Welcome to Week 8 of the college football season and the eighth 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.
At Jeff’s suggestion, let’s hand out some midseason (or close to it) awards. Heading into this week, who is your top coach, offensive player, defensive player, freshman and anything else that comes to mind?
JEFF: Midseason coach of the year is a no-brainer. In his second year on the job, Jeff Monken has Georgia Southern undefeated and ranked No. 1 in FCS, and if my Twitter timeline is any indication, Eagle Nation is back on the march.
For offensive player of the first half, I'll go with preseason choice Eric Breitenstein of Wofford. Without the gritty fullback, the Terriers' wingbone would not be as efficient. Defensive player of the first half is a tough one, but one kid I've been impressed with is Wofford sophomore linebacker Alvin Scioneaux. He's got 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss and was all over the place vs. The Citadel.
Impact freshman? I'll go with Georgia Southern redshirt freshman Deion Stanley, who is starting at safety for the top scoring defense in the league and has 33 tackles, second on the squad.
JOHN: What Monken has done at Georgia Southern is remarkable, no question, but I think Pat Sullivan gets the nod for top coach at this point in the season. Samford went 4-7 last season, 2-6 in the SoCon, and lost its last three games. Sullivan made some changes in the offseason and the Bulldogs are 4-2 (2-2 SoCon), with their only losses coming in competitive games against Georgia Southern and Wofford. The offense is averaging more than 15 points a game more than it did in 2010.
Elon wideout Aaron Mellette has been the top offensive player. Everyone knows the ball is coming his way, yet he still has 74 receptions this season, 30 more than anyone else in the league. He ranks second nationally in receptions and third in receiving yards with 990. He’s also caught a touchdown pass in every game.
There are a ton of worthy candidates for the best defensive player thus far. I’ll give a slight edge to — Homer Alert!!! — UTC linebacker Wes Dothard. He’s got 59 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 2.0 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown and has forced three fumbles. He’s one of those guys that seems to be in the pile on every play, and he’s twice been SoCon Defensive Player of the Week.
I’ll echo Jeff’s pick for Georgia Southern’s Deion Stanley as the top freshmen, though if UTC quarterback Terrell Robinson keeps it up the award could be his at the end of the season.
ADAM: Yes, the Georgia Southern Eagles have returned to perch among the FCS elite in absolutely rapid fashion and yes, they’ve won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last November. But no, I can’t pick Jeff Monken as the top coach at midseason, simply because they were expected to be — at least in this dork’s opinion — a major player in the SoCon and national title picture.
Allow me to pursue one of my favorite pastimes and piggyback Frierson. Samford’s Pat Sullivan gets my vote here based on the substantial evidence mentioned above and what has become an increasingly shrewd move in firing Steve Brickey as offensive coordinator and bringing in Rhett Lashlee, a protégé of Gus Malzahn.
Even though the numbers from Elon’s Aaron Mellette have been monstrous — and I have nothing but natural man love for “Merle” — I’ve got to go with Eric Breitenstein, the hard-nosed heart and soul of Wofford’s rushing machine, as tops on offense in the first half.
I’ll offer another fresh name for midseason defensive player and say Georgia Southern lineman Brent Russell. He doesn’t have the stats of Scioneaux or Dothard, but he’s the driving force of a perhaps underrated front four that’s full of grown men.
Top freshman: Western Carolina safety Ace Clark. Fabulous name.
Top dance team: The Sugar Mocs. And I’ve yet to see Chattanooga play this season.
Here are last week’s results: UTC def. Western Carolina, 51-7; Wofford def. UVA-Wise, 47-14; Samford def. Elon, 43-31; Georgia Southern def. Furman, 50-20; Appalachian State def. The Citadel, 49-42. What are your thoughts on the game you covered last week?
JOHN: The Mocs got what they badly needed, a win. A complete blowout win, in fact. Offensively, with Robinson making his first start due to B.J. Coleman’s shoulder injury, things couldn’t have gone much better. The running game worked, Robinson threw three touchdown passes and the starters got to sit out the fourth quarter. The defense, meanwhile, scored a pair of touchdowns and got five sacks.
As for Western Carolina, it struggled to do anything positive. It’s only score came on a 1-yard run after a UTC fumble inside the 5. Catamounts coach Dennis Wagner sent out a letter to the Catamount Club (WCU’s booster club) this week asking for support following the lopsided loss. Good luck with that.
JEFF: The DeAndre Presley era at App State was a brief but successful one. He was the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year as the Mountaineers' QB last season, and a preseason Payton Award candidate. Now, he's a wide receiver and kick returner.
Sophomore Jamal Jackson was very impressive in his debut against The Citadel, but the 'Neers will need to shore up their defense to make a second-half run. The Citadel, meanwhile, can't get cranked up until the score is about 28-0, and might need to fix that.
One way might be to start freshman QB Aaron Miller, but coach Kevin Higgins is sticking with sophomore Ben Dupree for now. Both will play this week at Western Carolina and for the rest of the season. My only suggestion would be putting Miller in before it's 21-0.
