published Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

SoConversation: Postseason Edition

Welcome to the postseason edition of the 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.

Here are last week’s results: Wofford beat UTC 28-27, Appalachian State beat Elon 28-24 and Coastal Carolina beat Western Carolina 45-21; and in the SEC vs. SoCon division, Alabama beat Georgia Southern 45-21, South Carolina beat The Citadel 41-20, Auburn beat Samford 35-16 and Florida survived a Furman scare, 54-32.

What are your thoughts on the game you covered last week and the rest of the scores?

ADAM: App State coach Jerry Moore called it the strangest opening to a game that he ever could remember. Then, hammering the point home, he qualified it further by saying that statement encompassed the sum total of his experiences all the way back to his days as a high school player.

To be clear here: The man was in high school when Eisenhower was in the White House.

Elon cashed in on App State’s rash of early turnovers and blunders to zoom ahead 21-0 in the first quarter. Interestingly (at least in my geeky opinion) it was a carbon copy in reverse of the Mountaineers’ previous trip to Elon in 2009 — for what some newspaper may or may not have dubbed the SoCon Super Bowl. App State intercepted three of the first six passes by former Elon star Scott Riddle in that showdown two years ago and quickly clicked off what proved to be three game-clinching touchdowns.

Back to the present, App State shut out Elon in the second half and eventually staged one of the school’s largest rallies to victory during the last 40 years, which left the Phoenix, at 5-6 in coach Jason Swepson’s first year, digesting its first losing season since 2006.

As if blowing the big lead wasn’t painful enough, Elon reached the App 17- and 13-yard lines on its final two drives — with chances to close the season in a blaze of glory — but still came away empty.

Whew. Deep breath. And given the dramatics, it sounded like oxygen was needed in the Wofford/Chattanooga thriller. Entertaining to follow yet taxing to report, I’m sure.

Also, the SoCon supplied quite a head-turning account of itself during SEC Challenge weekend. I was leaving the house when Furman tight end Colin Anderson hit Sederrik Cunningham on a sweet gadget play to put the Paladins up 22-7 at Florida. The whole trailer park heard my reaction.

JOHN: When UTC kicked a field goal for a 27-14 lead over Wofford early in the fourth quarter, I tweeted that I’d seen this movie before. Sure enough, Wofford made some plays (including a ridiculous interception by Alvin Scioneaux) and UTC made some mistakes, which resulted in a 28-27 Wofford win. It was UTC’s third loss by the score of 28-27 this season and a brutal way to end the season.

The Mocs finished 5-6, with five SoCon losses by a total of 12 points. How do you sleep at night after so many close calls?

As for the rest of the league, I was very impressed by how well the SoCon teams competed in the four games against SEC squads. I thought for a while that Furman was going to become playoff eligible the hard way, by beating Florida, which might have ended Will Muschamp’s tenure with the Gators after one season.

JEFF: The Citadel had some close losses in league play this year, but five losses by 12 points for the Mocs is just cruel. I thought SoCon squads acquitted themselves quite well against the SEC last weekend.

It was fun to watch the reactions at South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium to the unfolding Furman-Florida scores. The Citadel played well against the Gamecocks, hanging in 20-13 at halftime and 34-20 late in the game before Steve Spurrier ordered up a TD pass in the final minutes.

Georgia Southern looked like an FCS title contender again vs. the Crimson Tide.

None of the teams we cover came close to making the playoffs, but we can still talk about them. Looking at the 20-team field, did the NCAA selection committee get it right? Are there any matchups (or potential matchups) that jump out at you?

JOHN: I think most of the selection committee’s picks were no-brainers. Of the 20 teams, 10 are in via automatic bid and probably six or seven at-large teams (like App State and Wofford) were easy to choose. Those final few spots have to be tough because not many FCS games are on TV and that makes judging a CAA team against a team from the OVC or Big Sky very difficult.

