SoConversation: Week 10

SoConversation: Week 10

November 1st, 2013 by John Frierson in Local Regional News

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.

Last week might have been the most interesting one of the season in the SoCon, with App State thumping Georgia Southern, Western Carolina stopping its long SoCon losing streak, Samford winning the battle of unbeatens in the league, UTC rallying late to beat The Citadel and even Furman put a brief scare into LSU.

What was the high point of Week 9 for you?

JEFF: High point had to be Western Carolina snapping its 33-game losing streak in SoCon play with a 27-24 overtime victory over Elon. Let's leave the explanation to WCU linebacker Courtland Carson: "It feels like a dog that has been starved for years, and somebody took them on a long ride to a meat shop, showed them all the meat in the world and then told that dog to eat. That's what this feels like."

Anything after that is just so much left-over meat. But it was one of the better weekends of the season, with App State finally coming to life to win the "Ineligi-Bowl", Samford overcoming four turnovers to win at Wofford and Furman making Paladins everywhere proud, for at least a half.

JOHN: I was so darn happy for Western Carolina. And that Carson quote, which I used in a story this week, should have gotten major national play - it's that good.

Samford showed some mettle by beating a sound Wofford squad while not playing its best, or at least being sloppy with the ball. With games remaining against The Citadel, Furman, UTC and Elon, Samford still has work to do, but as the lone unbeaten it sure seems like a good bet to at least share the SoCon title.

As for App State's rout of the Eagles, I have to suspect the Mountaineers probably felt about as good as the Catamounts did. Georgia Southern was far from full strength going into the game and things only got worse after kickoff, so it's hard to read a ton into the result. But it was a reminder that the Apps do still have loads of talent.

ADAM: In its eighth game, App State won for the first time at home this season and just the second time all year. The key? The fantastically named Simms McElfresh, of course, catching a touchdown pass.

While the Mountaineers' surprising struggles have been well documented, their talent - especially their young talent with sophomore quarterback Kam Bryant and true freshman running back Marcus Cox - has been undeniable. Should be interesting to see where they go from the beatdown of Georgia Southern during the final month of the season.

Samford, in the middle of a stretch of four straight road games, continued to show itself as the class of the league. And in a shocking development, the FCS coaches poll actually pulled its head out of the sand and ranked Samford in the Top 25 this week. What's next? Admitting that microwaves have become more than a fad?

The high point of Week 9 for me - and Elon people might kill for me this - was being in Cullowhee and watching Western Carolina win in overtime to snap the 26-game losing steak in the SoCon. Fans poured out of the bleachers and onto the field when Richard Sigmon hit the game-winning field goal.

Catamounts coach Mark Speir gave game balls to chancellor David Belcher and athletic director Randy Eaton. It was homecoming up there and a rewarding scene that you felt like Western Carolina deserved to enjoy.

The SoCon title race appears to be down to three teams: Samford, Wofford and UTC. (Mathematically Furman is also still alive, but the Paladins seem a very long shot at this point.) Diehard UTC fan David Smotherman asked this week if the SoCon is going to get two or three teams into the playoffs this season?

JOHN: I think two is a lock, short of meltdowns by the three teams at the top. Three seems like a possibility, given the way UTC, Samford and Wofford have piled up wins during the middle of the season. Right now Samford looks like the best at-large candidate if it doesn't win the title and automatic bid.

UTC is hurt by its strength of schedule - it has yet to beat a team with a winning record - and the losses to UT-Martin and Georgia Southern aren't bad, but those teams have fallen off a bit as the season has progressed. The Mocs are 6-2 now and they probably need to win two of their last three league games (App State, Wofford, Samford) to feel good about their chances. Or they could win one of those three and then beat Alabama in the season finale. That might also do it.

Wofford's an interesting case because it's only playing 11 games. At 5-3 now, if it finishes with seven wins, which is possible with remaining games against UTC, App State and Furman, how likely will the selection committee be to pick it over an eight-win team?

ADAM: There's a long way to go and countless scenarios in the league and nationally that could factor here, but to me, the Chattanooga/Wofford game on Nov. 9 is looking more and more like it could be an elimination game for the playoffs.

Although, the week after that the Mocs play Samford, so that figures to have big postseason implications, too.

