For some inexplicable reason the Southern Conference made the decision to include Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in its preseason polls.
That left coaches and the media virtually no choice but to vote the Eagles and Mountaineers one-two in their polls. After all they are the two best teams in the conference. One or the other has won or shared the conference championship every year since 2003.
This created a problem is because both are set to join the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, 2014, and neither are eligible by NCAA guidelines to win the conference championship or participate in the FCS playoffs.
Their games, however, will count in the conference standings thus assuring the two schools will have an impact on who will get the SoCon’s automatic bid to the playoffs. The eligible team which finishes highest in the standings will claim that bid.
To help avoid any confusion once conference play begins the SoCon will list the two at the bottom of the weekly standings with an asterisk next to their name denoting they were ineligible for the championship.
So who does that leave as the prohibitive favorite to get the conference’s reserved playoff spot.
Some people like Chattanooga. Others like Wofford. Behind them there’s little to like although The Citadel may want to take exception. Furman, Elon, Western Carolina and Samford may have an occasional Saturday in the sun, but they’re not at the point where they can be taken seriously on the national scene.
Going into the season the Mocs and the Terriers are the only two conference teams to be ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll, and they joined Georgia Southern and Appalachian in the Sports Network poll. The coaches are excluding GSU and the Mountaineers from their poll.
It could prove to be a difficult task for the SoCon to get two playoff bids even though the field has been expanded to 24 teams. It’s quite conceivable the “champion” could have upwards of five losses as would the “runnerup” team which would make an at-large invite difficult.
Going on the assumption Georgia Southern finishes first, and Appalachian State second, who is the most logical SoCon representative?
Conventional wisdom says Wofford, but despite the presence of coach Mike Ayers it could be a tough year. The Terriers lost heavily from a year ago. Fullback Eric Breitenstein is gone along with his 2,035 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns. Quarterback Brian Kass also graduated after helping Wofford earn a share of the conference title.
The biggest loss, however, could be defensive coordinator Nate Woody who left after 26 years, four as a player, 22 as a coach, the last 12 as the DC. Woody left to join new coach Scott Satterfield’s staff at Appalachian State. The Terriers return five starters on offense, five on defense.
No, the nod as the successor to the throne goes to Chattanooga where coach Russ Hueseman goes into his fifth season with high expectations. The Mocs have made only one playoff appearance in school history. In 1984 they lost to Arkansas State, 34-10.
“I think we’ve finally got this thing to the point where we’re playing with guys you’re supposed to be playing with,” said Huesman who was the defensive coordinator for Richmond’s 2008 national championship team.
The Mocs have 10 starters returning on defense, and 10 on offense. They believe they have the best defense in the SoCon, and in quarterback Jacob Huesman and tight end Fayshal Shafaat they have two of the top offensive players in the conference. Defensive end Davis Tull was co-preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and was one of nine Mocs who were preseason all-conference picks, five on the first team defense.
Chattanooga should be 3-0 when it comes to Paulson Stadium on Sept. 28 for its conference opener. The Eagles had to go triple overtime to get a 39-31 win last year after winning 28-27 the year before.
The Citadel was picked to finish sixth, but Coach Kevin Higgins believes his team should be included in the mix.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 7-4 season with six starters back on offense and eight on defense. That would have been nine, but the Dogs lost all-conference junior linebacker Carson Smith for the season recently with a knee injury.
Last year Citadel became the first team to beat Georgia Southern and Appalachian State on consecutive weekends, and finished the year with a three game winning streak.
Higgins, entering his ninth season, believes his team can build off that, plus the absence of Georgia Southern and App State as championship contenders opens a lot of doors.
“Everyone is talking about what the loss of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will do to the league,” Higgins said. “I feel like it gives several teams a chance to move up to that next level.
“Everyone in the league is thinking the same thing about how this is a great time to make a move and establish themselves as a top three type team,” Higgins said. “We’ve got better depth now, as we’re doing a better job of retaining players.”
The Bulldogs averaged 301 yards per game last year running the triple option and return quarterbacks Ben Dupree and Aaron Miller along with 1,000-yard rusher Darrien Robinson who will line up behind a veteran line.
The Citadel beat Georgia Southern, 23-21, last year and come to Paulson Stadium on Oct. 12.