2024 SoCon vs. FBS Matchups: In-Depth Preview and Analysis

Get an in-depth preview of the 2024 Southern Conference vs. FBS games, examining the expectations and outcomes for SoCon teams facing FBS opponents.

Furman QB Tyler Huff rushing against Clemson during their 35-12 loss
Source: Jeremy Fleming - Furman Athletics

In this article, I take a detailed look at the 2024 Southern Conference vs. FBS matchups heading into the season. As usual, the 2024 league slate against the FBS offers little chance for springing the major upset, however, these tests—more often than not—turn out to be more positive experiences for the SoCon programs involved than negative ones.

Furman at Ole Miss

Aug. 31, 2024/Vaught-Hemingway Stadium/6 p.m. EST

The Southern Conference will get a legitimate taste of playing against an FBS national title contender. It won’t be a particularly fun way to open the season for a Furman team that must replace 43 seniors, as it takes on a Rebels team that could potentially be among its best in school history.

The Rebels already showed how prolific they could be against a SoCon team last season, knocking off playoff contender Mercer, 73-7.

Not since facing Clemson in the opening game of the 2018 season has Furman faced a team that came into a season with such lofty, national title aspirations. On that particular occasion, the Paladins were starting a first-time starter under center and ended up dropping what was a 48-7 contest. The Tigers would go on to win a national title, fielding one of the top defensive units in college football history.

Furman enters the season with more questions on offense than on defense, however, which has some talented holdovers that should again help the Paladins field one of the SoCon’s top defensive units.

The Paladins will have a new man under center this fall, with Carson Jones, Tre Hedden and Neuel Garcia all vying for the starting job. Jones helped lead the Paladins to a pair of wins down the stretch in the 2023 season, helping the Paladins garner wins over both Chattanooga and VMI late in the season.

Hedden comes to Furman from an ultra-successful high school program at Tampa Catholic, where he was a star. During his time as a quarterback at Tampa Catholic, and will give the Paladin offense a different type of dual threat should he be fortunate enough to claim the starting job come fall camp.

In his senior campaign at Tampa Catholic, Hedden finished by throwing for 2,500 yards and 25 scores, while passing for 1,986 yards and 27 scores as a junior.

There figures to be a pretty good battle for the starting job between the aforementioned trio of signal-callers. In terms of comparisons, Hedden has a strong arm and throws down field much better on the run than say his predecessor, and though both Hedden and former Paladin quarterback Tyler Huff sport similar arm strength, it's Hedden that throws a much better and more accurate deep ball. Hedden was strong throughout the spring, and he and Garcia both put themselves firmly in the race to challenge for the starting job in fall camp.

Jones of course led the Paladins to wins over both Chattanooga (W, 17-14) and VMI (W, 38-7) late in the season, helping the Paladins clinch what was the program's first outright Southern Conference football title since 1990. It will likely end up being Jones' job to lose when it's all said and done.

The native of Maryville, Tenn., no doubt had his most memorable moment of the 2023 season against Chattanooga in a game, which helped Furman clinch a share of the 2023 league title. His eight-yard scoring pass to Wayne Anderson Jr. with just 1:44 remaining helped the Paladins escape the Scenic City with a 17-14 win. He finished the season completing 57-of-101 passes for 542 yards, with seven touchdowns and two INTs.

Garcia, who is a redshirt freshman from La Mirada, CA., saw some brief action in Furman's late-season, 37-3, win over VMI. The 2023 graduate of LaMirada High School where he passed for 1,607 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 6-3, 197-lb signal-caller has a good frame, with above average athleticism and good zip and delivery on his intermediate throws. He's probably slightly behind both Jones and Hedden throwing the deep ball, but like the other two in competition to start, Garcia has good arm strength.

The Furman ground game is always one of the deepest in the Southern Conference, especially under head coach Clay Hendrix. However, during the 2023 season, Furman saw its most struggles when it came to staying healthy and deep at the position.

In the third game of the season, Dominic Roberto would end up getting banged up in a win at Kennesaw State. A week earlier in a loss at South Carolina, Grant Robinson would go down with an injury, and Jay'Quan Smith (28 rush att, 123 yds, 2 TDs, 6.4 YPC) would see his 2023 season come to an abrupt end with a season-ending lower body injury against The Citadel.

The biggest concern for the Paladins is obviously the offensive line, which must replace four of five starters.

Furman’s defense also a lot of talent from last season, with the most notable losses from the secondary, which includes losing arguably the league’s top corner, in Travis Blackshear. Still, there is enough experience returning in the front seven that gives me enough reason to believe Furman will be very good again the defensive side of the ball.

Lane Kiffin’s Rebels figure to be even better this season. The Paladins took on South Carolina last season and were competitive for about a half before losing 47-21 to the Gamecocks last season.

Coming into the 2024 season, Ole Miss has that same type of capability, but on the other side of the ball. The Rebels are strong at virtually every position on the offensive side of the ball, and will have veteran starter Jaxson Dart returning under center for the 2024 season.

Dart is already responsible for helping put together two of the greatest offensive seasons together in Ole Miss football history. Last season, Dart connected on 233-of-358 passes for 3,364 yards, with 23 TDs and a school-record low five INTs.

Judging Furman’s overall strength as a SoCon title contender based on this opening game result would be a mistake.

Final Score Prediction: Ole Miss 68, Furman 21

Samford QB Welch scores a rushing touchdown at Florida. Nov. 13, 2021.
Source: Madison Gunst - Samford Athletics

Samford at Florida

Sept. 7, 2024/Ben Hill Griffin Stadium/7 p.m. EST

Like Furman, Samford will also be breaking in a new starting quarterback under center when it visits SEC country, with Michael Hiers ultimate successor starting his second game of his collegiate career. At least coming out of the spring for the Bulldogs, that signal-caller with the starter’s tag appears to be University of Kentucky transfer Nik Scalzo, who has waited patiently in the wings for his opportunity for the Bulldogs.

It hasn’t been all that long since Samford has visited “The Swamp” at the University of Florida. You only need to look as far back as the 2021 season for the last occurrence of that, as the Bulldogs made the Gators sweat more they would have originally thought, getting what was a wild 70-52 win over the Bulldogs in what would be Dan Mullen’s final season as the head coach.

Samford set a number of records in that game, with one of those being the most points scored by an FCS program against an FBS program, as well as the most points ever given up by a Florida, and while the Bulldogs haven’t defeated an FBS foe since knocking off an FBS power five foe since defeating Ole Miss in 1934, you could say the Bulldogs have an affinity for playing in the Sunshine State in at least the recent past.

In 2018, the Bulldogs, who were led by quarterback Devlin Hodges, put a major scare into Florida State, leading that contest early in the fourth quarter before eventually losing, 36-26. In 2009, the Bulldogs put a scare into the University of Central Florida in Orlando before dropping a 28-24 contest.

Most of the Florida’s issues last season were on the defensive side of the football, ranking 69th nationally in total defense (382.2 YPG

The Bulldogs face a Florida team that will enter the 2024 season with plenty of pressure on it to be successful under third-year head coach Billy Napier (Furman ‘02). The former Paladin signal-caller, who led Furman to its last appearance in a national title game back in 2001, likely enters the 2024 campaign with a seat as hot as any coach in the SEC, and perhaps, all off college football.

The Gators added four new assistants during the off-season, with three of those changes coming on the defensive side of the football, where Ron Roberts takes over as the new defensive coordinator. The major addition on the offensive side of the ball includes the hiring of co-Offensive Coordinator Jay Bateman.

The Gators offense will at least offer some experience returning on the offensive side of the football entering the 2024 season, with Graham Mertz returning as the leader under center. Mertz finished up the 2023 season helping a Florida offense put up a solid 409.1 YPG, which ranked 46th overall in the FBS last season, while averaging 28.4 PPG, which ranked 57th nationally a year ago.

