Welcome to the first of weekly SoConversations this football season between The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Each week the three veteran Southern Conference writers will share their thoughts on what’s happening with the teams they cover and within the league.
What's the biggest story heading into the 2011 season?
JEFF: I kind of like the idea of the SoCon being on public television alongside Masterpiece Theater and Live from the Met. It lends the league a bit of class. But off the field, the big story has to be App State's potential move to the FBS and what that might mean for the SoCon. Would the league reconsider Charlotte? Would The Citadel, Wofford and Furman ever go along with inviting Coastal Carolina?
And is it the right thing for App State? I don't think there would be as much buzz on The Rock if the Mountaineers were a middle of the pack team in Conference USA instead of competing for national titles in FCS.
On the field, I'm interested in Georgia Southern. The Eagles were just 5-3 in the league last year, then put together that great playoff run. Which team will they be this year?
JOHN: Ignoring the big off-the-field news about Appalachian State’s potential move up, which may dominate discussion all season, the top story to me is whether or not Georgia Southern can play like it did in the second half of last season.
The league has three clear favorites in App State, Georgia Southern and Wofford, but if the Eagles can play near the level they were at late last season, then they will be tough for anyone to beat.
It should be a great battle for the SoCon title, especially since both App State and Georgia Southern have to visit Wofford.
ADAM: The potential for a changing of the guard. Appalachian State has won at least a share of six straight SoCon titles and clearly is established as the gold standard of the league.
Georgia Southern, though, is coming off a return to prominence and deep FCS playoff run, and seems poised for a takeover move at the top.
What should people know about the team you cover?
JOHN: The Mocs have a big group of all-conference caliber veterans and a whole lot of true and redshirt freshmen that will play a ton. The veterans are playmakers — guys like quarterback B.J. Coleman, All-American wideout Joel Bradford, linebacker Ryan Consiglio and defensive backs Jordan Tippit and Chris Lewis-Harris — and they’re going to have to play at a high level from the outset while the young guys get adjusted.
Perhaps more than any other position, the Mocs’ inexperienced offensive line is going to have to grow up quickly.
ADAM: Elon has put together four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the 1980s, but is confronting a transitional period.
Jason Swepson, most recently an assistant at N.C. State and Boston College, replaced the departed Pete Lembo (who took the Ball State job) and enters his first season as a head coach on any level.
Quarterback Thomas Wilson steps in for four-year starter Scott Riddle, the SoCon’s all-time leading passer. Elon has talent, but only three starters remain from its 2009 FCS playoff team.
JEFF: The Bulldogs can't get any worse than they were last year — I think. It was a triumph just to get to fourth down and get off a punt at times last season. The second year in the triple option traditionally is much better — see Navy under Paul Johnson — and I think The Citadel's offense will be much improved this season. If they can keep from fumbling (44 times last year) and score in the 20s (14.9 ppg last year), the defense is good enough to compete.
Here are the week 1 games: Western Carolina at Georgia Tech (tonight), Appalachian State at Virginia Tech, Wofford at Presbyterian, UTC at Nebraska, Jacksonville at The Citadel, Furman at Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern at Samford and Elon at Vanderbilt. What are your thoughts on the matchups?
JEFF: Of the games against FBS squads, I think App State (at Virginia Tech) and Elon (at Vanderbilt) have the best chances to pull off the upset. Of course, no one overlooks App anymore, and the Hokies may want to teach the Mountaineers what FBS is all about.
Elon gets Vandy in its first game under James Franklin, but Elon's got a new coach too. Furman-Coastal Carolina should be the most competitive opener, and Georgia Southern will want vengeance for last year's inexplicable 20-13 loss to Samford, which promptly lost its next three games to Wofford, Chattanooga and The Citadel.
ADAM: I’m interested to see how Appalachian State (at No. 13 Virginia Tech) and Chattanooga (at No. 10 Nebraska) hold up against elite opponents in challenging road environments.
Furman, debuting under new coach Bruce Fowler, makes the trip to Coastal Carolina, last year’s FCS playoff representative from the Big South, for what looks like an intriguing opener.
And starting tonight at Georgia Tech, Western Carolina will face four option-driven rushing attacks in a nine-week span. Giddy up!
JOHN: Jacksonville is a Pioneer League team that is no slouch. If the Dolphins had posted a quality non-conference win in 2010 they might have made the playoffs. Beating The Citadel won’t be a monster upset, but it’s a big opportunity for Jacksonville. Conversely, this a game the Bulldogs need to win after a miserable 2010.
The Mountaineers probably aren’t going to beat the Hokies, of course we didn’t think James Madison was going to last season. But for a program thinking about moving up to the FBS, this game could either be a confirmation that it’s the right thing to do or perhaps something of a wake-up call.
Furman is one of those teams, like Elon, with a lot of unknowns following a coaching change. I suspect the Paladins will look good on defense, but I’m curious about the offense.
What will we be talking about come November?
ADAM: We’ll be talking about how Wofford has positioned itself to contend for the league title.
The Terriers always are so quiet and workmanlike about their business, but they’ve got plenty of star power in fullback Eric Breitenstein and defensive lineman Ameet Pall, two of the most productive players in the FCS.
Pall is quite a recruiting find from Canada. He’s also lumberjack strong.
JEFF: We should be talking about why these SEC teams schedule The Citadel (South Carolina), Furman (Florida) and Georgia Southern (Alabama) for November games. I'm all for David getting a shot at Goliath, but these games should be played early in the season, when hope springs eternal for underdogs, and maybe the big boys don't have their act quite together yet.
Georgia Southern at Alabama on Nov. 19 just doesn't make much sense to me. And if you are an FCS team making a playoff push, what purpose does it serve to get a whipping on the verge of the playoffs? Not a fan.
JOHN: That’s an interesting point, Jeff. But the bottom line is FCS schools play these games whenever the team writing the check wants to play them. The Mocs got thumped by Auburn on Nov. 6 last season and it didn’t have any lasting effect, I don’t think, since they hammered Samford the following week.
I think we’ll probably be talking about some possible coaching changes. Western Carolina coach Dennis Wagner has won just seven games in his first three seasons in Cullowhee, and new WCU Chancellor David Belcher told the Asheville Citizen-Times in August that “I’m going to spend a lot of time this season looking at the record. Look at what happens, looking at what kind of improvement are we going to be showing.”
Wagner has a few years left on his contract, but it’s easy to read that as Wagner might be coaching for his job this season. Kevin Higgins at The Citadel or Pat Sullivan at Samford could be in similar situations.
If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @Adam_Smith10 and @MocsbeatCTFP.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...