published Friday, November 30th, 2012

SoConversation: Postseason Edition

Welcome to the SoConversation 2012 season finale, 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.

After taking last week off in order to stuff our cheeks with as much turkey as possible, we’ve got lots to cover, including postseason awards, playoff predictions and more. Let’s start off by wrapping up how the teams we cover finished the season and what’s your overall take on 2012?

JOHN: The Mocs closed out a most interesting 6-5 season with a 24-17 win over Elon. For the seniors, it was a third winning season in their careers — and for the guys that redshirted during the 1-11 2008 season, that’s quite a turnaround.

Still, UTC was probably better than its record. It lost on a last-second field goal at Jacksonville State, lost in overtime to Georgia Southern and Wofford and was tied with Appalachian State in the fourth quarter before losing.

The season also had its drama with Terrell Robinson, who started the first game at quarterback, quit the team for a couple of days, returned and mostly played receiver the rest of the way. He finished with a team-high 40 catches for 489 yards and could have a very bright future as a wideout if he focuses on that position.

The big question this offseason is will he stay and primarily play receiver or will he try to play quarterback elsewhere? My hunch is he stays, but we’ll have to wait and see.

JEFF: The Citadel finished up a 7-4 campaign (5-3 SoCon) with a 42-20 thrashing of rival Furman. It ends up as a satisfying but still strange season for the Bulldogs, who hyped up expectations with a 3-0 start that included wins over GSU and App State.

Reality and a few injuries set in with losses to Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford, but they were able to get the defense back together enough to finish with three straight wins. The Citadel was a longshot for the FCS playoffs, but for a team picked to finish at the bottom of the league to even be in the discussion was pretty cool.

ADAM: Elon lost its final four games and seven of its last eight — all in the SoCon — to bottom out at 3-8, its worst record since a pair of awful seasons under former coach Paul Hamilton in 2004 and 2005.

It’s interesting. Hamilton’s insistence on playing his son at quarterback prompted his firing after two years and the hiring of Pete Lembo, who then took Elon to unprecedented heights. Now, that rise and run of success engineered by Lembo, obviously still fresh in the minds of Phoenix fans, has some grumbling in the wake of 5-6 and 3-8 seasons under Jason Swepson.

Hopefully, Swepson can reverse this downward cycle, because he and his staff are fantastic to deal with. Lembo is quite the hot commodity. The Ball State coach’s name has been linked to the openings at Purdue, Boston College and even N.C. State.

As for 2012 in the SoCon, one word quickly comes to mind — competitive. Sure, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford tied for first place. But Citadel and Samford were strong enough to score victories against those teams and Chattanooga continued to redefine the word “heartbreaker” in pushing Georgia Southern and Wofford to the brink.

Three SoCon teams made the 20-team FCS playoff field, which is about what everyone expected. Unlike previous seasons, no one conference dominated the at-large picks. When you look at the playoff field, did the committee get it right? Who would you have put in or left out?

JEFF: Hard to believe that a 10-win Lehigh team didn't get in from an automatic bid league (the Patriot), and many people looked askance at the Big South landing two bids (auto champ Coastal Carolina, a 55-14 loser to App State, and at-large Stony Brook).

ADAM: Stuff like this is a tough call for me because except for the SoCon, Big South and CAA, I have an outsider’s view of the other leagues.

Who was the better Big Sky team, Eastern Washington or Montana State? Well, other than comparing stats and scores, I’ve pretty much got nothing. (Eastern Washington, the No. 2 national seed in the playoffs, beat Montana State, the No. 3 national seed, during the regular season but was upset by Southern Utah, which didn’t make the postseason).

There’s a part of me that feels for teams like James Madison and Lehigh. Both were ranked in the Top 10 of the coaches and media polls in November. Both ended the regular season by suffering tough league losses to teams that eventually made the playoff field. Those became elimination games in the committee’s mind.

Even though I’ve loved on Stony Brook all year from afar, I kind of was surprised to see two Big South teams make it in the playoffs for the first time in league history. Now, Coastal Carolina (after beating Bethune-Cookman) and Stony Brook (after beating Villanova) are two of the 16 left standing in the national title race.

JOHN: Looking at the 20 teams that got in, the thing that stood out to me was that there were only two seven-win teams in the field. Everyone else had eight or better, which seems to indicate that there are more quality teams around. And that may also be demonstrated by the fact that no conference, like the CAA, loaded up on at-large bids.

The Big South might not get a lot of respect, and it may not be thought of as a two-bid league most seasons, but Stony Brook and Coastal Carolina showed they belong by advancing to the second round.

With a 20-team field, if you didn’t get in (Richmond, Eastern Kentucky, UT-Martin, among others) it’s because you most likely knocked yourself out of contention with one loss too many. In UTC’s case, it had one loss too many and had a Division II win.

Here are the second-round matchups: New Hampshire at Wofford, Central Arkansas at Georgia Southern, Illinois State at Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina at Old Dominion, Cal Poly at Sam Houston State, South Dakota State at North Dakota State, Wagner at Eastern Washington and Stony Brook at Montana State.

How do the SoCon teams do and what’s your prediction for the rest of the playoffs?