The Gators also have a capable option at running back, in Montrell Johnson Jr., who will take over as the starting running back following Trevor Etienne’s decision to transfer to Georgia following the 2023 campaign. Johnson Jr. actually led the Gators in rushing, finishing the 2023 season with 817 yards rushing on 152 attempts, with five touchdowns. He averaged a solid 5.4 YPC.

Most of Florida’s issues last season were on the defensive side of the football, ranking 69th nationally in total defense (382.2 YPG), while ranking 75th nationally in scoring defense (27.6 PPG).

The good news for Samford is that they appear to be the perfect “sandwich game” with the game situated perfectly between Miami (Aug. 31) and Texas A&M (Sept. 14).

While I don’t think Samford has a shot at winning this game in SEC country, it is a game which could see the Bulldogs more than hold their own in next season and one that could giving them a confidence boost heading towards Southern Conference play in three weeks following a trip to “The Swamp.”

Final Score Prediction: Florida 42, Samford 20

UTC RB Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks rushing against Tennessee
Source: Dale Rutemeyer - Chattanooga Athletics

Chattanooga at Tennessee

Aug. 31, 2024/12:45 p.m. EST/Neyland Stadium

Chattanooga will likely head into the 2024 season as the favorite in the ever-challenging Southern Conference, but the Mocs will get their biggest challenge in the opening week of the campaign when they head 112 miles up the road to face the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium.

The Mocs and Vols will be meeting for the 45th meeting between the two programs, which sees the Vols owning a commanding 40-2-2 series advantage, including having won 24-straight in the series. The last meeting between the two Volunteer State programs came during the 2019 season, with the Vols cruising to a 45-0 win.

As far as the Tennessee, which will take part in the new 16-team SEC this fall, with both Oklahoma and Texas set to play their first respective seasons inside the nation’s toughest conference, the Vols are expected to finish in the upper echelon of the league under fourth-year head coach Josh Heupel.

Heupel, who led new conference member Oklahoma to their 2000 national title win as the Sooners quarterback, brings back eight starters from a team that went 9-4 a year ago, which included a 35-0 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.

The biggest area of concern for the Vols entering the 2024 season will be quarterback, where Joe Milton II has departed and was one of nine starters having moved on from the offensive side of the football. All told, just five regulars return on the offensive side of the football for Tennessee, highlighted by wideout Squirrel White (67 rec., 803 yds, 2 TDs). The strength of an offense that finished the 2023 season averaging 448.1 YPG (19th in FBS) and 31.8 PPG (36th in FBS) should be the offensive line, which returns three regulars from last season.

While the Vols return just five starters return on the offensive side of the football, only three are back from a defense that surrendered just 335.2 YPG (32nd in FBS) and 22nd in scoring defense (20.3 PPG). However, the good news is both defensive tackles return, are back, in Bryson Eason (27 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and Omari Thomas (35 tackles, 4.5 TFL) return, as does Tennessee’s leading tackler—middle linebacker Elijah Herring—who finished the campaign with 80 tackles, including 31 solo stops.

The Mocs will enter this clash as the more experienced team in this matchup. The Mocs return arguably the best quarterback in the Southern Conference, in Chase Artopoeus, who enters his second season as the starter leading what figures to be an explosive offense in the 2024 season. The graduate transfer from UCLA finished his first season under center passing for 2,672 yards, with 20 TDs and only seven INTs, helping the Mocs back into the FCS postseason for the first time since 2016.

So what can Artopoues and the Mocs do for an encore in 2024? Well, head coach Rusty Wright heads into his sixth season as the head coach with maybe his most talented team yet since taking over the head coaching responsibilities in 2019.

The Mocs also return a veteran receiving corps, highlighted by Javin Whatley (55 rec, 977 yds, 9 TDs, 17.8 YPR) and Sam Phillips (60 rec, 624 yds, 4 TDs, 10.4 YPR) at wideout, giving UTC arguably the top wide receivers room in the SoCon.

The biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball heading into 2024 is who gets the starting job in the backfield to replace both Gino Appleberry and Ailym Ford, who ended his career with an unfortunate season-ending knee injury in a loss at Mercer, however, finished as one of the best to ever carry the football in a Mocs uniform.

The Mocs lose Jay Person on the defensive side of the football, but Chattanooga has rarely had to worry about its defensive talent or depth over the past decade-plus. With players like Quay Wiggles and Marlon Taylor back along the defensive front, as players like Reuben Lowery II and Alex Mitchell returning at defensive back and linebacker, respectively, the Mocs should again field a defense that is not only one of the tops in the SoCon, but also in the entire FCS.

The Mocs have enough to keep things interesting for a half against a young Volunteers team that will enter the season with their own set of question marks, but don’t have enough to realistically cause the Volunteers major headaches.

Final Score Prediction: Tennessee 48, Chattanooga 14

Western Carolina defensive front at NC State
Source: Ashley Evans - WCU Athletics

Western Carolina at N.C. State

Thurs., Aug. 29, 2024/Carter-Finley Stadium, 7 p.m.

Another team expected to be in the Southern Conference title mix this fall is Western Carolina, which comes off a 7-4 overall mark in 2023, as the Catamounts just missed out on the 2023 FCS playoffs. It marked the 40-year anniversary in which the Catamounts made it all the way to the FCS national championship game (formerly Division I-AA) before losing, 43-7, to Southern Illinois in the title game.

The Catamounts are under the direction of third-year head coach Kerwin Bell, as he will be looking to lead the Catamounts to their first-ever Southern Conference football crown since joining the SoCon in 1976, while also leading the Catamounts back to the FCS postseason with a chance to get back to that title game for the first time in 41 years.

The Catamounts will start of the season with a difficult test against ACC member North Carolina State in Raleigh. It will mark the first meeting between the Catamounts and Wolfpack since the 2019 campaign, when the Wolfpack blanked the Catamounts, 41-0, in Carter-Finley Stadium.

The meeting with NC State will mark the eighth all-time meeting between the Catamounts and Wolfpack, with NC State having won all seven previous meetings. The Catamounts and Wolfpack first met on the college football gridiron on Oct. 22, 1986, which saw the Wolfpack come up with a 31-18 win over WCU.

The Wolfpack are under the leadership of veteran head coach Dave Doeren, who enters his 12th season as the head coach of the Wolfpack, and he will have a team that should once again be in the mix as one of a handful of teams that could win an ACC title this fall.

One of the major reasons that will be a realistic possibility for Doeren’s Wolfpack this fall will be the quarterback that he has slated to lead the Wolfpack this fall, in Coastal Carolina graduate transfer Grayson McCall.

The Wolfpack should be explosive on the offensive side of the ball, and that goes beyond just having McCall himself under center in 2024. It also has to do with what McCall has returning to surround him on the offensive side of the football. The Wolfpack showed just how explosive they could be on that side of the football during a five-game winning streak to close out the 2023 regular-season, outscoring its opposition a whopping 144-77.

The Wolfpack will have one of the ACC’s top big-play threats at wide receiver in 2024, as Kevin “KC” Concepcion (71 rec, 839 yds, 10 TDs, 11.8 YPR) returns and his speed can also influence the game as a threat in the ground attack, as he finished the 2023 campaign with 320 rushing yards on 41 attempts last fall (7.8 YPC). Concepcion was the 2023 ACC Rookie of the Year.

Ohio State transfer wideout Noah Rogers and Duke transfer running back Jordan Waters should also be immediate impact players on the offensive side of the ball for NC State in 2024.

As far as Doeren’s defense is concerned entering the 2024 season, the Wolfpack at least one major hole to fill, with the graduation of Dick Butkus Award winner Peyton Wilson at linebacker. All he did last season was lead the team with 138 tackles and 17.5 tackles-for-loss.

In fact, Wilson is part of a veteran linebacking room that has departed, with three new starters slated to fill role for N.C. State in 2024. The secondary was one of the top units in the ACC last season, leading the league with 17 INTs. That unit will be headlined by All-ACC cornerback Aydan White in 2024. White registered 37 tackles, two INTs and broke up 10 passes last fall.

