Compared with the zoo that is SEC media days and the ACC’s well-attended event, the Southern Conference’s annual football media day is a modest gathering of interested parties, like a bar band playing down the street from U2’s eight-night stand at Madison Square Garden.
Nevertheless, there are some important questions to ponder as league coaches and media gather Wednesday in Spartanburg. Among them:
The Bulldogs were 5-7 overall and 3-4 in the SoCon in Mike Houston’s first season at the helm, losing three games by a total of nine points. But The Citadel also won two overtime games and hung on for a two-point win at Mercer, so the Bulldogs sort of broke even in close games.
The most glaring need for improvement is on defense, where The Citadel ranked seventh in the eight-team SoCon in total defense and scoring defense and last in passing defense. The Bulldogs lose some defensive stalwarts, but return top tackler Tevin Floyd and almost all of the secondary.
On offense, The Citadel led the SoCon in total offense and rushing offense, and struggled to translate the yardage into points, averaging 26.7 points for sixth in the league. Sophomore Cam Jackson had a breakout year at slotback, and looks like the starting quarterback heading into preseason camp. The offense returns the entire line, a group of big, experienced receivers and fullbacks Isiaha Smith and Tyler Renew, and needs some of its young slotbacks to step up.
Chattanooga went 10-3 overall and 7-0 in the league last year while claiming its second straight SoCon title. In what looked like a crucial game at the time, the Mocs destroyed Western Carolina by 51-0 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
With quarterback Jacob Huesman (finally) playing his senior season, Chattanooga again looks to be the league favorite under his father, coach Russ Huesman. The Mocs play just five home games this season, but do get Furman, Western Carolina and The Citadel at home. With seven starters back on offense and seven more on defense, it’s hard to see much of a drop-off for the Mocs.
With the departure of powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the Sun Belt last year, the SoCon took on Mercer and VMI (which went a combined 2-12 in the league) and fledgling East Tennessee State, which joins the fray next year. That left Chattanooga as the only SoCon squad in the 24-team FCS playoffs last year, after the league averaged 2.2 playoff bids from 1999-2012.
With seven wins each last year, Western Carolina and Samford might have been just one FCS victory away from the playoffs; each played (and defeated) two non-Division I teams.
Chris Hatcher was fired as Georgia Southern’s coach just minutes after a 13-6 win over The Citadel on Nov. 22, 2009, ending his first stint in the SoCon with an 18-15 record at GSU. Hatcher is back in the SoCon again, taking over for Pat Sullivan at Samford after five years at Murray State.
Hatcher brings his pass-happy “Hatch Attack” into a nice situation at Samford, where Sullivan posted four straight winning seasons and a share of the SoCon title in 2013. Quarterback Michael Eubank is back to run a modified Hatch Attack, along with receiver Karel Hamilton and running back Denzel Williams.
After averaging 8.2 wins and claiming at least a share of four SoCon titles from 2002-2012, Wofford has slumped to records of 5-6 and 6-5 over the last two seasons. Does coach Mike Ayers still have it heading into his 28th season?
Ayers has brought some young blood on to his coaching staff with former Wofford star Dane Romero coaching the running backs and ex-Clemson standout Brian Mance the cornerbacks. Wofford returns 10 starters on offense and nine on defense, so don’t count Ayers out just yet.
The SoCon has reached an agreement with ESPN on a six-year contract through 2020-21 that will give the league the opportunity to produce almost 2,000 live events for coverage on ESPN3. As part of the new pact, all 10 SoCon schools will develop production capabilities for ESPN3 by 2017, the league’s announcement said.
In the last four years of the contract, a minimum of 45 SoCon football games and 200 basketball games will appear on ESPN3 each season, the league said.