As the season gets closer, below I have taken a look at some of the key non-conference games that the SoCon needs to show well in the non-conference if the league wants to continue to further establish itself to media and fans alike that it is once again a force to be reckoned with among the elite FCS conferences in the country.
Aug. 26, 2023 — Mercer vs. North Alabama, (Cramton Bowl/Montgomery, AL), 3:30 p.m. EST
The first time the Southern Conference gets to showcase itself on the national stage will be on August 26, when the Mercer Bears participate in the ESPN Events FCS Kickoff Classic. Mercer will go head-to-head against North Alabama in Montgomery, marking the official commencement of the 2023 FCS football season.
North Alabama had a challenging year, finishing with a 1-10 season record, including a tough 0-5 record in the WAC-SUN conference. However, the Lions are now in a phase of rebuilding under the guidance of a new head coach, Brent Dearmon. At just 37 years old, Dearmon stands as one of the younger head coaches in the realm of FCS football. He's been diligent on the recruiting front, infusing new energy into the program after a string of difficult seasons.
Within the 10 losses North Alabama suffered last year, one notable setback occurred against SoCon member Chattanooga. In this particular match, the Lions experienced a 41-14 defeat last autumn. Intriguingly, there's no history of matchups between the Bears and Lions on the football field.
The Lions' initial two games of the season are set against SoCon programs. Following the ESPN Events FCS Kickoff Classic, North Alabama will additionally host the Mocs on September 2nd. This arrangement promises an engaging start to the season, as North Alabama takes on fellow SoCon teams right out of the gate.
Aug. 31, 2023 — Tennessee Tech at No. 6 Furman (Paladin Stadium), 7 p.m. EST
One of the more intriguing games of the opening Thursday night of the season will take place between Furman and a rapidly improving Tennessee Tech team. The Paladins and Golden Eagles met as recently as the 2021 season, with the Paladins going to Cookeville and blanking the Golden Eagles, 26-0.
The Golden Eagles enter the 2023 season coming off a campaign which saw them finish with a 4-7 overall record, including a 2-3 record in what was the final season of the Ohio Valley Conference as we know it. Their 2023 season brought a tie for third place in that particular league last season. Since then, the Ohio Valley has merged with the Big South Conference, generating buzz around the Golden Eagles football program.
Head coach DeWayne Alexander, now in his sixth season leading the Tennessee Tech football program, has significantly improved the team. Last season, they demonstrated progress by challenging eventual SoCon champion Samford, led by Michael Hiers. A 33-28 loss to Samford showcased the Golden Eagles' potential.
Following a 33-30 overtime loss to Kennesaw State last season, the Golden Eagles rebounded by winning three of their last four games. Alexander's experience in the Southern Conference, serving as East Tennessee State’s offensive coordinator in 2017, further strengthens the team's foundation.
Picked fourth in the 10-team Big South-OVC poll, the Golden Eagles return 15 starters, seven on both offense and defense from last year. Their opening game will feature a West Coast offense, with a new quarterback taking over. The candidates include freshman Jordyn Potts, sophomores Maddux Richey and Ethan Roberts, and Iowa State transfer Hayes Gibson.
Tennessee Tech's defensive line, led by graduate students Kail Dava and Trevor Stephens, emerges as a team strength. Dava, a second-team All-OVC pick last season, boasts impressive stats. On the other hand, the Paladins, favored to win the Southern Conference, return 20 starters. Notable players like Tyler Huff and Dominic Roberto on offense, along with strong linemen Pearson Toomey and Jacob Johanning, form a formidable lineup.
The Paladin defense, a highlight, retains 10 of 11 starters from a unit that ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense last season. This upcoming game will mark the fourth clash between Furman and Tennessee Tech, with the Paladins leading the series 2-1. For Furman, this game is crucial and should not be underestimated.
Sept. 2, 2023 — The Citadel at Georgia Southern (Allen E. Paulson Stadium, 6 p.m. EST)
The Citadel heads to Georgia Southern in an intriguing early non-conference clash between an FCS and a Group of Five FBS program. The Bulldogs and Eagles were once Southern Conference rivals for two decades, and they even faced off in the Division I-AA Playoffs in 1988 and '90, both times in Statesboro. The '88 match ended with a 38-20 win for the Eagles, and the '90 encounter saw the Eagles secure a 31-0 victory.
