Considering Western Carolina football has suffered through some lean seasons and never won the Southern Conference title since joining it in 1976, a middle-of-the-pack finish doesn’t seem too bad.

But after making quick improvements in coach Kerwin Bell’s first two seasons, the Catamounts feel they’re primed to make the jump up to what’s been a competitive title race in recent years.

The Catamounts were predicted for familiar territory on Thursday, fifth – yes, the middle of nine teams – in both the SoCon coaches and media polls, announced on Thursday. The conference had had a different champion in each of the last four seasons.


(Mercer appears to have the best chance in the FCS to be a first-time playoff qualifier)

While it’s to be determined if Bell can lead Western Carolina to a higher perch in the SoCon standings, there was foreshadowing to the Catamounts’ consecutive 4-4 finishes in conference – their first back-to-back .500-or-better seasons since the 2014 and ’15 campaigns and following a combined 6-19 mark in the three seasons prior to Bell’s arrival in the Great Smoky Mountains town of Cullowhee, North Carolina.

Previously, the 58-year-old Bell took a young Jacksonville program that had yet to enjoy big success and led the Dolphins to the Pioneer Football League title in his second season in 2008, and he wound up going 66-35 overall and 52-19 in the league in nine seasons. Then in his third and final season at Valdosta State, he coached the Blazers to the 2018 Division II national title.

Last year’s 6-5 overall record was the Catamounts’ best since 2017. They closed with three straight wins, capped by an upset of Chattanooga, which kept the nationally ranked Mocs out of the FCS playoffs, and Bell saw what he considers to be necessary “championship DNA.”

“I saw that in the last three games this past year,” he said during SoCon media day, “where we played as a football team, we were connected. I think you have develop. You bring in so many new players when you’re building a program, now you’ve got to get them to play together and trust each other.”

The Catamounts set a program record with 5,339 offensive yards and ranked sixth in the FCS in offensive yards per game (485.4). The defense was markedly improved while tying for 11th nationally in sacks per game (2.91), but also gave up too many easy scores.

While the Catamounts lost some key players to transfers, they boast 15 returning starters – six on offense, seven on defense and two specialists. Pro-style quarterback Cole Gonzalez impressed with 11 touchdown passes over four starts and eight appearances as a true freshman. He’s now backed by Harvard transfer Charlie Dean, who has a lot of playing experience.

The Catamounts were well-represented on the SoCon preseason team, with its eight selections out of 62 tying for the third-most in the conference. Offensive lineman Tyler Smith, tight end Ajay Belanger, defensive lineman Micah Nelson, defensive back Andreas Keaton and place-kicker Richard McCollum were picked for the first team, and running back Desmond Reid, offensive lineman Christian Coulter and linebacker Antoine Williams were on the second team.

Reid, the 2022 SoCon freshman of the year, averaged 7.4 yards on 140 touches from scrimmage and scored five TDs while finishing sixth in the Jerry Rice Award voting for FCS rookie honors. Williams, then at Austin Peay, was a Buck Buchanan finalist for national defensive player of the year. (Both awards are presented by FedEx Ground).

“I tell our team, we’re a pretty football team,” Bell said. “You come watch us, man, we can throw it, we can run, we’re fast, we’re athletic. Are we going to be tough enough to win a championship? That’s our question that we’ve got to answer.”

The Catamounts will play in the season’s first SoCon game when they host defending champ Samford on Sept. 9.

Samford, to be led again by quarterback and 2022 SoCon offensive player of the year Michael Hiers, tied with Furman atop the conference’s preseason coaches poll. But Furman was a definitive pick over the Bulldogs in the media poll, and the Paladins also collected the most preseason first-team (seven) and overall (15) selections.

Southern Conference Preseason Selections

Coaches Poll

T1. Furman (2022: 10-3, 7-1), 59 points (5 first-place votes)

T1. Samford (11-2, 8-0), 59 (4)

3. Mercer (7-4, 5-3), 49

4. Chattanooga (7-4, 5-3), 47

5. Western Carolina (6-5, 4-4), 35

6. ETSU (3-8, 1-7), 29

7. Wofford (3-8, 3-5), 22

8. The Citadel (4-7, 3-5), 14

9. VMI (1-10, 0-8), 10

Preseason Offensive Player of the Year

Michael Hiers, QB, Samford

Preseason Defensive Player of the Year

Jay Person, DE, Chattanooga

Media Poll

1. Furman (2022: 10-3, 7-1), 345 points (30 first-place votes)

2. Samford (11-2, 8-0), 316 (8)

3. Mercer (7-4, 5-3), 263 (2)

4. Chattanooga (7-4, 5-3), 250

5. Western Carolina (6-5, 4-4), 218

6. ETSU (3-8, 1-7), 143

7. The Citadel (4-7, 3-5), 103

8. Wofford (3-8, 3-5), 102

9. VMI (1-10, 0-8), 60