Southern Conference football has long been dominated by a Big Three. From 1980 to 2001, it was Furman, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern which won or shared 18 of 22 league championships. In recent years, Wofford has replaced Furman in the Large Trio, joining in winning or sharing the last 11 SoCon championships.
Who: No. 19 Samford (6-2, 4-0) at The Citadel (2-6, 2-4)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Johnson Hagood Stadium
RadioL 1450-AM. TV/Internet: ESPN3
But with Georgia Southern and App State bound for FBS and the Sun Belt Conference next year, there are immediate openings in the Big Three. And no school has been busier polishing up its resume than Samford University, the small private school located in the hills outside Birmingham, Ala.
“When Georgia Southern and App decided to leave, everyone wondered what would happen to the Southern Conference,” said Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team hosts Samford today for homecoming at Johnson Hagood Stadium. “I immediately looked at Chattanooga and Samford as two teams who could step up.”
Samford, in its sixth season in the SoCon since leaving the Ohio Valley Conference, is 6-2 overall and 4-0 in the league, the only team without a conference loss.
Ranked No. 19 in the FCS Coaches Poll, Samford already has beaten Georgia Southern, App State and Wofford, leaving only a Nov. 16 game against Chattanooga (6-2, 4-1) as a matchup with a fellow contender.
Samford’s entry into the SoCon has coincided with an emphasis on renewed facilities and an expanded recruiting base to produce coach Pat Sullivan’s best team in his six seasons.
“Samford has changed its recruiting the last two years and brought a lot of good young players into the program,” Higgins said. “And they can get transfers as well. They are getting a lot better players from the state of Alabama. I remember when we started going into Alabama four or five years ago, there were a lot of players that weren’t taken from the state.
“Now, they’ve made a concerted effort to make sure they get as many good players from Alabama as well. We’ve lost three or four guys in the last couple of years just to them that we thought were very good players.”
Samford got standout senior running back Fabian Truss out of its own backyard in Birmingham, and All-America safety Jaquiski Tartt played at Davidson High School in Mobile, alma mater of Citadel linebacker James Riley. Linebacker Justin Shade, the top tackler in the SoCon, also is from Birmingham, and all-SoCon receiver Kelsey Pope is from Sylacauga, Ala.
That recruiting success makes Samford attractive to transfer players like quarterback Andy Summerlin, who began his career at Memphis. Summerlin, 25, is now a 6-4, 219-pound player in his sixth year, and that maturity shows in his numbers — a 63.7-percent completion rate for 2,278 yards and 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Samford’s facilities program includes a new football field house, a fieldhouse for baseball and softball, and the Pete Hanna Center for basketball and volleyball, which opened in 2007.
“When I came to Samford (in 2007), the Southern Conference is something we talked about,” said Sullivan, who coached at Texas Christian from 1992-1997. “We really had no facilities, we had nothing to recruit to. But when we were able to build some facilities, recruit some players and win a few games, we were able to start growing. We had to keep our eye on the target and realize it wasn’t going to happen overnight.”
Like FCS schools in the state of South Carolina, who live in the shadow of Clemson and South Carolina, Samford must contend with Alabama and Auburn. But its recent success has not gone unnoticed.
Samford has lost this season only to SEC foe Arkansas (31-21) and Southeastern Louisana (34-31), an FCS team that’s 6-2. In SoCon games, Samford is averaging a league-best 43.5 points and 527 yards per game.
“The interest has been growing,” said Sullivan, who won the Heisman Trophy as Auburn’s quarterback in 1971. “I think it started growing last year. Some of the teams have struggled, and when you are winning, people want to know about it. We want to try to keep building and improving the atmosphere around our program.”
All of that makes a struggling Citadel team (2-6, 2-4) an underdog for homecoming on Saturday. Samford has won the last two against The Citadel, including a 38-7 thumping last season.
“It’s an opportunity to knock off the No. 1 team in the league,” Higgins said. “With where we are right now, if you can upset a team like Samford you can salvage a lot of what has taken place this season and give our guys a little sense of accomplishment as well.”
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc