SPARTANBURG - It's not like the Southern Conference hasn't seen change before. After all, this is the league that sent Alabama to the Rose Bowl in 1926 and over the years has included North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida, Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina and much of what is now the ACC and SEC.
SOCON FOOTBALL POLLS
Team (First-place votes) Points
1. Chattanooga (6) 48
2. Furman (1) 40
(tie) Samford (1) 40
4. Wofford 30
5. Western Carolina 24
6. The Citadel 22
7. Mercer 10
(tie) VMI 10
Team (First-place votes) Points
1. Chattanooga (29) 235
2. Furman (1) 203
3. Samford 174
4. Wofford 155
5. Western Carolina 105
6. The Citadel 103
7. Mercer 67
8. VMI 38
But it was with a real sense of relief Wednesday that SoCon commissioner John Iamarino welcomed what he hopes is a new era of stability for the SoCon, the nation's fifth-oldest NCAA Division I conference. After losing five schools over the last two years, and adding three new ones as of July 1, Iamarino is eager for a break from the realignment wars.
"It feels pretty (darn) good," Iamarino said at the SoCon's football media day, where new members Mercer, VMI and East Tennessee State were welcomed to the league. "It's been refreshing and rewarding to be able to plan some initiatives and do some progressive things instead of trying to defend our flanks and react to whatever comments and rumors that are out there.
"You never know in this business, but I really believe the 10 schools we have are committed to each other and to the league."
As evidence, Iamarino cited the league's vote last spring to increase its exit fee to $1 million. He also said there's been little discussion of further expansion.
"My guess is that we're going to want to go through a cycle or two to see how our various sports are affected with 10 members," he said. "The one thing I like about 10 is that you can naturally grow to 12, which I think is a good number. And people can see that you've got room if things develop."
Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Elon were the football-playing schools to leave the SoCon - GSU and App moving to the FBS Sun Belt and Elon to the FCS Colonial Athletic Association. Mercer and VMI will play a SoCon slate this season, while ETSU is slated to play in the league in 2016.
That leaves the SoCon with eight teams and a seven-game conference schedule this season. Chattanooga, one of the SoCon's tri-champions last season, was picked to finish first this season by both SoCon coaches and media. The Citadel, with new coach Mike Houston on board, was picked sixth in both polls.
The loss of powerhouses Georgia Southern and App State, winners of 22 league titles and nine national championships between them, impacts the SoCon's reputation as one of the top FCS leagues in the country, Iamarino acknowledged. But the league still landed Furman and Samford in the 24-team playoffs last year, with Chattanooga a near-miss.
"People that follow FCS probably think we'll be down for a while," he said. "But I don't think we'll be down as long as they think. Mercer is building a quality program, ETSU has done all the right things so far, and we hope VMI is boosted by being back in the conference.
"But nature abhors a vacuum, and I think teams like Chattanooga and Samford and Wofford and Furman, they will start to fill that void at the top."
The SoCon's new era brings back some familiar faces in former Furman coach Bobby Lamb, now the head man at Mercer, and ex-South Carolina coach Sparky Woods, in his seventh season at VMI.
"It's great to be back," said Woods, who coached at App State in the SoCon from 1984-88. "The SoCon still looks like it used to look - physical on defense with big old defensive linemen, and then they run that ball on offense. You've got to be physical to be in this league."
With the exit fees collected from departing schools, the SoCon has invested more than $2 million in video and audio equipment for league members to create the SoCon Digital Network, which will web-stream football, basketball and volleyball games this season. The league also negotiated a broadcast TV deal with the new American Sports Network, which will televise six football games this season.
"There will always be challenges for us to adapt to the new landscape in college athletics," Iamarino said. "But this is a good time for us to hit the reset button."
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