I was a little surprised to see Eastern Kentucky get in simply because most people don’t generally regard the OVC as a two-bid conference (and Tennessee Tech got the auto bid). No OVC team has won a playoff game since Western Kentucky in 2000.

As for matchups, if Old Dominion beats Norfolk State on Saturday, as it should, I’ll be interested to see how the Monarchs do in Statesboro against Georgia Southern. Don’t forget, ODU didn’t have a program for 69 years until it was rebooted in 2009. Now it’s in the playoffs.

ADAM: It’s my nature (and my joy) to piggyback Frierson, who just dropped some knowledge with pretty much everything he typed. Seeing Eastern Kentucky in the bracket was the most surprising development to me. The Colonels had been off my playoff radar.

While the opening-round matchups for this weekend aren’t overly magnetizing, at least they make loads of sense geographically with Albany at Stony Brook, Central Arkansas at Tennessee Tech, Norfolk State at Old Dominion (Tidewater battle in Virginia) and James Madison at Eastern Kentucky.

In 2008, I covered an Elon game at Stony Brook. It’s not exactly what you would envision for a playoff atmosphere.

As I’m sure you’ve come to realize, I’m all about brining people together. That’s why every November an FCS playoff raffle is held in the Times-News office. It’s a time of great bonding. And this year, for me, it was a time of terrible draws. I pulled out slips of paper that read “Central Arkansas” and “Albany.” Yeesh. Obviously, I’ll be lucky just to make it to the round of 16.

JEFF: Interesting to note that three 7-win teams did make the playoffs, so maybe Furman would have made it had the Paladins held on vs. Florida. Citadel fans should note that former Bulldogs offensive coodinator Dave Cecchini and his 10-1 Lehigh squad earned a first-round bye and face Towson in the second round. And no, former Citadel QB Bart Blanchard no longer plays for Towson.

How well will the SoCon teams do and who’s your pick to win it all in Frisco, Texas?

JEFF: Three SoCon squads made the field, but only two of them (at most) will be in the semifinals, since Georgia Southern and App State are slated to meet in the third round in Statesboro. What a throwdown that will be.

Once again, Wofford and beat writer Todd Shanesy are sent to the frigid climes out west, this time at Northern Iowa. And if I read the bracket right, Wofford cold be at No. 4 Montana the next week. Pack a jacket, Todd.

Of the three SoCon squads, I think GSU has the best chance to win it all, followed by App State and then Wofford.

JOHN: I think two of the three can and will make the semifinals.

Wofford will have its hand’s full at 5-seed Northern Iowa next week, while Maine, which visits App State next week, was one of the surprise teams in the FCS this season. The Mountaineers should advance to set up a rematch with Georgia Southern, and I’d pay money to see that.

In the end, I think Wofford meets North Dakota State in Frisco and the Terriers come up a little short in the title game.

ADAM: Has Frierson been hacked by our high-powered recent guest, SoCon commish John Iamarino? Wofford in Frisco on Jan. 7? I’m a firm believer in the gospel of Mike Ayers, but the Terriers will have to travel a daunting road to get there, one that starts at Northern Iowa and likely would wind through Montana and either Sam Houston State, Montana State or New Hampshire.

While chatting with the App State contingent at Elon last weekend, it became clear the Mountaineers (or at least those particular Mountaineers) didn’t want to be paired near Georgia Southern in the bracket. Now those teams are positioned to collide in the quarterfinals.

If that happens, I’ll take Georgia Southern, at home, to gain revenge on App State, which handed the Eagles their only FCS loss of the season at the end of October.

As for the championship game (which practically is impossible to predict), I’ll venture a guess that Montana meets North Dakota State, with the Bison getting the better of the Grizzlies.

It’s postseason awards time now, so who would you pick to be the SoCon’s players of the year for offense and defense, the top freshman and the coach of the year?

ADAM: I labored while choosing my all-conference offensive and defensive linemen and linebackers, so I was in a full sweat when I got down to the bottom of the ballot for the headlining awards.

