SoCon Football 2015: SoCon Dark Horse Wofford
GREENVILLE, S.C. — With the season a little over two weeks away, most around the SoCon are focusing on the top three around, however, there are four other teams in the league hope to have their say in the SoCon this fall.
In this article, I take a look at the Terriers and give my assessment of Wofford’s chances of taking home a fifth league crown this fall.
The Wofford Terriers haven’t reached the pinnacle of the Southern Conference mountain since tying for the program’s fourth league crown in 2012. Here’s a look at the team’s strengths, weaknesses, make-or-break games and chances of winning a league title this fall.
Two seasons removed from the program’s last crowning achievement, Wofford returns 20 starters and now appear ready to challenge for a fifth Southern Conference title this fall. In the first two years A.B. or “after Breitenstein” the Terriers were extremely young, but very talented.
With most of those players that reported for fall camp back in 2013 still around, the suddenly veteran Terriers look like a dangerous foe for just about anyone on their schedule this season, and that includes the Sept. 5 opener at Clemson.
At quarterback, head coach Mike Ayers has what he calls the best situation he has had at quarterback in quite sometime. The Terriers return Michael Weimer (28-of-54, 309 yds, 2 TDs, 3 INTs/175 rushing yds, 4 TDs), Brad Butler (4-of-6 passing, 31 yds, 1 INT) and Evan Jacks (30-of-50 passing, 393 yds, 3 TDs, 3 INTs/450 rush yds, 5 TDs) give Ayers a great situation heading into the season under center.
In seasons in which the Terriers have won league titles, they have gotten excellent play out of multiple QBs. In 2007, Josh Collier and Ben Widmyer were key in Wofford’s run to the title. In 2003, it Jeff Zolman and Trey Rodgers.
The ground offense was once again one of the top units in the nation last season, finishing the campaign averaging 296.7 YPG, which ranked second in the SoCon and third nationally.
All the key elements return to the ground attack this fall, including halfback Ray Smith (67 rush att, 601 yds, 3 TDs, 9.0 YPC) and Lorenzo Long (163 rush att, 930 yds, 15 TDs, 5.7 YPC). Smith was the player that had that explosive 92-yard scoring run in the opener against Georgia Tech, and will once again give the Terriers big-play ability at any area on the field.
The offensive line returns four of five starters, with the lone starter lost to graduation being left tackle Davis Lenoir. Left tackle Anton Wahrby and right guard T.J. Chamberlin are among the best players at their respective positions heading into the season.
One the defensive side of the ball, the Terriers should be strongest in their front seven, which is coming off an unprecedented season against the run. The Terriers limited foes to a total of 1,182 rushing yards last season — a program record.
The strength will be Wofford’s linebackers, which includes two of the league’s best, in Terrance Morris (49 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Drake Michaelson (56 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs).
If the Terriers are going to challenge for a Southern Conference crown this season, the one element of this team that must improve is its secondary, which has been the problem each of the past two seasons.
When Wofford has been at its best in this league, it has had quality talent on the back line. Remember guys like Matt Nelson in 2003 and Frank Tavani in 2007. Great leaders in the secondary have coincided with title runs for Wofford, and in Jaleel Green (leading returning tackler with 58 stops/2 INTs) and Brion Anderson (3 INTs/led team), the Terriers hope to see a big improvement this fall.
MAKE OR BREAK GAMES:
at Idaho (Sept. 19) — You might think it odd for me to include this game on the schedule, however, the game at the Kibbie Dome is not only a game the Terriers should win, but one I fully expect the Terriers to win this fall. Wofford has had success in the Northwest before, as few will forget the Terriers’ 23–22 win over No. 1 seed and undefeated Montana in the opening round of the FCS playoffs in 2007. A win over Idaho should be an expectation for Ayers and Co.
Oct. 10 at The Citadel (Oct. 10) — Though the Terriers have won 16-straight in the series, it is getting tougher each season to upend the Palmetto State’s version of the Bulldogs, and trips to Charleston and Johnson-Hagood Stadium are never easy. It took an excellent play by Wofford LB Kevin Thomas to keep Citadel quarterback Aaron Miller out of the end zone last season on the game’s final play to preserve a 17–13 win. The last time the Terriers lost the Beacon Iced Tea Bowl, Travis Wilson was lining up at quarterback for the Terriers. A loss to the Bulldogs on the road wouldn’t be devastating, but it wouldn’t be a good thing either.