Western Carolina has been prolific offensively in each of Kerwin Bell’s previous three seasons at the helm, and with one of the top signal-callers in FCS football returning this fall—junior Cole Gonzales (204-of-310 passing, 2,803 yds, 28 TDs, 8 INTs)—that trend looks to remain intact in 2024.

Gonzales presided over a Catamount offense that paced FCS football in total output in 2023 (504.1 YPG), as well as ranking fourth nationally in scoring offense (37.5 PPG). The Catamounts lost two major offensive weapons to the transfer portal and the ACC, with both wideout Censere Lee (46 rec, 792 yds, 8 TDs, 17.2 YPR) and star speedster running back Des Reid (131 rush att, 897 yds, 13 TDs, 6.8 YPC) joining former Catamount offensive coordinator Cade Bell as a part of the Pitt Panthers offense this fall.

While those are significant departures, the Catamounts had plenty of talent at wideout last fall, including AJ Colombo, who will be the go-to-receiver for WCU receiver this fall.

The 2023 season was a breakout campaign for the speedy receiver, as he ended the campaign by hauling in 31 passes for 438 yards and five scores last fall.

Branson Adams (89 rush att, 539 yds, 3 TDs, 6.1 YPC) saw some quality time at running back last season for WCU following a pair of mid-season injuries to Reid, which from the second one, he never seemed to fully recover from.

Head coach Kerwin Bell made the move away from Chazmon Scales and brought in former Tusculum head coach Jerry Odom to lead the defensive side of the football for the Catamounts.

Odom was a college teammate of Bell's at Florida, and Odom's career includes an experienced and successful one, with stints at East Carolina and Jacksonville as a defensive coordinator prior to his eight seasons as the head coach of Tusculum.

The Catamounts finished the 2023 season ranking 69th in total defense (372.8 YPG), while ranking 60th (154.1 YPG) against the run this past season, and 72nd nationally in pass defense (218.7 YPG). The Catamounts also ranked 73rd nationally in pass defense (27.5 PPG).

This opener is a tough one for a new defense undergoing staff changes, and even a defense that was experienced with a lot of starters returning from a formidable unit—even with great FCS talent—would trouble slowing the Wolfpack and that’s why I think NC State wins big. Like the Furman-Ole Miss opener however, I would caution in making any final judgements about the Wolfpack based on the final scoring disparity of this matchup.

Final Score Prediction: NC State 62, Western Carolina 17

ETSU vs App State Football August 31, 2019
Source: Rusty Jones/The News Herald

East Tennessee State at Appalachian State

Aug. 31, 2024/Kidd Brewer Stadium/3:30 p.m.

One of the great rivalries lost to the Southern Conference when Appalachian State opted to move up to the FBS level was the one between the Mountaineers and the East Tennessee State Buccaneers.

With Boone, N.C., and Johnson City, Tenn., separated by just 56 miles, it also made for one of the closest league rivalries in terms of proximity. The Mountaineers and Bucs have only squared off once since the Mountaineers moved up to the FBS level, and that came back in the 2019 season, as App State wore down the Bucs towards the latter portions of the third quarter and eventually pulled away for a 42-7 win over ETSU.

When the two former local conference rivals meet on Aug. 31, it will mark the 48th all-time meeting between the two programs, with the Mountaineers holding the commanding 32-14-1 all-time series edge.

When Tre Lamb takes the headset on the sidelines for the first time as East Tennessee State’s head coach on Aug. 31, he’ll at least do so against familiar opposition. As head coach of the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs, Lamb took on these same Appalachian State Mountaineers to open the 2024 season, and he saw his Bulldogs hang around for about three quarters before eventually seeing the Mountaineers’ superior size and speed take over en route to a 45-24 win.

Lamb’s familiarity goes beyond just having faced the Mountaineers personally as the head coach at Gardner-Webb last season, as his cousin Taylor Lamb was the quarterback for the Mountaineers from 2014-17, finishing out his standout career as the Black and Gold’s signal-caller by finishing second in the history of the program in career passing yards (9,786 yds), while also finishing second in program history in pass attempts (1,240) and completions (754). His 90 touchdowns in his four seasons as a quarterback remain an App State school record.

Tre Lamb, who was a standout quarterback himself at Tennessee Tech, will enter the matchup in Boone with at least two capable signal-callers of his own, with former Gardner-Webb quarterback Jaylen King, who shined in his first spring in Johnson City, set to compete for the starting job in fall camp.

In his freshman campaign with the Bulldogs last season, King passed for 1,223 yards and completed 107 throws, including 11 for scores.

He was also effective on the ground last season for the Bulldogs, as he finished out the season with 401 rushing yards to go with five scores. He started the final seven games of the 2023 season for the Bulldogs.

Competing with King for the starting responsibilities this fall will be St. Francis transfer Cole Doyle, who will enter the 2024 campaign as a redshirt senior for the Bucs.

During the 2022 and '23 for the Red Flashes, Doyle passed for 2,977 yards and 34 touchdowns. He also rushed for 579 yards and two touchdowns, while winning the 2022 NEC Offensive Player of the Year honor, and was a 2023 Second-Team All-NEC honoree.

Offensive talent should abound for ETSU this fall, with talent both returning and incoming at wide receiver, while the Bucs also have some capable talents returning at running back.

While Will Huzzie's record-setting career ended with him being one of the best to ever suit up at wideout for the Blue and Gold, it's time for a new crop of receivers to make a name for themselves catching the football for ETSU.

Xavier Galliardetz is back to lead the wide receiving corps and he will team with Gardner-Webb transfer AJ Johnson as big targets in the Bucs passing attack this fall.

Galliardetz was one of the few bright spots on the offensive side of the football last season for the Bucs, as he hauled in 20 passes for 342 yards and three scores last season. He was also a threat in the return game for ETSU last season.

Johnson was a key figure in the Bulldogs passing attack last season, as he finished out the season by hauling in 20 passes for 284 yards and three scores, as he saw action in nine contests.

Johnson will team with Gardner-Webb teammate Justin Franklin, who posted 40 catches for 633 yards and four scores in 14 games with the Bulldogs over the past three seasons.

Bryson Irby returns at running back, while UConn transfer Devontae Houston and redshirt junior Trey Foster will help compliment the speedy Irby in the backfield for the Bucs. Irby was solid in the spring game, rushing for 79 yards on nine carries. In 2023, Irby saw action in nine games, finishing with 531 yards and five TDs.

The Bucs will be re-tooling the offensive front for the second-straight season, and Lamb will be heavily reliant on what he got from the transfer portal in his first season on the job in the tai-cities. Guys like redshirt senior Gabe Thompson (Gardner-Webb), who started 25 games over the past couple of seasons for the Bulldogs, brings both experience and versatility to the front, having played both right guard and center during his time at Gardner-Webb.

Graduate student Luke Smith (App State), junior Will McCraw (Gardner-Webb), redshirt junior Seth Williams (App State), redshirt senior Derrell Bailey Jr. (South Florida), redshirt sophomore JaQuan Adams (Gardner-Webb), freshman Micah Sumpter (Charlotte) and returning redshirt junior Braxton Shipp all should be in the mix to start this fall.

On ETSU’s defense, the Bucs will have a new leader on that side of the ball for the first time in a long time, with longtime defensive coordinator Billy Taylor having moved on to become the head coach at NCAA Division II Tusculum College.

Josh Reardon will be the new defensive coordinator leading ETSU this fall, and he will both inherit and welcome in capable talent from the transfer portal on the defensive side of the football heading into the 2024 season.

There is at least one major loss from the defensive side of the football entering the 2024 season, with Sheldon Arnold II having moved on from the secondary.

Rashad Whitehead (Gardner-Webb) will offer key leadership along the defensive front, as he posted 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack last season along the defensive interior for the Bulldogs.

Whitehead could team with big senior Willie Harris, who posted 53 tackles, 17.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks over the past three seasons for the Bulldogs, and was a key cog in a Bulldogs defense that won back-to-back Big South Conference titles.

