SoConversation: Week 1

SoConversation: Week 1

August 29th, 2013 by John Frierson in Local Regional News

Welcome to the SoConversation 2013 season debut - it's season 3 of this online gathering of SoCon scribes - 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.

It has been one of the most interesting offseasons in SoCon history, with longtime football powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announcing that they're headed to the Sun Belt Conference and Elon (with a bit less fanfare) announcing that it was going to the Colonial Athletic Association.

With those schools following the College of Charleston out the door, the SoCon eventually announced that Mercer was joining the league for the first time, while VMI and ETSU are returning to the fold.

As for actual football matters for the 2013 season, App State and Georgia Southern won't be eligible for the league title or the FCS playoffs because they've already begun prepping for the move to the Bowl Subdivision and that means adding scholarships. Both will play with more than the FCS-limit of 63 this season.

While ASU and GSU can't play for the title, games against them will be league games and affect the SoCon championship race. Should these be conference games, should ASU and GSU be in the Sports Network's media top 25 poll (they're not allowed in the coaches' poll) and should games against them be viewed differently by the playoff selection committee?

JEFF: Let's see ... No. No. And yes. The SoCon has prided itself on its collegiality over the years, and that's great. But there is also the matter of fair play and presenting an accurate picture to the public. The SoCon mishandled media day by allowing App and GSU to be represented in the preseason poll, which led to some unfortunate "GSU, App favored to win SoCon" headlines when in fact neither team will win the SoCon.

The league did the right thing by moving to list App and GSU at the bottom of league standings with an asterisk, but in my opinion should have gone farther by not counting games against GSU and App in league standings.

Be that as it may, App and GSU should not be included in any FCS polls, and the playoff committee should treat losses to App and GSU the same way they'd treat losses to South Carolina or Clemson (i.e., virtually disregard them). These measures are not punitive in any way. As they move to FBS, App and GSU are no longer playing by FCS rules and can't be eligible for FCS stuff.

ADAM: No, games against App State and Georgia Southern shouldn't be considered conference games. No, those teams shouldn't be ranked in the Top 25 media poll. And yes, games against them should carry more weight in the eyes of the playoff committee.

(For additional effect, read that last paragraph with a Samuel L. Jackson-like inner voice. Think "A Time to Kill.")

To me, these games can't be called league games because App State and Georgia Southern, having already added more than five scholarships apiece, really aren't in the same league anymore as the other SoCon teams.

These schools' moves up to the FBS and the Sun Belt are fascinating to me. And I'm interested to see how the transition continues to unfold. That's another topic for another time. For now, though, and this season, I've chosen to leave both App State and Georgia Southern off my ballots for the Sports Network poll. Seems like the proper call to me.

JOHN: Unsurprisingly, we're unanimous here. Jeff and Adam pretty much covered everything I would say. I will add that this is a three month problem and will go away after this season, so nobody leads to light torches and head to Spartanburg.

Commissioner John Iamarino told me earlier this month that not counting them as conference games was never really considered. Seems (just based on logic) like a few people in the league would have strongly been in favor of that, so Iamarino's comment surprised me.

Like my distinguished colleagues here, I wish no ill will on either ASU or GSU. I hope they have great final seasons in the FCS and tremendous success in the FBS - until a few years from now when the super-division is created and ASU, GSU, UTC and the rest of the mid-majors are back together in the same division.

Iamarino also told me that he has been in contact with Damani Leech, director of NCAA championships, and reiterated to Leech that games against teams with more than 63 scholarships should be viewed differently. Iamarino said he received a favorable response from Leech.

That's key for the Mocs, who also play FBS newcomer Georgia State (which went 1-11 last season in the FCS) and that team ... umm ... plays in Tuscaloosa ... pretty good winning percentage ... it'll come to me.

Having spent the past month tracking what's going on with the team you cover, what are your thoughts on where the team is heading into the season - and how good can it be?

ADAM: Homer alert. Drinking of maroon Kool-Aid alert.

Sure, Elon is coming off a 3-8 season, its worst in seven years, and has lost the SoCon's leading passer in Thomas Wilson, not to mention one of the FCS' top playmakers in Aaron Mellette.

But let the record show that on July 24, 2013, face to face in Spartanburg, S.C., I told a handsome friend of mine (John Frierson) that Elon has a proverbial chip on its shoulder and will surprise some people.

Elon had a much improved offseason of training under new strength coach Ted Perlak. New starting quarterback Mike Quinn has inspired confidence through the spring and August camp. And new defensive coordinator Brad Sherrod has nine returning starters to work with.

Six wins (it's a 12-game season, of course) aren't out of the question for Elon.

JOHN: A tweet I sent out a couple of weeks ago will sum things up. I tweeted at the end of the Mocs' third two-a-day - UTC was practicing under the lights at Finley Stadium - that it might have been the most impressive practice I'd seen in six-plus seasons covering the Mocs.

It wasn't perfect, and my opinion wasn't really based on Xs and Os and schemes. I saw a team loaded with good athletes and good guys. And they seemed to really get along with each other and their coaches.

There was a unity among the team that stood out, combined with the fact that guys were smiling and having fun playing ball together. That stuff matters when times are tough.

Will the Mocs win the SoCon for the first time since 1984? No idea. Can they win it? Absolutely. Could they win it App and GSU were eligible? Yes.