I opted for Wofford fullback/animal Eric Breitenstein as offensive player of the year. His numbers were great, plus the toughness and attitude he brought to a team that contended for the league title were immeasurable. Just felt like it would be too much of a homer move picking Elon stud receiver Aaron Mellette, a beast in his own right, who starred on a team that went 3-5 in the conference.

His stats weren’t especially eye-popping, but I went with Georgia Southern lineman Brent Russell as defensive player of the year. His brute force blew up more plays than any defender, no matter if it was a run or a pass.

Chattanooga quarterback Terrell “Silk” Robinson as the top freshman and Georgia Southern’s Jeff Monken as the top coach were fairly simple picks for me.

JEFF: Elon’s Aaron Mellette had an incredible year, but I went with Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein as offensive player of the year. He was the engine for a SoCon contender and playoff squad.

Defensive player of the year is a tough pick. Wofford LB Alvin Scioneaux is a rising star, and likewise for Chattanooga LB Wes Dothard. I voted for Georgia Southern defensive tackle Brent Russell, a disruptive force in the middle.

Coach of the year is easy — what GSU's Jeff Monken has done in two years to turn around that program is remarkable. For freshman of the year, I went with GSU safety Deion Stanley, a key piece of one of the SoCon's top defenses.

JOHN: I guess I’m the contrarian. I’m sticking with Elon wide receiver Aaron Mellette as my top offensive player. He put up absurd stats despite a lot of double coverage and made more than a few electrifying plays. I understand the argument for Breitenstein, who had an awesome season and played on a playoff-bound team, but Mellette led the FCS in receptions and receiving yards.

Picking the top defensive player was the hardest choice of all. There are four or five players that are worthy of the award — Wofford’s Scioneaux, Georgia Southern’s Russell, UTC’s Dothard or Ryan Consiglio and Elon’s Joshua Jones come to mind.

My choice is — homer alert! — UTC’s Dothard because he had 98 tackles, 15.5 for loss, five forced fumbles, a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown. He was everything you could want in an elite defensive player.

I’d pick “Silk” (best nickname in the league) for freshman of the year if he had played in more games. Instead, my vote also goes to Georgia Southern safety Deion Stanley, who had a great season for the SoCon champs.

Coach of the year is an easy choice: Georgia Southern’s Jeff Monken. With Furman’s Bruce Fowler earning honorable mention.

Bonus question: Can you make a ridiculously early prediction on how the SoCon will shape up in 2012?

JOHN: I suspect Georgia Southern, Wofford and Appalachian State will all be very good once again, though all three will have to replace some key players.

UTC was very young in 2011, with 14 freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup for most of the season, and the Mocs may be in the title hunt next season if they can figure out how to win a close game against the Big Three.

ADAM: Here’s a way early prediction for 2012 that is neither bold nor ridiculous: Western Carolina won’t be a factor in the league title race.

Expert analysis there, huh?

Certainly, Georgia Southern, App State and Wofford figure to duke it out at the top again. Furman and Samford lose senior quarterbacks but return key playmakers. Aaron Mellette will be back to continue his assault at Elon, along with lots of starters on defense.

And it will be interesting to see if The Citadel continues its progress in Year 3 of the triple option. Speaking of the Bulldogs, Uncle Jeff Hartsell probably is due for another nap on the couch right about now.

JEFF: It's never too early to make yourself look silly with predictions. The Big Three of GSU, App State and Wofford will contend again, for SoCon and national titles. I like Chattanooga and Samford to push the Big Three, and The Citadel should be ready to make a push for a winning record and something close to a .500 slate in the SoCon in year three of the triple option.

Final thought: On behalf of Jeff and Adam, I just want to say thanks to all of you who have read this each and every week. The response has been far beyond what I expected, for sure. And the fact that we built up enough credibility that SoCon commissioner John Iamarino was willing to join us last week, well, that means a great deal.

Thanks again — John.

P.S. The SoConversation will continue during basketball season. After a brief December hiatus, it will be back in January.

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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