SoCon ready to rebuild football brand

Chattanooga, led by quarterback Jacob Huesman (14), was the only Southern Conference team to make the FCS playoffs last year. Staff/File

SPARTANBURG — Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino gave his football coaches a pep talk Wednesday, reminding them that the league boasts the best playoff winning percentage (.612) and most national championships (eight) of any FCS league in the nation.

“It’s time we got back to that,” Iamarino said during his media day speech.

After surviving the realignment that roiled NCAA Division I athletics in recent years, the SoCon has turned its attention to rebuilding its football brand, one that once had the league known as “the SEC of Division I-AA.” That label recalls the SoCon’s glory years, when Appalachian State won three straight national titles from 2005-2007, Georgia Southern took championships in 1999 and 2000, and the league received multiple playoff bids in 13 of 16 seasons from 1998-2013.

The brand took a hit last year when powers App State and Georgia Southern left for the bigger guarantee checks of the FBS Sun Belt Conference, forcing the SoCon to take on fledgling programs Mercer and East Tennessee State and to welcome back VMI from the Big South.

SoCon champion Chattanooga was the only team to make the 24-team FCS playoffs last year, just the third time since 1998 that the league sent only one team to the playoffs.

But now that membership has stabilized, with eight football teams this season and ETSU joining the league fray in 2016, Iamarino said its time to pivot from surviving to thriving.

“I feel like it’s time to make that commitment to re-establish ourselves as a preeminent conference in FCS,” said Iamarino, who is in his ninth year at the league’s helm. “I think the signs are good ones. We’ve got some young and maturing programs in Mercer and ETSU, but I think we’re on the right path.”

The path back to prominence begins with defeating teams from other FCS leagues, Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. Last year, for example, SoCon teams went 2-7 against the Big South, and lost to other FCS squads such as South Carolina State and Jacksonville State.

“We’ve got to represent and win games out of conference,” said Huesman, whose team lost by 26-23 to Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference. “Furman’s got to beat Coastal Carolina, The Citadel’s got to beat Charleston Southern. We’ve got to start winning those games out of conference, and none of us have done that.

“We can play in our league and beat up on each other, but until you are winning those out-of-conference games, people are going to view the conference as being down. We’ve all got to do our part. That’s what puts you back on the map.”

SoCon teams face Big South squads five times this season, including The Citadel’s Sept. 26 date with Charleston Southern. FCS squads such as South Carolina State (vs. Furman), Jacksonville State (at Chattanooga) and Richmond (vs. VMI) also provide key opportunities for non-conference wins.

Upsets of FBS teams such as App State’s takedown of No. 5 Michigan in 2007 certainly boost the brand. In its final game as a SoCon member, Georgia Southern defeated the SEC’s Florida in the Gators’ Swamp.

SoCon teams will get plenty of shots at Power Five teams this season (Wofford at Clemson, The Citadel at South Carolina, etc.), but also have some more winnable opportunities. The Citadel is at Georgia Southern on Sept. 19, the same day Wofford goes to Idaho, also of the FBS Sun Belt.

Chattanooga, the consensus pick to win the SoCon this season, ends its season with a Sept. 21 game at Florida State.

Furman coach Bruce Fowler said the 95-year-old SoCon has survived fallow periods in the past.

“I think we’re on a pretty rapid ascent,” said Fowler, starting his fifth year at Furman. “We’ve gone through some periods like this before. When the conference was really good, you felt like you had to play well every week to win a conference game. I think we’re getting back to that.

“In years when the conference was really good, we felt like we were better when we played other teams. We felt like we played in a better conference, and that gave you confidence.”

Citadel coach Mike Houston said the bottom line is getting teams deep into the playoffs.

“Teams making a significant run in the playoffs and getting multiple teams in the playoffs is key,” said Houston, starting his second season with the Bulldogs. “That’s what Georgia Southern and App State did, that’s what Furman did years ago. That’s when you saw the SoCon as the dominant league in the country.”

Last year, SoCon playoff contenders Western Carolina and Samford each scheduled two Division teams, which ended up hurting their playoff chances. That should not happen again, Iamarino said.

“We absolutely have talked about that,” Iamarino said. “We want to give ourselves a foundation to get there, and if you play two non-Division I teams, you have no margin of error. That was a very instructive lesson that people got last year from Samford. They made it to where they really had to thread the needle to make the playoffs, and it didn’t happen.

“What we really want is nobody playing no more than one money game, because those are hard to win,” he said. “And we don’t want anybody playing more than one Division II team.”

Iamarino pointed out that five SoCon teams have veteran quarterbacks this season, compared with just one senior QB (The Citadel’s Aaron Miller) last season. Chattanooga senior QB Jacob Huesman is the preseason offensive player of the year, and Western Carolina (Troy Mitchell) and Samford (Michael Eubank) also are led by seniors.

Two new coaches enter the league, with former Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher well-positioned to continue Pat Sullivan’s success at Samford, and former Virginia assistant Scott Wachenheim taking over at VMI.

“I really think we’re poised and ready to take that next step to get back to where we were,” Iamarino said.