2023 Southern Conference Preseason Primer

Exciting 2023 SoCon football season with playoff contenders, new coaches, and dark horse teams. Stay tuned for more at the upcoming media day!

Furman's Tyler Huff with SoCon Logo in upper right
Source: Redshirt Sports

When Furman (10-3, 7-1 SoCon) and Samford (11-2, 8-0 SoCon in 2022) were the only two qualifiers for the 2022 FCS playoffs, it left many media who cover the league, as well as the fans that support the teams the compete within it, to question the overall selection process to the FCS 24-team playoff field.

Furman, which lost just once to an FCS team and once to an FBS team, felt it should have received a bye in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, joining Samford in that regard, who ended up hosting a second round contest against Southeast Louisiana after receiving an opening-round bye and entered seeded No. 6 following a regular-season that saw the Bulldogs finish 10-1 and 10-0 against FCS competition.

The Paladins showed well in the playoffs, and if the league hopes to be viewed through the same lens as the CAA, Missouri Valley Football Conference, and Big Sky Conference, it was crucial that both the Bulldogs and Paladins show well in the postseason, which both did and then some.

Samford was able to pick up a hard-fought, 48-42, overtime win against Southeastern Louisiana in a second round home playoff game, while Furman held Elon out of the end zone a week earlier in a first-round FCS playoff contest at Paladin Stadium, downing the CAA foe in demonstrative fashion, posting a 31-6 win in what was the program’s first home FCS playoff game since 2005.

While Samford took care of business with a backup quarterback in a second-round thriller in Homewood, the Paladins were the clear underdog in San Antonio when they showed up to face No. 5 Incarnate Word in a second-round battle. After taking a late lead in the game, the Paladins could hold the Cardinals and prolific signal-caller Lindsey Scott Jr.out of the end zone, and suffered a heartbreaking, 41-38, overtime loss to the Cardinals.

With 18 starters back for the Paladins this fall, Furman will likely enter the season as the preseason SoCon favorite, with Samford not too far behind, and even considered by some to be the favorite coming into 2023. The main difference between the two programs appears to be Furman’s defense, which has a chance to be even better this fall. In fact, the Paladins figure to be elite on both sides of the ball in 2023, and with additions like Fred Norman Jr. from East Tennessee State helping account for losses like Anderson Tomlin and Evan Jumper along the offensive line, the Paladins have added both adequate replacements and solid depth as a whole to the offensive front from the portal. Tex Elliott from Colorado State is another of those that comes from the transfer portal and will have a chance to compete for a spot along the offensive front in preseason camp..

Either way, with both returning two of the top signal-callers in FCS football, with Samford’s Michael Hiers returning, as is Furman’s talented dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huff, you can expect that those will be the two favorites when the media and coaches convene in Asheville in mid-July to discuss the upcoming season.

Mercer and Chattanooga also felt that they should have been included in the FCS postseason. After all, both the Mocs and Bears were the two teams that, for much of the season, looked as though they might be the teams competing in the FCS playoffs, and for a while, the SoCon also gave the appearance that it might be a league that deserved four bids.

Giving Mocs fans hopes this season is the fact that they return two of the top players in the Southern Conference on both sides of the ball, with running back and three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ailym Ford highlighting the offensive side of the ball, while edge rusher and reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person returning on defense.

It looked like both the Bears and Mocs would find themselves comfortably in the FCS playoffs through the opening half of the season in 2022, however, late in the season, both would falter, with the Mocs suffering losses on the road at Furman (L, 20-24) and at home vs. Samford (L, 24-35), which severely damaged the preseason SoCon title favorite’s playoff hopes. The Bears would drop consecutive games vs. Furman (L, 13-23) and a heartbreaking overtime contest at Samford (L, 44-50) to close out the season.

Western Carolina would be there to provide the final nail in Chattanooga’s playoff coffin, handing the Mocs a 32-29 setback in Cullowhee to cap what was a second-straight disappointing season for the Mocs, as Chattanooga capped the season with a 7-4 overall record and a 5-3 mark in league play.

The Bears came into the 2022 season motivated by the heartbreak of how 2021 ended, with a 38-35, loss at East Tennessee State and for at least the first half of the season, head coach Drew Cronic’s team looked the part of being the most dominant team in the Southern Conference, rolling through the first six games of their 2022 slate with a 5-1 record.

Then came a trip to the Scenic City, which would see a top 10 showdown between the No. 6 Bears and No. 7 Mocs. Cronic’s Bears and its prolific offense, led by Walter Payton Award candidate quarterback Fred Payton would be exposed for all to see, and the Mocs feasted on Mercer miscues all afternoon en route to a resounding 41-21 win over the Bears.

