Prior to the start of the season, many circled Oct. 1 and the Chattanooga and East Tennessee State game as being the game of the week in the SoCon, however, with the way things have played out early this season, that game might well be in Greenville this weekend rather than in Johnson City. Whatever the case might be, few would disagree that this is the most appetizing slate of games to this point in the season, with four league clashes highlighting the league’s slate on the first day of October. Both the Furman-Samford game and the Rail Rivalry game are ones that have both SoCon title and FCS playoff implications.
Now the real season begins as they say. Few would have thought that this game would eclipse the ETSU-Chattanooga as the SoCon Game of the Week, as many had the Rail Rivalry circled as potentially the league’s “Game of the Year” coming into the campaign. No FCS team has faced higher ranked FBS opposition than Samford and Furman, and both were respectable in losses. The Paladins were a 35-12 loser at No. 5 Clemson, while Samford dropped a 33-0 contest at No.3 Georgia the very same day.
One of the reasons that both teams find themselves in such a position as a part of the SoCon’s upper echelon, with an opportunity to well exceed preseason expectations and prognostications by both the coaches and media has to do with the transfer portal.
The Bulldogs, who have the second-most additions from the portal with 15 (10-FBS, 5-FCS) behind only Chattanooga’s 19 (17-FBS, 2-FCS), have seen almost all 15 of those make a key contribution, and that doesn’t even include Michael Hiers, who is a JUCO transfer and has arguably been the SoCon’s Offensive Player of the Year if the award were given out tomorrow.
That said, like Samford, Furman has also made some impactful additions via the transfer portal, with almost all of their eight acquisitions having contributed in some form or fashion this season, with the most notable of those being quarterback Tyler Huff (71-of-104 passing, 719 yds, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). Huff, a graduate transfer from Presbyterian College, won’t be available for action Saturday due to an injury he suffered in last week’s win at Charleston Southern.
Both the Bulldogs and Paladins have gotten off to strong starts in Southern Conference play, with Samford beating Western Carolina 35-12 at home llast Saturday at Seibert Stadium.
Michael Hiers, who has passed for 970 yards and 12 TDs, with only one INT, picked up his second SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honor this season, throwing for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the Catamounts. Hiers has been a breath of fresh air this season for the Samford offense. His 12 TD throws so far are sixth nationally. His favorite target when going to the air this season has been Chandler Smith (18 rec, 263 yds, 6 TDs, 14.6 YPR), who has really come on for the Bulldogs as a senior in 2022.
It’s been a collective effort for the Bulldog receivers, who came into the 2022 season having to replace the two top receivers from a year ago, in Montrell Washington, who now plays for the Denver Broncos, while top tight end Michael Vice, transferred out to play for Troy. The other options that have stepped up in a big way for the Bulldogs this season, include Ty King (13 rec, 200 yds, 1 TD, 15.4 YPR), who had an 85-yard scoring catch in the loss at Furman the last time the Bulldogs came to town back in the spring season of 2021, and he will be joined by other capable wideouts Kendall Watson (18 rec, 239 yds, 2 TDs, 13.3 YPR), and Judd Cockett (12 rec, 139 yds, 1 TD, 11.6 YPR), who hauled in one of those four Hiers scoring tosses last Saturday.
The ground attack is never going to be a feature aspect of a Chris Hatcher offense, however, it will almost always be capable of hurting opposing defenses with the big play. Behind a seasoned offensive front that returned four starters from a year ago and is anchored by graduate right tackle Gavin Orr.
The Bulldogs have a veteran in the backfield, in Jay Stanton (55 rush att, 286 yds, 1 TD, 5.2 YPC). Stanton showed his explosiveness last Saturday in the win over the Catamounts, racing 49 yards for a score to close out a big home win to open league play. Jaylan Thomas (28 rush att, 134 yds, 4.8 YPC) is a nice compliment to the talented Stanton. Thomas is also a capable receiving threat out of the backfield, and has six catches for 76 yards on the season, which includes a 60-yard scoring catch vs. Western Carolina last Saturday.
Thomas acts as a safety option in the passing game, acting as a capable receiving threat coming out of the backfield for the Bulldogs. While the offense has been more balanced than usual, the major reason the Bulldogs find themselves ranked inside the FCS Top 20 coming into the month of October has everything to do with their play on the defensive side of the ball this season.
The Bulldogs are led up front along the defensive line by Tay Berry (13 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Seth Simmer (14 tackles, 1.0 TFL, and a PBU), while Nathan East (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU) anchors the middle of the defense at strong side linebacker. The reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Week resides in the Bulldogs secondary, as free safety Isaiah Richardson (28 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU) claimed the award following his performance last week, after leading the Bulldogs with eight tackles to go along with his game-clinching INT.
With Huff sidelined with a minor injury for Furman’s battle against Samford, The Paladins will once again be reliant on Jace Wilson (15-of-24 passing, 186 yds, 1 TD) to do what he was able to do last season in the regular-season finale against Samford.