And here's an Adam Smith plug, check out today's story on Elon's new QB: http://www.thetimesnews.com/sports/elon-sports/quinn-tessential-quarterback-waits-his-turn-for-chance-to-direct-elon-team-1.194360.

JEFF: Three years ago, Citadel coach Kevin Higgins decided to scrap his spread attack for the tried-and-true triple option, a version of which (the wishbone) carried The Citadel to its greatest heights back in 1992. The first players he recruited for this offense are now seniors, and this is the season they've been working toward. To have GSU and App State ineligible this season, when the Bulldogs are seemingly at a peak, is an extra bonus. But that said, competing for the SoCon title won't be easy. After all, the Bulldogs beat GSU and App State last year, and were waxed by Chattanooga and Samford. A week 2 game against Wofford will reveal a lot about whether this Citadel team has what it takes.

What are your thoughts on which players and teams might excel this season, who might disappoint and who might surprise you? And what's your prediction for how the title-eligible teams will stack up at the end of the season?

JEFF: I've got it this way: Chattanooga, Samford, The Citadel and Wofford in the top half of the league. I'm probably an idiot (not probably), but I can't help but think Wofford slips this season. The Terriers won four SoCon games by a total of 16 points last year, and that was with Eric Breitenstein, QB Brian Kass and defensive coordinator Nate Woody, all gone now. I might have an inflated opinion of Chattanooga and Samford because of how badly they stomped The Citadel last season, but I like both squads with good defenses and veteran playmakers.

JOHN: Of the eligible teams I think the Mocs have the most talent in the league, and maybe they do if you add in ASU and GSU, as well. With so many third-, fourth- and fifth-year players, UTC has talent and experience. I think Wofford is a wild card because the Terriers lost so much talent on both sides of the ball, while to me Samford is a bit of a wild card also because of coach Pat Sullivan's status. (Get well soon, Pat.)

You can't fit everyone in the top two, I know, but I think The Citadel has been a bit overlooked this preseason (and possibly by me, as well). I think the Bulldogs' are going to be pretty explosive on offense this season, especially as they add wrinkles beyond the triple option.

I'll rank the top four as UTC, The Citadel, Wofford and Samford - but I could throw those names in a jar, shake it and rank them based on the order I pulled them out and still feel OK.

ADAM: My ongoing Chattanooga and Samford crush has been reaching possibly creepy levels this preseason. They're my picks for league favorites among the title-eligible teams. Yes, I realize Wofford still is in the SoCon and could (probably will) steadily blow up that idea one wingbone run at a time.

But I'm rolling with the Mocs and the Bulldogs. I've admired the versatile skills of Samford running back Fabian Truss for years. He should lead the league in all-purpose yards again. And after 12½ sacks last season, how many can Chattanooga's Davis Tull get this year? Fifteen, maybe, if the Mocs make the playoffs?

App State's passing attack figures to be filthy good with quarterback Jamal Londry-Jackson, in his third year as the starter, and receivers Sean Price (if he can stay out of legal trouble), Tony Washington and Andrew Peacock.

To kick things off Thursday, the Mocs host UT-Martin and Western Carolina visits Middle Tennessee State. Samford visits Georgia State on Friday and Saturday's games are: Elon at Georgia Tech, Charleston Southern at The Citadel, Savannah State at Georgia Southern, Furman at Gardner-Webb, Wofford at Baylor and App State at Montana. What's the most interesting matchup and what will we learn from these games?

JOHN: UTC's opener against the Skyhawks is a big, big game for two teams with playoff aspirations. It's not going to be a crippling loss, but a win should look mighty good on the resume come November.

Samford's game at Georgia State will be interesting on a few levels - seeing how the Bulldogs look, seeing what the Panthers look like (the Mocs visit next week) and seeing just how many empty seats there are in the Georgia Dome for Ga. State's first game as an FBS team.

Elsewhere, I'm struck by just how much the tenor and significance of the App State-Montana game has changed. This was a MONSTER series when it was first scheduled. Now, with ASU having a foot out the door and Montana having lost a bit of luster for reasons on and off the field, there's quite a bit of "eh" about this one.

JEFF: App State and Montana is (or was) a marquee FCS matchup. This is the twilight zone App State and GSU find themselves in this season; it will be hard for anyone but App and GSU fans to get worked up about how their games turn out. Chattanooga, Samford, The Citadel, GSU and Furman should be heavily favored; a first-week loss would be a disaster for all five. If Wofford can give Baylor the same kind of run the Terriers usually give the Gamecocks, we'll know reports of their demise are premature. As for Elon and WCU -- good luck with that.

ADAM: Furman, coming off a 3-8 record, its worst since 1994, opens with three straight games against Big South teams (at Gardner-Webb, at Coastal Carolina, vs. Presbyterian). The game at Gardner-Webb this weekend, followed by the trip to the beach, should provide a look - more so than, say, a game against Florida - at where the Paladins are headed in coach Bruce Fowler's third season.

Wofford has given some FBS teams fits in recent years (looking at you, South Carolina and Clemson). Should be interesting to see what the Terriers can do at Baylor.

App State at Montana, just the sound of those names opposite one another, is all kinds of fun. The Mountaineers' 2009 trip out there to Missoula for an FCS semifinal was unforgettable. Montana won, barely, in a blizzard when Armanti Edwards' career ended on a dropped pass in the end zone as time expired.

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.