1) Georgia Southern 11-3, 7-1; lost in semifinals of playoffs
Platform: The defending SoCon champs have loads of team speed on both sides of the ball, and the schedule works in their favor with App State and Wofford visiting Statesboro. After losing the past two years in the playoff semis, this could be the year the Eagles break through.
2) Wofford 8-4, 6-2; reached the FCS playoffs
Platform: The Terriers may have the best team in the league, but it's hard to see them beating both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State on the road. If they win the SoCon, they definitely will have earned it.
3) Appalachian State 8-4, 6-2; reached the FCS playoffs
Platform: The Mountaineers always have one of the most talented teams in the league, but the aura of invincibility that loomed a few seasons ago has faded a bit. Don't be surprised if linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough is the defensive player of the year.
4) UTC 5-6, 3-5; lost five games by a combined 12 points
Platform: The Mocs let a good season slip through their fingers in 2011, giving up several big leads in the fourth quarter. UTC returns a stout defense, and the new pro spread offense will be tough for teams to stop. If they catch a break or two, and knock of one of the Big 3 teams, the Mocs will be in the title race.
5) Elon 5-6, 3-5; the Phoenix were minus-22 in turnover margin in 2011
Platform: With one of the top receivers in the FCS in Aaron Mellette and a more mature quarterback in Thomas Wilson, Elon's offense could be very explosive. The running game needs to be more productive after finishing last in the league in 2011.
6) Furman 6-5, 5-3; Bruce Fowler's team surprised people in his first year
Platform: The Paladins are doing a little rebuilding after nearly making the playoffs last season. The defense will have to be stingier to finish in the top half of the standings. It gave up 374.5 ypg in 2011.
7) Samford 6-5, 4-4; the Bulldogs took a step forward after consecutive losing seasons
Platform: The offense was much improved last season, averaging 391.3 ypg, but too often the Bulldogs had to settle for field goals. If they can finish off more drives and improve their run stopping, they could be a SoCon sleeper.
8) The Citadel 4-7, 2-6; there was improvement in triple-option's second season
Platform: The defense was among the best in the league last season and should be solid again. If the offense can continue to develop, and at least offer the threat of a big play in the passing game, the Bulldogs could finish in the middle of the pack.
9) Western Carolina 1-10, 0-8; 2011 was dreadful in every way possible
Platform: Success this season won't totally be defined by wins and losses. The Catamounts were competitive in just one SoCon game last season, and a league win or two would be a good start to the Speir era.
Best new delegate
Appalachian State landed a transfer who should flourish in the Mountaineers' fast-paced spread offense. Wide receiver Tacoi Sumler was a Rivals.com four-star recruit who redshirted at Oregon last season. Small at 5-foot-9 and 173 pounds, Sumler has been clocked around 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash. If he clicks with his new team, watch out.
Chief of the staffs
No coach in the FCS has a better resume than Appalachian State's Jerry Moore, but Georgia Southern's Jeff Monken has to be considered at the top of the SoCon coaching list after leading the Eagles to the semifinals of the playoffs the past two seasons - his first two as a head coach. Monken's teams play as hard as any in the league, and his triple-option offense has proven very effective.
Elon senior Aaron Mellette will be the latest SoCon wideout to go high in the NFL draft, following Appalachian State's Brian Quick, who was taken with the first pick in the second round in April. At 6-3, 215 pounds, with long arms, Mellette has NFL size and has caught a combined 207 passes for 2,756 yards the past two seasons. He may not go as quickly as Quick, but he'll be close.
UTC defensive end Davis Tull had an impressive freshman season in 2011 with five sacks and eight tackles for loss, and look for those numbers to be even better in 2012. Last season was his first full season in several years after he missed nearly all of his senior year in high school with a broken femur and redshirted in 2010. He's bigger and stronger this season and again will benefit from having All-SoCon senior Josh Williams playing on the other side.
Best constituency (best fans/home-field advantage)
There's no place in the SoCon quite like Appalachian State's Kidd Brewer Stadium. The Mountaineers averaged an FCS-high 26,211 fans a game in 2011, and the atmosphere on Saturdays in Boone, N.C., has few rivals in all of college football. If you can catch a game there when the leaves are turning, you're lucky. You're even luckier if there's snow falling while the Mountaineers are on the field.