SoCon September Recap and Week 6 Previews

Key takeaways from Southern Conference football in September, including Western Carolina's strong start and Furman's performance. Plus, a glimpse of Week 6 game previews.

UTC's Jamarr Jones celebrating his TFL
Source: UT Chattanooga Athletics

There is some clear improvement being shown by at least two of the league’s “bottom tier” teams as both East Tennessee State and Wofford displayed they will be worthy opponents for SoCon foes for the remainder of the season, with the Bucs going down to Birmingham to Samford but not before putting up a substantial fight on what was a warm late September afternoon eventually falling, 42-28, to the defending SoCon champions.

In the nightcap of Southern Conference action, it was Wofford that gave-league-leading Chattanooga all it could handle, as the Terrier defense kept the Terriers alive most of the night before eventually wearing down late in the game.

The Mocs were able to get a big performance from their own defense to blank Wofford, 10-0, in the fourth quarter to come away from Gibbs Stadium with a 23-13 win.

Samford’s win was its first over a Division I foe this season, as well as its first Southern Conference win of the season, as the Bulldogs improved to 2-3 overall and 1-2 in league action. The Bulldogs will head out on the SoCon road next weekend, taking on Wofford at Gibbs Stadium.

Chattanooga’s win was its fourth-straight, as the Mocs improved to 4-1 overall and remained atop the SoCon with a 3-0 mark. The Mocs have outscored their first three league foes 108-40. It sets up a huge clash next Saturday, as the Mocs return to the Scenic City to host nationally ranked and red-hot Western Carolina.

The other two league games both ended in blowouts. No. 17 Western Carolina went down to Charleston and handed the Bulldogs a 49-14 beatdown in the Boneyard. The Catamount offense, which rolled up a whopping 569 yards of total output, posted a balanced day at the office, with 308 yards coming through the air and amassed another 269 on the ground.

It was a particularly big night for Catamount running back Desmond Reid, who posted five first-half touchdowns and rushed for 167 yards on 18 carries in the opening half alone. The 35-point road win saw the Catamounts improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in league play. The Catamounts will head to the Scenic City for a massive test next week against Chattanooga.

The final game worthy of note from the final weekend of September saw Mercer bounce back from its 38-14 loss at No. 8 Furman last week in strong fashion, handing VMI its first SoCon loss of the season, as the Bears coasted to a 38-3 win at Five Star Stadium in Macon. The Bears used a defense that bear-hugged the Keydet offense, limiting their visitors from Lexington to just 214 yards of total offense, and managed to keep VMI out of the end zone for all four quarters en route to improving to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in league action. Mercer will head to Johnson City to face East Tennessee State Saturday.

September is in the Books

The opening month of Southern Conference football is now in the books, and with that, let’s take a look back at some the things we learned from the opening 30 days of football in the SoCon.

