The Southern Conference title race should be one of the best in the FCS this season.
Either defending champ Wofford or Samford will claim the favorite’s role, Furman expects to get back to the FCS playoffs, and Western Carolina, Mercer, Chattanooga and The Citadel can beat any of last year’s top three.
It also won’t take long to get to the fun. There’s at least one conference game in every week of the regular season.
Here are five bold predictions for SoCon 2018:
The SoCon will beat up on itself too much
Two years ago, the SoCon set a record by placing four teams in the playoffs and it followed up with three more bids last season. With the number of strong teams led by Samford, Wofford and Furman, a shared title is in play -- maybe even a three-way title like 2013. But the parity within conference play could keep the playoff possibilities down. Just two playoff bids? Well...
Samford is playing with fire
The Bulldogs have pointed to this being their banner season, with two-time SoCon offensive player of the year Devlin Hodges back as their senior leader. But head coach Chris Hatcher’s team may have given itself too slim of a margin for error. Sure, the Bulldogs could very well win the conference title and automatic bid to the playoffs, but an at-large bid could be tougher because they won’t gain a Division I win against Shorter and they’ll be underdogs in their other non-conference games at Florida State and Kennesaw State.
Josh Conklin will be the coach of the year
There’s a lot of pressure on Conklin, a first-time head coach, as he replaces legendary coach Mike Ayers at Wofford. Not only did Ayers guide the Terriers for 30 years, but he ended strong with back-to-back 10-win seasons and trips to the national quarterfinals as well as the SoCon title last season. Conklin, a former assistant under Ayers, has experienced backs to power the triple-option offense, and his background is on defense, so he will know how to fill senior losses there. Wofford won’t take a step backward.
Chattanooga, The Citadel won’t challenge for the SoCon title again
A lot changed in the SoCon last season. Chattanooga was a part of three straight titles from 2013-15 and made the playoffs in ’16, while The Citadel shared the title in 2015 and was the outright champ in ’16, but both dropped to 3-5 in the conference and had losing overall records last year. While improvement is likely, a return to title contention probably won’t happen with difficult starts to the conference schedule, including a matchup between the two at The Citadel on Sept. 8.
Samford’s Ahmad Gooden to claim Buchanan Award
It’s not easy for a defensive lineman to surpass 100 tackles in a season, but Gooden did last season and also had 15.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries while being named the SoCon defensive player of the year. He’s also the top-returning voter for the FCS Buck Buchanan Award, finishing seventh.
-- 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 courtesy of Samford Athletics)