Commissioner John Iamarino sees 'quality,' healthy parity in SoCon football

Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino.

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The 2016 football season was sort of a redemption year for Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino.

Many wondered after the defections of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Elon's move to the Colonial Athletic Association - all after the 2014 season - if the SoCon would become a one-bid league in Football Championship Subdivision playoff selections.

Last season proved that probably won't be the case.

Four teams advanced to the playoffs, with three - the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, The Citadel and Wofford - making up nearly a quarter of the final 16 playing. Wofford's Terriers, who finished tied for second in the league, defeated The Citadel 17-3 before falling in overtime at national runner-up Youngstown State in the quarterfinals.

Samford, the fourth SoCon team to qualify, fell 38-24 to Youngstown in the first round.

"There are so many things that have to fall in place to get four teams in," Iamarino said Tuesday at SoCon media day. "That last week of the season, Samford loses to ETSU and I think that maybe we lost our opportunity, but with their strength of schedule, the committee felt they were worthy of being in, so what it was was very gratifying.

"I wasn't worried in 2014 because football is so important to our programs, so the commitment is going to be there. When somebody leaves, somebody will fill that void. Chattanooga was just turning the corner back then, so I felt we would be just fine, and last season was a very rewarding experience to see us climb back up."

The four playoff teams finished in both of the final Top 25 polls. A fifth, East Tennessee State, had as many wins over Top 25 competition as UTC and The Citadel, and Mercer had six wins. Furman won three of its final five after an 0-6 start. Iamarino hopes the spread-out strength continues into this season.

"It's easy to say that we've got great parity, but it's not a great thing when the parity is mediocre or below level," he said. "But if you have parity with quality, now you've got the best of both worlds, because any given week games depend on who plays the best that particular day, and yet you're going to win a majority of your games out of conference, so now you're put in a position to have success to get into the (playoff) field and to advance, and that's where I think we'll be this year."

Iamarino is entering his 12th season as league commissioner. In six of his first seven seasons, at least one team advanced to the FCS semifinals, with Appalachian State earning two national championships. No SoCon team has advanced past the quarterfinals since Georgia Southern in 2012.

That's the next thing he wants to see change.

"You take it for granted," he said, comparing it to Derek Jeter's early years with the New York Yankees. "That's the next step - to start translating that good parity into being able to advance to the semis.

"We haven't had a team advance to Frisco (Texas, site of the national final) yet, and that's the next step I'd like to see us take."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.