I'll say the SoCon gets two in the 24-team playoff field. If Chattanooga beats Wofford, and Wofford (5-3 right now) goes on to finish 7-4 by beating App State and Furman, that 3-0 loss in a downpour against Gardner-Webb from back in September could end up haunting Wofford's playoff chances.

JEFF: I've felt like two was the max this season, with App State and GSU both ineligible. But now that Samford has finally broken into the FCS Coaches Poll and is getting some long overdue respect, perhaps three is doable

I know The Sports Network's latest projection for the 24-team field includes Wofford, Samford and Chattanooga. UTC has got to beat App State and at least split with Wofford and Samford, you would think; Samford needs to finish at least 3-1 down the stretch to get to 9-3, and that's doable with The Citadel, Furman, Chattanooga and Elon left; Wofford might need to sweep its final three to get to 8-3.

A 7-4 Terriers squad would be a tough call for the committee.

A member of UTC's film crew, @ellis4120, asked for your thoughts on the future of the SoCon. Given all the conference realignment happenings, the league's struggles in football this season, struggles for national or even regional relevancy in men's basketball, as well as the league's lack of a real television deal - would you buy, sell or hold your stock in the SoCon right now?

JEFF: Well, if you sell you are selling low, I think, and somebody once said that's a bad idea. The league isn't as terrible as it looked in the early going when the Big South was cleaning its clock; I really think Samford and Wofford are legit contenders to win in the playoffs, and Chattanooga could get there.

In the big picture, the loss of GSU and App will reduce the league's standing in the national FCS picture, but maybe not for too long. Samford looks poised to fill one of those spots, and Wofford will be Wofford as long as Mike Ayers is around, quite frankly.

If you are the commish, you have to hope that Furman will be Furman again in football someday soon and that Mercer gets up to speed fast.

JOHN: Six weeks ago I might have been tempted to sell, but now I'd probably keep holding. This season is showing that the SoCon doesn't need App State and Georgia Southern to have an interesting title race in football. I don't know how things are going to look in men's hoops, but the league has to be heading toward an upswing, right?

I won't be around to cover what happens in the next few years, but I will be curious to see how everything develops as the new schools establish themselves in the SoCon. I said it when the additions were announced, Mercer is the big get of the three and the Bears sure seem poised to be a real player in the league pretty quickly.

But like we've said many times here before, without TV coverage that requires a remote control and not a mouse, the SoCon will lag behind the CAA and other mid-major conferences. That simply has to get done in the next year or so.

ADAM: My uncle, who fancies himself a financial genius, bought me 12 shares of Coleco when I was a kid and I did absolutely nothing with them, so I should be able to knock this question out of the park.

Guessing that selling SoCon stock right now would be an unwise move. It can't be high with football powers App State and Georgia Southern leaving and basketball kingpin Davidson departing. Even Elon's loss will be felt in baseball (five NCAA appearances since 2006) and men's basketball.

So that makes the move here to either buy or hold with your SoCon stock. The league's new additions of East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI aren't exactly sexy. They're practical, though. And Mercer looks like it could become quite the acquisition. But this will take time and patience, especially in football.

It's another light schedule in the SoCon this week with just three games, but they are three interesting matchups: Furman visits Georgia Southern, Samford visits The Citadel in the ESPN3.com game and UTC plays at Appalachian State. What are your thoughts on this week's games?

JEFF: I'll let John expound on Chattanooga-App State, but that's a huge game for the Mocs, and Russ Huesman must love that the Mountaineers seem to be pulling it together just in time to play his squad.

The Citadel gave Chattanooga just about the best shot it could last week, and still came up short. Even if the Bulldogs can give Samford their best, I don't know that it will be enough. And just in case Furman fans forgot -- remember that time Georgia Southern went for two for no good reason? I do (http://atlanta.sbnation.com/georgia-southern/2012/10/21/3535502/georgia-southern-two-point-conversion-jeff-monken-bruce-fowler)

ADAM: What if Furman goes down to Georgia Southern and wins? Both teams have been racked by injuries. With quarterback Reese Hannon back the last couple weeks, Furman has beaten App State and avoided being obliterated by LSU. A win at Georgia Southern would put the Paladins at 3-2 in the league and maybe, just maybe, an X-factor down the stretch with home games remaining against Samford and Wofford.

