published Friday, September 20th, 2013

SoConversation: Week 4

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.

For the first time this season, it’s probably fair to say that the SoCon had a pretty good week last week. UTC drilled Austin Peay, Samford held off Florida A&M and Furman REALLY held off Presbyterian with a blocked field goal at the end, for the league’s three non-conference wins. Elon’s 23-10 loss at what appears to be a quality North Carolina A&T was the only downer. In league play, Wofford beat Georgia Southern 30-20 and The Citadel won a tight game in Cullowhee, edging Western Carolina 28-21.

What was your take on what happened around the league in week 3?

JEFF: "Slippage" and "Mike Ayers." There, that's the final time I use those words in the same sentence. My chief preseason theory, that Wofford would have to suffer s* this season without the Beast, its starting QB and its defensive coordinator, has gone up in smoke and as a man of my word I tender my apologies to lovers of all things Terrier.

Even more impressive was that Wofford's win came over a GSU team honed to a fine edge by a demanding early schedule (Savannah State, St. Francis, Sarcasm Alert).

Furman coach Bruce Fowler should buy Jarius Hollman lunch every day this week, because that field goal block against PC saved him a ton of grief and an 0-3 record against the Big South. As for The Citadel's win over Western Carolina, I'm predicting here and now that WCU wins a SoCon game this season.

ADAM: So impressed by the Wofford Terriers — the talent, the toughness and the sustainability of their program. No Eric Breitenstein? Rotating two quarterbacks? Those have been minor inconveniences so far. And humbled, yet again, by my stupidity in assuming that this would be a season in which they slipped to the middle of the pack in the SoCon. More on my stupidity later.

Couldn’t help but think of coach Jeff Monken’s often-quoted line, about how if Georgia Southern went 8-0 in the league it’d be difficult to argue that his Eagles weren’t the true SoCon champs, even though they’re ineligible for the title and the FCS postseason.

That talking point can be put to rest for now.

How about Wofford workhorse Donovan Johnson with 32 carries for 149 yards at The Citadel and then 35 carries for 150 yards against Georgia Southern. Punishing stuff.

Quickly moving on. It took some Maalox Moments, but Furman survived Presbyterian — seems strange to type that — and avoided a dreaded 0-3 mark against three teams from the Big South to start the season.

Weekly love for Samford’s Fabian Truss. He went for 240 all-purpose yards at Florida A&M and is averaging 231 per game on the season. Rushing, receiving, punt returns, kickoff returns, he’s doing it all.

JOHN: It was only week three, but that Furman-Presbyterian game felt like it had a lot more weight to it than just another September non-conference game. Credit to the Paladins for keeping the Blue Hose out of the end zone late and super-deluxe credit to Furman defensive back Jairus Hollman, who blocked PC’s 23-yard field goal in the final seconds, preserving a Paladin 21-20 win that the boys in purple had to have.

Wofford didn’t surprise me with its win, but it did impress me. Meanwhile, Western Carolina showed some resolve in its 28-21 loss to The Citadel, which had a tougher time with the Catamounts than I would have anticipated. Not sure if that says more about WCU’s improvement or the Bulldogs’ recent struggles.

Is Wofford the favorite to win the SoCon title now? Were you among the many that underrated the Terriers this season? What are your top four among the SoCon eligibles after three weeks?

JOHN: Based on Wofford’s results so far, I know I underestimated the Terriers. I thought losing Breitenstein and Niam and the rest would have a greater impact than what I’ve seen to date. The win over Georgia Southern was impressive and should look really good by late November.

That said, I’m not sure we yet know if the Terriers are the favorites. They’re certainly very much in the mix, but so are UTC and Samford, and maybe The Citadel — in other words I don’t know that we have any more of an idea than we did last week.

After three weeks of games, here’s how I’m ranking the top four eligibles: Wofford, Samford, UTC and The Citadel. I could easily flip-flop Samford and UTC, but the Bulldogs get the edge because of how well they played against Arkansas.

JEFF: See above. I'd make Wofford the favorite  — in all seriousness, the defense is good — followed quickly by Samford and Chattanooga, with The Citadel a trailing fourth. Games against GSU and App are really going to be wild cards for the top four. Will they get the full monty from two teams that were "favored' in the SoCon's "preseason poll", or will they get teams that have cashed in their final FCS seasons and are preparing for the rigors of the Sun Belt?

Coaches at GSU and App have pushed aside all-SoCon level senior QBs (Jerick McKinnon at GSU, preseason player of the year Jamal Londry-Jackson at App State) in moves that make you wonder. GSU started redshirt freshman Kevin Ellison at Wofford, and App turned to sophomore Kam Bryant in the loss to NC A&T and may start Bryant against Elon this week. Interesting, to say the least.

ADAM: Based on simple math alone, Wofford, the only 2-0 team in the league, has to be the favorite right now. And those two SoCon wins certainly appear to be quality ones. Check the Terriers upcoming schedule — vs. Gardner-Webb, vs. Presbyterian, vs. Elon, at Western Carolina. They should be 6-1, 4-0 when Samford visits Oct. 26.

