5 Key Questions in the Southern Conference for the 2017 FCS Season

Off a four-bid season, the SoCon features even more playoff contenders

And the big upset in the Southern Conference this year is... ?

Two of the bigger surprises in the FCS regular season the last two years were Mercer over Chattanooga in 2015 and Samford over East Tennessee State last year.

The upsets reflected the growing depth in the SoCon, which several years earlier was reeling from the loss of powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the FBS level. The Citadel, which has won two straight SoCon titles, Wofford, Chattanooga and Samford gave the conference four FCS playoff qualifiers for the first time.

With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the SoCon:

How has the offseason affected The Citadel too much?

The Citadel lost potential starters in the offseason and it should impact the Bulldogs greatly this season:  first-team All-America cornerback Dee Delaney left for the Miami Hurricanes as a graduate transfer, second-team All-America offensive lineman Isaiah Pinson surrendered his final season of eligibility, and slot back Reggie Williams and defensive linemen Kevin Graham and Travis Johnson also departed the program. Head coach Brent Thompson won his first 10 games last season, but he’s going to have to do an even better job in his second season.

Is Mercer primed to reach the top tier?

Head coach Bobby Lamb’s team feels ready for the next step, perhaps contention for a playoff bid. Of course, that means having a superb conference season because Auburn and Alabama are sure losses on their non-conference schedule. While John Russ isn’t their starting quarterback going into a season for the first time, the offense will have running backs Alex Lakes and C.J. Leggett, a Georgia Tech transfer, and wide receiver Marquise Irvin.

Can a Division III head coach prosper at Chattanooga?

Perhaps one of the more surprising coaching hirings of the FCS offseason will become the most shrewd hiring. Chattanooga reached into Division III to get Tom Arth from John Carroll, where he went 40-8 in four seasons and beat national powers Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union last season. He’s been putting his stamp on the program, but the Mocs return only 10 starters (five on each side of the ball) from last year’s 9-4 squad, including 6-2 in the SoCon. In the run-heavy SoCon, the Mocs won’t be as dominant at both lines of scrimmage.

Does the momentum carry over for Wofford?

Wofford was one of the more dangerous teams after the midseason last year. The Terriers won five of their last six regular-season games, losing only in overtime to The Citadel, and went on to beat two conference champs, Charleston Southern (Big South) and The Citadel, in the playoffs before fhey were eliminated by Youngstown State in double overtime in the quarterfinals. Their offensive and defensive lines will control a bunch of games and the use of two quarterbacks, Brandon Goodson and Joseph Newman, will keep the triple-option offense moving.

Who are the NFL prospects?

The SoCon doesn’t appear to have many NFL candidates as a typical year. The top seniors are on the defensive side of the ball with Wofford defensive tackle Tyler Vaughn, The Citadel defensive back Kailik Williams and Samford’s Omari Williams, a cornerback, and Shaheed Salmon, a linebacker.

Related: Top FCS 2018 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch

— 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 Mercer University Athletics)