  1. Western Carolina is for real—The Catamounts are simply chewing up the opposition through the opening month of the 2023 season. For a program that has never won a Southern Conference regular-season title, through the first 30 days, Kerwin Bell’s Catamounts look every bit the part. The Catamounts also look to be well on their way to commemorating their trip to the national title game 40 years ago with a second play bid in program history some four decades later. After losing 56-13 to Arkansas in the season opener, the Catamounts have won four-straight, outscoring their last four opponents 180-66 and are off to their best start since 2017. The Catamounts have now won seven-straight against FCS foes dating back to last season.
  2. Furman continues off its strong run in 2022—Along with Western Carolina, preseason favorite Furman looks to be picking up right where it left off last season, winning three of its first four games to open the season, and like WCU, the Paladins’ lone setback in the opening calendar month of the 2023 season came in SEC country, with a 47-21 loss at South Carolina in the second week of the season. The Paladins have now won 15 of their last 17 games against FCS foes after going 3-0 in the opening month of the 2023 season. The Paladins are 6-2 in its last 19 games against FCS ranked opposition. The Paladins knocked off No. 21 Mercer, 38-14, in their game of the month. With wins over Tennessee Tech (W, 45-10), at Kennesaw State (W, 31-28) and vs. No. 21 Mercer (W, 38-14), the Paladins now head into the month of the season with a game against arch-rival The Citadel before a huge two-week stretch that will see the Paladins go on the road to Samford and Western Carolina on Oct. 14 and 21, respectively.
  3. Chattanooga proving the be a little better than folks thought—After a somewhat surprising road loss to North Alabama to open the season, the Mocs have seemingly regrouped and looked like a much different football team over the past four weeks. That includes outscoring its SoCon opposition 108-40 of their first three outings against league foes. Chase Artopoeus has had his share of up and down moments under center to this point in the season. Artopoeus has been among not only the SoCon’s top signal-callers this season but has also gotten off to one of the best starts for any quarterback in program history for a newcomer. Through the first month of the 2023 season, Artopeus has connected on 93-of-146 passes for 1,307 yards, with nine TDs and four INTs. The UCLA transfer also ranks as the team’s third-best ground threat, having rushed for 128 yards and one score. He has generated 1,435 yards of total offense through the first five weeks of the season, ranking 15th nationally in total offense output (287.0 YPG) so far this season. Artopoeus and the Mocs head into a huge Saturday clash against Western Carolina at Finley Stadium, with so much at stake. It will be an outstanding quarterback matchup between Artopoeus and Western Carolina’s Cole Gonzales.
  4. Samford’s fall from grace—One of the more stunning developments in the opening month of the season is Samford’s fall from grace, as the Bulldogs sit at 2-3 following the opening month of the 2023 season. With one of its two wins on the season against non-Division I opposition, the Bulldogs still need five Division wins in their six remaining games to even be given playoff consideration at this point. Essentially, the Bulldogs season is after only 30 calendar days on life support. The Bulldogs are off to a 1-2 start in league play after running the table last season en route to a memorable 11-win season, which didn’t end until an FCS quarterfinal loss in Fargo. The biggest difficulty for Samford this season so far has been a defense that once again seems to have reverted back to its 2021 form, ranking 83rd in the nation in total defense (438.3 YPG). The Bulldogs have also not been able to keep Michael Hiers’ jersey clean so far this season, as he has taken some big hits through the early portion of the 2023 season. Already this season, Hiers has been sacked 13 times. For the entire 2022 campaign, he Samford quarterbacks were sacked a whopping 33 times, and in the end, Hiers luck of not getting injured despite enduring some tremendous shots throughout the season would finally catch up with him at the most inopportune and unfortunate time during the football season, as it took place in the final game of the regular season against Mercer, rendering Samford’s star quarterback less than 100% for the playoffs. Even though Quincy Crittendon came in and delivered a strong performance for the remainder of the season, it would have been interesting to see what might have been in Fargo with a healthy Hiers at the controls of the Samford offense. As a result of facing so much heavy pressure through the early portions of the season, Hiers has already eclipsed his INT total for the entire 2022 season through the first full month, having been picked off two more times through the first month than the four picks he threw through 13 games a year ago. Samford will begin the month of October with the Palmetto Invitational, traveling to Wofford to face the Terriers on the opening weekend of the new month, while turning around and hosting Furman on Oct. 14 in a game that was originally billed as the de facto Southern Conference championship game to begin the season.
  5. Three teams in the Top 25 in both polls–At the FCS level, both the STATS FCS poll, which is the poll of record for media that cover the NCAA Division I classification, while the AFCA Coaches Poll serves as an equally credible evaluation of overall national strength and is undertaken by a panel of coaches representing each FCS league that participates in the FCS postseason. Through the first five weeks of the season, it probably then comes as little surprise to see Furman and Chattanooga a part of both polls, with each having been picked to win each of the three previous SoCon crowns, while the other team—Western Carolina—has never even won a league title in 47 years of membership. Kerwin Bell’s Catamounts have certainly been a breath of fresh air in a league that has had a different champion each of the previous four seasons, and with Samford’s early struggles this season, now will have a fifth different title winner this season, and perhaps even a first-time champion. The Paladins are ranked No. 5 in the media poll (STATS FCS), while charting a No. 4 ranking the AFCA poll (Coaches Poll). With its ranking in the Top 5 nationally in both major polls, the Paladins sport their highest ranking since 2006. During that particular season, the Paladins would start the season with a 4-1 mark to soar to No. 3 in the nation before losing their first game in the month of October at Coastal Carolina. Following Furman’s 29-27 setback in Conway, the Paladins would fall eight spots to No. 11 the following week. Next up in both polls is Western Carolina, which sits just outside the Top 10 in the media poll at No. 11, while the FCS coaches' poll has the Catamounts sitting at No. 17. I think the Catamounts are a Top 10 team in both polls, and the Catamounts certainly pass the eye test. With its ranking of No. 11 in the STATS media poll, Western Carolina sports its highest ranking since Sept. 25., 1993, when the Catamounts were ranked No.11 in the FCS poll before falling, 34-7, in the friendly confines of EJ Whitmire Stadium. Chattanooga made an appearance in both polls for the first time this season.

