Welcome to 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.
Last week’s SoCon schedule was a light one with only three games, but it sure came heavy on the drama. The Citadel rallied from a big first-half deficit to hand Samford its first loss in the league. Then Chattanooga delivered a big fourth quarter to defeat Appalachian State and vault into first place in the standings. In between, Furman edged Georgia Southern to become a possible factor in the stretch run.
What was your prevailing take from an eventful Week 10?
JEFF: The Citadel is accepting any and all gratuities from SoCon members after its upset of Samford opened the door for Chattanooga, Wofford and even Furman. Late in the second quarter Saturday, Citadel fans had given up shouting in anger and seemed resigned to another loss in a disappointing season with their team down by 17-0. But a fake punt and a sack/fumble in the third quarter turned the game around, and The Citadel finally got a break/made a play at the end to pull out a close win. The Bulldogs are 3-6 this year, 3-5 in games decided by a TD or less.
Meanwhile, all the cool kids are beating App State this year, but I can understand Mocs coach Russ Huesman's enthusiasm after the win ("This is the best win I've ever been involved with in my life," he said after the game.) That doesn't leave him much wiggle room should Chattanooga beat Wofford and Samford in the next two weeks ("Best win in my life and yours, too"?). And I don't even want to think about what he might say if they beat Alabama ...
JOHN: Seeing the Mocs be the team to make the winning plays in the fourth quarter for the second week in a row was, for sure, the dominant takeaway from Week 10. UTC was so banged up at linebacker that at halftime I told someone the Mocs might lose by 20.
Instead, the defense rose to the occasion on App State’s final two drives, the offense had a very good second half and suddenly the Mocs were in first place. I don’t know that I ever really expected to see that.
I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that App State is a very good two-win team, but it’s a very talented and dangerous one. In the paper I picked App to win 28-27 (I learned long ago that nobody got rich picking against the Mountaineers and I stuck with that even amid a rough 2013) and the players rather enjoyed giving me grief about it as they walked off the field.
Meanwhile … The Citadel did UTC and Wofford a favor by beating Samford and a healthy Furman sure is playing well. Furman might still have an outside shot at sharing the title, but the Paladins will for sure play a role in deciding how the top three looks.
ADAM: The thought that kept coming to me last Saturday was these must be great games to see in person. And being embedded with Elon – in bed with? … OK, never mind, I stop there (hey, Phoenix mascot, call me) – I couldn’t help thinking that it could’ve been this way for Elon in some respects. Not playing for stakes like the league title as the Mocs deservedly are, but just experiencing satisfying, feel-good wins instead of depressing, oh-so-close losses. In the final minutes of games against App State, Wofford and Western Carolina, Elon had legitimate chances to win within its grasp and couldn’t make any of them happen. Thus its 2-7, 1-4 record. But, anyway …
The Citadel’s comeback from down 17 to knock off Samford obviously was a head-turner. Talk about resiliency, especially considering, as Uncle Jeff Hartsell mentioned, that Citadel came in with three losses in the previous four games by a touchdown or less.
Chattanooga’s last two TDs at App State were scored by Xavier Borishade and Nakevion Leslie, names that make a guy who rocks Adam Smith envious.
Furman has three SoCon wins are two of them are against departing App State and Georgia Southern. That has to be sweet for the Paladins and their supporters who appreciate history. For many years, Furman competed with App State and Georgia Southern (they once were the “Big 3”) for conference championships and even national titles.
The SoCon’s ever-evolving new world order currently has Chattanooga on top with Samford and Wofford a half-game behind. And Furman is climbing toward that lead pack. Even if App State and Georgia Southern were eligible, they would be out of the title race.
How this unfolds remains to be seen, of course. But what, if anything, does it mean to the league and the schools in contention to have these new faces vying to be the conference champion?
JOHN: I had a story in the TFP this week about how the league is headed for a dramatic finish and commissioner John Iamarino sure seemed happy about the way things were shaping up when I talked to him. Especially after such an ugly start to the season.