ADAM: I came away thoroughly impressed with Samford, especially so with the attacking offense now in place there. The Bulldogs caught Elon’s defense off guard and bolted to a 24-7 lead thanks in large part to a hurry-up system that hustled to the line and generally snapped the ball with 27 or 28 seconds remaining on the play clock.
Samford has a steady senior quarterback in Dustin Taliaferro — how is this guy’s named pronounced “Tolliver?” — a reliable runner in sophomore Fabian Truss and playmakers on the outside in sophomore Kelsey Pope and junior Riley Hawkins.
Meanwhile, Elon’s schizophrenia continued. The Phoenix committed six turnovers, increasing its season total to an almost incredible 25, and trailed by 20 points in the third quarter. Elon found some bursts of brilliance and rallied within 37-31, but quarterback Thomas Wilson’s fourth interception of the game derailed the momentum.
Now on to Saturday’s matchups: Wofford at Furman, Presbyterian at Georgia Southern, UTC at Elon, The Citadel at Western Carolina and Samford at Appalachian State. What's the most interesting or important game on the schedule this weekend?
ADAM: Back in August, who could’ve looked at the schedule for Oct. 22 and predicted that the most intriguing storylines would be fixed on the game in Boone? But here we are.
Samford, shooting for its fourth straight victory, seems to have a legitimate shot of hanging in at App State and maybe just maybe handing the Mountaineers their second SoCon loss — prior to the visit from No. 1 Georgia Southern that looms next week.
And lest we forget, Jamal Jackson makes start No. 2 at quarterback for App State while the ultra-athletic dude who wears No. 2 for the Mountaineers, DeAndre Presley, converts back to catching passes and returning kicks.
Those rumblings out of App State last week about potential quarterback movement proved to be true. It’s amazing, really. Presley, of course, is the reigning SoCon Offensive Player of the Year. He finished third in the voting for the Walter Payton Award. Yet now he shifts toward the background as a complementary piece to Jackson.
JEFF: This game at App State has got to be the biggest for Samford since it's joined the SoCon. At 4-2 with losses only to Georgia Southern and Wofford, the Birmingham Bulldogs will be in playoff contention if they can somehow get by App State.
Samford has Western Carolina, Chattanooga and The Citadel down the stretch, all extremely winnable games. Coach Pat Sullivan's team could be 8-2 going into the season finale at Auburn, and that's playoff material.
JOHN: The Mocs have another must-win game, against a team that has had their number of late. Elon has won five straight in the series, including an upset at UTC last season that helped keep the Mocs out of the playoffs.
Before last week I would have thought that Furman might be able to challenge Wofford in this one, but not after the way Georgia Southern beat up on the Paladins. I do think Samford could give App State some trouble. The Bulldogs have to be as confident as they’ve been in a long time and they have a HUGE opportunity Saturday to make a serious SoCon statement.
If The Citadel runs all over Western Carolina in Cullowhee, things could get ugly for Wagner.
We’ve all been on our beats for a bunch of years now and have had the chance to get to know a lot of the players and coaches we cover quite well. Who are the guys, past or present, that you always looked forward to talking to each week?
JOHN: In my five years covering the Mocs, former wideout Blue Cooper is probably my favorite interview subject. Funny, honest, a hard-working guy who battled through a ton of injuries to have a huge senior year, he was always worth talking to each week. Also, he was raised by his dad, Johnny, a former Hell’s Angels-type with a beard down to his chest who was already 45 years old when Blue was born.
My favorite line from Blue came just in casual conversation during practice at Finley Stadium one day during the miserable 1-11 season in 2008. Another player commented that maybe the Mocs were cursed and, as I recall it, Cooper said, “What do you expect, we play across the street from a place where they kill like 10,000 chickens a day,” meaning the nearby processing plant.
ADAM: In 2000, I was fresh out of college and beginning my time on the Elon beat. At the end of the season I was working on a senior-moments-type story and center Chip Brogden was talking about the thousands of snaps he had made to option quarterback Derrick Moore during their careers.
“It’s going to feel strange not having his hands under my [rear end] anymore,” Brogden said.
That was the first of many, many memorable exchanges I’ve been lucky enough to have with Elon’s players, who almost always have treated me fantastically. Since then the quotable guys have come in waves and set the table beautifully for bunches of stories.
I figured I’d mention a few of my faves. But so many names piled up in my mind I could’ve hit 50 easily.
JEFF: Citadel linebacker Tolu Akindele is one of my favorite Bulldogs ever. He's got a great backstory (his family won a visa lottery in Nigeria that allowed them to move to the U.S.; he lost his father, sister and a high school teammate as a young man, graduated from The Citadel in three years). He always tells it pretty much like it is, even if he does like to wear cologne.
If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @Adam_Smith10 and @MocsbeatCTFP.
John Frierson is in his fifth year at the Times Free Press and fifth 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 ...