published Friday, November 9th, 2012

SoConversation: Week 11

Welcome to week 11 of the SoConversation, featuring 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.

Before we discuss what happened elsewhere in the SoCon last week, let’s take a moment to go over what happened with the teams we cover. The Mocs looked hideous in the first half against Western Carolina before crushing the Cats in the second, while The Citadel’s big first half carried it past Elon. Thoughts?

JOHN: I don’t know if the Mocs didn’t take the Catamounts seriously or if they just came out flat, but the first half was pretty ugly. Down 24-16 at the half, UTC outscored Western Carolina 29-0 in the second. The Cats had one first down in the second half, while UTC rushed for 291 yards in the final two quarters.

You can’t read too much into what the Mocs did offensively because Western Carolina ranks No. 119 out of 121 FCS teams in total defense, but UTC’s rushing attack was still impressive.

As for the Catamounts, freshman quarterback Troy Mitchell looked pretty good, at least in the first half, and I can see why coach Mark Speir is really high on him. There are some good players on WCU’s squad, but the club out of the SoCon cellar won’t be easy.

JEFF: Thanks to the generosity of the Elon coach at the end of the first half, The Citadel looked like it was well on its way to a blowout of the Fightin' Phoenix, with a 31-6 lead in the third quarter. But Elon QB Thomas Wilson kept chucking the pill, and the Phoenix climbed to within a TD before the Bulldogs put it away with a 14-play, 75-yard drive.

Elon WR/beast Merle Mellette ended up with nine catches but no TDs. Citadel CB Brandon McCladdie did a fine job on him, but I felt Elon could have/should have targeted him more often. Anyhow, The Citadel remains alive for a winning record and can still at least talk about a playoff bid.

ADAM: Elon keeps finding frustrating ways to lose games. The latest hair-pulling episode included a Hail Mary touchdown as the first half expired (one of only two passes Citadel completed, the direct result of botched clock management by Elon) and a 31-6 deficit before the Phoenix rallied within a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

Elon safety Chandler Wrightenberry — who Citadel’s Matt Thompson got behind on the 51-yard Hail Mary — called it “a bad tease” after the Phoenix defense stuffed the Bulldogs’ option on four straight possessions, but then allowed the game-clinching drive with its deficit at 31-24 in crunch time.

The fifth loss in the last six games assured Elon of its second losing season in a row. Now it’s about playing for pride, which the team’s 10 seniors have a lot of. They were beginning their careers in 2008 and 2009 when Elon was contending for SoCon titles.

Here are last week’s results: The Citadel def. Elon 38-24, Appalachian State def. Georgia Southern 31-28, Samford def. Wofford 24-17, UTC def. Western Carolina 45-24. What surprised you or caught your eye during week 10?

ADAM: That you need a semester in advanced calculus to figure out the SoCon championship picture.

Also, did your boy here call Samford beating Wofford or what? Actually, allow me to check myself, I said last week (well, typed, really) that I wanted to pick Samford playing in Birmingham but admitted I was too much of a wimp to pick against Mike Ayers, Eric Breitenstein and Wofford. I should’ve manned up.

Speaking of man-sized things, App State QB Jamal Jackson (383 passing yards, 3 TDs) and freshman Sean Price (seven catches for 231 yards and a TD) delivered those type of performances at Georgia Southern, where the Eagles had won 14 straight home games.

On the third weekend of the season, I remember thinking “what the heck is wrong in Boone?” as Citadel destroyed App. Now, two months later, the Mountaineers are a win away from securing the SoCon’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

JEFF: Where to start? I was stunned by the news out of Statesboro, a little less stunned by the word from Birmingham. App State WR Sean Price, who did not play when The Citadel whipped the Mountaineers, apparently is the deal, and apparently was in bounds, according to the photos I've seen.

Wofford looked vulnerable in its 24-21 win over The Citadel, and Samford proved that to be the case. The Terriers have gone from top of the table to fighting for their playoff lives with their third-team QB.

JOHN: As UTC was losing in the first half, I tweeted that the Mocs would surely regret blowing the opportunity that was presenting itself as Appalachian State led Georgia Southern and Wofford led Samford 10-9 in the fourth quarter.

The Mocs turned things around in the second half as the Mountaineers finished off the Eagles and the Bulldogs won in double overtime. I had a feeling ASU would pull out a win in Statesboro, but to see Wofford struggle in the second half again was a big surprise.

The day’s games showed off the parity in the league this season and showed that picking a SoCon coach of the year isn’t going to be easy.

Here are this week’s matchups: UTC at Wofford (1:30 p.m./ESPN3), Samford at Elon (1:30 p.m.), The Citadel at VMI (1:30 p.m.), Howard at Georgia Southern (2 p.m.), Furman at Appalachian State (3:30 p.m.). Any predictions on what’s to come this weekend?

JOHN: It will be a knockout game at Gibbs Stadium as the Mocs take on the Terriers. A win clinches a share of the SoCon title for Wofford and a win by the Mocs sets up a title-clinching game at home against Elon next week.

Wofford has spent much of the season in the top 10, but a loss would leave the Terriers with only six Division I wins heading into next week’s game at South Carolina — and that would make earning an at-large playoff bid a big-time long shot.

If UTC were to beat Wofford and Elon, it would finish the season winning six of its last seven, with the one loss a triple-overtime defeat to Georgia Southern. The Mocs would only have six D-I wins, but would that strong closing stretch sway the NCAA selection committee? Probably not, but UTC would at least force the committee to say no.

