Brent Thompson

Citadel coach Brent Thompson in the locker room after Saturday's 38-31 win art Mercer. Provided/Citadel Athletics 

On a happy bus ride back from Macon on Saturday night, Citadel coach Brent Thompson talked with his friend and former boss, James Madison coach Mike Houston. The Bulldogs had just upset Mercer, 38-31, to win their first game of the season.

"I told him, 'Coach, we've got a good football team," Thompson recounted Tuesday. "I said, 'I really like these guys, they fight their butts off. We've just got to get over the hump and get started in the right direction.'

"A game like that is really what we needed to help us get through the rest of the year. We needed something to propel us and something to go right for us."

Last week, Thompson told the Bulldogs that a win at Mercer could get them "back on the map" in the Southern Conference. At 1-2 overall and 1-2 in the SoCon, Citadel players certainly believe they are back in the hunt.

"Absolutely," said slotback Grant Drakeford, who ran for 139 yards and a touchdown against Mercer. "Any time you can go on the road and beat a Mercer team that just knocked off the team (Samford) that was picked to win the conference, you've got to think you are back in the race. We've just got to keep on moving."

The good news for the Bulldogs is they might have already played the two best teams in the league, losing to Chattanooga (4-0, 2-0) and Wofford (2-1, 2-0) by a combined eight points.

With the Bulldogs facing non-conference foe Towson on Saturday and enjoying an open date on Oct. 6, here's how the SoCon map unfolds for The Citadel:

• The next three SoCon games include visits from ETSU and Furman, and a road trip to VMI. The Citadel could be favored in all three: ETSU is 2-0 in the league, but its victories are over winless VMI and a suddenly struggling Furman team. VMI and Furman are a combined 0-4 in the league and 0-7 overall.

• The final two SoCon games are at Western Carolina (3-0, 1-0), which scraped by VMI by 52-50; and at home against preseason favorite Samford, which is a surprising 0-2 in the league after losses to Mercer and Chattanooga.

Among the SoCon's three 2-0 teams, Chattanooga might have the smoothest road remaining, with Wofford, Western Carolina and Mercer still to play. Wofford still must face Chattanooga, Mercer, Samford and Western Carolina, while ETSU still has Chattanooga, The Citadel, Wofford, Western Carolina and Samford.

In order to grab at least a share of a third SoCon title in four years, The Citadel almost certainly will have to win out in the SoCon for a 6-2 league record.

The postponement of the Charleston Southern game to Nov. 29 adds some extra import to Saturday's game at FCS No. 25 Towson (2-1, 1-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association). The Tigers are quarterbacked by Tom Flacco, younger brother of Baltimore Ravens star Joe Flacco.

The Citadel plays at defending national FBS champion Alabama on Nov. 17, the day before the 24-team FCS playoff field is announced. That means the best record the Bulldogs can reasonably hope for when the playoff field is announced is 7-3 overall and 6-2 in the SoCon, which might be good enough to get in.

A loss at Towson puts the Bulldogs' ceiling at 6-4 when the playoffs are announced.

Either way, the win at Mercer pumped some swagger back into the Bulldogs.

"That win was very important for us," said slotback Rod Johnson, who returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute left at Mercer. "It instilled hope into our team. When you are down 0-2, and both your losses are to conference teams, you kind of get discouraged a little bit.

"But now we've had a chance to see what it feels like to win again."

• Johnson was named the SoCon special teams player of the week for his 94-yard TD return against Mercer, which came with 57 seconds left in the Bulldogs' 38-31 victory.

• Citadel cornerback Khafari Buffalo, who had an interception at Mercer, is in the concussion protocol and is doubtful for the Towson game, Thompson said.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC