published Thursday, November 17th, 2011

SoConversation: Week 12

Welcome to Week 12 of the college football season and the final regular-season SoConversation between The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

We’re also thrilled and honored to have SoCon commissioner John Iamarino join us this week.

Here are last week’s results: Georgia Southern clinched the SoCon title with a 31-10 win at Wofford; Elon ended Furman’s playoff hopes with a 41-34 upset at Furman; Samford scored with 5 seconds left to beat The Citadel 19-14 in Charleston; and Appalachian State routed Western Carolina 46-14 in Catamounts coach Dennis Wagner’s final game before resigning. What are your thoughts on the game you covered last week and the rest of the scores?

ADAM: The commish is SoConversing? Gulp. All of a sudden this feels as if I’ve been sent to the principal’s office. Not that I would know what that’s like.

OK … regrouping … manning up …

With losses and frustrations mounting, Elon pulled together its most determined performance of the season to knock Furman out of the playoff picture. A turnover on the sixth snap of the game dumped Elon into an early hole and safety Blake Thompson’s ejection in the second quarter created further doubt, but the Phoenix persevered.

Thomas Wilson, plagued by interceptions all season, was razor sharp with a career-high four TD passes. Aaron Mellette was his usual beastly self and in the trenches, Elon’s line play was at its sturdiest. It all added up to — homer alert — a deserving victory for the Phoenix.

Georgia Southern manhandling Wofford was surprising. I figured the Terriers would pose more bite, especially at home in Spartanburg. Another close call became another heartbreaker for The Citadel. And for the 25th time in the last 27 years, App State laid claim to the Old Mountain Jug, the contents of which I’m sure could be helpful to Dennis Wagner right about now.

JOHN: My Saturday consisted of shooting a respectable 85 on a difficult Canyon Ridge Club golf course, followed by parking myself on the couch to watch Georgia thump Auburn. I also caught the exciting end to the Samford-The Citadel game. And I have to say, I absolutely love The Citadel’s home uniforms — the navy and light blue tops are outstanding.

The surprise of the day wasn’t Georgia Southern’s convincing win at Wofford to capture the league title, and congrats to the Eagles, but rather Elon’s win at Furman. The Paladins were rolling with three straight wins (against Wofford, UTC and App State), while Elon had lost three in a row by an average of nearly 19 points.

Credit the Phoenix with pulling off one of the big shockers in the SoCon this season.

COMMISSIONER: First, thanks for the opportunity to join the group for a week. As a sportswriter in a previous life, it’s nice to be able to dust off my writing skills once in a while. I’ve enjoyed reading this column all year.

You couldn’t help but be impressed by Georgia Southern. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Nobody wrecks a play at the point of attack like Brent Russell. It was an excited bunch of Eagles when I presented the championship trophy in their locker room. Obviously Furman’s chances of a playoff spot took a direct hit. And the battle of the Bulldogs wound up being a very entertaining game with an exciting finish.

JEFF: Mr. Commish, I'm glad to learn that there's life after sportswriting. Good to know. You are correct about Brent Russell; he makes a huge difference for GSU's defense. The Citadel's loss to Samford was a real downer for the home team; they led almost the entire game until the final 5.8 seconds. The Citadel got better at blocking, tackling and running this season; kicking and passing are next on the agenda. Sorry to see that Dennis Wagner could not make it work at Western Carolina, and very interested to see where they go from here.

Assuming the NCAA selection committee sticks with the seven-win standard, the SoCon will have a maximum of three teams in the playoffs this season: Georgia Southern (automatic bid), App State (at-large) and Wofford (at-large, if it beats UTC on Saturday). Is that about what you expected at the start of the season?

JOHN: Those were certainly the three schools most everyone had at the top of the league back in August, but they weren’t the only teams that appeared playoff worthy during the season.

After beating OVC schools Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky, the Mocs looked solid. Then came losses to App State, The Citadel and Georgia Southern by a combined four points. UTC has won three of four since then, but the damage was done. That loss to The Citadel, after leading 27-0, will likely stick with the Mocs for a while.

Led by its defense, Furman played its way into the playoff conversation with a strong second half of the season. The Paladins would have been the fourth SoCon team to get in (most likely), but the home loss to Elon killed their chances.

COMMISSIONER: Well, we’re always a bit greedy about things like this. We were looking at a scenario of four teams, but if three get in that’s still pretty impressive. Many FCS conferences are thrilled to pick up even one at-large. We’ve had such success over the years that anything less than three is somewhat disappointing. It does speak to the quality of the conference that Elon can go on the road and beat the team that has knocked off two of the league’s top three teams.

ADAM: Actually, this is exactly what I expected, right down to Georgia Southern winning the league (its first title since 2004) and App State and Wofford giving chase. My preseason prediction was that Chattanooga would challenge for a playoff spot. Instead, Furman became that fourth team in the mix and of course blew its opportunity to essentially clinch an at-large berth last week.

I’m not just kissing up here — OK, maybe I am a little — but the commish is right on point about the depth of the league. Look at the fits Samford and The Citadel have given teams this season. That Chattanooga could finish 5-6 provides another statement on the parity.

JEFF: Those are the three teams most everyone looked to at the start of the season, and Furman's run made it fun to think about getting four teams in. It's hard to get in the playoffs (though not quite as hard as it used to be), and it should be hard.

Now on to Saturday’s matchups, the SoCon vs. SEC edition: The Citadel at South Carolina, Furman at Florida, Samford at Auburn, Georgia Southern at Alabama, Wofford at UTC, Coastal Carolina at Western Carolina and App State at Elon. What will you be keeping an eye on this week?

COMMISSIONER: I told a group that I spoke to this week that .250 isn’t much of a batting average, but we’d be quite happy to hit .250 against the four SEC teams we play this weekend. I’ll be interested to see how Jeff Monken handles his roster against the Crimson Tide with the playoffs looming. Georgia Southern will at least get a much-appreciated bye week before beginning its championship run.

The App State-Elon game should be interesting. And wouldn’t you like a dollar for each of the warm greetings Pat Sullivan will receive during Samford’s trip to Auburn. Unlike the rest of you, I’m old enough to remember Pat earning his Heisman Trophy there in ’71.

JEFF: I think Furman and Samford have the best shots at making the home crowd nervous. The Gators' offense looks to be a bit of a mess, even with all that speed. And they will be snapping the ball every 10 seconds in the Samford-Auburn game.

GSU coach Jeff Monken has a tough task at Bama, wanting to give the Tide a good shot while preserving his squad for the playoffs. Chattanooga is a must-win for Wofford, or the SoCon might land only two teams in the playoffs. And the Mocs will not go easily; that should be a good one.

For 21 years, Citadel fans have been able to say, "The last time we played South Carolina, we won." That might change after this weekend, given the Clowney-Ingram-Taylor defense the Gamecocks field.

JOHN: I’ll be covering the UTC-Wofford game, which has a lot on the line. The Terriers have to win to get seven Division I victories and earn an at-large bid, while the Mocs need a win for a third straight 6-5 season. UTC hasn’t had three straight winning seasons since 10 in a row from 1976-85.

It will be the final game for the likes of B.J. Coleman, Joel Bradford, Ryan Consiglio and other seniors that have been all-conference guys and have played a major role in turning the UTC program around.

None of the other games are all that alluring, though it will be interesting to see how much Jeff Monken plays his starters against Alabama. FCS schools generally play those kinds of games whenever the team writing the big check wants, but the timing for that game isn’t ideal for the Eagles.

ADAM: I might bet that Uncle Jeff Hartsell is “mature” enough to recall some events from 1971. And I’m certain his wardrobe was fantastic back then.

Obviously, I’ll be locked in on App State/Elon. The Phoenix can secure its fifth straight winning season with a victory. But Elon hasn’t beaten App on a football field since 1964 … which sets me up for another Uncle Jeff joke that I’ll politely decline.

Can Wofford bounce back, with a playoff bid on the line, in what will be a tough assignment at Chattanooga?

And the SEC/SoCon Challenge should be fun to monitor, with the two in-state matchups and the Georgia Southern/Alabama game. Bring your camouflage John Deere baseball caps to that one. Georgia Southern actually got one vote in the AP Top 25 poll this week, right behind Auburn, Arizona State and Washington.

Based on what you’ve seen and the feedback you’ve received from fans, how would you rate the SoCon’s first season broadcasting games on public television? And do you think the league’s television package has much of an impact on recruiting?

ADAM: Having covered a game every Saturday since Sept. 3, my qualifications for weighing in on this question are sketchy at best. The next time I see a SoCon game on PBS will be my first. Hopefully one day soon I’ll pull off some 007 moves and get to watch as my guy Darren Goldwater describes the action.

Here in this corner of North Carolina, some fans have been rankled by the new TV deal. Apparently the games are aired on the PBS Explorer channel, which isn’t a standard option on basic cable packages. There have been those who have clicked over to regular PBS, expecting to see SoCon football on the same channel where “Sesame Street” and “This Old House” are shown, and come away disappointed.

JEFF: I've heard good reviews of the production, and a lot of questions about where to find the games on TV. They are not available on my cable provider in Charleston. I would also suggest tweaking the schedule so that all eight teams are covered early in the season, leaving some flexibility for the last couple of weekends. That way we could get late-season games with championship or playoff implications on the tube.

COMMISSIONER: I think the positives have outweighed the negatives. The public TV agreement has given us consistent broadcast windows, control of all content during the broadcasts, and the ability to have the games carried live on multiple Internet streams including ESPN3. None of those things were possible if we hadn’t made the move.

Of course we’ve had some fans complain about difficulty finding the games, but not as much as we anticipated. Overall we’re pleased and so are the statewide public TV systems. And my wife thinks it’s pretty cool seeing a commercial for a presentation of “Oklahoma!” or some concert pianist interspersed in a football game.

JOHN: The big thing I’ve heard from people in Tennessee is frustration with the fact that the games aren’t available statewide, and I believe the same thing applies to Alabama. The reason for that is that public television in Tennessee is broken up among several stations, so the SoCon would have to reach agreements with all of them, which it wasn’t able to do. And if you’re in Memphis or Nashville and you want to watch SoCon games, you’re only option is ESPN3, though that’s better than no option at all.

As for recruiting, and prospects in the SoCon footprint perhaps not being able to see the televised games, I don’t know how big a deal that is. It’s obviously not helping, but I doubt anybody is losing out on a player because of the league’s TV deal.

Bonus question: We’ll get to most of the awards next week, but what has been the most memorable play this season from the games you have seen?

JEFF: The Citadel's play of the year was Chris Billingslea's blocked punt against Chattanooga in week 4. Rod Harland picked up the ball and ran 40 yards for a TD to cut Chattanooga's lead to 27-21 with 7:46 left. The Bulldogs had trailed 27-0 in the third quarter of that game, but when Billingslea blocked that punt, you started to believe that something crazy could happen. It did — the biggest comeback win in Citadel history.

COMMISSIONER: Probably “Les Miserables.” Just kidding, but you see the public TV influence on me?

Actually the play that sticks out for me was an amazing catch Aaron Mellette of Elon made against The Citadel. He got knocked off balance at the line of scrimmage, looked over his left shoulder, and turned to catch the ball over his right shoulder for about a 40-yard touchdown. It reminded me of Willie Mays’ famous catch in the 1954 World Series. Which I’ve seen on video — I’m not that old.

ADAM: The commish is poaching my Elon stuff. Fortunately, Aaron “Merle” Mellette has pulled a Dominique Wilkins and become his own human highlight reel.

Merle has delivered not just spectacular catches but spectacular touchdown catches. He reached way back for one while zooming in the opposite direction on a crossing route at Vanderbilt. He burned two of the best cornerbacks in the league (Furman’s Ryan Steed and Georgia Southern’s Laron Scott) on two other memorable scores.

But what stands out the most was Mellette’s clutch 59-yard catch-and-run — after he predicted on the sideline that a big play was coming — that fueled Elon’s survival of Western Carolina. The score was tied 31-31 when he raced away down to the Western Carolina 1. Two plays later, Merle snared a jump ball in the end zone with less than 2½ minutes remaining.

It was a complete takeover in crunch time.

JOHN: The Mocs led Appalachian State 6-0 when they lined up for a 26-yard field goal on the final play of the third quarter. The snap hit the leg of a lineman (there was movement before the snap and it probably should have been a false start) and led to a fumble.

ASU’s Rodger Walker returned the fumble 73 yards for a touchdown, swinging the momentum the Mountaineers’ way. As Mocs coach Russ Huesman said later, a play like that won’t happen again for 50 years.

The play not only changed the game, which ASU won 14-12, but the rest of the Mocs’ season. Because who knows how things go if UTC is able to pull off the upset in Boone.

If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @Adam_Smith10 and @MocsbeatCTFP.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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