SoCon Football 2015: The League’s Re-Branding Project Enters Year Two
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Perhaps no league in the FCS has a more important job during non-conference play than the Southern Conference, as the league looks to continue its re-branding project.
The 2015 season will mark the third season without Georgia Southern and Appalachian State factoring in as SoCon title contenders, and second season without the two as league members.
The five oldest members of the SoCon are Furman, The Citadel, VMI, Western Carolina and Chattanooga. VMI, of course, re-joined the league last season after a 12-year absence, but originally joined the SoCon in 1924. Next season, the ETSU Bucs will be back in the SoCon ranks for the first time since 2003.
Chattanooga and Western enter the season as league favorites in the same season for the first time since 1990 or ‘91, and perhaps even further back than that.
Furman, who along with The Citadel is an original charter member, will enter the 2015 season as unknowns. The Paladins won an unprecedented 13th Southern Conference title two years ago before plummeting to a 3–9 mark last season, with injuries having plenty to do with that.
The Citadel returns virtually all of its important players on both sides of the football except having to select a starting quarterback. The Bulldogs posted the best offense in the SoCon last season, and the second-best rushing offense in the nation.
Mike Houston also cleaned up on the recruiting trail, going into the Upstate and getting some outstanding young prospect, including Byrnes High School product and speedy defensive end Noah Dawkins.
VMI didn’t see much of a change from the last time it was a member of the SoCon, limping to a 2–10 record and a 1–6 league mark, but recorded the program’s first win over Furman since 1979. The dismal record led to the dismissal of Sparky Woods and taking over the
Perception in college football these days seems to be everything, and tradition is fleeting. At the FCS level, traditional powers on the gridiron have either moved up, or gone into hibernation. Look at the former great traditional powers at the FCS level: Delaware, William & Mary, Furman, and McNeese State have all struggled to maintain their winning ways since over the past decade.
There are more than those four teams mentioned above looking to revamp their respective traditions, but continually around the FCS we are seeing the emergence of long dormant powers over the past few seasons.
In the Southern Conference, you have both ends of the spectrum. Chattanooga and Western Carolina are two teams that in the 1970s and ‘80s were teams that you had to make sure you played your “A” game against. During the Bob Waters and Joe Morrison eras were ones that saw the two programs enjoy great success.
For the Mocs, they would claim at least a share of three-straight Southern Conference titles from 1977–79, and during a four-year span in the league, the Mocs posted an 18–5 combined record in the SoCon.
Then came the doldrums for the Mocs, which was a slow decent following their 1984 title. The Mocs would routinely post one of the best defenses in the league throughout the 1980s, however, lacked offensive potentcy until the arrival of players like receiver Terrell Owens, quarterback Kenyon Earl and running back Mario Grier in the early 1990s.
Following a strong start to the 1990s, including beginning the 1991 season in the national top 25, the Mocs would fall on hard times following ’91 season. The Mocs finished the season with a 7–4 record and a 4–3 mark in league action.
Following that campaign, the Mocs went 8–31 in SoCon play over the next five seasons, which was comprised of three different head coaches, with Tommy West, Buddy Green and Donnie Kirkpatrick coaching the Mocs during that dismal end to the century.
The Mocs would flirt with success in 1997, which coincided with the opening of Finley Stadium. All Chattanooga had to do in the ’97 season was beat a four-loss Furman team to make the playoffs, however, Furman defensive end Bryan Dailer and the Paladin defense would have none of it, as it would prove to be a record-breaking day.
Dailer posted a SoCon single-season record seven sacks, while safety John Keith nailed the Mocs’ playoff hopes shut with a 99-yard INT return for a score to seal a 43–21 blowout win with the playoff committee looking on to see if the Mocs had what it took to be a third representative in the postseason from the SoCon.
The Donnie Kirkpatrick era, which comprised the early-mid 200os would produce some of the best players in program history, however, the Mocs did little to challenge for anything other than being a spoiler. QB Chris Sanders, WR Richmond Flowers, WR/QB Cos DeMatteo, WR Stefpon Hawkins and LB Josh Cain would be some of the best individual players to ever come through the program, however, it was a forgettable 25 years of football for the most part until the arrival of Russ Huesman in December of 2008.
Now, the Mocs look more like the program it was from 1977–84. The aforementioned record of 18–5 over a four-season stretch from 1977–80, the Mocs have duplicated that record over the past three seasons in the SoCon, including posting back-to-back SoCon titles and an unprecedented 2015 season, which saw the Mocs advance to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1984, and marked only the second FCS playoff appearance. The opening round win by Chattanooga over Indiana State saw the Mocs visited uncharted territory.
Now, the Mocs have a chance to duplicate that feat and have clearly shown they are back not only among the elite in the SoCon, but the team to beat in the league and one of the outside favorites for the Southern Conference title this fall.
Meanwhile, Western Carolina’s seven-win season last season, which included tying Samford for second in the SoCon, has seen the Catamounts put themselves back on the SoCon’s radar for the first time since the Steve Hodgin era. The Catamounts, like Chattanooga, had some of obvious success in the early-mid 1980s and then again in the early 1990s before hitting the skids.
The situation in Cullowhee, at least in terms of the timeline, almost mirrors that of what has transpired in the Scenic City over the past 25 years. The Catamounts obviously posted a national title appearance in 1983, defeating Furman 14–7 win in Greenville in the Division I-AA semifinals. The Catamounts
Until the 2014 season, the Catamounts had not finished as high as second in the SoCon since way back in 1992, when Western finished in a three-way tie for second place.
Unlike Chattanooga, the Catamounts have failed to breakthrough and win a Southern Conference title since joining the league in 1976. The Catamounts would not be eligible to win the SoCon title until 1977, however, Western will be looking to put an end to the 38-season streak without a league title this fall, as well as the 31-season streak without a playoff appearance.
If head coach Mark Speir can lead the Catamounts to another seven-win season this fall, it would mark the first time since 1983 and ’84 when the Catamounts won 11 and eight games, respectively.
Wofford, Samford and Mercer are the newest teams to the fold, with the Terriers joining the fold in 1996, while Samford came along 12 years later and Mercer, of course, joined last season. Wofford and Samford have a combined five SoCon titles, and seven FCS playoff appearances. The Terriers, who return 20 starters, are certainly a sleeper for the SoCon title this fall, while Samford is once again emerging as a consistent FCS power for the first time since the Terry Bowden era.
The Bulldogs are in the process of looking to maintain that success this fall, and should have one of the best defenses in the nation.
One thing the SoCon appears to be this season is a conference with a group of good football teams, with one great one, in tw0-time defending champion Chattanooga. If the league can have some success in the non-conference this fall, looking for multiple teams back in the postseason. The league has an excellent opportunity in week one, highlighted by No. 5 Coastal Carolina’s trip to Furman.