Ty Anderson and Nick Hunter add more experienced talent in coming over from Gardner-Webb, and with Arnold's departure in the Bucs secondary, the job of anchoring the unit will now fall to veteran Chris Hope. Hope is coming off a 2023 season, which saw him post 88 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and five passes defended.

App State is a program that is a perennial power in whatever conference it is in no matter the level of football. The Mountaineers, who are under the direction of Shawn Clark, who heads into his fifth season as the head coach of his alma mater. Clark was an All-American offensive lineman at App State from 1994-98, and was a key piece to the puzzle in App State’s early rise to the top of FCS football, which would lead to the school’s first of three-straight national titles seven years after his graduation.

Clark has helped the Mountaineers maintain the level of success, which was initially established under predecessor Scott Satterfield in ASU’s transition from the FCS-to-FBS from 2014-18. Eliah Drinkwitz was around for barely one season before bolting for Missouri, catapulting his career off the talent reservoir Satterfield and Clark had helped cultivate.

The program ranks sixth among FBS programs with 95 wins since the start of the 2014 season. App State is coming off a 9-5 season in 2023, which included a 13-9 win over Miami of Ohio in a quagmire in the Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl in Orlando last December.

As far as what 2024 has in store for Clark’s Mountaineers, they should again be a formidable title contender in what is widely regarded as the top “Group of Five” conference—The Sunbelt Conference.

Entering the 2023 season, the quarterback spot was very much an unknown for App State, however, after the season put together by Joey Aguilar in 2023, it appears to be very much a strength for the Mountaineers heading into the 2024 campaign. He finished out his junior season by throwing for 3,757 yards, with 33 TDs and 10 INTs.

The Mountaineers were also able to secure another capable signal-caller from the transfer portal, in University of Texas transfer Charles Wright.

App State should also be more than capable at the skill positions heading into the 2024 season. This could be a cause for concern for ETSU’s inexperienced secondary.

The Mountaineers welcome the return of their top three leading wideouts from last season, with Kaedin Robinson (67 rec, 905 yds, 10 TDs), Christian Horn (36 rec, 566 yds, 6 TDs), Makai Jackson (27 rec, 418 yds, 2 TDs) and Dalton Stroman all returning to the fold for the upcoming campaign. Further enhancing an already talented receiving corps are the additions of Louisville transfer William Fowles and South Carolina transfer Zavier Short.

It probably comes as little surprise, then, that the Mountaineers chose to utilize the air for its most mode of offensive operation last season, averaging 273.6 YPG via the airways in 2023.

Dating back to their days as a SoCon power under former legendary head coach Jerry Moore, however, the Mountaineers have always been balanced offensively. So while there was more success through the air last season, the Mountaineers will always be balanced, with a more than capable ground attack.

While Nate Noel has transferred to play for Drinkwitz at Missouri, the running game for ASU will still be in the capable hands of Kanye Roberts. Roberts showed he was more than capable of handling the rushing load, finishing off the campaign with 696 yards and seven TDs on 123 carries, averaging an impressive 5.7 YPC.

App State must replace its two top tacklers from a year ago on the defensive side of the football, however, pretty much every other significant performer on that side of the football returns for the 2024 campaign. App State ranked fifth in the Sun Belt in both scoring defense (27 PPG) and total defense (378.9 YPG) last season.

So how will Tre Lamb’s second-straight season opener go in the High Country? Probably will be a tough opener once again against arguably a better App State team.

Final Score Prediction: App State 56, ETSU 17

The Citadel's Rainy rushing against Clemson
Source: Cameron Pollack/The Citadel Athletics

The Citadel at Clemson

Nov. 23, 2024/Memorial Stadium/TBA

The Citadel is one of three SoCon schools that will have to wait until November to face their FBS opposition, taking on ACC member Clemson on Nov. 23.

The Bulldogs sure hope to have collected their first win under now second-year head coach Maurice Drayton before reaching Nov. 23 and the regular-season finale at Clemson because if not, it’s more than likely we will be talking about a second-straight season without a victory for Drayton’s Bulldogs.

The Citadel and Clemson will be meeting for 40th time in series history, with the Tigers holding the commanding 33-5-1 all-time series edge, and have won 18-straight games in the series, including a 49-0 win in the FCS COVID-19 compromised and shortened 2020 season. The Citadel’s last win in the series against Clemson came on Nov. 16, 1931, as the Bulldogs were able to post what was a 6-0 win over the Tigers.

That should not be the case, however, as The Citadel at least to have solved at least one of their major issues, which plagued it during the program’s first-ever winless season in 2023, and that is having a reliable option under center.

Much of that optimism surrounding the Bulldogs' overall improvement this coming season has to do with having potentially a new quarterback leading the offense this fall, in Liberty transfer Jonathan Bennett.

The Bulldogs fielded not only one of the worst offenses in FCS football last season, but one of the worst in the program’s modern history.

The 2023 campaign was one in which the Bulldogs ranked 116th out of 122 offenses in the country last season, averaging just 260.4 YPG of total offense a year ago.

The Citadel also ranked 122 out of 122 in the 2023 season in scoring offense, averaging a nation worst 10.0 PPG. One thing about it, things have to get better offensively in the 2024 season, and coming off what was a cautiously optimistic spring, there's certainly good reason to believe that things will get back on the right track in 2024.

Bennett has a lot of familiarity with both The Citadel tradition and with the coaching staff, and much of that has to do with the fact he literally played for one of the Bulldogs' offensive assistants at Summerville High School during his time as a prep. The graduate transfer has good size, at 6-0, 225 lbs, and is blessed with a good, accurate arm, as well as possessing good enough wheels to get yards on the ground should the situation call for it.

Bennett looked good in the spring, and he will have a couple of veterans surrounding him at the skill positions, with his favorite target through the air during the spring having been Tyler Cherry, and when he's not going up top to Cherry, his Swiss army knife support coming from the backfield is Cooper Wallace, who has done just about everything for the Bulldogs offense over the past couple of seasons--from toting the pigskin to lining up under center as the Bulldogs' signal-caller.

Cherry was also a top offensive weapon for the Bulldogs last season, hauling in 21 passes for 210 yards and in his three seasons for the Bulldogs at wideout, has hauled in 43 passes for 596 yards and three scores.

Wallace logged action in eight contests in 2023, rushing for a team-high 278 yards on 77 attempts, while also completing two passes for 36 yards and also making 12 catches for 172 yards and two TDs in 2023.

The offensive line has a good nucleus to build upon, with four players with starting experience returning to the fold for 2024 highlighted by the return of junior Zach Blanchard and Cameron Moewe, while Sawyer Whitman returns for his sophomore season at center. Mike Barlilucci, who sat out the 2023 season, is also expected to make his return to the offensive front in 2024.

While the offense was atrocious in 2023, it wasn't as if Drayton's defensive unit was much to write home about either. The Bulldogs ranked 111th in scoring defense (34.4 PPG) and ranked 103rd (423.3 YPG) last fall.

Highlighting the returnees on the defensive side of the football will be mostly youthful talent, which either will be counted on right away as true freshman, or in the case of Devonyae Pettis, who was a freshman standout for the Bulldogs along the defensive front last season, will now look to take some of the the new pups under his wing this fall and show them the ropes.

One of those highly-touted true freshman signees that fans are looking forward to seeing sport The Citadel Blue this fall is West Ashley High School product and defensive end Andrew Jackson, who was a Shrine Bowl participant and finished out his senior season with 48 tackles and 14 sacks.

The Bulldogs open the 2024 season on Aug. 31 against cross-town rival Charleston Southern at CSU Stadium in Ladson.

The Bulldogs will open the home slate at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Sept. 7 against South Carolina State--a team that handed The Citadel an embarrassing 31-13 loss in Orangeburg last season.

The Citadel faces a Clemson team that had plenty of its own question marks at quarterbacks last season, and while it didn’t lead to a winless season like it did in Charleston, it led to plenty of disappointments for a Clemson program that has perennial FBS playoff expectations heading into each season.