JOHN: While I think all three SoCon teams are capable of advancing to the semifinals and maybe beyond, odds are that at least one team will come up short. I predict two of the three survive this weekend and the team that goes down is the one that likely drew the toughest opponent, Georgia Southern. (And because I’m often an idiot, that probably guarantees that the Eagles win by 30.)

In the end, I think North Dakota State wins a second straight title. The Bison lead the FCS in every significant defensive category and they’ve got a very good rushing attack. Their toughest test could be Saturday, when they host a South Dakota State team they beat 20-17 on Nov. 10.

JEFF: I think all three SoCon squads are poised to win their openers. Wofford especially needed the bye week and should be as healthy as it has been in quite a while. I like GSU to make a deep run. How about that road trip for Stony Brook, Long Island to Bozeman?

And didn't Cal Poly just beat UCLA?

ADAM: I see Georgia Southern and Appalachian State taking care of business this weekend. App State has had an abundance of rest in advance of the playoffs, having not played a game since Nov. 10 thanks to its bye during the final week of the regular season.

To me, it looks like Wofford will have a fight on its hands against New Hampshire. But Wofford plays that game at home, always a positive, of course, and the Terriers went unbeaten this year in the house that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson built.

Even though the confident fans of defending champ North Dakota State had bought thousands of tickets to FCS national title game (Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas) by mid-October, I’m going to ride with Old Dominion as the eventual champion. The Monarchs are bursting with firepower that’s triggered by quarterback Taylor Heinicke. They averaged 44 points per game and scored at least 31 points in 10 of their 11 games this season.

The All-SoCon teams are out, along with the players of the year. Now it’s time for the SoConversation Awards. Who were your picks for player and coach of the year? What was the best play you saw all season? And finally, what is the moment from the season that stands out the more or will stay with you the longest?

ADAM: I went with Wofford fullback / monster Eric Breitenstein for Player of the Year (with Elon stud receiver Aaron Mellette as my runner-up) and Citadel’s Kevin Higgins for Coach of the Year (with Samford’s Pat Sullivan as my runner-up).

Like Elon stars Scott Riddle and Terrell Hudgins of the recent past, Mellette (statistically the No. 2 receiver in SoCon history) again was denied Player of the Year by a repeat winner that, quite frankly, was more deserving from a better team. A guy named Armanti Edwards owned that award when Riddle and Hudgins were rewriting the NCAA record book.

Best play: tie between Aaron Miller’s 51-yard prayer to Matt Thompson — Miller’s only completion that day — that gave Citadel a Hail Mary touchdown as the first half expired against Elon and Mellette’s Megatron act at App State, adjusting back to an underthrown ball, reaching from behind Demetrius McCray and going over McCray’s shoulder pads to rip away a possible interception from the Mountaineers cornerback in midair, then landing and taking a few causal steps into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game. It was brilliant, the very definition of beast mode.

Most memorable moment: in Boone, as Elon left the field after losing to App State, Mellette put his arm around Elon athletics director Dave Blank and told him he was sorry that he didn’t do more — this after delivering 13 catches, 237 yards and three TDs that day against McCray, who went on to become a first-team All-SoCon pick.

JEFF: Kevin Higgins (The Citadel) and Pat Sullivan (Samford) were deserving winners of the coach of the year awards. Higgins made a bold move three years ago when he abandoned "his" spread offense for the triple option. It took a while, but the move began to pay off this year, and the Bulldogs have a lot of playmakers back for next year (OL all seniors, senior and junior QBs, senior fullback).

Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein was the MVP; without him, injury-plagued Wofford does not make the playoffs, IMHO. From a Citadel perspective, the moment that stands out is the Bulldogs' opening drive in that 52-28 win at App State. That's when you thought, okay, maybe they mean it this year.

JOHN: I got most of my picks right. Higgins was my first choice for top coach, followed by Sullivan; Breitenstein was a lock for the offensive award and I voted for Mocs defensive end Davis Tull for top defensive player. Tull had a ridiculous season with 12.5 sacks and 19.0 tackles for loss. I said before he ever played a down at UTC that he’d be a two-time All-American.

The best play that I saw was either Robinson’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Ron Moore against The Citadel, during which Silk managed to avoid a half-dozen sacks and scrambled for about seven seconds before making the throw, or it was seeing Mocs defensive tackle Derrick Lott, all 300 pounds of him, chase down Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon and tackle him after a 17-yard gain.

My moment of the season happened inside the car of TFP Georgia beat writer David Paschall’s car as we drove to Athens to cover the UGA-Florida Atlantic game. That was the day The Citadel drilled App State 52-28 and I couldn’t believe it as I checked my Twitter again and again for Mr. Hartsell’s updates: 14-0, 21-0, 24-0, 31-0.

Legitimately, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Finally, on behalf of my esteemed colleagues Jeff and Adam, I’d like to thank you for reading our ramblings all season. I probably think it every November, but the 2012 season went by faster than any I can remember. And that means spring practice is right around the corner. We can’t wait. Best wishes — John.

Also, quick shout out to Adam Gold and Joe Ovies of ESPN’s 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Those gents so graciously mentioned the SoConversation on air the other day. It’s that type of special touch that makes theirs the No. 1 rated sports talk show in the Triangle — Adam.

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_smithTN 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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