It was the loss at Chattanooga that would ultimately end up changing the trajectory of the season for Drew Cronic’s Bears, and ultimately saw the Bears come up just short of an FCS playoff bid for a second-straight season.

A good argument could have been made for all four to be included in the FCS postseason, however, with the league having struggled with multiple playoff teams making to the playoffs in recent seasons, folks weren’t willing to get too loud after the SoCon got at least one at-large bid to the postseason, which was more than either of the previous two seasons.

Samford, Furman, Mercer, Western Carolina and Chattanooga, in some order, look like the teams to beat again this season. With that said, look for the gap between the top five of the SoCon and the next four looks to have gotten significantly closer.

Kerwin Bell’s Western Carolina Catamounts is a program SoCon football fans might want to keep a close watch on, as the Purple and Gold will likely enter the 2023 season as the dark horse for many to find their way into that upper echelon and perhaps compete for a playoff spot and Southern Conference title this fall. It’s been a long time. Forty years to be exact, however, the SoCon has already seen some long held streaks snapped in 2023, with Furman’s basketball program ending a 43-year NCAA Tournament drought this past spring, so the Catamounts will hope to keep the purple magic alive this fall by qualifying for the postseason this fall.

It’s something that the program will certainly be striving for, as the 2023 season will mark the 40-year anniversary of Western Carolina’s most-significant accomplishment as a football program, which was an appearance in the 1983 national championship game against Southern Illinois in Charleston, dropping what was a 43-7 contest to the Salukis at Johnson-Hagood Stadium in Charleston. The Catamounts are coming off a 2022 campaign, which saw them post a 6-5 record overall, which included a 4-4 mark in league action.

Western Carolina ended the season as hot as any team in the Southern Conference, closing the campaign with wins over Wofford (W, 36-29), vs. at East Tennessee State (W, 20-17/Blue Ridge Border Battle) and vs. No. 15 Chattanooga (W, 32-29), as the Purple and Gold secured their first win over a ranked foe for the first time since the 2017 season, when the Catamounts were victorious against No. 17 Samford, posting a thrilling 38-34 late September win over the Bulldogs in Cullowhee.

Bell will have to go about finding some new pieces to help contribute to an offense that was among the most prolific in the nation last season, as WCU finished the campaign ranked sixth nationally in total offense (485.4 YPG), 31st in scoring offense (31.9 PPG) and seventh in passing offense (301.1 YPG).

While both starting quarterback Carlos Davis (transferred to UMass) and leading wide receiver Raphael Williams (transferred to San Diego State) are no longer with the Catamount football program, there are some really good pieces returning on the offensive side of the ball for the Catamounts in 2023, with the most notable of those being quarterback Cole Gonzales, running back Desmond Reid, and wide receiver Censere Lee.

Continued improvement on the defensive side of the ball, however, will determine whether or not the Catamounts are knocking on the proverbial door of a potential FCS playoff bid and competing for a SoCon title when November rolls around.

East Tennessee State and its passionate fanbase had entertained some pretty high expectations entering the 2022 season. After all, the Bucs had 17 regulars back off a team that had won 11 games a year earlier before eventually getting knocked out of the FCS playoffs by eventual national champion North Dakota State, with a 27-3 setback against the Bison. Quarles fired offensive coordinator Adam Neugabauer and the head coach will handle the play-calling duties himself this fall.

The good news is the Bucs will have signal-caller Tyler Riddell and wideout Will Huzzie back. The bad news is the Bucs must find an adequate replacement for their leading offensive weapon for a second-straight year. Two years ago, the Bucs needed to replace 1,000-yard rusher Quay Holmes, which they did with 1,000-yard rusher Jacob Saylors last season, however, now the Bucs must find an adequate replacement for Saylors.

The Bucs took their biggest hit on the defensive side of the football, as several key players decided to enter the transfer portal, including players like Davion Hood (transferred to Temple), and Alijah Huzzie (transferred to North Carolina) have all decided to continue their college football playing careers elsewhere.

There is still talent around for Billy Taylor’s defense, however, as Mike Price returns in the secondary, as does Chris Hope. Talent also returns along the defensive line, with both Max Evans and Devan Brantley returning to the defensive front.

Three teams happen to have new head coaches this fall, and all three new head coaches just happen to preside over the three bottom teams in the SoCon last fall, with one of those coaches having already coached his program on an interim basis last season.

Wofford decided on Shawn Watson to be its new leader of its football program, and it didn’t take long after the season for Watson to be named head coach. He was named coach on an interim basis during the regular-season last fall for the Terriers, and after an 0-5 start, former head coach Josh Conklin stepped down before the Terriers headed to SoCon-leading Samford.

