The Southern Conference has been crowning football champions since 1933, but this might be the most awkward season in the league’s long and storied history.
The consensus top two teams in the league, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, have nine FCS national titles between them. But they are ineligible for the FCS playoffs and the SoCon championship this season, as they ramp up scholarships to begin a two-year transition to FBS and the Sun Belt Conference.
The SoCon has decided it will list App State and Georgia Southern at the bottom of league standings this year, with an asterisk indicating their inelibility.
That leaves four teams — Chattanooga, Samford, The Citadel and Wofford — as favorites to compete for the SoCon title and an automatic berth to the newly expanded, 24-team FCS playoffs. Chattanooga is the pick among eligible teams by league coaches, Wofford by the media.
Here’s how we think they’ll finish:
2012: 6-5 overall (5-3 SoCon)
COACH: Russ Huesman (23-21 in four seasons at Chattanooga)
RETURNING STARTERS: 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: TE Faysal Shafaat, DL Derrick Lott, DL Davis Tull, LB Wes Dothard, DB Kadeem Wise
OUTLOOK: After going 6-5 in three of Huesman’s first four seasons (and 5-6 in the other), the Mocs appeared ready for a long-awaited breakthrough season. With 10 starters back on defense and 10 on offense, experience abounds. Sophomore QB Jacob Huesman won the starting job last year, and versatile junior Terrell “Silk” Robinson will have a starring role as a WR/QB. The Mocs need more production from running back, but a defense led by LB Wes Dothard should be plenty stout.
2012: 7-4 overall, 5-3 SoCon
COACH: Pat Sullivan (32-34 in six seasons at Samford, 56-76-12 in 12 seasons overall)
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: RB Fabian Truss, WR Kelsey Pope, DB Jaquiski Tartt, OL Kasey Morrison, TE Zeke Walters
OUTLOOK: Samford is another team looking to take advantage of the absence of Georgia Southern and App State from the SoCon race. The Bulldogs started 5-1 last year, including a 38-7 whipping of The Citadel, before losing tight games to App State and Chattanooga. Senior Fabian Truss is one of the top running backs in the SoCon, and Kelsey Pope a dangerous receiver for QB Andy Summerlin, who returns after being awarded a sixth season of eligibility. Samford returns just five starters on defense, but one of them is play-making safety Jaquiski Tartt, who had four interceptions and scored two touchdowns last year.
2012: 7-4 (5-3 SoCon)
COACH: Kevin Higgins (38-51 in eight seasons at The Citadel, 94-76-1 in 15 seasons overall)
RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: DT Derek Douglas, FB Darien Robinson, QB Ben Dupree, OT Cullen Brown, OG Keith Carter, CB Brandon McCladdie, CB Sadath Jean-Pierre
OUTLOOK: After watching their team win seven games last year, including wins over two of the three SoCon champions (App State and Georgia Southern), Citadel fans are ready for their team to make a run at the first league title since 1992. The offense is stacked with seniors at QB, FB and on the offensive line, all in their fourth year of the triple-option. The front seven on defense is experienced, even with the loss of ILB Carson Smith (broken ankle). A Sept. 7 game with Wofford is a key early indicator.
2012: 9-4 (6-2 SoCon)
COACH: Mike Ayers (171-115-1 in 25 seasons at Wofford, 182-136-2 in 28 seasons overall)
RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: OL Ty Gregory, OL Jared Singleton, LB Alvin Scioneaux, FB Donovan Johnson, DL Tarek Odom, LB Mike McCrimon, DB James Zotto
OUTLOOK: Nobody quite knows what to make of the 2013 Terriers. The SoCon media poll placed Wofford at No. 5 in the league; the FCS coaches poll has Wofford No. 5 in the nation. Ayers has won fewer than eight games only three times in the last three years, so it’s hard to imagine the Terriers will slip too much. But they must replace All-SoCon FB Eric Breitenstein, QB Brian Kass, and defensive coordinator Nate Woody, gone to App State. Donovan Johnson and James Lawson look ready to fill the first two spots, and longtime assistant Jack Teachey was promoted to the DC spot. We’ll learn much during a tough opening stretch of at Baylor, at The Citadel and Georgia Southern.