Yes, I’ve undervalued Wofford. In the preseason I picked the Terriers to finish behind Chattanooga, Samford and Citadel and like a dunce I haven’t ranked the Terriers on my FCS Top 25 ballot until this week. As we’ve said in the SoConversation and as Frierson has mentioned this week, I figured some of those seniors who departed would be difficult to replace. Breitenstein happens to be the No. 2 all-time rusher in SoCon history, by the way.

Ranking the top four eligibles, I’ll go Wofford, Chattanooga, Samford and Citadel, with Chattanooga and Samford basically interchangeable. There seems to be a pretty clear separation between those four and Elon, Furman and Western Carolina.

Perhaps because North Dakota State is an FCS powerhouse with back to back national titles and a bunch of FBS wins; perhaps because there isn’t a marquee game in all of college football this weekend. Whatever the reason, ESPN’s College Gameday is going live from Fargo this weekend.

Is this good for the FCS or does it matter? And if you could send Gameday to any FCS campus/stadium for a game, what would it be?

ADAM: Live from Fargo … where Corso can’t get enough of the Roger Maris Museum and Desmond is getting plastered — pun alert! — for the Walk of Fame. There actually is a Walk of Fame. Google “things to do in Fargo” and feast your eyes.

This has to be a good thing for the FCS. No doubt ESPN will have a segment on memorable FCS upsets of the big boys or great players who have come through the FCS, which should only help to legitimatize and familiarize it to more of the masses.

Would it be a Captain Obvious statement to nominate App State for College Gameday? It’s usually awesome up there. I’ve always heard Youngstown State’s Ice Castle was a sweet old-school setting, although I’ve never been there. My top choice might be N.C. A&T, when the Aggies are good, on homecoming, also known as the “Greatest Homecoming on Earth.” Really, it’s a wall-to-wall, three-day party in Greensboro. The homecoming concert every year is a who’s who of the biggest names in hip-hop.

JOHN: I’m tempted to say Georgia State, just because it produces a very funny image in my head of Chris Fowler and the gang broadcasting in an empty Georgia Dome. But alas, the Panthers aren’t FCS anymore.

I haven’t been to any FCS stadiums outside of the Southeast, but to me the most hallowed ground in the FCS is Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Mont. I’ve never seen (via TV) a better FCS atmosphere or scene than when Montana hosted App State in the semifinals of the playoffs a few years ago, in Armanti Edwards’ final game.

Snow was on the ground, there wasn’t an empty seat (or even anyone sitting, for that matter) and the scene was so perfect that any sports fan anywhere would have loved to have been there.

Getting out to a Montana game is on my list of goals for the next five years.

JEFF: I think it's great for Game Day to be at an FCS school to show the other side of college football. When App State is rolling, Boone is as good a place as any for an FCS Game Day appearance, but I guess those days are over.

UTC and Georgia Southern are off this week, giving both plenty of time to prep for what should be a big meeting in Statesboro next Saturday. The only league game on the schedule this week is App State at Elon, a game the Mountaineers have to win or else the ASU faithful might run wild through Boone with torches.

What are you going to be following from this slate of games: Southeastern Louisiana at Samford, Mars Hill at Western Carolina, App State at Elon, The Citadel at Old Dominion and Gardner-Webb at Wofford?

JOHN: A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have guessed that Gardner-Webb’s game at Wofford would be too compelling, but that was before the Runnin’ Bulldogs (institutions of higher learning should never use “Runnin’” or “Fightin’” or anything similar) kicked a late field goal to upset then-No. 11 Richmond 12-10 last week.

That win, coupled with the Dogs’ 28-21 win over Furman, makes Gardner-Webb look pretty formidable. And it will be playing a Wofford squad that could conceivably have a little trouble getting up for this one after last week’s big win.

As for the other games, I’m not expecting any of them to be particularly close. The Citadel could certainly use a win to help its at-large bid chances, but I suspect the Monarchs will be too much to handle.

JEFF: I agree with John, Gardner-Webb could be a trap game for the Terriers, coming off their goodbye gift to GSU. But I don't agree with his strictures against "Runnin'" or "Fightin'. I kind of like those appendages, and I think Elon should be the "Fightin' Phoenix." I give The Citadel a puncher's chance at Old Dominion, but the Bulldogs will have to score 40 points to pull off the upset against QB Taylor Heinicke and the Motorin' Monarchs.

ADAM: Totally agree with Frierson on Gardner-Webb suddenly looking like it could pose some problems for Wofford. Both the Furman and Richmond wins were eked out at home in Boiling Springs, N.C., so the, ahem, Runnin’ Bulldogs won’t have their familiar surroundings to rely on at Wofford.

Samford finally plays at home after games at Georgia State, Arkansas and Florida A&M to open the season. Old Dominion dropped 76 points on Howard last week and scored 38 at East Carolina three weeks ago. Could be scary stuff for Citadel.

I’ll of course be at App State and Elon and I’m very interested to see App in person, given the “what’s wrong with App State questions?” people have asked me for two weeks and the sky-is-falling stories my buddies came back with from their trip to see the Mountaineers’ loss to N.C. A&T two weeks ago.

A couple of Elon seniors have told me this week, in separate interviews, that Saturday night is their Super Bowl. App State is the only SoCon team that Elon hasn’t beaten since joining the league in 2003. In fact, Elon is 0-17 vs. the Mountaineers since 1964. Let’s see what happens. Should be fun.

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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