Final stretch will determine fate of Citadel’s season

With just three games left to play, the fate of The Citadel’s football season still hangs in the balance.

Will the 2012 season be remembered as a breakthrough season, with a 7-4 record, two wins over top 10 teams and a fairly strong case for an FCS playoff bid?

Will the Bulldogs have to settle for their first winning season since 2007 and just their second since 1998?

Or will 2012 go down as just another in a line of disappointing seasons for The Citadel, which has averaged four wins a year since 1993?

A homecoming game against Elon and road trips to rivals VMI and Furman will tell the tale for coach Kevin Higgins’ eighth Citadel team (4-4, 3-3 Southern Conference.)

Of course, Higgins is focused on this week’s 2 p.m. game against Elon at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and not on big-picture issues.

“We talk about this game, and try not to get caught up in other things,” said Higgins, whose team tested No. 8 Wofford last week before falling, 24-21. “It’s so easy to get caught up in those things. We try not to talk about that, because if you do that and lose that first game, then the other two don’t mean a whole lot.

“Our energy, all our focus is on Elon.”

The Citadel should be heavily favored against VMI (2-6, 1-3 Big South), but games against SoCon foes Elon and Furman could go either way.

Elon (3-5, 1-4 SoCon) is coming off a 31-17 loss to Furman. But the Phoenix has the No. 1 passing offense in the league with the top-rated quarterback (Thomas Wilson) and the league’s best pro prospect (receiver Aaron Mellette).

The Phoenix lost by just three at FCS No. 1 Georgia Southern, and battled Appalachian State in a 35-23 loss, but have beaten only North Carolina Central, West Virginia State and Western Carolina, teams with a combined record of 8-18.

Furman, meanwhile, is 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the SoCon in coach Bruce Fowler’s second season, with wins over Presbyterian, Western Carolina and Elon. The Paladins are off this week and go to App State before hosting The Citadel on Nov. 17.

The Citadel’s loss to Wofford took it out of the running for a share of the SoCon title, with Georgia Southern (7-1, 6-1) and Wofford (7-1, 5-1) leading App State (6-3, 4-2) and Chattanooga (4-4, 3-2) in the standings.

But the Bulldogs recognize what it is at stake in the season’s homestretch.

“Our whole goal was to win the SoCon championship,” said senior running back Van Dyke Jones. “But the playoffs and making sure we have respect in the conference, that also means a lot to us. The more we invest into each game, the better off we’ll be.”

The Citadel will be without starting left guard Keith Carter, who ruptured his Achilles tendon against Wofford and will undergo surgery this week. Carter had started 19 straight games since moving over from the defensive line two years ago, and is a team captain.

With Carter out, junior right guard Jim Knowles will slide over and reserve Robert Finke will start on the right side. Carter is the third Bulldogs starter lost to injury this season, joining linebackers Carl Robinson (knee) and Rah Muhammad (ankle) on the sideline.

Athletic director Larry Leckonby said he is working on a deal that will have The Citadel play at Old Dominion next season instead of at East Carolina. The contracts have not been signed, Leckonby said, but as long as The Citadel does not lose money in the deal, it should work out. That means The Citadel’s non-SoCon foes next season will be Charleston Southern, VMI, Clemson and Old Dominion, which will be an FCS independent next season before moving up to FBS and Conference USA in 2014.