In the FCS Huddle: SoCon retools, not rebuilds

( - 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.

Yeah, gulp.

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."


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

Media Poll

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


Offensive Player of the Year - Jacob Huesman, QB, Chattanooga

Defensive Player of the Year - Davis Tull, DE, Chattanooga

First-Team Offense

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

First-Team Defense

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

First-Team Specialists

PK - Warren Handrahan, So., Samford

P - Greg Peranich, Sr., Samford

RS - Shaun Warren, Sr., Western Carolina

Second-Team Offense

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

Second-Team Defense

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

Second-Team Specialists

PK - Richard Sigmon, Sr., Western Carolina

P - Nick Pollard, Sr., Chattanooga

RS - Will Gay, Jr., Wofford

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