The Terriers were competitive in a 28-14 loss, and it didn’t take long for the Terriers to respond by getting their first win under Watson, putting an end to a 15-game losing streak, with a 31-16 win over The Citadel at Gibbs Stadium.

Under Watson, the Terriers became an explosive passing attack, led by quarterback Jimmy Weirick. All Weirick did was end up being a record-setting signal-caller for the Old Gold and Black a year ago, passing for 2,479 yards, with 12 TDs and seven INTs under the direction of Watson. He would end up flourishing in the Terriers’ new air raid offense, which was essentially what it morphed into after Conklin’s sudden departure.

After the 0-5 start to the season, Watson would help lead the Terriers to a 3-3 finish, which was enough to help Watson have the interim tag lifted.

With Weirick no longer around to lead the Terrier offense, it will be up to Watson to find a new leader of the Terrier air raid attack for the 2023 season. Several candidates emerged for Wofford during the spring, with Western Carolina transfer Samuel Cornett being a prime candidate to win the starting job under center by the time the Terriers head to Watson’s former employer—the Pittsburgh Panthers—for their Sept. 2 opener.

The biggest weakness on the defensive side of football last season was stopping the run, as the Terriers fielded one of the weakest defensive units it has had since joining the NCAA Division I FCS ranks back in 1997. The Terriers are coming off a 2022 campaign, which saw them surrender 191.5 YPG on the ground last fall, ranking 99th against the run.

All told, Wofford finished the 2022 season ranking 99th in total defense (433.1 YPG), while ranking 86th in the nation in scoring defense (31.3 PPG). Wofford has to replace its top defensive player from a year ago, in defensive end Michael Mason, who will play his final season of college football at Coastal Carolina. Brandon Maina returns at nose tackle, while Harrison Morgan is back at outside linebacker, as they will be two of the holdovers looking to lead the Terrier defense this fall.

Just like the changing times in the Upstate, in the Lowcountry of the Palmetto State, there’s also a new sherriff in town, and with him, a new offense, at The Citadel.

New head coach Maurice Drayton will certainly have his hands full, especially not only installing a new offense, but quite frankly, finding some offensive success in general would be welcomed in the Low Country following a season that saw maybe the most challenging season offensively since the Ellis Johnson or maybe even the Don Powers era.

The 2010 season, which saw the Bulldogs make a similar transition under Kevin Higgins was equally as notable for its difficulty to generate much of points or explosive plays. The Bulldogs weren’t necessarily horribly low in total offense last fall, ranking 89th nationally (326.3 YPG), however, it was scoring points that seemed to be an eyesore all season. The Citadel ranked 101st nationally in scoring offense, averaging just 18.7 PPG in 2022.

It’s not the first time Drayton has been in Charleston, and I am not talking about his standout career on the gridiron for The Citadel Blue, as he starred at defensive back for the Bulldogs from 1994-98. As a coach, Drayton has served as an assistant on The Citadel’s staff in two different stints previously, has logged a total of 14 years in the Lowcountry as both a player and assistant coach for the Bulldogs. During his four-year playing career for The Citadel, he was a two-year starter at cornerback, finishing his career with 145 tackles, 17 pass breakups and three INTs.

Drayton will be returning to the Lowcountry after spending the past seven seasons as an assistant in the NFL. Drayton has served as the special teams coordinator at Green Bay (2021) and the Indianapolis Colts (2016-17), and was most recently the assistant special teams coordinator with the Las Vegas Raiders.

A lot of Citadel blood will be on the sidelines for the Bulldogs this fall, and even a little Purple mixed in as well, with former Paladin offensive lineman standout Patrick Covington hired as both the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach, as well as taking the reins of the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach.

Former Bulldogs Joe Call (QB, 1998-2002) and Everette Sands (RB, 1990-93) will both serve as assistants on the offensive side of the football, while former Bulldog defender Raleigh Jackson (-LB 2003-07) will serve as the defensive coordinator, while another Bulldogs, Keith Jones (1971-75) will serve as the chief of staff.

The Citadel returns a healthy dose of experience on the offensive side of the football, however, as the Bulldogs were one of the youngest teams in the SoCon on that side of the football last season, as nine regulars are slated to return to the fold for the 2023 campaign.

The first question to be answered will be quarterback, as the Bulldogs will be in search of a signal-caller that will fit the new scheme that the Bulldogs will be running this fall. The Bulldogs have some solid options to look to under center, with all three candidates for the job getting quality reps during the spring. Graeson Underwood and Ahmad Greenwill battle it out for the starting job in fall camp.