I'm all kinds of intrigued about Chattanooga at App State. The Mocs have arrived at November with consecutive games against App State, Wofford and Samford. They could emerge from these next couple weeks as the SoCon champs. Then again, App State might have found its confidence and mojo by blowing out Georgia Southern last week. Should be good stuff up in Boone for Johnny Frierson to enjoy.

JOHN: For weeks folks around Chattanooga have been saying that App State was going to figure it out just in time for the Mocs to stop by Kidd Brewer Stadium. That pessimistic outlook seems to have been accurate.

The Mountaineers looked mighty good beating Georgia Southern, but I have a feeling that come-from-behind win over The Citadel will have a lasting impact for the Mocs. Of course UTC hasn't beaten App State in Boone since 1983, and hasn't beaten the Mountaineers at all since 2004.

The Citadel showed some good things against the Mocs and I think it can give Samford a pretty good game. Ultimately though, Samford's offense seems to be clicking too well for the Charleston Bulldogs to slow it down enough to pull off an upset.

A month ago I don't think any of us would have picked Furman to beat Georgia Southern, but that sure seems like a possibility now.

As part of the Adam/John Farewell Tour 2013, what's been the best feel-good story during your time covering the SoCon?

ADAM: Going to stick to stories I have been fortunate enough to write and call this one a tie between former Marine and App State special teamer Brian Stokes and Rich McGeorge, the most accomplished athlete in Elon history.

Both are heroes.

Stokes, one of our hometown boys from Burlington, N.C., was a 27-year-old role player on App State's first national championship team in 2005 after serving several tours of duty and more than 200 combat missions in Iraq. He was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries suffered in a roadside bomb attack in 2004. The Purple Heart was issued in December 2005, the day before App State beat Furman in a national semifinal. Stokes played in 14 games that season and made five tackles. His stories were amazing to hear.

McGeorge never played in the SoCon. Elon was in the NAIA in the late 1960s when he starred there as a receiver/tight end. But he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in July 2012, so I'm making a SoCon connection or SoCon exception or something here.

McGeorge was a first-round pick of the Packers and played eight seasons in Green Bay. He went on to coach in the NFL and at Duke and Florida under Steve Spurrier. He battled alcoholism for decades - drinking a 12-pack or more of beer some days - that ballooned his weight to 350 pounds, destroyed his liver and caused his kidneys to shut down. The stuff he went through sounded hellish. He nearly died.

But a liver transplant and sobriety after intensive treatment have given him a new lease on life. He seems to be making the most of it, happily, as a husband, father, grandfather and new Hall of Famer. His weight is down to 225 pounds. And his hair, white for years, somehow turned back to dark brown after the transplant. Friends visiting him in the hospital couldn't believe it.

JEFF: One of the most fun stories to cover was the Stephen Curry Era at Davidson. After the Wildcats' run to the Elite Eight in Curry's sophomore year in 2007-08, the Wildcats were a Traveling Rock Show in Curry's junior year. Even at The Citadel, where the average age of fans at Bulldogs basketball games is older than the "Matlock" demo, kids were coming out to see Curry. They were yelling "I love you Steph!" and "He looked at me!" Curry drew 5,332 fans for his last regular-season game at McAlister Field House, the 10th-largest crowd in Citadel history and about five times the Bulldogs' average crowd that season. Those were the days, my friend.

JOHN: After seeing a total of three wins in my first two seasons covering UTC, to watch the turnaround here since Russ Huesman and his staff arrived has been a pretty darn good feel-good story. It's not complete, and has been stuck in neutral at times, but it's still there. Especially for those of us that had a front-row seat for the 1-11 season in 2008.

That 2009 season, when the Mocs went 6-5, you could feel the appreciation the older players had for each win. It was a reminder that you shouldn't ever take winning, or success of any kind, in any area of life, for granted.

That's probably why I was so happy for Western Carolina last Saturday. And selfishly, it has been fun to write about wins for a change.

Outside of football, the Lady Mocs' season-opening upset of Tennessee last season was pretty cool to cover. Wes Moore and UTC had been so close to upsetting the Lady Vols a few years before, only to let a lead slip away late. Last season, UTC took command early in the second half and played better and better as the clock wound down.

It was a big moment for the program and for UTC, which can sometimes feel like the semi-neglected step-child in the UT System.

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.