published Friday, September 13th, 2013

SoConversation: Week 3

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.

Week two of the college football season was another interesting one for Southern Conference teams. App State was stunned at home, Wofford beat a Citadel squad that’s struggling on offense, Samford put a scare into Arkansas, the Mocs won in an empty (OK, nearly empty) Georgia Dome, Elon beat a school none of us could find on a map and Furman fell to 0-2 in the Big South.

We will get to the specific teams you guys cover shortly, but what was your overall takeaway from the rest of the league?

JEFF: To put it mildly, the SoCon is So Bad So Far. App State — a preseason fave despite its asterisk — and The Citadel have to be the two biggest disappointments in the league. I thought the Bulldogs had a real chance in this Season of the *, but The Citadel's offense has taken several steps backward since last season.

Wofford is still well-coached and plays solid defense, but this is the least talented Terriers team I've seen in a while. Samford seems the most solid of the eligibles, but the league title is there for the taking for any team that can get its act together.

JOHN: My first thought is, what in the wide, wide world of sports is going on with App State? To a slightly lesser degree the same question applies to The Citadel and Furman.

As ace Adam Smith noted earlier this week, NC A&T was playing without its starting QB and with 20 or so less scholarships than the Mountaineers. Despite all that, the Aggies went to Boone and dropped the Mountaineers to 0-2. According to App State radio ace David Jackson, it’s the first time ASU has been unranked since September 2005. That’s a heck of a run — and I wouldn’t want to be Scott Satterfield right now.

I also wouldn’t care to be Furman coach Bruce Fowler, who has to be feeling a bit antsy at 0-2 this season and 1-7 in his past eight games going back to last season.

ADAM: Gotta say, ace Adam Smith sounds nice. It’s not nearly as accurate, though, as playboy Johnny Frierson. (trying not to be disappointed if this doesn’t make it through the editing process)

App State, I mean, wow. Rod Broadway, a proven winner at N.C. Central and Grambling State, has N.C. A&T moving on the right path after some dark days, but … App State, I mean, wow. A&T didn’t even have spring practice this year due to NCAA academic penalties.

A friend of mine, who’s an App grad, went to the game expecting to see something similar to what happened two years ago in Boone, when App crushed the Aggies 58-6. Instead, he said fans were chanting “we want Jerry” after A&T went up 21-6 going into halftime. That’s Jerry as in Jerry Moore. And according to multiple reports, including the Greensboro News & Record, there was a mass exodus of App fans at halftime. I mean, wow.

Elsewhere, nice bounce back and a solid win in Charleston for Wofford, moving on from that 69-3 sledgehammer over the head at Baylor. Ditto for Chattanooga, too, after the upset loss to UT Martin. And how about Samford hanging tough against Arkansas. The Bulldogs led 21-17 in the fourth quarter. Some dude boldly predicted that would happen in last week’s SoConversation. “Ace” stuff from that guy.

Give us a quick take on the game you covered and what it means moving forward?

ADAM: Here are the essentials — Elon won’t go scoreless or winless this season thanks to its 49-7 clobbering of West Virginia Wesleyan, a D-II program.

After three interceptions, two of them pick-sixes, in the opener at Georgia Tech, new Elon quarterback Mike Quinn seemed to gain some confidence and stabilize himself a bit. He threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns and spread his passes around to 10 receivers while playing 2½ quarters.

Elon’s best sequence came on a goal-line stand delivered by its second-team defensive line and linebackers. Elon stonewalled West Virginia Wesleyan on six snaps from the 1-yard line and another from the 2 — a pass interference penalty was responsible for a new set of downs — and then headed off the other way on what became a monster 99-yard touchdown drive to go up 35-7 before halftime.

JEFF: Wofford won for the 15th straight time over The Citadel, a streak that even Terriers coach Mike Ayers concedes is "insane." Truth be told, this was The Citadel's best chance to end that streak in some years, but the Bulldogs could muster only a field goal on offense. The off-season loss of All-America center Mike Sellers is really showing up, but the problems go deeper than that.

Wofford beat the Bulldogs at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and that must improve for The Citadel to get anywhere near its preseason goals. Coach Kevin Higgins is advocating a "back to basics" approach this week at Western Carolina, a must-win game for the Bulldogs, but far from a sure win.

JOHN: The Mocs went down to Georgia looking for their first win. The game was in hand early, after a fake field goal led to a 27-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, and it was 42-0 one play into the fourth quarter. UTC’s running game dominated, going for 401 yards, the most for the Mocs since 1994. Keon Williams ran for 147 on 20 carries and looked like the type of power back many of us have been waiting for him to be.

At that point I was left to wonder how a team that doesn’t draw much more than 5,000 actual bodies to a game (if that, though the announced attendance was nearly 15,000) is capable of moving up to the Sun Belt Conference. I know the program is only in its fourth year, but I’ll be surprised if it ever reaches its 15th.

The Mocs got a much-needed shot in the arm with the win after the opening “debacle,” in coach Russ Huesman’s words, against UT-Martin.

Among the SoCon eligibles, do you have any idea who the top teams are yet? Before the season started everyone thought Wofford, UTC, Samford and The Citadel were the top four, but how do you see the top half of the league now — or is it still too early to tell?