Wilson would play maybe his best game of the season under center for the Paladins, as he completed the contest leading a Furman offense that was able to roll up an impressive 503 yards of total offense, which included a season-best 358 yards on the ground. Wilson wasn’t the only one on the Paladin offense playing well, however, as Dominic Roberto rushed for a career-high 216 yards on 22 rush attempts in the win.
Roberto was one of two players to rush for 100 or more yards against the Bulldogs last season, with Devin Abrams (32 rush att, 118 yds, 3.7 YPC) also completing the contest with 18 attempts for 110 yards.
Roberto, Wilson, and Abrams were a huge part of the Paladin ground attack last Saturday, which survived to get a 24-19 win over winless Charleston Southern in the LowCountry. The trio combined to rush for 169 of the Paladins’ 216 yards last Saturday in Furman’s final non-conference game.
Wilson has one of the top tight ends in the nation to throw to, in Ryan Miller (28 rec, 313 yds, 4 TDs, 11.2 YPR), who has a string of seven-straight games with a TD catch. Wilson and Miller have been a dynamic quarterback-receiver combo, dating back to Wilson’s first start of his career, which came against Wofford last season.
In the 41-34 win at Samford in the regular-season finale, Miller was able to haul in a pair of passes for 65 yards and a touchdown. Wilson has plenty of options other than Miller at his disposal in the Paladin offense this season—an area that was at times lacking last season. Joshua Harris (15 rec, 148 yds, 9.9 YPR) converted running back Wayne Anderson Jr. (14 rec, 138 yds, 2 TDs, 9.9 YPR), Luke Shiflett (5 rec, 85 yds, 17.0 YPR), and James Madison transfer Kyndel Dean (12 rec, 99 yds, 8.3 YPR) account for three more capable big-play threats in the Paladins aerial attack.
The Paladins have arguably the league’s top offensive line, which is anchored by preseason all-league picks, in offensive tackles Pearson Toomey and Anderson Tomlin. The Paladins were without starting center Evan Jumper last Saturday against Charleston Southern, as Jumper was forced to miss the game under concussion protocol. Wyatt Hughes moved over from guard to center to play his first game at the position and did an outstanding job. Jumper could return to his starting center position this week against the Bulldogs.
Furman’s defense has been outstanding through the first four games of the season, with only Clemson scoring more than 19 points against the Paladins. In fact, the 35 points that Furman held Clemson to earlier this season is its lowest scoring output in any game this season.
The 376 yards of total offense put up by the Tigers against the Furman defense also ranks as a season-low for the No. 6 Tigers. Nationally, the Paladins enter Saturday’s showdown with the Bulldogs ranking 31st in the FCS in total defense (330.2 YPG). The Paladins lead the SoCon and rank second nationally with eight INTs as a team this season.
The Paladins’ +1.5 turnover margin through the first four games is tied for fifth nationally. The Paladins have veterans at all three levels of the defense, starting up front with defensive tackle Matt Sochovka (7 tackles, 1.0 TFL) and preseason All-SoCon nose tackle Cameron Coleman (7 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QBH).
Braden Gilby (24 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 FF), Bryce McCormick (18 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 QBH) and Jalen Miller (13 tackles, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 FF) have all played a key role at linebacker in the first four games of the season for the Paladins, with Miller contributing arguably two of the biggest plays of the season each of the past two weeks against the ETSU Bucs and the Charleston Southern Bucs.
In the 27-14 win over ETSU, it was Miller’s INT off a tipped pass that helped turn the tide of the game against the defending SoCon champs. In last week’s come-from-behind win at Charleston Southern, it was Miller to the rescue once again, causing the fumble that would eventually lead to what would turn out to be the game-winning TD.
Finally, the strength of the defense might be the Paladin secondary. Travis Blackshear (8 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 PBU), a graduate senior and All-America candidate, anchors the unit following a 2021 campaign, which saw him tie for the league in INTs with five last season. Blackshear hasn’t picked one off yet this season but is one of Furman’s most fundamentally-sound tacklers.
He missed last week’s game with a minor injury. Dominic Morris leads the Paladin defense with a pair of INTs this season, while Kam Brinson (9 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FRs) and Hugh Ryan (24 tackles, 0.5 TFL) have arguably been the top safeties tandem in the SoCon this season.
Final Prediction: This game will be a fourth quarter-type contest, and it could very well come down to a game-winning field goal from Furman’s Axel Lepvreau (4-for-4 on FGs this season) or Ian Williams (2-of-3 on FGs this season), or for Samford’s Zach Williams (2-of-4 on FGs this season). I think the Paladins survive another close one again this week and move to 2-0 in league play with a narrow win.
Furman 24, No. 17 Samford 22
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the rest of the league's game previews and predictions.