vs. Western Carolina (Oct. 17) — It’s one of the biggest games of the Southern Conference season, as it seems to be Chattanooga and everyone else in the SoCon heading into the season. In a fight for a potential at-large bid or maybe a chance at a piece of the SoCon title, the Terriers need to get back on the winning track against the Catamounts. Western really started to raise more than a few eyebrows last season following its 26–14win over Wofford in Cullowhee. It was the Catamounts’ first win over Wofford since 2005.
vs. Chattanooga (Oct. 24) — Chattanooga comes to Gibbs Stadium, which has seen the Mocs go just 1–7 against Wofford since the facility opened in 1996. The only two losses to Chattanooga inside the friendly confines came three decades apart and are part of the only three-game winning streak in the history of the 21-game series by UTC. The Mocs picked up a 35–14 win over the Terriers in 1968, and then 30 years later, UTC posted its second win in Spartanburg all time, with the 31–3 Mocs victory coming at Gibbs Stadium. It was Chattanooga’s first game ever inside the new facility, and have proceeded to lose all seven since. The last time the two met in Spartanburg was 2012, which saw the Terriers post a 16–13 overtime win over Chattanooga. The Mocs, who are preaseason SoCon title favorites, looking to become the one of a handful of three-time defending champions, will face one of their final obstacles in that bid when they visit the Hub City in late October.
vs. Samford (Nov. 14) — One of the games that seems to bring out the best in both teams each of the past few seasons has been the one between Samford and Wofford on the SoCon gridiron. In the seven games between the two since the Bulldogs joined the SoCon as an official member in 2008, five of them have been decided by a TD or less, including a 24–17 double-overtime thriller back in 2012 at Seibert Stadium. The Bulldogs lead the series 7–5, but Wofford is 4–3 since the Bulldogs joined the SoCon. Samford has won two out of the past three games, but the Terriers likely ruined Samford’s SoCon title and FCS playoff hopes last season. With this year’s meeting coming later, the Terriers will not only try and do the same again, but in the process either take a step towards a fifth league crown or a potential seventh FCS playoff appearance. A loss to Samford late could be a devastating one, and depending on how the Western and Chattanooga games go, this game might fall into the ‘must-win’ category for both.
Sept. 26 vs. Gardner-Webb — The Terriers have lost each of the past two seasons to the Bulldogs, with one of those being a 3–0 decision in a quagmire in 2013, and then last season, endured another frustrating loss to the Bulldogs, as the Terriers could contain a potent Gardner-Webb passing attack, which racked up 232 yards through the air and 43 points, but most importantly, did not turn the football over in the game, while forcing three Terrier miscues en route to the seven point win. Wofford will be favored in this game, and the Terriers cannot afford a loss to a rebuilding Big South foe.
Nov. 21 vs. Furman — Ask any Wofford fan which loss irks them more than any, and they will tell you Furman. The I-85 rivalry was the first football game ever played in the Palmetto State and one of the earliest gridiron battles ever contested in the southeast. The Paladins have won each of the past two meetings, including a 31–14 win in Greenville last season. Each of the past two wins by Furman in the series have come after falling in an early hole, with Wofford jumping out to a 14–0 lead two years ago before Furman rebounded to pick a 27–14, claiming a share of a 13th Southern Conference title — more than any other program. Then last season, Furman would snap an eight-game losing streak with a 31–14 win in Greenville, using an outstanding 15-for-15 passing performance, which was a school record. The Paladins have racked up 300-yard passing efforts against a struggling Wofford secondary each of the past two seasons. In 2012, which was the last time the two met in Gibbs Stadium, the Terriers gutted out a 20–17 win over the Paladins. Aside from the rivalry, this late-season clash will more than likely have more than just pride on the line when the two meet on Nov. 21, thus putting this one in the ‘must-win’ category for the Terriers.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON WOFFORD: While I picked Wofford fifth in my preseason predictions, I honestly believe the Terriers could finish anywhere from 1–5 in the league standings, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if 2015 yielded a fifth league title in Spartanburg. The Terriers have the most favorable schedule of any of the other teams that I think will be dark horses this fall, and most importantly, the Terriers have one of the best head coaches in the FCS on the sidelines each Saturday. With Ayers on the sidelines, and a disciplined complex offense not easy to solve for opposing defenses on the field, the Terriers will find themselves in a ballgame each Saturday this fall, and that includes the season opener against Clemson.
EXPECTATION: 6–8 wins and potential playoff berth.
DARK HORSE PROBABILITY: Capable of being Southern Conference champion, or playing the role of spoiler if out of the mix. The Terriers have the most favorable schedule of any of the potential SoCon dark horses in the league this fall, with Chattanooga, Samford, Western Carolina and Furman all having to pay visits to Gibbs Stadium this fall.