If you follow the top teams in the FBS this year, you might find a surprising connection in their non-conference games: the Southern Conference.
Yes, the mighty Southeastern Conference (better known as the SEC) is involved some of the matchups, but we’re talking about the Southern Conference.
One of the stronger conferences on the FCS level of college football is stepping away from crowds of 8,000 to play before 80,000 fans and against a Who’s Who list of FBS powers.
It’s not necessarily new for the Southern Conference, which boasts eight national champions and eight national runners-up in its rich history. But this year’s lineup of 10 FBS opponents is particularly strong.
It starts at the top, too. The Citadel, the two-time defending SoCon champion, will face 2016 FBS national champion Clemson on Nov. 18.
“Playing FCS teams in general is a great experience for our team, and playing an in-state team means even more for our kids,” The Citadel head coach Brent Thompson said. “A lot of people within our program grew up fans of Clemson and dreamed of playing in Memorial Stadium, and it’s huge for us in recruiting to be able to offer them that opportunity. This will be the second time in the last four years we have played the defending national champions (The Citadel lost to Florida State in 2014). I think the kids enjoy that challenge, but we approach our preparation the same way for every game.”
Mercer, which revived its football program in 2013, isn’t far behind The Citadel, as the Bears are set to face Alabama, last year’s College Football Playoff FBS runner-up, also on Nov. 18. But Mercer has a double-dose of FBS unlike any other this year because it also has a game at Auburn on Sept. 16.
SEC programs will see quite a bit of the SoCon. Chattanooga will invade LSU (Sept. 9), Samford faces Georgia (Sept. 16) and Wofford heads to South Carolina (Nov. 18).
Western Carolina has a pair of FBS matchups, opening its regular season at Hawaii (Sept. 2) and closing it at North Carolina (Nov. 18). In addition, Furman plays at North Carolina State (Sept. 16) and VMI faces Air Force (Sept. 2).
East Tennessee State, which restarted its football program in 2015, is the only SoCon program without an FBS game this year. The Bucs, though, have been lining up future games, starting with Tennessee in 2018.
It’s not as though the FBS matchups simply remain guaranteed paydays for the Southern Conference. Two years ago, The Citadel went upstate to stun South Carolina. In 2013, former SoCon member Georgia Southern beat Florida in The Swamp. And who can forget the biggest FCS-FBS upset of all time, former SoCon member Appalachian State winning at No. 5 Michigan to open the 2007 season? Will we see more added to this list in 2017?
2017 Southern Conference vs. FBS Matchups
Colorado Springs, CO
Baton Rouge, LA
Chapel Hill, NC
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Western Carolina University Athletics)