Welcome to season two of the SoConversation, featuring 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’ve all written about conference realignment and what’s happening with some SoCon schools. What’s your take on what teams are doing, are considering doing and does any of this make much sense to you?
JEFF: It all makes about as much sense as Boise State in the Big East.
My take on College of Charleston is that there are powers-that-be who want to move to the Colonial Athletic Association, and are trying convince board members and others that it is the right thing to do. The Cougars want to know if anyone else is going with them — Davidson? Elon? Anyone?
The long view is that the CAA would be about positioning College of Charleston in Northeastern markets (not just for athletics) and luring top out-of-state students (and their higher tuitions). And it may well turn out to be a great move for Cougar hoops. But in the short term, I would not like to make out those travel budgets, and I would not like it for Cougars baseball coach Monte Lee.
In the meantime, where is the SoCon in all this? I know there's a faction of SoCon members who would like to see the league be proactive in adding members, especially football schools. A 12-team, two-division SoCon could supplant the CAA as top dog in FCS and position the league for the day when (and if) GSU and/or App State finally get that Sun Belt invite.
ADAM: Befitting these unsettling times in college sports, here we are, with the Southern Conference on the verge of everything from subtle change to substantial change to no change at all.
College of Charleston and Davidson clearly are targets of the reloading Colonial Athletic Association. All along, College of Charleston has appeared to be the most likely to consider leaving. It would be a basketball-driven move, obviously, and, call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure if the potential “gain” in this case is compelling enough.
Elon and Furman have been linked to CAA realignment. To me, the involvement here is about backup options for each of the parties, the schools and the CAA. Which connects back to the general uncertainty of everything. One of Elon’s most influential people just reiterated to me that the school has been very pleased to be aligned in the same league with Davidson, Wofford and Furman — like-minded, small, private institutions. But, that person said, it would be foolish not to explore all avenues, just as a matter of having your bases covered.
Oh, and yeah, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern could be stepping out and up to the bowl level in football. For Georgia Southern, the possible move is years away. Not so for App State. The Mountaineers would have left yesterday or the day before had Conference USA or the Sun Belt taken them in the most recent wave of realignment.
And considering that I get like a cranky old man when it comes to change — where are my slippers?! — I’m not a fan of any of this.
JOHN: If you’re Appalachian State or Georgia Southern and you’re trying to move up to the bowl subdivision, I might not agree with that decision, but I can at least understand it. If you’re considering a move to another FCS/mid-major conference, like the CAA, that seems like a lot of work (and expense) for what’s at least pretty close to a lateral move. Especially at a time when mid-major schools aren’t exactly flush with cash.
As Jeff notes, maybe there’s a potential long-term payoff for the College of Charleston that its big-wigs see. But is that potential worth the risk of possible big financial issues.
If it’s in a position to do so, the SoCon should take a hard look at being proactive and trying to expand — but only if it can find the right schools. Also, it has to find a way to get back on television. Yes, most people can now figure out how to watch league games on ESPN3.com, but there is a perception out there that conference’s without a TV deal or lesser conferences.
Now on to football — what were keeping an eye on during preseason practice and how do you think the team you cover will perform this season?
JOHN: I probably paid more attention to the offense than the defense this preseason. One, the Mocs’ defense was statistically the best in the SoCon last season and has most of its starters back, plus two big transfers at defensive tackle — so that unit should be pretty sound. Two, I wanted to see how UTC’s “pro spread” offense was developing, and how quarterbacks Terrell Robinson and Jacob Huesman were doing running the new system.
I’ll echo what coach Russ Huesman said the other day, the Mocs have more playmakers than ever — or at least in a long, long time. If this team can play to its potential, and avoid serious injuries because there’s not much depth in some key areas, then it should be in the mix for the playoffs and the SoCon title.
ADAM: I’m interested to find out what Elon becomes, because I’m really not sure how this season is going to shake out.
The Phoenix has one of the most feared weapons in the FCS (stud receiver Aaron Mellette), a strong-armed, returning starter at quarterback (Thomas Wilson) and nine starters back on defense.
Certainly, Wilson needs to clean up those 21 interceptions from last year. And there are depth concerns at offensive line and running back. And Elon’s first three SoCon games (at Georgia Southern, Wofford, at Appalachian State) are the stuff of nightmares.
But, hey, who knows. Let’s get this thing started and see what happens.
JEFF: I'm expecting a fun season out of The Citadel after two years of painful transition to the triple option. Two years ago was brutal with 44 fumbles, and last season the Dogs made it to the competitive stage, losing five games by 10 points or fewer (including three by a total of 10).
The early slate is tough with GSU, App and North Carolina State in a row, but I'd rather play all three of those teams early than late. There's a lot of talk of a "breakthrough" season, which in my mind would be a winning season, The Citadel's first since 2007. I think they have a chance.
What’s your prediction for how the SoCon shakes out this season? Who wins the league, who makes the playoffs and are there any surprises coming our way?
ADAM: In July, when I so professionally submitted my official SoCon preseason ballot, Georgia Southern was my pick as the favorite to win the league. Since then I read that the Eagles have yet to identify a starter at quarterback and could use a rotation there.
So now I’ve been thinking about what a brute Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein is and how App State quarterback Jamal Jackson can carve you up any number of ways.
OK, my revised, yet stone-cold lock of a preseason prediction: either App State, Georgia Southern or Wofford will win the league.
