FCS college football 2021: Southern Conference Preview
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - There was one 16-game stretch of the Southern Conference's spring schedule in which the difference between the two teams in 13 results was one possession - eight or fewer points.
Close games should be the norm again in conference this fall. A realistic championship case can likely be made for seven of the nine SoCon teams.
And, really, optimistism should be high around the league after the conference standings were turned a bit turned upside down in a 2020 season that was postponed by the pandemic to this past spring. VMI, under Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Scott Wachenheim, earned its first conference title since 1977 and a first-ever bid to the FCS playoffs.
Here's a preview of the upcoming Southern Conference season:
With 2020-2021 Season Record
1. Chattanooga (3-2, 3-1) - The favorite in both SoCon preseason polls has experience and depth at quarterback (Drayton Arnold is the returning starter), running back (Ailym Ford, Gino Appleberry and Tyrell Price) and on the offensive line. Defensive lineman Devonnsha Maxwell (26.5 career tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks) will chase quarterbacks and a third consecutive first-team all-conference honor.
2. VMI (6-2, 6-1) - While starting VMI's final four games, quarterback Seth Morgan averaged 368.5 yards of total offense and accounted for 12 total touchdowns. The Keydets return all players who combined for the team's 247 receptions, led by Jakob Herres (80), Michael Jackson (36) and Max Brimigion (33).
3. ETSU (4-2, 4-2) - If you want an experienced player, look no further than All-SoCon linebacker Jared Folks, whom the NCAA identified as the first student-athlete to reach an eighth season of eligibility. In the spring season, running back/kicker returner Quay Holmes had two of the FCS' top five performances in all-purpose yards, ranking second overall at 182.3 per game.
4. Furman (3-4, 3-4) - With 2,468 career rushing yards, Devin Wynn ranks ninth among active FCS players and second to Holmes (2,711) in the SoCon. The bandit position (outside linebacker) boasts long-time standouts in Elijah McKoy (236 career tackles), who missed the spring season due to injury, and Adrian Hope (23.5 career sacks).
5. Samford (4-3, 4-3) - Liam Welch, who threw for over 300 passing yards in five of his six spring starts, including a school-record 570 against VMI, was named the SoCon's preseason offensive player of the award over VMI's Herres, the spring recipient. The first half of the schedule appears quite manageable with more tests in the second half, including the Bulldogs' first meeting with Florida in 99 years.
6. Mercer (5-6, 5-3) - The Bears highlighted coach Drew Cronic's first season with wins over three straight nationally ranked opponents within the SoCon. Speaking of new, quarterback Carter Peevy and leading tackler Isaac Dowling were only freshmen while taking lead roles. The defense also features defensive end Solomon Zubairu (10.5 tackles for loss) and safety Lance Wise (86 tackles).
7. Wofford (1-4, 1-4) - The Terriers hope their three straight SoCon titles from 2017-19 more resemble their results than a spring season that ended early at 1-4. Fullback Nathan Walker (1,226 rushing yards and 11 TDs in his career) is still the focal point of the rushing offense and defensive end Michael Mason (seven sacks in 2019) is one of the more feared defensive players in the conference.
8. The Citadel (2-10, 2-6) - The Bulldogs' triple option offense averaged 308.6 rushing yards against nine FCS opponents, but it still had the SoCon-best average (241.9) even when adding in three FBS losses. All-American Willie Eubanks III is a tackle machine, collecting nine or more in 10 of his last 13 games, and fellow linebacker Anthony Britton Jr. is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign with 104 stops.
9. Western Carolina (1-8, 1-5) - New coach Kerwin Bell led Valdosta State to the 2018 NCAA Division II championship and has a 93-42 career record, including a successful run at former FCS program Jacksonville. His former Valdosta QB, Rogan Wells, is in as a grad transfer. Over 43 career games, fifth-year linebacker Ty Harris has 301 career tackles, the most among active players.
PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
VMI wide receiver Jakob Herres - At 6-foot-4, Herres goes and gets about every ball thrown his way. He led the FCS in receptions (80), receiving yards (978) and receiving yards per game (122.30) during the Keydets' remarkable spring season. He finished fourth in the Stats Perform Walter Payton Award voting.
PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
VMI linebacker Stone Snyder - The third-place finisher in the Buck Buchanan Award voting capped his sophomore season with 12 tackles against James Madison in an FCS playoff loss. He posted a conference-high eight sacks among his 88 tackles.
2022 NFL PROSPECT
Chattanooga offensive guard Curtis McClendon - His 6-foot-7, 330-pound size is undeniable yet he moves well off the line of scrimmage. Another All-SoCon season could lead to a Day 3 look in the 2022 NFL Draft.
If this is the year of the running back in the FCS, the Southern Conference will a big reason why. Its teams have combined to lead all conferences in average rushing yards per game for two straight seasons - 198.8 per team in 2019 and 168.9 over the 2020-21 campaign.
This isn't the season to lose key players during the season, especially for extended periods. SoCon teams have combined to return nearly 85 percent of their starters and 87 percent of their letterwinners. Chattanooga and ETSU have all every starter back.
3 MUST-SEE GAMES
Chattanooga at VMI (Oct. 9) - Anything but a tight game would be a surprise. Chattanooga's last 10 SoCon games have been one-score affairs in the fourth quarter, and VMI faced that scenario in six of its eight spring games.
Chattanooga at Samford (Oct. 23) - In his first five seasons, Samford coach Chris Hatcher has beaten every SoCon program except Chattanooga. In fact, the Mocs have won six in a row against the Bulldogs and 10 of the last 11 meetings.
VMI at ETSU (Nov. 6) - ETSU was the only SoCon team to defeat VMI (24-20) in the spring season. Keeping with the one-possession theme, ETSU enters the season having played in 11 straight SoCon games that have been decided by eight or fewer points.
Updated August 25, 2021