Power Rankings at the end of September

  1. Furman (3-1, 1-0 SoCon)
  2. Western Carolina (4-1, 2-0 SoCon)
  3. Chattanooga (4-1, 3-0 SoCon)
  4. Mercer (3-2, 1-1 SoCon)
  5. Samford (2-3, 1-2 SoCon)
  6. VMI (2-3, 1-1 SoCon)
  7. East Tennessee State (1-3, 0-1 SoCon)
  8. Wofford (0-5, 0-2 SoCon)
  9. The Citadel (0-5, 0-2 SoCon)

SoCon Players of the Month for September

Offense: RB Desmond Reid (Western Carolina)

  • Rushed for 636 yards on 98 carries, scoring a league-best 10 TDs. He also caught 13 passes for 143 yards
  • Has rushed for 110 or more yards in four-straight games
  • Had a school-record five rushing TDs in WCU’s most recent contest at The Citadel. He finished the afternoon with 167 rush yds.

Defense: LB Alex Mitchell (Chattanooga)

  • Finished the opening month of the season with 37 total tackles, including 21 solo stops, while also posting 1.5 tackles-for-loss.
  • He helped the Mocs fashion the league’s top scoring defense through the opening month of the 2023 season (20.2 PPG)
  • Posted five tackles and a 38-yard INT return for score in Chattanooga’s 47-24 win at Samford

Southern Conference Game of the Week

No. 11 Western Carolina (4-1, 2-0 SoCon) at No. 24 Chattanooga (4-1, 3-0 SoCon)

Oct. 7, 2023/Finley Stadium (18,550)/Chattanooga, Tenn.

Series: 49th meeting/Chattanooga leads 30-18

Game Preview

Chattanooga and Western Carolina matchup in a contest that, at least on paper, one might be forgiven for making the assumption that a high-scoring contest, filled with big plays might be ready to take place Saturday inside the friendly confines of Finley Stadium. As history has proven in the past seasons, playing a ranked team on the road for Western Carolina hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success for the Catamounts, who sport just a 3-48-2 mark against ranked teams on the road, having dropped their last 47 against ranked foes away from Cullowhee. The Catamounts have not defeated a ranked team away from Cullowhee in 39 years, last taking down 12th-ranked Furman, 20-19, in Paladin Stadium in 1984.

After all, Western Carolina comes to Chattanooga sporting the nation’s top offense, showing the ability to be nearly unstoppable at times through the first month of the season. Led by savvy sophomore signal-caller Cole Gonzales (92-of-126 passing, 1,256 yds, 11 TDs, 2 INTs/22 rush att, 82 yds, 3.7 YPC), the Catamount offense has picked up right where it left off last season, which was from setting new offensive standards for yards in a season (5,339) last season, and this year, the Purple and Gold appear to be well on the way to breaking those standards. Gonzales leads an offense that averages 528.0 YPG and is an offense that has an embarrassment of weapons.

One of those is running back Desmond Reid (98 rush att, 636 yds, 10 TDs, 6.5 YPR/13 rec, 143 yds, 11.0 YPR). The two-time Southern Conference Player of the Week has not only easily been the top offensive player and running back through the first month of the season, but also one of the best in the entire country, seemingly breaking his own personal rushing marks with each passing ballgame. Reid is coming off a 2022 campaign in which he was the 2022 consensus SoCon Freshman of the Year. Reid’s 4.3 speed makes him a threat not only as a receiver in the open field, but also as a receiver and a threat in the kick return game.

Options also abound at receiver for Gonzales, and like Reid at running back, the theme once again is speed and plenty of it. It starts with Censere Lee (19 rec, 334 yds, 4 TDs, 17.6 YPR) and AJ Columbo (16 rec, 260 yds, 4 TDs), who offer a tandem of deep threats as good as any in FCS football. Speed at receiver and weaponry on the long ball have been a tried and true tradition of Catamount food spanning their 47 years as a league member. Guys like Gerald Harpand Eric Rasheed in the early-mid 1980s, to guys like Kerry Hayes, Craig Aiken and David Patten in the early-mid 1990s, to guys like Lamont Seward and Michael Banks in the early 2000s, and in more recent seasons, Raphael Williams and Terryon Robinson highlight a tradition at wideout that could match any other program in the league as a SoCon member. Even before the Catamounts became a SoCon member, they had stars at the position, with the memorable Jerry Gaines hauling in passes for the Catamounts in their hey day as a Division II member.