Boom! Mark it down.
Also, all three teams will go on to the FCS playoffs.
My surprise isn’t a team, it’s another possible quarterback carousel, this time at Chattanooga.
How is Terrell “Silk” Robinson, coming off SoCon Freshman of the Year honors, not the starter there? He seemed spectacular at times last season. And the dude he’s competing with is Jacob Huesman, the son of head coach Russ Huesman?
Not trying to be a jerk here, but man, that’s tricky. And potentially all sorts of messy.
Recent historians can refer to the Elon teams of 2004 and 2005, coach Paul Hamilton’s brief two years, as the template for how not to handle that sort of son-at-QB situation.
JEFF: I hope there are some surprises, but it's hard to find any outside of the preseason top three of Georgia Southern, Wofford and App State. Interested to see if slippage continues at App State, or will bringing in heir apparent Scott Satterfield be enough to right the ship for Jerry Moore?
Wofford has a big question mark at quarterback, in my view, but a well-oiled machine around him. The Eagles look to be loaded, but every time I get to see them play, they are struggling just to beat The Citadel (the last six games have been decided by an average of 6.5 points, five of those by a total of 19). I think there's room for a darkhorse contender this year, but who it will be — Furman, Chattanooga, Samford, Elon, The Citadel? All have big question marks.
JOHN: Of the three heavyweights, I think each has a lot of talent and a few question marks. One of the Big 3 will likely win the SoCon, but will all three make the playoffs? I could see App State struggling a little bit and Wofford could find itself in a tight spot because of its schedule, with a game against Lincoln that won’t count toward making the playoffs and back to back trips to Georgia Southern and App State.
Of the rest, (homer alert!) I do think the Mocs have the best chance of breaking through and finishing in the top three in the league. UTC gets App State and Georgia Southern in Chattanooga, which will help its chances.
As for why isn’t “Silk” Robinson the Mocs’ outright starter, the play of Jacob Huesman should speak for itself. The kid can play.
What SoCon player do you think is going to have a breakout season?
JEFF: Can a guy who caught 113 passes have a breakout season? I guess if Aaron Mellette catches 150, it would qualify, but the Elon WR will further burnish his rep.
Other players I like, aside from preseason POYs Eric Breitenstein of Wofford and Brent Russell of GSU — Wofford LB Alvin Scioneaux, The Citadel C Mike Sellers, Chattanooga LB Wes Dothard. App State QB Jamal Jackson could have a huge year if the Mountaineers return to form. And one of the league's better NFL prospects could be The Citadel punter Cass Couey.
JOHN: I voted for Aaron Mellette as the offensive player of the year last season and I suspect he’s going to put up ridiculous numbers again. No breakout there, though. Defensively, there are so many outstanding linebackers in the league that any one of them could challenge Brent Russell for defensive player of the year.
Of guys we haven’t seen much from before, if anything, there are some transfers that will have an impact. UTC has one in defensive tackle Derrick Lott, who came over from Georgia and should be a real problem for teams in the middle of what will be a very good Mocs defensive line.
ADAM: I’m all over the place here.
Always had man crushes on Samford running back Fabian Truss (847 yards, seven TDs last season) and receiver Kelsey Pope (86 catches, 810 yards, six TDs). Truss ran wild on Elon to the tune of 191 yards and three scores last year in Birmingham. And Pope just is a smooth athlete to watch.
I’ve also got totally natural man love for Furman tight end Colin Anderson. Yes, I know, tight end isn’t exactly an eye-catching position in the SoCon. But Anderson moves so well for his size (6-4, 231) that he’s a tough matchup for either safeties or linebackers.
But, predictably for me, of course, is the fact that App State’s landing of former Oregon wideout Tacoi Sumler has my nose wide open. That’s a Nas reference. Google it.
This Sumler guy, with 4.24 speed in the 40, reportedly was one of the fastest in the nation in the high school Class of 2011. I’m already mentally picturing a speedier version of former App State star DaVon Fowlkes. And he was a bad, bad man.
What will we be talking about — whether it's football or conference changes — come November?
What? You want more?
OK, pretty sure this has been broached before, but I think it bears repeating: Can something be done about the annual SEC/SoCon Challenge? It has become a mid-November “tradition” that doesn’t really compute for me.
The roll call for this season: Georgia Southern at Georgia, Samford at Kentucky, Wofford at South Carolina and, not to be outdone, Western Carolina at Alabama. Yeesh.
I just think matchups such as these, which I’m all for, are better suited for early in the season. They just seem somewhat hollow that late in the calendar.
What’s the approach for, say, Georgia Southern or Wofford when the FCS playoffs likely are waiting around the corner the next weekend? And how about Alabama, which will have far more meaningful stuff on its radar at that time of the year?
As for Kentucky, well, the Wildcats already will have played Maryland and Duke in high-profile basketball games by the time Samford arrives for football.
JEFF: App State at Georgia Southern, Nov. 3. Romney v. Obama, Nov. 6.
JOHN: I suspect we’ll know by November what sort of changes are coming to the SoCon and how the league will react to those changes. I know I’m tired of waiting for something to happen and I suspect the folks in the league office are, as well.
On the field, I think we’ll be talking about more parity in the league than we’ve seen in a while. I think Western Carolina will be much improved under Mark Speir and I think two or three teams will head into the final weekend of the season needing a win to get to seven Division I wins and make the playoffs.
If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsbeatCTFP.
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 ...