Kevin Thomas, Sr., Wofford
DB - Trey Robinson, So., Furman
DB - Ace Clark, Sr., Western Carolina
DB - Chris Armfield, So., Wofford
DB - Bernard Williams, Sr., Wofford
PK - Richard Sigmon, Sr., Western Carolina
P - Nick Pollard, Sr., Chattanooga
RS - Will Gay, Jr., Wofford