Throughout their two decades as SoCon members, the Eagles held a 15-5 series advantage. Notably, The Citadel's 2003 victory at Paulson Stadium stands out. Despite trailing 21-0, the Bulldogs managed a 28-24 win against the 19th-ranked Georgia Southern team, marking the only time Georgia Southern lost to The Citadel in Statesboro.
Their most recent meeting was in 2015, with Georgia Southern emerging victorious with a 48-13 score. In the larger context, The Citadel has a history of defeating FBS programs, including a significant 2019 win over Georgia Tech, 27-24, in overtime.
Under first-year head coach Maurice Drayton, The Citadel will introduce Northern Illinois transfer and dual-threat quarterback Dustin Fletcher. On the Georgia Southern side, second-year head coach Clay Helton guides a team that returns 13 starters, nine of whom are on offense. Despite both teams' history of triple option/flexbone offenses, rule changes have rendered this style largely outdated across football levels.
This game holds a notable place in the SoCon's aspiration to strengthen its reputation as a rising FCS power conference. A competitive showing by The Citadel could aid in bolstering the conference's standing. The emphasis is on earning respect and avoiding a lopsided defeat. The potential for The Citadel to achieve this is certainly present.
Sept. 2, 2023 — East Tennessee State at Jacksonville State (Burgess-Snow Field), 2 p.m. EST
It’s another tricky game between a SoCon school and another not-so-far-removed FCS school will occur in the opening weekend of the 2023 season when East Tennessee State heads to Jacksonville State, in a game that offers the Bucs a prime opportunity to score a second upset over an FBS program in a three-year span.
The Bucs were able to score their first win over an FBS foe since 1987, when the Bucs took down the Vanderbilt Commodores, 23-3, in Nashville a couple of years ago.
The Gamecocks played their first season as an FBS program in 2022 and are coming off a 9-2 season under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. They return 16 starters from a team that was still transitioning to the FBS last fall and is slated to play its first FBS season this fall.
In the most recent meeting between the Bucs and Gamecocks, Jacksonville State overcame a halftime deficit to secure a 34-27 win over the Bucs, ending ETSU’s season in heartbreaking fashion in the FCS playoffs.
The Bucs, once picked to finish second after a SoCon title run a couple of years ago, enter the 2023 season with more muted expectations. They were modestly picked sixth in both the preseason media and coaches polls, respectively.
Like Jacksonville State, the Bucs are under the direction of a second-year head coach of their own, as George Quarles looks to steady the Buccaneers’ pirate ship in year two.
On offense, there are good pieces to build around. Quarterback Tyler Riddell returns for a fifth season. While there won’t be a Quay Holmes or Jacob Saylors running the football, the offense boasts weapons at running back and skill positions. The Bucs also return potential record-breaking wideout Will Huzzie and all-conference tight end Noah West. Zach Borisch from the University of Idaho joins as the new prime candidate out of the Bucs' backfield.
Rebuilding the offensive line was necessary after the graduation of four starters. Braxton Shipp is the only holdover returning along the offensive line.
The defense lost several starters to the transfer portal, with 61% of players who registered a tackle last year needing to be replaced. Keep an eye on Sheldon Arnold III, a preseason all-conference selection at defensive back, who leads a secondary that looks promising for the 2023 season.
The Gamecocks themselves have uncertainties heading into their first season as a Conference USA member. They'll open their campaign on Aug. 26 against UTEP, giving them one game under their belts before facing ETSU. Senior signal-caller Zion Webb returns to lead the Gamecocks offense after averaging 424 YPG and 36.2 PPG last season.
This will be just the third all-time clash between the Gamecocks and Bucs, with Jacksonville State holding a slight 2-1 series advantage due to a playoff win four years ago. The game presents an opportunity for ETSU and the SoCon, but the first JSU game against UTEP might have a significant impact on their performance against the Bucs.