The Tigers were far from that expectation last fall, as Clemson finished the 2023 season with 9-4 record overall, which included just a 4-4 record in the ACC. The Tigers did manage to end the season by winning their bowl game, taking what was a 38-35 victory over Kentucky in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl.

There’s good reason to believe the Tigers will be right in the mix for the ACC title once again this fall. Talent and experience returns on both sides of the ball for head coach Dabo Swinney, who heads into his 16th season at the helm of the Clemson football crown, with the defense headlining the two sides of the football, with the Tigers expected to once again have one of the nation’s top units in 2024.

The 2023 season saw Clemson tie for the nation’s lead in takeaways (28) and finished the campaign ranked eighth nationally in total defense (287.8 YPG). In the 10 years of the College Football Playoff era, Clemson has posted a Top 30 finish nationally in every season in both total defense and scoring defense.

It all starts up front on the defensive side of the football, and the Tigers strength will once again be at defensive end, where sophomore TJ Parker (41 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FR) returns after garnering Freshman All-America honors in 2023. Cade Denhoff expects to join Parker as the starting tandem at the bookend positions, while defensive tackle sees both starters Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro having moved on.

At linebacker, it’s the same story, as Clemson just seemingly reloads each of its positions with talent each season, and that should once again be he case in 2024.

Despite losing All-American Jeremiah Trotter Jr. to the NFL, Clemson welcomes the return of Barrett Carter—an All-ACC linebacker—that announced he had decided to return in January for his senior season. Also returning to the fold is junior Wade Woodazz, who finished out his sophomore season by posting 31 tackles, including six tackles behind the line-of-scrimmage and six sacks. He also picked off a pair of passes, including one he returned for a score.

The secondary must replace a pair of starters, including NFL first-round pick Nate Wiggins, as the Tigers produced one of the top pass defenses in the ACC last fall. Jaedyn Lukus, who has appeared in 18 games with four starts, is the leading returnee at cornerback, while Shelton Lewis and Avieon Terrell will compete to start at the other corner spot.

The Tigers should be especially strong at. the two safety positions again this season, RJ Mickens being one of the veteran-most leaders on the Clemson defense. He has totaled 144 tackles, five INTs and eight pass breakups in 47-career games for the Clemson defense, including having made 17-career starts.

Also returning to the fold for 2024 is freshman All-American Khalil Barnes. The Atlanta, GA., native comes off one of the most impressive debut seasons by any Clemson defensive back in school history, completing the 2023 campaign with 41 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for-loss, six pass breakups and a team-high six INTs.

On the offensive side of the ball, there are more questions that must be answered for the Tigers, especially at quarterback where Cade Klubnik returns in his second season as the starter in second-year offensive coordinator Garrett Riley’s offense.

Klubnik’s inconsistencies overall last season were perhaps a bit off-set by how he finished the season for Clemson in its 38-35 bowl win over Kentucky, as he connected on 8-of-8 passes for 71 yards on what was a clutch, game-winning drive to lead the Tigers to the win. All told, Klubnik finished out the season by connecting on 290-of-454 passes for 2,844 yards, with 19 TDs and nine INTs. Klubnik also added 182 yards and four scores on the ground.

The ground game loses Will Shipley to the NFL, however, shouldn’t miss a beat with the return of Phil Mafah, who comes off an outstanding season for the Tigers, which saw him rush for 965 yards and 13 TDs on 179 attempts last fall. Mafah also added 21 catches for 108 yards in 2023. Mafah started five games last season, and scored a Clemson bowl record four TDs in the win over Kentucky.

Clemson lacked a real big-play threat at wide receiver for the second-straight season in 2024, however, that could change this season, with freshman All-American Tyler Brown showing signs of being a guy that can stretch opposing defensive backfields for the foreseeable future. He finished his rookie season with Clemson by hauling in 52 passes for 531 yards and four scores.

Antonio Williams, who was limited due to injuries last season, is another in-state product looking to build off what was a strong rookie campaign back in 2022, which saw him garner Freshman All-America honors after hauling in 54 passes for 604 yards and four TDs in 14 games.

The best and most reliable option when the Tigers decide to go to the air in 2024 might be senior tight end Jake Briningstool. He heads into his final season with a realistic shot of setting career marks for receptions, yards and receiving TDs for a Clemson tight end, giving you an idea of how important he’s been to the Clemson offense over the past three seasons.

Clemson has a new leader as its offensive line coach, in former Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke. He hopes to help improve a unit that has endured arguably the most scrutiny since the program made its last College Football Playoff performance back in 2020.

The right side of the Tigers offensive line should be its strength heading into the 2024 campaign, highlighted by the return of All-ACC selection Blake Miller at right tackle, while Harris Sewell made major strides at right guard during the twilight of his rookie season in 2023.

Final Score Prediction: Clemson 54, The Citadel 3

Wofford vs South Carolina Nov. 18, 2017
Source: Mark Olencki/Wofford Athletics

Wofford at South Carolina

Nov. 23, 2024/Williams-Brice Stadium/4 p.m. EST

Wofford heads into the 2024 season with plenty of momentum off how it finished off the 2023 campaign, which was with a 19-13 win over No. 2 ranked Furman. The win over its main gridiron arch-rival could almost make one forget that the Terriers went just 2-9 last season, and like The Citadel, fielded one of the worst offensive units in the entire FCS.

By the time the Terriers face South Carolina on Nov. 23, 2024, we will have a chance to see just how far Wofford has come under second-year head coach Shawn Watson.

The Terriers and Gamecocks will be meeting on the gridiron for the first time since the 2017 campaign, when South Carolina was able to post what was a 31-10 win over a Terrier team that would go on to win the Southern Conference and make it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals.

The Terriers and Gamecocks will be meeting for the 25th time on the gridiron, with the Gamecocks holding a 20-4-0 all-time series edge. The Gamecocks knocked off Furman, 47-21, in the second game of the season at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2023.

The Terriers have plenty of production returning on both sides of the ball, and hope that late-season win over the second-ranked Paladins last fall could be enough to help catapult the Terriers into the upper echelon of the SoCon gridiron hierarchy once again this fall. It was not so long ago that the Terriers were the team to beat in the league, as Wofford is just five years removed from dusting off a third-straight SoCon title run.

Over the past four seasons, it goes without saying that it has been a rough ride, with the Terriers falling fast. Since winning that third-straight league crown in 2019, Wofford has posted just a 7-31 overall record, including a 5-23 mark in SoCon play.

The impressive Amari Odom is back at quarterback, as is Bryce Corriston, as the two will battle it out for the starting responsibilities heading into the 2024 season. Both played well in the spring and remained in a battle for the starting responsibilities for the upcoming season.

Returning to supplement either Corriston or Odom on the offensive side of the football heading into the 2024 season will be running back Ryan Ingram, who is in his fifth year as a running back with the Terriers' football program, and the veteran running back started all 10 games he played in last season at running back, rushing for 837 yards and six scores, leading the team with 156 carries last fall. Ingram finished the season by ranking third in the league in rushing average (83.7 YPG).

One of his premier performances of the season came in an early Southern Conference road loss at VMI, finishing that contest rushing for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. That was one of four 100-yard rushing performances of the 2023 season. Junior Kyle Parsons will provide a nice compliment to Ingram at running back this fall.

While Ingram is a big piece for the Terrier ground attack, Wofford also returns some big weapons at wide receiver, which includes Dylan Djete, however, will not include Alec Holt, who has moved on. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Gavin Batt, who emerged from the spring as a big target and playmaker at wide receiver.

Sophomore Tyler Parker is another key potential receiving option for the Terriers catching the football this fall. Parker finished the 2023 season and saw action in seven games, making one start. He finished the 2023 season with eight catches for 158 yards and one score.

Jacob Ritchie, Jordan Davis, and Corey Seay return as three capable tight ends, with the trio giving the Terriers solid depth at the position heading in the 2024 season.

The offensive line is anchored by the veteran leadership it has on the right side, which includes right tackle Tayvian Gass, as well as right guard Briggs Kearse.

