Chattanooga the favorite, but ETSU, Mercer right behind in competitive SoCon
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - It's quicker to list who isn't a title contender than who is in the Southern Conference because deep, competitive races have become the norm in the last 10 years.
The more (teams), the merrier.
For the second consecutive year on Thursday, Chattanooga was installed as the favorite in both SoCon preseason polls - conducted separately by the head coaches and the media - although it's been seven years since the Mocs finished atop the conference, completing a three-year run from 2013-15 with at least a share of the title.
The SoCon is undergoing a comeback since being set back when FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern plus Elon departed the conference after the 2013 season. Either App State or Georgia Southern and sometimes both programs won the title in all but 2003 (Wofford) over a 16-season span from 1997-2012.
Since 2013, seven of the nine current SoCon programs have earned at least a share of the title, including ETSU as the outright champ last year when on the final day of the regular season it edged Mercer 38-35 in a winner-take-all matchup.
ETSU (11-2, 7-1) and Mercer (7-3, 6-2) sat just behind Chattanooga (6-5, 5-3) in the preseason polls. The favored Mocs, under fourth-year coach Rusty Wright, feature 2021 SoCon defensive player of the year Devonnsha Maxwell in a veteran unit that led the conference in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense a year ago. On offense, the first option is running back Ailym Ford following the blocking of offensive lineman McClendon Curtis.
"I don't get too excited about preseason polls," Wright said previously. "But I do think it shows people respect what we're doing here as a football team. National expectations are there."
ETSU, where former Furman associate coach George Quarles has replaced the retired Randy Sanders as head coach, will seek a title repeat behind the most selections on the SoCon preseason first team - eight - and overall - 11. The Bucs' first-team picks include the big offensive trio of quarterback Tyler Riddell, running back and preseason offensive player of the year Jacob Saylors and wide receiver Will Huzzie.
Unlike Chattanooga and ETSU, Mercer has never advanced to the FCS playoffs. The Bears have gone 11-5 in SoCon games under third-year coach Drew Cronic, this season returning veteran standouts in safety Lance Wise and linebacker Isaac Dowling.
Southern Conference Preseason Polls
1. Chattanooga (2021: 6-5, 5-3 Southern), 60 points (5 first-place votes)
2. ETSU (11-2, 7-1), 54 (2)
3. Mercer (7-3, 6-2), 53 (1)
4. Furman (6-5, 4-4), 43 (1)
5. Western Carolina (4-7, 4-4), 38
6. Samford (4-7, 3-5), 26
7. VMI (6-5, 4-4), 23
8. The Citadel (4-7, 3-5), 14
9. Wofford (1-10, 0-8), 13
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Jacob Saylors, RB, ETSU
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Devonnsha Maxwell, DL, Chattanooga
1. Chattanooga (2021: 6-5, 5-3 Southern), 256 points (18 first-place votes)
2.(tie) ETSU (11-2, 7-1), 226 (7)
2.(tie) Mercer (7-3, 6-2), 226 (5)
4. Furman (6-5, 4-4), 175
5. Western Carolina (4-7, 4-4), 125
6. VMI (6-5, 4-4), 119
7. Samford (4-7, 3-5), 106
8. Wofford (1-10, 0-8), 60
9. The Citadel (4-7, 3-5), 57
Updated July 28, 2022