SoCon Preview

SoCon Preview

August 28th, 2011 by John Frierson in Sportscollege

APPALACHIAN STATE

2010 record: 10-3, 7-1 SoCon

Biggest strength: The Mountaineers will once again have one of the top offenses in the FCS, led by last season's offensive player of the year in quarterback DeAndre Presley. He's got a big target in 6-foot-5 wideout Brian Quick and a dangerous back behind him in Travaris Cadet. In his second season as a starter, Presley could be even better than he was in 2010 when he was a Walter Payton Award finalist.

Biggest weakness: Appalachian State's defense must replace two of the program's all-time greats in multi-time All-Americans linebacker D.J. Smith and safety Mark Legree. Also gone is defensive end Jabari Fletcher, who had 16.5 tackles for loss last season. The Mountaineers also lost starting linebacker Justin Wray, the top returning tackler, for the season after shoulder surgery.

Biggest finish: The Mountaineers have won or shared the past seven Southern Conference titles and they're sure to be in the hunt again this season. But there are some question marks, primarily on defense, and there are some serious challengers within the conference. Still, it's ASU and that means another 10-win season.

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THE CITADEL

2010 record: 3-8, 1-7 SoCon

Biggest strength: While The Citadel offense was struggling in its first season in the triple-option, the defense was in the middle of the pack in the SoCon despite the Bulldogs being a three-win team. Opponents averaged just 16.2 first downs a game against the defense last season and the squad has eight starters returning.

Biggest weakness: The triple-option is an effective system when you've got the players to run it (see Wofford and Georgia Southern). The Citadel is still working on that, and it needs to work on protecting the football, as well. The Bulldogs' 23 fumbles lost was the most in the FCS.

Biggest finish: With a decent defense and an offense in its second season in the triple-option, The Citadel should be better in 2011. But that probably won't get the Bulldogs, picked to finish eighth, out of the bottom three in the league.

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ELON

2010 record: 6-5, 5-3 SoCon

Biggest strength: The Phoenix have one of the best receivers in the FCS in Aaron Mellette, a big target at 6-4 who was second-team All-American last season with 86 catches for 1,100 yards. Elon was a pass-first team under former coach Pete Lembo and that's its strength now with Jason Swepson at the helm.

Biggest weakness: Not only does Elon have a new coach, it also has a new quarterback in Thomas Wilson. After four record-setting seasons with Scott Riddle, Wilson takes over with some very big shoes to fill. Wilson did start one game last season so he won't be a wide-eyed rookie.

Biggest finish: Elon finished tied for third in the SoCon with UTC and Georgia Southern last season. With the strength at the top of the league this fall, a similar result might be tough to reach. The Phoenix are a bit of an unknown this season and they're not the only ones.

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FURMAN

2010 record: 5-6, 3-5 SoCon

Biggest strength: With a pair of preseason All-Americans in linebacker Kadarron Anderson and cornerback Ryan Steed leading the way, Furman should have one of the better defenses in the SoCon. The Paladins picked off 14 passes last season and had the third-best pass defense in the league.

Biggest weakness: Furman was seventh in the SoCon in rushing last season with an average of just 151.1 yards a game. Their leading rusher, Jerodis Williams, had only 389 yards. If the Paladins can't run the ball more effectively, they could be in trouble.

Biggest finish: Like Elon, Furman is a bit of an unknown entity in the league this season because of the coaching change and the loss of some key players. The Paladins' defense should keep them in games and they should finish in the top half of the SoCon.

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GEORGIA SOUTHERN

2010 record: 10-5, 5-3 SoCon

Biggest strength: There are strengths all over the place for the Eagles, but an offense that returns all 11 starters is hard to top. In it's return to the triple-option last season, Georgia Southern got better as the season progressed and its running attack should be Wofford-like this fall. The defense deserves a nod, as well, with nine starters back from a bunch that held teams to 18.5 points per game.

Biggest weakness: Georgia Southern has few flaws, but after reaching the semifinals of the FCS playoffs last season and being voted as high as No. 1 in the preseason polls, can the the Eagles handle the hype and attention? With all those expectations comes a lot of pressure.

Biggest finish: If the Eagles are as good as everyone thinks they are, they will challenge for the SoCon title in the regular season and then challenge for the national title in the playoffs. That's certainly possible, but it's not going to be easy.

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SAMFORD

2010 record: 4-7, 2-6 SoCon

Biggest strength: The offense has a senior quarterback in Dustin Taliaferro, a solid line and a new coordinator in Rhett Lashlee. Perhaps a fresh start is what the Bulldogs need after struggling to find the end zone last season. Samford will have to get better offensively despite losing all-time leading rushing Chris Evans.

Biggest weakness: The Bulldog defense has just four starters returning and has to find a new leader following the graduation of linebacker Bryce Smith, a second-team All-American who led the league with 129 tackles in 2010. Samford also must replace its second-leading tackler, safety Andy Davis.

Biggest finish: It's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for coach Pat Sullivan's squad, which opens the season against Georgia Southern and visits Wofford two weeks later. Picked to finish seventh in the SoCon, Samford would do well to best last season's record.

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WESTERN CAROLINA

2010 record: 2-9, 1-7 SoCon

Biggest strength: The Catamounts have switched to a new "Pistol" offensive formation, made famous by Nevada. It can't hurt since Western Carolina was eighth in the SoCon last season in scoring and total offense. The offense does have some quality receivers in Deja Alexander and Jacoby Mitchell.

Biggest weakness: The defense was the worst in the league in 2010, allowing 34.5 points and 443.1 yards per game. The offensive line, meanwhile, gave up a league-worst 29 sacks. Confidence is also a major issue because the Catamounts haven't built up much in recent seasons.

Biggest finish: Western Carolina has managed a total of seven wins in the past three seasons and it is picked to finish last again in the SoCon. Winning three league games would be an achievement for this squad, which might be playing for coach Dennis Wagner's job.

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WOFFORD

2010 record: 10-3, 7-1 SoCon

Biggest strength: Last season's SoCon co-champions have perhaps the conference's most dangerous weapon in fullback Eric Breitenstein, the preseason pick for offensive player of the year. He rushed for 1,664 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore last season and thrives in the Terriers' triple-option attack. But watch out for 6-4 wideout Brenton Bersin, who had 146 receiving yards against UTC in 2010.

Biggest weakness: Sadly, at least for the rest of the SoCon, the Terriers are short on shortcomings. Wofford was at or near the top of the league last season in every significant category and most of its top players are back. It does have to replace Breitenstein's backfield mate Mike Rucker, who rushed for 513 yards and averaged 5.5 per carry.

Biggest finish: The Terriers are a top 10 team that has the offense and defense to challenge for more than the SoCon championship. The schedule even works in their favor because both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, the SoCon preseason favorites, have to visit Spartanburg this season.