The quarterback that seems to be raising the most eyebrows around the Bulldogs football program during the off-season, however, has been Dustin Fletcher, who comes to The Citadel from Northern Illinois where he was ranked as the No. 30 dual threat quarterback by 247Sports coming out of Flint Michigan’s Carman-Ainsworth High School where threw for more than 7,200 yards and 59 scores as a senior. Fletcher in a lot of ways has been called a “perfect fit” for Drayton’s new offensive scheme, as well as offering the SoCon yet another big-time dual threat signal-caller. He’s probably most comparable now to Furman’s Tyler Huff.

The final team to welcome in a new head coach for the 2023 season is the team that ended up finishing dead last, as VMI’s new head coach will be a face familiar to most FCS football fans, in Danny Rocco, who has had successful stints at Richmond (2012-16), Delaware (2017-21) and Liberty (2006-11) as a part of his FCS head coaching resume’.

Rocco takes over a VMI football program, which is unquestionably his toughest assignment-to-date as a head football coach. The Keydets are coming off a 2022 season, which saw them finish 1-10 overall and 0-8 in SoCon play, as the Keydets enter the 2023 season having lost 12-straight games, including 11-straight Southern Conference games. The program is a shell of the one that claimed the 2020-21 Southern Conference title--the first for the program since 1977.

Problems retaining players in Lexington, due in large part to the extra year allotted as a result of COVID-19 and VMI not sponsoring a graduate school, and ultimately, there would also be a revolving door among Scott Wachenheim’sassistant coaches moving onward and upward. All of these things would eventually snowball, and at the end of the 2022 season, which was less than two years following VMI’s ascent to the top of the SoCon, Wachenheim decided to step down as head coach.

Whatever the true reason for his resignation, Wachenheim seemed to be burned out with the monumental task of being a head coach of either major sport at VMI has become.

The Keydets will basically be starting anew on both sides of the ball this fall, and that includes at quarterback, where Seth Morgan has transferred out to D2 Shepherd University. Morgan was the quarterback that came in as the starter last season. Rocco and staff have scrapped the air raid offense that was employed with some success under Wachenheim. According to Rocco himself, “air raid” is a word he refuses to even use, as he looks to convert the Keydet offense to being more multiple and traditional in terms of style.

Set to take the reins of the Keydet offense this fall with the departure of Morgan will be Collin Ironside, who was VMI’s No. 1 signal-caller throughout the spring. Rocco hopes to mix tempos and formations, mixing in some pro-style and spread formations from time-to-time. There is also some good news on the offensive side of the ball, as there will be some continuity, with the return of Patrick Ashford as the offensive coordinator, as he was retained by Rocco from Wachenheim’s former staff.

On the defensive side of the ball, which also happens to be more Rocco’s background and specialty, the Keydets will also be multiple, unlike the 3-3-5 stack defense employed with some success, especially during that 2020-21 championship run, for VMI. Rich Yahner will be VMI’s new defensive coordinator this fall, and he was Rocco’s linebacker’s coach during his time at Delaware.

The 2023 football season in the SoCon is almost here and it should be a wild one. Stay tuned for a big media day recap. SoCon Media Day is slated for Thursday, July 27, in Greenville, S.C.

How I will vote at the 2023 SoCon Media Day

  1. Furman — Clay Hendrix’s Paladins have a chance to be the program’s first real national title contender since 2005
  2. Samford — The Bulldogs will again have one of the top offenses in FCS football, led by Michael Hiers, as the Bulldogs should be prolific offensively once again this fall. The defense is the question mark.
  3. Mercer — The Bears have been on the brink of a SoCon title and FCS playoff bid the past couple of seasons…Will this be the year Drew Cronic’s team breaks through?
  4. Western Carolina — The Catamounts were one of the hottest teams in FCS football at the end of last season, winning three-straight to close the campaign with a 6-5 record.
  5. Chattanooga — It's been a case of diminishing returns for head coach and Rusty Wright since his return to become the head coach of the Mocs in 2019. Will 2023 mark a Mocs return to the FCS playoffs?
  6. The Citadel — There’s reason to believe the Bulldogs can make a little noise in Maurice Drayton’s inaugural season as the head coach.
  7. East Tennessee State — George Quarles’ second season and the success the Bucs ultimately have will depend on whether or not the Bucs can replace some key losses at running back and on the OL.
  8. VMI — I think Danny Rocco was an outstanding hire, and with good depth and talent at quarterback, it will be enough to keep the Keydets out of the SoCon cellar in his first season in Lexington
  9. Wofford — Wofford's team rallied around Shawn Watson last season, finishing strong down the stretch, as he coached Wofford to a 3-3 mark down the stretch. Year two may prove to be a little more difficult.