Is the SoCon great this season? Probably not, but it’s competitive and it’s compelling. And the schools that are in the hunt, or close to it, are the ones that will be in the league next season and beyond. That’s a very good sign.
It wouldn’t have been fatal if Georgia Southern and App State dominated the league this season, but it sure is better for the league that things have worked out as they have.
ADAM: Co-signing a lot of what Johnny Frierson is bringing here. The man makes some fine points.
On a small scale, it means some of us weren’t complete morons for thinking in the preseason that Chattanooga and Samford would be slugging it out among the eligibles for the league title. There are all sorts of seizing-the-moment stuff at work for those schools, who have been climbing toward seasons and opportunities in November like these.
I always remember – and have been constantly reminded this season – of when Samford joined the SoCon in 2008. Former Elon coach Pete Lembo told me then, before his team even had played the Bulldogs, that Pat Sullivan and Co. were “building the right way” and they would be a contender one day if they stayed the course they had set.
Lembo’s pretty perceptive, eh? He’s got Ball State 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the MAC, with a showdown at undefeated Northern Illinois coming next week. Wednesday night. ESPN2. Appointment viewing, people.
JEFF: We are getting an early peek at life without Georgia Southern and App State, thanks to those teams’ premature evacuations from SoCon contention. It’s fun within the confines of the SoCon to have Samford and Chattanooga joining Wofford atop the league. And now would seem a prime time for Furman to finally get its act back together. But I think it will be a while before SoCon teams are the players on the national FCS stage that App State and Georgia Southern were for all those years.
This week’s marquee matchup is the ESPN3.com game, Wofford at Chattanooga. Samford at Furman follows in terms of importance. The Citadel at Elon, Western Carolina at Georgia Southern and Appalachian State at Georgia round out the schedule. What are your thoughts on Saturday’s games?
ADAM: If Chattanooga and Samford can win, neither of which should be a small feat, that will leave them as the only one-loss teams in the league. And it sets the table for a veritable SoCon championship game between them next week, live from Birmingham.
Elon beat a beat-up Furman team five weeks ago and I happened to look down from the (newly renovated) press box and see Paladins coach Bruce Fowler, his head down, his wife by his side, slowly walking the length of the field and then some from his team’s locker room out to reach the parking lot. Impressive how Furman has bounced back and emerged as a player in the league title picture.
After Georgia Southern got in the neighborhood of 12,000 fans last week at home against Furman, I’m wondering if 10,000 or less could be in store for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina.
Also, it’s homecoming at Elon. Hug somebody. JEFF: The ESPN3 truck lands in the right place this week. Wofford has had a week off to get ready for Chattanooga, and coach Mike Ayers has taken to quoting old Marty Robbins songs, so beware the Terrier backed into a corner. Will the Mocs, who have won five straight, suffer a letdown after their huge win in Boone? And raise your hand if you had Furman in the SoCon title chase with just three weeks to go. After seeing Samford in person, I think the Birmingham Bulldogs are a good team, but hardly a powerhouse, especially if running back Fabian Truss is less than 100 percent (he was injured in the first half at The Citadel). With two games left against teams above them in the standings (Samford and Wofford), the Paladins have a chance to be one of the unlikeliest league champs in SoCon history.
JOHN: This is being touted as the biggest UTC game in the history of Finley Stadium — not to be confused with the national championship games played there, such as the stadium-record crowd of 23,168 that showed up to see App State win its third straight title in 2007. Of course the stadium has only been open since 1997 and for most of its life UTC has been terrible, or close to it.
Still, this is a monster game for UTC’s season and for the program going forward. The Mocs are far from full strength, but they’ve been that way the past two weeks and still won games they could have easily lost. Keep in mind, if UTC beats Wofford and Samford loses to Furman, two realistic outcomes, the Mocs would be assured of a share of its first league title since 1984. That’s no small thing around here.
But for all that to happen, UTC must beat the machine that is Wofford. The Terriers have looked quite vulnerable at times recently, like against Elon and Western Carolina, but they figure out a way to get it done. It’s never not impressive.
