Welcome to 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.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat the opening weekend for the Southern Conference. The league went 2-7 overall, including 0-2 versus the Big South Conference and 0-1 against the Ohio Valley Conference. We’ll get to the specific teams the guys cover later, but overall what was your take on Week 1?
JEFF: Bigger disaster than Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. SoCon fans are going to have to forget the idea that the SoCon is way above the Big South in football (or in anything, for that matter), especially with the departure of powers Georgia Southern and App State.
Of the eligibles, only Samford against FBS newbie Georgia State had a win, and the Birmingham Bulldogs needed a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD and an INT for a TD to beat a bad team. The Citadel and Chattanooga fell flat at home, Elon and Wofford got ripped for their paychecks, and Western Carolina lived down to expectations. Even App State was bad. Yikes.
JOHN: This was not the start a conference that is moving into a new era was looking for, for sure. Mocs coach Russ Huesman said this week he was pretty stunned as he watched the games unfold Saturday. As surprised as I was by how UTC played and how The Citadel blew a 16-0 lead, I don’t think any of us anticipated App State going to Montana and getting knocked around the way the Mountaineers were.
That said, it was only the first week of the season and a lot can change. If it doesn’t, the SoCon will be a one-bid league and I don’t think anyone would have anticipated that.
ADAM: Overall take from the opening week — brutal.
Current Smith Index ranking of SoCon eligibles — 1. Samford. 2 thru 6 (tie). Chattanooga, Citadel, Elon, Furman, Western Carolina, Wofford.
Talk about Letdown Central. And it stretched on for three days, starting with Chattanooga’s clunker against UT-Martin on Thursday night and ending with App State getting smacked around out at Montana late Saturday night.
By the time that game kicked off, Elon and Wofford had been clubbed over the head by a combined 139-3, while Citadel and Furman both had frittered away leads of at least two touchdowns to Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb, respectively.
Going down the list of last week’s results, Samford’s win at Georgia State and Georgia Southern’s predictable annihilation of Savannah State can be placed in a “best of the weekend” category. Next in line in that department … would have to be … I guess … maybe … Western Carolina hanging within 13 points of Middle Tennessee at halftime before losing 45-24.
As for the games you covered — the SoConversation crew went 0-for-3 — what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and where does the team you cover go from here?
JOHN: The Mocs got the SoCon’s slow start started with a 31-21 loss to a UT-Martin squad that was certainly better than I expected. The Skyhawks were big (especially at wideout), physical and their ball-carriers did not go down easily.
UTC was playing without numerous starters — only 38 Mocs saw the field, according to the stat book — and defensively UTC wore down in the second half. Huesman said the defense missed 36 tackles, which is a ton for a group that is usually pretty fundamentally sound.
Martin led 7-0 at the half but it felt like the Skyhawks were in more control than that. Apparently the fans felt the same because of the 11,000-plus that showed up, including a great crowd of about 3,000 students, quite a few headed for the exits well before the fourth quarter.
ADAM: There’s only one way for Elon to go — unless you count burrowing through the basement floor — after Georgia Tech lowered the boom 70-0.
Elon lost a fumble on its second play, had a punt blocked on its sixth play and threw an interception on its 12th play. And that was followed by a three-and-out.
Not long after that, Georgia Tech led 35-0 three seconds into the second quarter and was on pace to put up a fraction shy of 140 points.
So, yeah, there are roaring starts to seasons and then, universes away, there is what happened to the Phoenix.
Elon did pick up a check from Georgia Tech for $250,000. And, as ludicrous as this may sound, there were some strides made in certain areas. Nineteen freshmen (combining true freshmen and redshirts) made their college debuts, a key development with Elon looking to build immediate depth, and the offensive line, believed to be a source of concern, held up nicely, allowing only one sack for the game, which didn’t come until the fourth quarter.
JEFF: It's easy to point the finger, as coach Kevin Higgins did, at the two punts that The Citadel muffed, setting up easy Charleston Southern touchdowns. But the Bulldogs had issues on offense and defense as well. CSU gained eight yards rushing in the first half but 131 in the second half, pushing the Bulldogs around. The Bucs were better prepared and wanted it more. All of that is not to say that The Citadel can't beat Wofford this weekend. This is the game the Bulldogs have been pointing toward for a year, since a 24-21 loss to Wofford last season, their 14th in a row to the Terriers. But instead of coming in with confidence, the Dogs are dealing with some self-doubt. It might be easier for Wofford to shrug off its 69-3 loss to Baylor.
While most of the teams in the SoCon were struggling, Georgia Southern hammered Savannah State (no surprise) and Samford beat Georgia State. Samford’s win was one of eight wins by FCS teams against FBS opponents. Is the gap between the two divisions closing or were most of these wins more upsets on paper than in reality?