Sept. 2, 2023 — Davidson at VMI (Foster Stadium), 1 p.m. EST
The Danny Rocco era as the head coach of VMI football will open on September 2. VMI is set to host the Davidson Wildcats, a program that has consistently excelled in the Pioneer Football League. Despite VMI's 1-10 record last season, they face the Wildcats, who secured their second PFL title and FCS playoff appearance in three years during the 2022 campaign.
Under sixth-year head coach Scott Abell, the Wildcats experienced an 8-4 season last fall. Abell's leadership has significantly transformed the Davidson football program. The upcoming matchup will be the 59th all-time encounter between the two teams, with VMI holding a notable 38-17-3 series edge.
VMI has prevailed in 11 consecutive meetings and secured victories in 12 of the last 13 clashes. The most recent confrontation occurred in the 2021 season opener, where VMI, fresh from a SoCon title in the spring, dominated the Wildcats with a 45-24 victory at Foster Stadium.
VMI has its own uncertainties to address, including the starting quarterback position (Colin Ironside, Wyatt Hogan, or Collin Shannon) and the replacement of standout middle linebacker Stone Snyder. Meanwhile, the Wildcats, predicted to rank second in the PFL for the 2023 season, boast a formidable ground attack.
The offensive line, featuring preseason all-league picks Gilbert Deglau and Jonathan Hammond, anchors the Wildcats' ground game. This unit led the FCS in rushing offense last season, averaging 331.5 yards per game on the ground. In contrast, VMI struggled to defend against the run last season, ranking 111th nationally in rush defense and conceding an average of 215.6 yards per game.
This opening game carries significant importance for both VMI and the SoCon. As the saying goes, a team is only as strong as its weakest link.
Sept. 2, 2023 — Mercer at Ole Miss (Vaught-Hemingway Stadium)
This isn’t a game that I believe the SoCon has a high chance of winning, but it's a game that showcases the league's potential. If Mercer can challenge Ole Miss in their season opener, it would demonstrate the strength of at least one top SoCon team on the national stage. Mercer's advantage lies in already having played a game against North Alabama in the FCS Classic to start their campaign.
Resurrecting their football program a decade ago after a 72-year hiatus, the Bears have faced five SEC programs on the gridiron since 2013, but Ole Miss is the first outside of Alabama or Auburn. Ole Miss, finishing 8-5 last fall, had a disappointing end in the Texas Bowl, losing 42-25 to the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Under fourth-year head coach Lane Kiffin, the Rebels have triumphed in their last 12 games against FCS opponents by an average of 34.2 points. The last FCS team to defeat the Rebels was Jacksonville State in 2010, in a thrilling 49-48 overtime victory.
Ole Miss returns 16 starters, nine of them on offense, under the leadership of offensive genius Lane Kiffin. The team has averaged over 30 points per game in the last three seasons, with a peak offensive average of 511 yards per game in Kiffin’s first season. Quarterback Jaxton Dart, a transfer from USC, effectively took over as the leader, displaying dual-threat skills.
Mercer has experienced early challenges against Auburn and Alabama in recent seasons, even surprising against an Auburn team that was expected to be weaker. The Bears had a competitive game against the 15th-ranked Auburn Tigers in 2017, keeping them in check for three quarters.
One advantage for the Bears is the experience they bring to the field, including 10 returning starters on defense, expected to be one of the best in the FCS. Their defensive backfield, led by Lance Wise Jr., intercepted 17 passes last year, ranking third in the FCS. This could disrupt Ole Miss' high-octane offense.
If Mercer manages to exploit this advantage and keeps Ole Miss on their toes, the game in Oxford could become interesting. A competitive loss would reflect positively on the SoCon's standing.
Sept. 9, 2023 — Wofford at No. 4 William & Mary (Walter Zable Stadium), 6 p.m. EST
One of the more intriguing SoCon vs. FCS non-conference games of 2023 is Wofford against William & Mary. The matchup offers an opportunity for Wofford, under new head coach Shawn Watson, to prove themselves despite not being projected to finish at the top of the SoCon. An upset win against fourth-ranked William & Mary could turn their fortunes around.