The offense remains the major question mark for the Terriers heading into the 2024 season,. After all, the Southern Conference had three of the worst offenses in FCS football last season, with The Citadel (116 in FCS), VMI (101 in FCS) and Wofford (120 in FCS). In fact, the Terriers sported the worst offense in the SoCon last season, averaging just 248.4 YPG last season, while Wofford ranked No. 117 out of 122 FCS teams in scoring offense (10.0 [PPG).

The reason Wofford stayed in a majority games it was able to be competitive in last season is its outstanding defense, and the area hit hardest by graduation is the defensive front.

Bookend Brandon Maina returns as the lone starter returning from a year ago. Maina started 10 games along the defensive line, as he finished out the 2023 season with 45 tackles, while tying for the team lead with four sacks last fall.

The Terriers return two of four starters at linebacker heading into the 2024 season, with Eli Purcell and Harrison Morgan having moved on.

The good news for Wofford fans is leading tackler David Powers returns to the fold following a 2023 campaign, which saw him start 10 of 11 games for Wofford, finishing the campaign with 102 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and three sacks en route to garnering Second Team All-SoCon honors last fall.

Three of four starters return in the secondary, which should also end up being the strength of the defensive unit this fall. Cornerbacks Amir Annoor and Damien Curtis return, while safety Maximus Pulley also returns. Pulley started all 11 games and finished fourth on the team in tackles, with 52 stops.

South Carolina faces its own set of challenges entering the 2024 season, with another challenging schedule put together by Director of Athletics Ray Tanner, and that should be concerning for fourth-year head coach Shane Beamer, whose seat is getting a bit warmer following a disappointing 5-7 mark in 2023–one in which the Gamecocks were riddled with injuries throughout the season, especially along the offensive line and at linebacker.

With that said, unlike their arch-rivals from the Upstate, South Carolina has attacked the transfer portal in the three previous seasons under Beamer, and likewise, have also lost a lot more talent than Clemson during that span to that same transfer portal.

Beamer and staff, however, have mined the portal with arguably more “hits” than “misses” and one of those “hits” last season was at quarterback, where Spencer Rattler did all he could to keep South Carolina in many games that they had no business being in last fall.

The shame is to see how good Rattler and the South Carolina offense could have been with a healthy offensive line and receiving corps, as well as a consistent threat in the running game for an entire season. However, that never materialized. The Gamecocks were still decent on offense, however, finishing the season averaging 363.1 YPG and 26.0 PPG. More balance will certainly be a goal for a Gamecock offense, which averaged 278.0 yards through the air last season, however, just 85.1 YPG on the ground.

One of the best moves made in the off-season, however, came on the sidelines within its coaching ranks, as the Beamer was able to lure former offensive line coach and 2016 interim head coach Shawn Elliott back to Columbia to serve as the running game coordinator and tight ends coach.

Since leaving South Carolina at the end of the 2016 campaign, the Camden, S.C. native spent the past seven seasons as the head coach at Georgia State.

Dowell Loggains heads into his second season leading the South Carolina offense having to replace one of the best quarterbacks to ever wear Garnett and Black, in Rattler.

Rattler finished out the 2023 season by completing 275-of-389 passes for 3,186 yards, with 19 TDs and eight INTs. The good news is 14 starters return out of a possible 24, with five back on offense, while eight regulars return on defense.

While Rattler is gone at quarterback, the position should be in great hands, with uber-talented redshirt freshman LaNorris Sellers (4-of-4, 86 yds, 1 TD/5 rush att, 51 yds, 1 TD) in line to lead the offense in 2024.

Sellers beat out Auburn transfer Robbie Ashford during spring practice. Sellers showed glimpses of what he could do last season, appearing in three games and giving a memorable performance in the home opener against Furman, completing all four of his passes for 86 yards and a score.

The other major departure on the offensive side of the ball is at wide receiver, where Xavier Leggette put together one of the top individual seasons in Gamecock history, hauling in 71 passes for 1,255 yards and seven TDs, averaging 17.7 YPR.

The lone returning starter at wide receiver is a pretty good one, in Nyck Harbor (12 rec, 195 yds, 1 TD, 16.2 YPR).

Former quarterback-turned-receiver Luke Doty (13 rec, 123 yds, 1 TD) is also back, as well as some key additions made through the transfer portal like Miami of Ohio transfer Gage Larvadain and former Louisville Cardinals wideout Ahmari Huggins-Bruce. Both should compete for playing time at wideout this fall.

The leading returning pass-catcher for South Carolina is at tight end, where Joshua Simon (28 rec, 256 yds, 9 TDs, 9.1 YPR) is back, while will give the Gamecocks solid depth at tight end after transferring in from Ball State.

South Carolina’s 2023 leading rusher—Mario Anderson (143 rush att, 707 yds, 3 TDs, 4.9 YPC)—has moved on and there has been a major overhaul at the position during the off-season.

Juju McDowell (26 rush att, 63 yds, 2 TDs, 2.4 YPC) should be in competition to lead the Gamecocks ground attack this season, which like wide receiver, includes several transfers hoping to win the job.

The main competition for the starting running back job is Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, who comes to Columbia from Arkansas. Sanders was a 2022 All-SEC selection and appeared in 32 games over the past three seasons, with 18 starts. In 2022, Sanders rushed for 1,443 yards and 10 TDs for Arkansas.

Four of five starters are back on the offensive line, and that should be a strength for Beamer’s offense this fall. Tree Babalade, Trovon Baugh, Vershon Lee and Jakai Moore highlight the four returnees along the offensive front, while South Carolina also added three transfers that should add depth and challenge for starting spots, in Kamaar Bell (FAU), Aaryn Parks (Oklahoma), and Torricelli Simpkins III (North Carolina Central).

The Gamecocks have eight starters back from a unit that ended up surrendering 26.3 PPG and 395.7 YPG last fall.

The Gamecocks defense utilized more of a 3-3-5 stack defensive unit last fall, allowing more speed and athleticism on the field at one time, and that somewhat influenced what the opposing offense could call at times during the 2023 season.

The middle of the Gamecocks defensive line should be in excellent shape heading into the 2024 season, with the unit being headlined by Tonka Hemingway (32 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 PBUs, 2 FRs) on the defensive interior, while Bryan Thomas Jr. (22 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 1 FF) returns at the EDGE position.

Alex Huntley (33 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 QBH, 1 blkd kick) and T.J. Sanders (43 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 4 PBUs, 4 QBHs) were the Gamecocks two top pass-rushers along the defensive front last fall. As a unit last fall, the Gamecocks were able to complete the campaign with 21 sacks, which was 20 less than the 41 surrendered by South Carolina last fall.

The linebacking unit should also be in excellent shape with the return of all-conference performer Debo Williams. Williams, who started as the Gamecocks’ weak side linebacker last season, totaled a team-leading 113 tackles, 9.0 tackles-for-loss, broke up three passes, recovered a fumble and registered a sack. Williams’ tackles total marked the highest by a South Carolina defender since 2002.

Four regulars are back in the secondary, and it should be the strength of the Gamecocks defense this fall. Nick Emmanwori (71 tackles, 8 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 QBH) and D.Q. Smith (73 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 2 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) are back at the two safety positions, while All-American Nickel Jalon Kilgore (76 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 6 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF) and cornerback O’Donnell Fortune (39 tackles, 6 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1.0 TFL) round out the returnees heading into 2024.

Unfortunately for Wofford, it appears this is the wrong year to catch South Carolina, however, momentum could be important. Depending on what the morale of both programs is when they meet on Nov. 23, that could provide a closer than expected result, but the Gamecocks should win with relative ease. The Terriers can hope that South Carolina has most of its attention focused on the following week and its Palmetto Bowl matchup with Clemson.

Final Score Prediction: South Carolina 42, Wofford 7

VMI QB Collin Shannon attempts a pass against NC State, Sept. 16, 2023
Source: Chuck Steenburgh/SportsPhotoGuy.com

VMI at Georgia Tech

Sept. 14, 2024/Bobby Dodd Stadium/3:30 p.m. EST

VMI heads into its second season under the direction of Danny Rocco with plenty to be excited about in the near future after posting what was a 5-6 record this past season and surprising pretty much everyone around the league in doing so.

