With two teams nationally ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time in 10 years, this appears to be a banner year for Southern Conference football.
Of course, it’s the SoCon, so who’s know for sure considering it has been one of the more fun FCS conferences with different champions coming out of the preseason pack in recent years.
Furman and Samford reside at No. 6 and 9, respectively, in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25 Poll, presented by FedEx Ground. Add in Mercer’s continued emergence and Chattanooga being a perennial title contender, and, well, maybe the race is more definitive this time around.
Yeah, we’ll see.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming Southern Conference season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. *Furman (10-3, 7-1; preseason No. 6 ranking) – With last year’s starting lineup returning nearly intact, the Paladins were ranked No. 1 in both SoCon preseason polls for the first time since 2005 (are the expectations a freak-out factor?). Coach Clay Hendrix’s squad is opportunistic, leading the FCS in turnovers gained (29) and blocked kicks (10) last season. Inside linebacker Braden Gilby (263 career tackles) and free safety Hugh Ryan anchor the defense. Dual-threat QB Tyler Huff will miss tight end Ryan Miller, but the offense will first think running the ball with Dominic Roberto (1,120 yards, 11 touchdowns) and an offensive line that’s anchored by Jacob Johanning and Pearson Toomey.
2. *Samford (11-2, 8-0; preseason No. 9 ranking) – The 2022 SoCon champion Bulldogs, who advanced to the quarterfinals in their first FCS playoff appearance in five years, will light up the scoreboard again behind QB Michael Hiers (3,544 yards, 36 TDs), 100-catch wide receiver Chandler Watson, and running backs Jay Stanton (3,015 yards and 29 TDs from scrimmage in career) and Damonta Witherspoon, a Murray State transfer. The defense is replacing eight starters, but top tackler Noah Martin (92) is back at middle linebacker and an athletic secondary features rover Kourtlan Marsh.
3. *Mercer (7-4, 5-3; preseason No. 20 ranking) – The Bears appeared primed to earn their first playoff bid following back-to-back seven-win seasons. There likely isn’t a more dangerous wide receiver duo than Ty James (52 receptions, 1,105 yards, 13 TDs) and Devon Harper (78-987-10), who’s the only active Division I player to have multiple career touchdowns via rush, reception, kickoff return and punt return. Carter Peavy, the starting quarterback in the spring 2021 season, has the top job again. The defense, which ranked second in the SoCon, has anchors in defensive end Solomon Zubairu, linebacker Isaac Dowling and safety Lance Wise.
4. Chattanooga (7-4, 5-3) – The Mocs, like Mercer, lost their final two SoCon games after being in title contention at 5-1, and they tied for third place. Back to try to get the Mocs over the top is running back Ailym Ford, who seeks his fourth 1,000-yard season. UCLA grad transfer QB Chase Artopeus is expected to be the new trigger man, and he’ll love the tight ends unit. The conference’s top-ranked defense will continue to play on a high level with Jay Person and Ben Brewton up front, and Kam Brown (six interceptions) and Reuben Lowery III on the back end.
5. Western Carolina (6-5, 4-4) – The Catamounts set a program record with 5,339 offensive yards and ranked sixth in the FCS in offensive yards per game (485.4). Running Desmond Reid was named the 2022 SoCon freshman of the year after averaging 7.4 yards on 140 touches from scrimmage, and pro-style QB Cole Gonzalez also impressed as a rookie. Linebacker Antoine Williams, an Austin Peay transfer, is a big addition to a long-struggling defense that was much-improved last season. Defensive lineman Micah Nelson and defensive back Andreas Keaton are among seven returning starters.
(Here is more on the Catamounts from Southern Conference football media day)
6. ETSU (3-8, 1-7) – Last season was stunning considering the Buccaneers won the SoCon title and went 11-2 in 2021. To get back on track in coach George Quarles’ second season, they’ll have to improve in the second half of games after being outscored by 64 points and be better against the pass after allowing 271 yards per game as well as 26 TDs through the air. Wide receiver Will Huzzie (148 receptions, 1,979 yards, 16 TDs in career) is the go-to offensive player. The defensive leaders include nose tackle Max Evans and safety Sheldon Arnold II.