ADAM: Making my way around Atlanta on Friday night, I got a chance to hear Georgia State coach Trent Miles say on pre-game radio that he felt Samford deserved to be a three-touchdown favorite over his team, a statement that, of course, had to do with Georgia State’s struggles of recent years (1-10 record last season in the FCS) and not its status as a newbie on the FBS level.
Samford’s victory was the exception here, though. Five other FCS over FBS wins were claimed against schools from major conferences. Still, given the SportsCenter overreaction that followed some of those games — do you believe in miracles?! — I’ll say they were more so upsets on paper than anywhere else.
To me, North Dakota State (which beat Kansas State) and Eastern Washington (which beat Oregon State) are elite FCS programs that could hold their own in the FBS — not the Big Ten or Pac-12, but certainly in places like the MAC or Sun Belt.
Towson (which beat UConn) and Northern Iowa (which beat Iowa State) are playoff-caliber FCS teams that aren’t too shabby, either. Towson gave LSU some trouble last September down in Baton Rouge.
Also of note here, Samford’s $250,000 check from Georgia State was part of the combined $2.63 million earned by the eight FCS teams in their wins over FBS opponents.
JEFF: I'd say the gap between the top of FCS and the bottom of FBS is smaller than ever; the real gap in college football is between the five "power conference" and everybody else. Georgia Southern and App State could be Sun Belt favorites next year, and Samford's win over Georgia State was no upset.
Chattanooga could/should beat Georgia State this weekend as well. But any FBS team that schedules North Dakota State (as Kansas State did) is asking for the App State/Michigan treatment.
JOHN: North Dakota State has beaten an FBS team five years in a row —granted never the defending Big 12 champs — but I really didn’t see that as too much of an upset given how good the Bison are and how many players KSU lost from last season. I suspect NDSU, and to a lesser degree Eastern Washington, would finish in the middle of the pack of some pretty good FBS conferences.
The gap between the top of the FCS and the teams in non-BCS leagues has gotten smaller and smaller, and will continue to do so. Like Jeff noted, App State and Georgia Southern should be very competitive in the Sun Belt next season.
The Mocs might beat Georgia State on Saturday, though that’s not really an FCS vs. FBS matchup like NDSU vs. KSU, but I won’t be picking the Mocs to upset Alabama in late November.
This week marks the start of SoCon play with a really big game between Wofford and The Citadel in Charleston. The other competitive matchups should be UTC at Georgia State in a mostly empty Georgia Dome and Furman at Coastal Carolina. What will you be watching out for Saturday?
JEFF: With a loss at Coastal on Saturday, Furman coach Bruce Fowler would go to 9-15 in his fourth season. His admission after the loss to Gardner-Webb last week tbat the other team was "tougher and better conditioned" than the Paladins was telling.
Even if sophomore QB Reese Hannon returns to action, the Paladins are looking squarely at an 0-2 start against Big South teams. In Wofford vs. Citadel, I'm curious to see how the Terrier quarterback situation works out. Coach Mike Ayers played three QBs against Baylor, and needs to find a solid 2-man rotation sooner or later. And for The Citadel and Chattanooga, it's time to back up all that "SoCon contender" talk. Even with the SoCon in its weakened state, both teams have got to play better than they did last week.
JOHN: The Mocs should be closer to full strength this week and they’ll need good performances from everyone against Georgia State, which is only going to get better each week under new coach Trent Miles. For what many of us thought would be a breakout season for UTC, the prospect of an 0-2 start is pretty hard to fathom.
I’m really curious to see how Wofford and The Citadel respond, especially the Bulldogs. Last week had to be pretty stunning and like UTC, a promising season will really jump the rails with two straight losses.
And if I’m Saint Francis I’m a little scared. The first words out of Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken’s mouth on the SoCon teleconference Tuesday, in regard to the Eagles’ 77-9 thumping of Savannah State, were that he didn’t think his team played very well.
ADAM: I’m really interested to see if Georgia Southern, which plays host to St. Francis, Pa., can keep its average margin of victory in plus 60-point territory.
OK, that’s not true. And, yes, Statesboro should be the site of another take-em-behind-the-woodshed result.
Obviously, Wofford’s trip to Citadel is all kinds of intriguing for everything from how a Sept. 7 game potentially could factor into the league title race to how these teams bounce back from disappointing opening losses to how many passes are thrown out of their triple-option offenses.
Can Chattanooga and Furman be considered desperate in Week 2 of the season? Is that too New York Post of me?
Not-so-bold predictions — App State flattens N.C. A&T. That’s the Aggies’ season opener and their quarterback, Lewis Kindle, is suspended for his arrest this summer on a DWI charge.
Bold prediction — Samford lurks within striking distance of Arkansas until late in the game, which happens to be in Little Rock rather than Fayetteville. As y’all know, I <3 Samford’s Fabian Truss.
(Editor’s note: That last line apparently means “I heart Samford’s Fabian Truss.” Adam is very young at heart.)
That’s it for this week and thanks for reading, as always. If you’ve got a question or comment, 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_smithTN and @MocsBeat.
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 ...