For the third-straight season, the Keydets will be facing FBS opposition from the Atlantic Coast Conference, traveling down to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech at historic Bobby Dodd Stadium. The previous two seasons have seen the Keydets take on both North Carolina State (L, 7-45) and Wake Forest No. 22 (L, 10-44).

The Sept. 14 meeting with the Yellow Jackets, somewhat surprisingly, isn’t the first gridiron battle between the Keydets and the 1990 co-national champions. In fact, two years prior to Georgia Tech’s greatest athletic achievement, the Yellow Jackets posted what was a 34-7 win over VMI.

The man leading the Yellow Jackets during that particular time period was Bobby Ross, who had more than a little bit of familiarity with the Virginia Military Institute, having played quarterback and defensive back for the Keydets from 1956-58 and started his coaching career at VMI in 1965. Ross also was a head coach in the SoCon from 1973-77 at The Citadel, and when the Yellow Jackets and Keydets met in 1988, Ross was in his second season as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach.

The Sept. 14 meeting between the two will mark the 16th all-time clash between the two programs, with the Yellow Jackets having won 14 of the previous 15 meetings. VMI’s lone win in the series would come during the 1950 season, with the Keydets capturing a 14-13 win in Atlanta.

Heading into the 2024 season, there is a quiet optimism surrounding Danny Rocco’s team following that surprising five-win a year ago.

Given there was a new head coach and plenty of new personnel, and an unsettled situation at the quarterback position, there was plenty of reason to believe the Keydets might have a repeat performance of what was a 1-10 season in 2022, however, Danny Rocco and his new staff, mixed with some holdovers, proved to be just what the doctor ordered. He gave the Keydets a renewed confidence and turned out to be the proverbial “shot in the arm” the program needed.

Plenty of talent returns on both sides of the ball to give Keydet fans reason to be even more optimistic about the 2024 season, including quarterback Collin Shannon and running back Hunter Rice, which will give the Keydets two excellent veteran leaders. Rice finished the 2023 season as the league's fourth-best rushing threat, completing the campaign with 867 rushing yards, while leading the league with 14 touchdowns.

The biggest question marks entering the season will be the offensive line, as well as wide receiver, where Chance Knox has moved on.

VMI also returns a host of talented defensive veterans, including William Dixon, who is back to help anchor the defensive line, as well as linebacker Stephen Dean III, who was a key component of a defense that proved to be one of the better units in the league last fall.

The Keydets finished the 2023 season ranked sixth in the SoCon in total defense (375.2 YPG), while also finishing the campaign ranking in the top five in scoring defense, surrendering 24.9 PPG, ranking fifth overall in the conference.

So with Rocco's first season a major success, what are the realistic goals for the 2024 season in Lexington?

With plenty of veteran leadership returning on both sides of the ball, it is not unrealistic for VMI fans to expect to set the bar at finishing a place or even two spots higher in the standings this fall, as Rocco continues to build the VMI brand and identity in the always-tough Southern Conference.

It's unrealistic to think that every season VMI is going to be an upper echelon finisher in the league, however, it is realistic to believe the Keydets can do it with some consistency every two or three years, and perhaps even challenge for a title again at some point like they did in the spring of 2021, which saw them claim their first since 1979.

In terms of challenges in the non-conference, along with facing Georgia Tech, the Keydets also face CAA member William & Mary, as VMI looks to snap one of the longest losing streaks in a series between two FCS foes in the season opener, having dropped 25-straight to the Tribe. It will mark the first clash on the gridiron between the two since 2011, when VMI dropped a 24-7 contest in Lexington.

Georgia Tech comes into the 2024 season coming off a 7-6 season, which included a 5-3 mark in ACC play, which was good enough for a tie for fourth place in the ACC final standings. The Yellow Jackets also claimed a 30-17 win over UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl last December.

Like VMI, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the Yellow Jackets football program heading into the upcoming season. Seventeen starters highlight those returning to the fold for head coach Brent Key’s Georgia Tech squad entering the 2024 season.

Four of five starters return along the offensive line for the Yellow Jackets, as well as quarterback Haynes King (226-of-367 passing, 2,842 yds, 27 TDs, 16 INTs/737 rush yds, 10 TDs).

All of the aforementioned players helped the Yellow Jackets field one of the top ground attacks in the nation last fall, ranking 12th nationally in ground offense, as the Yellow Jackets averaged 203.8 YPG in 2023.

King’s 37 TDs accounted for made him the star attraction for what was an explosive, balanced Yellow Jackets offense last fall. Tech’s 203.8 YPG on the ground also led the ACC last fall. The Yellow Jackets signal-caller was one of four offensive players to garner All-ACC honors last season.

Leading the Yellow Jackets along the offensive line are Joe Fusile and , who returns after garnering All-ACC accolades last fall. Also returning to the offensive line for the 2024 season is 2023 all-conference performer Jordan Williams. The only position which the Yellow Jackets must replace along its offensive line this fall is at right guard.

Along with King being back under center, there is plenty of talent to distribute the football to next season, with the return of all-league running back Jamal Haynes as well as wideout Eric Singleton Jr., who was also an all-league pick last season, giving the Yellow Jackets two more big-play threats on offense.

There are far more questions to be answered for Key and staff on the defensive side of the football entering the 2024 season, and that’s the primary reason head coach Brent Key went out and hired four new assistants during the off-season. He brought in Tyler Santucci at defensive coordinator, and he will implement a 4-2-5 defensive scheme this fall.

There is at least one talented performer returning along the defensive front returning, as Zeek Biggers (40 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1.0 sack, 1 FR, 1 blkd kick) is back following what was an all-conference season along the defensive line.

Biggers has a number of veterans surrounding him along the defensive front, however, with the likes of veterans like Makius Scott (34 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 1 FF), Eddie Kelly (38 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 QBH), and Kevin Harris (27 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QBHs), as the unit should be among the most-improved in the ACC this fall.

Two of the top three linebackers are back, in Kyle Efford (81 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 2 QBHs) and Trenilyas Tatum (38 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH). Efford led the team in tackles last season and should be in line to compete for All-ACC honor this fall.

The Yellow Jackets also figure to have one of the top tandems of safeties in the ACC this fall, with Clayton Powell-Lee (69 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 INT) and LaMiles Brooks (67 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 6 PBUs, 1 INT) back, while Ahmari Harvey (31 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 PBUs, 1 FF) is the lone returning starter at cornerback.

VMI could make this a tricky game for the Yellow Jackets—at least for a while—as the Keydets have a defense that could help them hang around longer than expected in this one. I still expect for the Yellow Jackets to prevail, however.

Final Score Prediction: Georgia Tech 38, VMI 10

Fred Payton attempts a pass again Alabama
Source: Will Hanley/Mercer Athletics

Mercer at Alabama

Nov. 16, 2024/Bryant-Denny Stadium/ 2 p.m. EST

For the third time since re-starting its football program in 2013, Mercer will engage in battle with the most tradition-rich and decorated program in college football—the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Like The Citadel’s battle against Clemson, or Wofford’s against South Carolina, the Bears’ meeting with the Crimson Tide won’t come until late in the the regular-season, as the two will face off against each other on the penultimate Saturday of the regular-season for Mercer on Nov. 16. The Bears will follow up their trip to Tuscaloosa by hosting rival and defending SoCon champion Furman on the final day of the regular season at Five Star Stadium on Nov. 23.

The last time the Crimson Tide and Bears did battle on the college football gridiron came on Sept. 11, 2021, as the Crimson Tide was able to coast to a 48-14 win.

In 2017, the Crimson Tide registered a 56-0 win over the Bears in what was just Mercer’s fifth season since resurrecting its football program after a 72-year hiatus. Overall, it will mark just the fifth all-time meeting between the Bears and Crimson Tide, with Alabama having won all four previous meetings.