Given the good mojo that Western Carolina has to still be feeling and the blues that Georgia Southern may have, you have to wonder if somehow the Catamounts might find a way to escape Statesboro with a victory. I won’t be stunned if it happens.
As our 2013 Farewell Tour rolls on — sniff — who is or who are some of the most interesting characters or memorable personalities you have been around during your time covering the SoCon?
JEFF: I'll go with former Citadel/ETSU/NC State basketball coach/athletic director Les Robinson, whose well of Bobby Cremins stories never seems to run dry. I once wrote that Les’ cell phone number was the worst-kept secret in college athletics, and I think he loved that. Les and I had our ups and downs, but he remains a great guy whom I’m always glad to see. Just wish I could have hit some tennis with him in his prime.
JOHN: I’ve been way too (whatever the typing version of long-winded is) so far in this thing, so I’ll keep this one brief.
Some of the coaches I always enjoy or enjoyed talking to: Pete Lembo, Bobby Lamb and Mike Ayers are probably at the top — all sharp guys who usually hit you with something you’re not expecting. A few non-football: UTC wrestling coach Heath Eslinger is always a treat because of his enthusiasm for everything he does; new UTC women’s hoops coach Jim Foster is one of the most challenging interview subjects, which I appreciate, because a bad question will be treated as such.
As for players, I’ve written in the SoConversation before that former Mocs Blue Cooper and Ryan Consiglio are probably my two favorite that I’ve covered. B.J. Coleman is a lot more fun to interact with now that he’s a former Moc and doesn’t have to be a cross between the mayor and Captain America all the time.
There are a lot more great and interesting folks that didn’t get mentioned and I would like to thank them for their time over the past seven years.
ADAM: Piggybacking on Hartsell, there’s a joke around veterans of the ACC beat that if you called Les Robinson during the first half of a game he was coaching, he would’ve called you back at halftime.
Elon joined the SoCon in 2003 and the summer before the start of that season, I played in the golf tournament at the league’s kickoff event. Former Furman and current Mercer coach Bobby Lamb was in my foursome and therefore became the first league coach that I met. He was great to hang with then and remains so today. Still use his “oh, what a pity” line, complete with a fairly decent Scottish (or is it Irish?) accent, that he picked up for bad breaks on an overseas golfing adventure.
Al Seagraves, the former Citadel offensive coordinator, was Elon’s coach back in those days. (He’s making an appearance on Citadel radio during Saturday’s pregame). He was awesome, from his daring bathroom breaks during practice – take cover! – to the underappreciated groundskeeping he did as if it was no big deal. Al used to pitch in and help mow and reseed Elon’s practice fields in the offseasons, and never broadcast the fact that he was a Division I head coach doing what few others in his position would.
Ex-Elon star Terrell Hudgins is the all-time leading receiver in NCAA football and probably the biggest / best player personality I’ve covered closely. Almost every interview I had with him, no matter the situation, devolved into us just talking about stuff. He’d come down to press row and goof off with me during basketball games. Elon players nicknamed him T-Mobile because nobody could out-talk him. At one point later in his career, he attempted to push to change that nickname to Shakespeare, because, as he reasoned, “all I do is make plays.” But that quickly was shot down.
He was confident and hilarious. And I never will forget Election Night in 2008. I was doing an interview outside of Elon’s locker room. Hudgins popped out, howling in laughter, looking at his phone, howling more, literally bouncing from one wall to the next, and shouting “Better watch out, Adam! Better watch out, Adam! Better watch out, Adam!” He came over, laughing all over himself, turned his phone around and showed me the screen. On it was a text message that read, paraphrased: if Obama loses, slap the first white person you see. And then it started up again: “Better watch out, Adam! Better watch out, Adam! Better watch out, Adam!” He roared that probably 20 times as he walked away.
That’s it for this week and thanks for reading, as always. If you’ve got a question or comment, 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_smithTN and @MocsBeat.
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 ...