A victory here would be a significant FCS win for the league this season. The Tribe, under fifth-year head coach Mike London, are expected to excel in both the Coastal Athletic Association and nationally in the FCS.
Talent is abundant on both sides of the ball for the Tribe, led by Darius Wilson at quarterback. In his third season as the starting quarterback, Wilson looks to build on his past performances. He was named CAA Rookie of the Year two years ago and is known for his throwing and rushing abilities.
Bronson Yoder, one of FCS football's best running backs, also strengthens the Tribe's offense. In 2022, Yoder rushed for 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns, earning All-CAA honors.
Both Wofford and William & Mary have rich traditions built by legendary FCS head coaches. William & Mary's success largely stems from former head coach Jimmye Laycock, who achieved 249 wins, seven conference titles, and 10 FCS playoff appearances during his tenure. Wofford's achievements, since joining Division I in 1997, can be attributed to Mike Ayers, who transitioned the program from Division II to a perennial SoCon contender.
While Ayers retired in 2017, Laycock's last game was in 2018. Under new leadership, both teams aim to build on their legacies. Wofford's recent seasons were challenging, but Watson's interim leadership led to three wins in the final five games.
With 14 returning starters, Wofford has strengths on both sides of the ball. However, there's limited experience at the quarterback position heading into the 2023 season.
Wofford and William & Mary have met only twice before. William & Mary won both previous encounters, including one in Ayers' inaugural season as Wofford's head coach, where the Terriers suffered a 30-14 loss at Zable Stadium.
While an upset by Wofford would be welcome, a strong showing by a SoCon team projected lower in the league against a strong CAA team would bolster the SoCon's reputation as the nation's third-strongest FCS conference, potentially earning multiple playoff invitations.
Sept. 16, 2023 — Furman at Kennesaw State (Fifth-Third State Bank Stadium), 5 p.m EST
Furman and Kennesaw State will meet for the second time in their history, with the Owls securing a 52-42 victory in a memorable game in 2016.
In the lone previous meeting, Kennesaw State held on for a 52-42 win over Furman, even after leading 49-14 at halftime. The defeat marked Furman’s eighth consecutive loss, which dated back to the previous season.
The Owls' offense, led by sophomore Chandler Burks, set records at Paladin Stadium. Burks rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts and also threw for 171 yards and a touchdown on 9-of-12 passing.
Burks' 49-yard Hail Mary pass as time expired in the first half gave Kennesaw State a commanding halftime lead of 49-14. Although Furman mounted a rally in the third quarter to close within 14 points at 49-35, the Owls secured the victory with a second-half field goal by Christian Kinley.
Despite Kennesaw State's FCS status, they will field a roster with 21 more scholarship players this season. Should Furman lose, the implications for an FCS playoff committee decision could be significant.
A win for Furman in this matchup would likely secure a stronger position and potentially eliminate any uncertainty during the selection process for FCS playoffs.
Nov. 18, 2023 — UT Martin at Samford (Seibert Stadium), 1 p.m. EST
A late-season non-conference FCS showdown with significant playoff implications could occur between Samford and UT-Martin.
Both teams were once members of the Ohio Valley Conference. They met a couple of years ago, with UT-Martin securing a 33-27 victory over Samford in a matchup in Martin.
In the previous season, Samford came from behind to avoid a potentially season-changing loss against Tennessee Tech. They won 33-28 in Cookeville, entering league play with strong momentum.
UT-Martin, led by veteran head coach Jason Simpson, has consistently been a contender for the OVC title during his 17-year tenure. The Skyhawks have won consecutive conference titles in 2021 and 2022, with additional championships in 2006.
Despite their success, the Skyhawks missed the FCS playoffs last season due to a coin flip loss against Southeast Missouri State. UT-Martin is expected to contend for the OVC title once again, likely battling SEMO for the top spot.
When Samford and UT-Martin meet in the regular-season finale, it will be their 21st encounter. Samford holds a commanding 15-4-1 lead in the all-time series between the two teams.