2012: 3-8 (2-6 SoCon)
COACH: Bruce Fowler (9-13 in two seasons at Furman)
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: OL Dakota Dozier, PK/P Ray Early, DL Gary Wilkins, QB Reese Hannon. RB Hank McCloud
OUTLOOK: Furman will unveil a renovated Paladin Stadium this year, and third-year coach Bruce Fowler is still in the process of renovating his roster. There are only 26 seniors and juniors among his 87 players. The defensive line returns only one starter, with Wilkins moving from linebacker to defensive end. The linebacking corps has no seniors and seven first or second-year players. On offense, the situation is better even with the loss of top rusher Jerodis Williams. Redshirt junior Hank McCloud is capable, sophomore QB Reese Hannon showed promise as a freshman and senior Dakota Dozier (6-5, 303) leads the line.
2012: 3-8 (1-7 SoCon)
COACH: Jason Swepson (8-14 in two years at Elon)
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (4 offense, 9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: LB Jonathan Spann, OL Clay Johnson, WR Kierre Brown, DB Chandler Wrightenberry
OUTLOOK: Like Georgia Southern and App State, Elon also is in its final season of SoCon football. The Phoenix are heading for the Colonial Athletic Association, which is also an FCS league, and so have no scholarship/eligibility issues. But it looks like Elon will go out with a whimper unless Swepson can reverse a slide that’s seen the Phoenix go from 5-6 in 2011 to 3-8 last year. Only four starters are back from an offense that ranked eighth in scoring (24.3 ppg) and last in rushing (88.4 ypg). Either junior Mike Quinn or redshirt freshman John Loughery will start at QB; Quinn played in nine games last year, throwing 29 passes. Trevor Vasey, a 6-6 sophomore, has been moved from QB to WR.
2012: 1-10 (0-8 SoCon)
COACH: Mark Speir (1-10 in one year at WCU)
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: DB Ace Clark, P Clark Sechrest, RB Darius Ramsey, QB Troy Mitchell, DB Dante Stewart
OUTLOOK: WCU’s latest rebuilding effort started last year under former App State assistant Mark Speir, with the Catamounts beating only D-II Mars Hill. This year’s slate includes FBS schools Middle Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Auburn, so 2013 prospects aren’t much better. WCU does return most of its offensive line as well as top rusher Darius Ramsey and QBs Troy Mitchell and Eddie Sullivan. Cornerback Dante Stewart, a transfer from Clemson, is on hand to bolster a defense that returns six of its top 10 tacklers. First goal: Snap a 22-game losing streak in SoCon games.
2012: 10-4 (6-2 SoCon)
COACH: Jeff Monken (31-12 in three seasons at GSU)
RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: FB Dominique Swope, QB Jerick McKinnon, OL Dorian Byrd, DB Lavelle Westbrooks, OL Garrett Frye, DL Javon Mention
OUTLOOK: It’s got to kill coach Jeff Monken to have a team capable of winning an FCS title while ineligible, but that’s the situation the Eagles find themselves in as they play their final SoCon season before heading to FBS. Monken’s goal is to win “another SoCon title whether anyone else will recognize it or not” and the Eagles could well go 8-0 in the league. But because GSU will be over the FCS scholarship limit of 63, there will be no league title or playoff bid. Meanwhile, the Sun Belt awaits.
2012: 8-4 (6-2 overall)
COACH: Scott Satterfield (first season)
RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING: QB Jamal Londry-Jackson, OL Kendall Lamm, WR Andrew Peacock, WR Sean Price, DL Ronald Blair, DB Joel Ross
OUTLOOK: App State’s move to FBS and the Sun Belt after this season has overshadowed another major story line, with new coach Scott Satterfield replacing Mountaineers legend Jerry Moore, unceremoniously dumped after 24 seasons, 215 wins and three FCS national titles. Like GSU, App will be over the 63-scholarship limit and ineligible for the FCS playoffs and SoCon title. Like GSU, App State looks loaded, especially on offense. New defensive coordinator Nate Woody was brought in from Wofford to fix a defense that was gashed for 52 points and 463 rushing yards by The Citadel last season.