Predictions: UTC 27, Wofford 24; Samford 35, Elon 31; The Citadel 33, VMI 13; Georgia Southern 42, Howard 28; Appalachian State 44, Furman 27.

JEFF: The Citadel will clinch its second winning season in eight years under Kevin Higgins with a win at struggling VMI, thus retaining possession of the coveted Silver Shako. From a purely Bulldogian perspective, The Citadel could use a Chattanooga win over Wofford, an Elon win over Samford and a Furman win over App State.

Of those three, I'd say a Mocs victory is the most likely.

ADAM: Armageddon descends upon gentle Spartanburg.

Too much? OK, sure, probably so.

To a degree, though, there are worlds colliding, with Chattanooga trying to mount a run at a piece of the SoCon title and Wofford trying to avoid falling into playoff peril. As Johnny Frierson has chronicled, the Mocs have been masters of heartbreak for two seasons. I’ll say that finally ends here. Chattanooga by an eyelash.

Elsewhere, you can’t sleep on Furman coming off its bye, but App State should be supremely motivated given the stakes and that its own bye week comes next.

Georgia Southern hammers Howard, Samford beats an inspired but reeling Elon team and Citadel marches past VMI — such great tradition in this series — to keep the awesome Silver Shako (http://www.citadel.edu/root/images/old_imgs/externalaffairs.citadel.edu/files/Image/sy06-07/homepage/Citadel_00504794.shako.355wide.jpg).

In the spirit of Tuesday’s elections, suppose you were elected president of the NCAA or of college football. What would be the high-priority things you’d like to change?

JEFF: A strict 11-game regular season and eight-team playoff in FBS, a cut back to a 16-team playoff in FCS, a ban on all tackles leading with the helmet, a "two-and-done" rule for college hoops instead of "one and done,” a higher scholarship limit for college baseball (currently 11.7) and, most importantly, free four-year rides for kids of sportswriters. Thought I'd try to slip that last on in there.

ADAM: I would push for Proposal No. 2011-78, which seeks to make it permissible for schools to offer cream cheese or peanut butter or jelly with the bagels they already provide players. Oh, sorry, bad word. Student-athletes.

Yeah, as nuts as it sounds, there’s actually NCAA legislation – passed in 2009! – that only allows schools to provide bagels, fruits and nuts to players, meaning a packet of Land O’ Lakes is a minor violation.

Similar impermissible benefit absurdity can be found in the Gatorade-is-OK-but-chocolate-milk-is-not “debate.”

Who comes up with this mess? That’s not happening on my watch as NCAA president.

JOHN: Instead of an FBS and FCS as they presently exist, I would go ahead and make it the BCS schools and everyone else in Division I. I firmly believe it’s going to happen sooner or later, so why not go ahead and do it.

Football programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Tennessee, etc., have virtually nothing in common, at least financially, with the likes of Troy, Middle Tennessee State and every other FBS mid-major that has zero shot at playing for a national championship.

Bring those schools back in with their budget-conscious brethren and add some strength, as well as some financial sense, to the other level of D-I.

Two exceptional SoCon seniors are close to wrapping up their careers. Elon wide receiver Aaron Mellette and Wofford fullback Eric Breitenstein have been the best offensive players in the league the past two seasons and their career numbers are tremendous. Where do they rank among the all-time greats in the league?

ADAM: “Merle” will finish his career ranked second in league history in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches — behind recent Elon great Terrell Hudgins, the NCAA Division I all-time leader, who he learned under for two seasons.

Statistically, Mellette’s numbers speak volumes on their own. And his imposing package of size and speed likely makes him an NFL Draft pick in April.

But he will leave Elon having played in many less meaningful games than Randy Moss did at Marshall or Brian Quick did at App State or even Hudgins did at Elon. While he’s experienced so much personal success, I know the Phoenix’s won/loss record (now 14-17 since the start of 2010) has been bittersweet.

As for Breitenstein, the monster, he’s up to fifth place on the SoCon’s career rushing chart, ahead of legends such as App State’s Armanti Edwards and John Settle and Citadel’s Stump Mitchell. That’s incredible company considering the league’s long history of ground-pounding offenses.

I was fortunate enough to see Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson and Furman’s Louis Ivory — first and third, respectively, in SoCon all-time rushing — finish their careers a decade ago. Breitenstein isn’t as dynamic as they were, but his maxed-out effort on every carry is singular and highly impressive.

JEFF: They are both great, of course, and at the same time products of the systems in which they play. Mellette has the better pro future, I would think, and seems to fit the mold of the Megatron receivers in the league today.

I'd put Merle behind Terrell Owens and Randy Moss in the SoCon pantheon, alongside Terrell Hudgins and Andre Roberts, who is having a solid season with the Arizona Cardinals, it should be pointed out. Former GSU great Adrian Peterson is the best SoCon RB I've seen in person, and ex-Citadel star Stump Mitchell had a long and solid NFL career.

Furman's Louis Ivory and VMI's Thomas Haskins were super, and I'd put the Beast with those two.

JOHN: A million words have been written about Breitenstein and all that he’s done — and he’s earned them all, as well as the right to be talked about in the same breath as Adrain Peterson and Armanti Edwards. He’s not quite at their level, but he’s very close.

Mellette, who received my vote for offensive player of the year in 2011, is a superstar that has been rather under the radar this season because it’s been a tough season for the Phoenix. Mellette will go down as one of the two or three best receivers to play in the SoCon and I think he’s headed for a good NFL career, as well.

If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsbeatCTFP.

about John Frierson...

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 ...

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