The FCS gains when the Southern Conference is strong. It’s kind of like having the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys in the championship mix.
Southern Conference teams have won eight national championships with eight other title game appearances on the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) level.
The SoCon was down as a conference two years ago, but came back strong last season.
Here are five key questions about the SoCon for the season ahead:
1. Is Chattanooga vulnerable without Jacob Huesman?
The loss that naysayers can focus on with the three-time defending Southern Conference champion Mocs is quarterback Jacob Huesman, a four-year starter and three-time conference offensive player of the year. While his departure is glaring, the Mocs’ talent base has grown enough that they no longer rebuild but reload as a program. They will surround new quarterback Alejandro Bennifield with nine returning starters (there’s another seven back on defense). The quick, strong-armed left-hander had one of the Mocs’ biggest plays last season on the first play against co-champ The Citadel — he took a backward pass from Huesman in the flat and fired a 75-yard touchdown strike for the fastest score in school history.
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2. Which team has the next FBS upset?
Furman pulled off a 16-15 win at UCF last September, but the eye-opener for the Southern Conference was The Citadel’s 23-22 triumph at SEC member (and fellow Palmetto State resident) South Carolina. SoCon teams are involved in another nine games against the FBS this year and The Citadel may have the best shot for a win when it closes its regular season on Nov. 19 at North Carolina. The Bulldogs’ triple option offense ranked second in the FCS in rushing yards per game (346.9), and they return their top four rushers, including quarterback Dominique Allen and All-America fullback Tyler Renew. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels ranked last in the ACC and 121st among 127 FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game (247.4).
3. Who’s in a rush for 1,000?
The SoCon could be the home to numerous 1,000-yard rushers. Huesman was the only senior in the conference’s top 10 for rushing yards per game. Chattanooga’s Derrick Craine (1,251) and Western Carolina’s Detrez Newsome (1,109) were in the century club last season, while Wofford’s Lorenzo Long (962), The Citadel’s Dominique Allen (958) and Mercer’s Tee Mitchell (946) nearly made it as well. Mercer’s Alex Lakes, a junior, led the SoCon in rushing yards (1,107) and rushing yards per game (92.2) two years ago. The aforementioned Renew and Samford’s Denzel Williams also are threats to surpass 1,000 yards.
4. Who are the NFL prospects?
Among seniors in the Southern Conference, Chattanooga has a pair of linemen whom NFL teams are keeping a close eye on. Defensive end Keionta Davis, at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, is the top candidate in the SoCon after his 13.5 sacks set the school record and his 17 tackles for a loss led the conference last season. Offensive lineman Corey Levin (6-5, 305) has already won the league’s blocking award twice. Wofford offensive lineman Anton Wahrby (6-5, 300), an import from, all places, Sweden, and Furman safety Trey Robinson (6-1, 212) also have legitimate pro aspirations.
5. Will the SoCon momentum continue?
After a down season in 2014 following the loss of powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern as well as Elon, the Southern Conference got back on track last season. Chattanooga and The Citadel both won games in the FCS playoffs. With East Tennessee State returning to the conference standings this year, the SoCon is up to nine teams again. But the young Buccaneers are a team nobody can afford a loss against as the margin of error in the title race is thin considering the SoCon’s solid depth. A healthier Wofford is a factor again (Top 25?), and Western Carolina, Samford, Furman and Mercer (which upset Chattanooga last season) are all capable of joining Chattanooga and The Citadel in the upper half of the race.
— 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 The Citadel Athletics)