The Crimon Tide and Bears met in consecutive seasons back in 1939 and ‘40, respectively, with Alabama posting a pair of 20-0 wins. All told, the Bears have been outscored, 144-14, in series history vs Alabama.

For Mercer, the 2024 season will mark a new beginning, with new head coach Mike Jacobs taking over for Drew Cronic, who has departed to become the offensive coordinator at Army. Cronic took the Bears program to unprecedented success on the gridiron—past or present—leading the Bears to their first FCS playoff appearance and win in 2023, as Mercer put together an impressive 9-4 season, which included a 6-2 mark in SoCon play.

Since returning to the gridiron, the Bears head into their 12th campaign with a 69-56 overall record, which includes a 40-38 mark in Southern Conference action. Last season’s six league wins tied for the most SoCon wins since joining the league in 2014, as the Bears also had six SoCon wins during the 2021 campaign.

Over the past three seasons, the Bears have posted an impressive 17-7 mark against league foes. The Bears are 0-9 against FBS foes since returning to the gridiron in 2013, including a 73-7 loss at Ole Miss last season.

The important thing is even though Cronic left suddenly to become the offensive coordinator at Army just after the 2023 season, the expectationss and standards remain the same, which is to win the program’s first SoCon crown.

Cronic did plenty to raise the bar of success even more in his four seasons in Macon, as the program has been successful more often than not since re-starting its program after a 72-year hiatus, posting six .500 or better campaigns since returning to the gridiron, including three-straight seasons with seven or more victories.

The Bears were able to cross at least one of their goals off the list with the passing of the 2023 season, as the 11th edition of the Mercer football program since its re-start produced its first-ever FCS playoff appearance and first-ever playoff win, posting a 17-7 win over Gardner-Webb in the first-ever postseason game at Five Star Stadium.

The Bears had to travel to eventual national title winner South Dakota State in the next round, where they were soundly defeated, 41-0, by the Jackrabbits.

Major strides had been made, however. That's something that new head coach Mike Jacobs will be looking to capitalize on. Unlike the jet that flew him into Macon, Jacobs is a no-frills, blue-collar coach that knows how to win by out-working the other guy and getting the absolute maximum effort out of his guys first, while worrying about the talent later.

For Jacobs, winning has never been an issue. After all, he was 74-17 in his previous coaching stops at Notre Dame (Ohio) and Lenoir-Rhyne, boasting what is currently the sixth-best winning percentage among coaches act the NCAA Division I and II levels, respectively. In the 2023 season, he helped guide the LR Bears to a 13-2 recorded, which ended with a semifinal loss in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Interestingly, Jacobs, who is the 21st coach in Mercer history and now succeeds Cronic as the head coach of the Mercer Bears, also succeeded Cronic as the head coach of the LR Bears back in 2019.

Prior to his time at LR, he was the head coach of Notre Dame (Ohio) from 2016-19, helping the program to a dominant run of success and a 42-8 record during those four seasons.

Jacobs has a lot to replace heading into the 2024 season, including most of his offensive production, with the graduation of two of the nation's top wide receivers, in Ty James and Devron Harper to graduation, as both are currently in mini-camp with the Minnesota Vikings.

The Bears must also replace Carter Peevy under center. There was a bit of good news announced recently for the Bears, as it was learned that former Lenoir-Rhyne running back DeWayne McGhee would be transferring into the Mercer program in 2024. The Division II All-American running back rushed for over 4,000 yards during his time at LR and will give the Bears offense an immediate boost.

Texas State offensive lineman Ian Hoover joins McGhee as a high-profile transfer on the offensive side of the ball for the Bears heading into the 2024 season. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Another addition from the transfer portal that figures to come in and compete right away for a starting job along the offensive line is Tyshawn Hurst, who comes to Mercer after spending two seasons at Marshall and then Snow College (Utah), and the redshirt junior will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Lonnie Ratliff IV could be in line to replace Peevy under center. After redshirting one season at Louisiana Tech (2022), Ratliff IV, a native of Duluth, GA., spent his redshirt freshman season at Holmes Community College in Mississippi where he earned all-conference plaudits after passing for 1,065 yards, with eight TDs and two INTs. Ratliff will have three years of eligibility remaining.

There are still some holdovers on the defensive side of the football, too, with the return of linebackers Ken Standley and Isaac Dowling are back, and the potential All-America tandem will headline a defense looking to maintain its strength after fielding one of the top defenses in FCS football a year ago, finishing the season ranking 36th nationally in scoring defense (23.9 PPG) and 48th in total defense (344.2 YPG).

Alabama is also embarking on a new football journey, following the most successful run by any coach in the modern era of college football, following Nick Saban’s sudden retirement this past February, as he won six national titles and posted a record of 201-29 in 17 seasons as the head coach of the Crimson Tide. Talk about a tough act to follow!

However, that’s exactly what new head coach Kalen DeBoer will attempt to do after he was hired away from Washington. The Crimson Tide should once again be among the handful of favorites to claim the 2024 national title, with 11 starters (6-offense, 5-defense) returning off a 2023 squad that finished 12-2 overall and went a perfect 8-0 in SEC action, claiming the SEC Championship with a 27-24 title game win over Georgia.

Junior Jalen Milroe returns as the Crimson Tide’s signal-caller entering the 2024 campaign. Milroe came of age as the 2023 season progressed, as the quarterback position was definitely a work in progress early on in the 2023 campaign.

Milroe, at least in some ways, is a quarterback similar to Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. prior to his injuries earlier in his career at Indiana, but vastly different than the pass-happy Penix in Washington’s air raid offense in 2023. Milroe is the type of dual-threat injury that Penix Jr. prior to his injuries at Indiana, exhibiting a game-breaking running ability along with a big-time arm.

Sophomore running back Justin Haynes (25 rush att, ) will be in line to lead Alabama’s ground attack this fall, while Jam Miller will provide some outstanding depth.

Wideout should again be a strong suit for the Crimson Tide, despite losing their top three wide receivers from a year ago.

With Isaiah Bond, Jermaine Burton and Amari Niblack all having moved on, the Crimson Tide still have some capable pass-catchers waiting in the wins, with both Kobe Prentice (18 rec, 314 yds, 2 TDs, 17.4 YPR) and Kendrick Law (15 rec, 135 yds, 9.0 YPR) back for the 2024 season. Five star freshman wideout Ryan Williams will also be one to watch this fall for the Crimson Tide.

Along the offensive line heading into the 2024 season, Alabama welcomes the return of three starters along its offensive front from a year ago. Left tackle Kadyn Proctor, left guard Tyler Booker, and right guard Jaden Roberts are all back from an offense that averaged 393.1 YPG and 34.0 PPG last fall.

Under the legendary Saban, the Crimson Tide had a defense that was an elite unit, year-in and year-out. Just five starters return on the defnsive side of the ball for the Crimson Tide heading into the 2024 season, however, it’s a unit that should still be talented this fall.

Former South Alabama Kane Wommack will be leading the unit this fall as the Crimson Tide’s newly hired defensive coordinator. It’s an Alabama unit that, a year ago, allowed just 316.0 YPG and 19.0 PPG.

The defensive line’s strength should be straight up the middle, with veterans Tim Smith, Tim Keenan and Jaheem Oatis all back.

Both inside linebackers—Deontae Lawson (67 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 4 PBUs, 4 QBHs) and Jihaad Campbell (66 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBUs)—return to bolster the middle of the Alabama defense even more. Lawson and Campbell ranked second and third on the team, respectively, in total tackles last season.

The lone returning starter for the Crimson Tide in the secondary is safety Malachi Moore (52 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 5 PBUs, 1 INT).

Like Furman and The Citadel, Mercer has a legitimate college football playoff contender to deal with. I don’t expect this game to be one that Mercer takes a lot from, and should it be in the playoff mix, will likely even rest players in anticipation for its matchup in the regular-season finale with Furman.

Final Score Prediction: Alabama 45, Mercer 14