JOHN: The top half of the league is a mystery to me right now.

Samford hardly looks good in a 10-point win against a Georgia State team that was drilled by UTC, but then hangs with Arkansas, losing by 10.

The Mocs looked pretty bad for much of their opener, but then looked very sharp against Georgia State, gaining 509 yards and holding the Panthers under 100 for three quarters.

Ignoring Wofford’s blowout loss at Baylor to start the season since not much can be gleaned from that, the Terriers appear to be the team to beat after their 21-10 win over The Citadel. It’s quite possible I and many others underestimated Wofford this season, though there was plenty of reason to wonder after losing so many key players.

Sitting at 0-2, The Citadel has to be a little stunned at its start. For the offense to struggle as it has is really surprising. But there are too many veterans on that team for the Bulldogs not to get it together and be a factor in the race by November.

ADAM: Call me stubborn or stupid or both — hey, it can be fun, just ask my lovely and talented wife — but here in Week 3, I still feel like Chattanooga and Samford should be the teams to beat among the SoCon eligibles.

Sure, the Mocs served up a clunker in their opener and yes, the Bulldogs weren’t convincing against Georgia State, but whatever. The head-to-head league games will prove to be ultimate determinant and Chattanooga and Samford both remain 0-0.

Which brings me to Wofford, an early 1-0 in the league with a nice win on the road and certainly capable of exposing my stubbornness and stupidity. I have yet to rank the Terriers on one of my Top 25 FCS ballots (they are 16th in the media poll; 10th in the coaches) and have figured, with Eric Breitenstein and several other studs graduated from the program, that Wofford would slip in the SoCon standings. We’ll see what happens. The force, of course, is strong in coach Mike Ayers.

To me, betting against Citadel to rebound and become a player among the eligibles wouldn’t be a wise move. Kevin Higgins is too good of a coach.

Elon, Furman and Western Carolina are a combined 1-5 and still appear to be non-factors.

JEFF: I still like Samford and Chattanooga ahead of Wofford. We'll get a better idea of how far (if at all) the Terriers have slipped this week against Georgia Southern. Like The Citadel, I think the Mocs bought a little too deeply into preseason optimism and paid for it in their season opener, but they seem to have pulled the car out of the ditch.

The Bulldogs have to get much better to get in the title chase; on the other hand, there are no national championship contenders in this league.

App State is off this week, a well-timed break for the Mountaineers who appear to need to do some regrouping. Meanwhile, here is Saturday’s slate of games, which includes a pair of SoCon matchups — one of them being a big test for Wofford and the first real test for Georgia Southern: Presbyterian at Furman, Samford at Florida A&M, The Citadel at Western Carolina, Austin Peay at UTC, Elon at North Carolina A&T and Georgia Southern at Wofford.

What will you be keeping an eye on this week?

JEFF: Two coaches badly in need of a win this week: Furman's Bruce Fowler, whom John points out is 0-2 against the Big South and 1-7 in his last eight games, the lone win over Elon; and The Citadel's Kevin Higgins, who can ill afford to start 0-3 in what is officially known as the Bulldogs' Most Eagerly Anticipated Season in Years.

To me, Western Carolina is a dangerous unknown — the Catamounts have played three straight games against FBS squads (Alabama last year, Middle Tennessee State and Virginia Tech this year), so who knows how they stack up against FCS competition.

JOHN: While the Georgia Southern-Wofford game is the marquee matchup by far, I’m actually more curious about PC at Furman. The Paladins have already lost to a pair of Big South teams in Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina and to go 0-for-3 would be pretty stunning.

We all had high expectations for The Citadel this season and the Bulldogs have certainly underwhelmed so far. Do they thump the Catamounts or is this one closer than most of us would expect? Given that Western Carolina has played a pair of money games it’s hard to know how the Cats will measure up in the league this season.

As for UTC, which hosts an Austin Peay squad that is coming off back to back games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt (outscored a combined 83-3), it’s hard to imagine the Mocs will have too much trouble with the Govs, who went 2-9 in 2012. But these are strange days at UTC and I never really know what to expect anymore.

ADAM: I’m keeping an eye and two ears on the N.C. A&T band, the Blue and Gold Marching Machine. Elon players have talked this week about how much they’re looking forward to playing under the lights at Aggie Stadium. The beat writer also is giddy like a schoolgirl.

The energy at an A&T game is awesome. The last time Elon was there, in 2006, the head official actually turned on his mic and made the band quiet down when the quarterbacks were barking their pre-snap calls. That disappointed about 15,000 people and a younger “ace” in the press box.

By the way, the MEAC could be 3-1 vs. the SoCon this season if Florida A&M beats Samford and A&T beats Elon.

Furman, in its home opener, needs to get things together and take care of business against Presbyterian. Somebody is guaranteed their first win of the season in the Citadel/Western Carolina game. I’m thinking the Catamounts might be frisky up there in Cullowhee.

And obviously, I’m interested to see what happens in Spartanburg. After ripping through Savannah State and St. Francis, Pa., Georgia Southern’s cumulative score on the season is 136 points scored, 26 points allowed. The Eagles’ next three opponents — Wofford, Chattanooga and Samford — should put up quite a bit more resistance.

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 jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsBeat.

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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