7. Wofford (3-8, 3-5) – Shawn Watson took over a team that was mired in a 15-game losing streak and went 3-3 as the interim head coach. Now the full-time leader, Watson seeks the next step with 14 returning starters (five offense, seven defense, two specialists). The 3-4 defense returns all four starting linebackers, including the team’s leading tackler, David Powers. The offense utilizes a pro spread, and a new starting quarterback will rely on running back/returner Kyle Parsons, who had an excellent freshman campaign.
8. The Citadel (4-7, 3-5) – Alum Maurice Drayton was the defensive coordinator with The Citadel’s 2015 SoCon championship team, and he’s back as a first-team head coach. The running attack has taken a step backward in recent seasons, but the Bulldogs still ranked No. 1 in the conference in rushing yards per game (233.5). Nine players had at least 35 carries, but none reached 100, with leading rusher Cooper Wallace (409 yards) among the returnees this season. Linebacker Hassan Black is a veteran leader, while cornerback Dominick Poole was one of the conference’s top freshmen in a good year for rookies.
9. VMI (1-10, 0-8) – Former Liberty, Richmond and Delaware coach Danny Rocco (121-65 career record) has taken over the Keydets. He wants the offense to be more balanced as opposed to the recent air raid, and the defense will have a 3-4 base alignment. They ranked last in the SoCon in scoring offense and defense, and total offense and defense. Running back Rashad Raymond will like the additional carries, especially with the return of offensive linemen Tyriq Poindexter and Will Reid. Given former Keydet Stone Snyder’s standout career, linebacker Evan Eller’s 99 tackles were somewhat overshadowed last season.
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Ailym Ford, RB, Chattanooga (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The three-time 1,000-yard rusher is a workhorse with 19 career games of 20+ carries.
Devron Harper, WR/RS, Mercer (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – One of two active FCS players (also South Dakota State offensive tackle Garret Greenfield) to twice be named a first-team postseason Stats Perform FCS All-American.
Michael Hiers, QB, Samford (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Ranked sixth in the FCS in passing yards (3,544) and fourth in touchdown passes (36) while throwing just four interceptions. He finished fourth in voting for the 2022 Payton Award.
Jay Person, Edge, Chattanooga (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Led the SoCon in tackles for loss (17.5) and tied for the lead in sacks (eight).
Antoine Williams, LB, Western Carolina (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – The Austin Peay transfer bookended last season with 14 tackles versus Western Kentucky and 10 against Alabama.
(11 SoCon players named to the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Furman at Samford (Oct. 14) – Samford won last year’s head-to-head matchup 34-27 in a role reversal – the Bulldogs had more rushing yards and Furman more passing yards.
2. Samford at Mercer (Nov. 11)
3. Mercer at Furman (Sept. 23)
4. Chattanooga at Samford (Sept. 23)
5. VMI at The Citadel (Oct. 14)
Six of the SoCon’s nine FBS opponents were once members of the conference: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Southern, NC State, South Carolina and Ole Miss.
This season’s nine FBS matchups:
Chattanooga: Alabama (Nov. 18); ETSU: Jacksonville State (Sept. 2); Furman: South Carolina (Sept. 9); Mercer: Ole Miss (Sept. 2); Samford: Auburn (Sept. 16); The Citadel: Georgia Southern (Sept. 2); VMI: NC State (Sept. 16); Western Carolina: Arkansas (Sept. 2); Wofford: Pittsburgh (Sept. 2)
It’s been hard to see the recent SoCon champions coming. None of the last three winners were predicted in the top three of the coaches preseason poll: 2020/spring 2021 champ VMI was ninth; 2021 champ ETSU was fourth; and last year’s winner Samford was sixth.