But if the Catamounts won’t win their first Southern Conference for the first time ever, head coach Kerwin Bell knows a lot of it will be determined in the trenches, especially on the offensive side of the ball and the offensive line in particular. It’s a position in which the Catamounts have turned tragedy into triumph over the past three years, having to deal with death of OL coach John Peacock due to complications from COVID-19 just before the start of 2021 season and the Kerwin Bell era.

The Catamounts had to shoulder that tragedy all while figuring out a contingency leadership plan for the OL in-season in 2021. Enter former Ohio State assistant coach and Marshall and Georgia Southern former head coach Frank Ellwood to the rescue, as he volunteered to take that OL group under his wing under tough circumstances in 2021.

Just before the start of fall camp in 2022, Catamount head coach Kerwin Bell brought in Jeremy Darveau to coach the OL. Darveau spent time with Bell on staff at Valdosta State and was part of Bell’s 2018 NCAA Division II national championship team. In a little less than two years, he’s taken tough set of circumstances to start with, and he’s turned the Catamount OL into one of the best in the country and unit that appears to be headed towards leading WCU to ending the season with a Top 10 offensive unit in the FCS for a second-straight season.

The Catamounts, who have allowed just three sacks in 171 pass attempts this season, while allowing just one quarterback takedown against FCS competition this season. Anchoring a veteran group that leads the nation in total offense is left tackle Tyler Smith, who is a three-time all-conference honoree.

The Catamounts will be facing one of the most physical defenses in the nation when they line up against Mocs on Saturday afternoon at Finley Stadium. The Mocs did give up an uncharacteristic 517 yards in the season-opening loss to North Alabama, however, the unit has rallied in strong fashion since.

Ever since Russ Huesman started to rebuild the UTC football program after taking over as the head coach prior to the 2009 season, the Mocs have prided themselves on having perennially among the best defenses in the Southern Conference, perennially fielding one of the top defensive fronts in FCS football.

The Mocs have two of the top defensive players in the SoCon along that defensive front as well, in defensive lineman Ben Brewton (11 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 QBHs, 1 FF) and edge rusher Jay Person (25 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 QBHs, 1 FR). Those two players highlight a front seven that has helped the Mocs rally after those struggles in the season opener to rank second in the SoCon and 49th in the nation (357.8 YPG). The Mocs have been really good in third down conversion defense, ranking 13th nationally (.308) in that category. Brewton’s 3.5 sacks through the first five games curently leads the Southern Conference, while Person’s 5.5 tackles-for-loss has him tied for second in the league in that particular category coming into Saturday’s showdown.

The defensive interior has a pair of all-conference caliber players and is one of the best tandems in FCS football, in defensive tackle Quay Wiggles (10 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU) and nose guard Marlon Taylor (9 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 QBHs).

Linebacker and defensive back were two areas that could have been a cause for some concern for the Mocs coming into the season, with some significant losses due to graduation, with notable departures at linebacker like Ty Boeck and defensive back Ca’Miron Smith.

Alex Mitchell (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF, 1 PBU), who garnered SoCon Player of the Week accolades a couple of weeks ago helps anchor a solid group of LBs that is among the best in terms of being a fundamentally sound tackling group in the SoCon. Mitchell has combined with junior Bo Spearman to give the Mocs a solid tandem at LB that came into the season asked to fill some very large shoes, as they were asked to replace Boeck and Kam Jones,respectively.

The secondary was also a bit of a question mark for the Mocs coming into the season, and after struggling in the opening week of the season against North Alabama, the Mocs are back to their ball-hawking ways as a unit this season. Kam Brown, who led the SoCon with six INTs last season, is again off to a strong start in 2023, recording his second-career pick-six a couple of weeks ago in Chattanooga’s win at Samford.

Safety Jordan Walker has also been key for the Mocs secondary this season, especially in coming up and making plays against the run. His two INT so far this season are a testament to what the veteran safety can do in pass coverage. His 31 total tackles this season ranks him third on the Mocs defense in total tackles this season.

Both of the Mocs’ defensive scores have come from its secondary this season. Through the first five games of the season, the Mocs are surrendering just under 200 yards through the air (193.8 YPG) through the air. Western Carolina’s passing offense will offer UTC’s secondary one of its most difficult assignments of the 2023 season.

Chattanooga also has one of the league’s top running backs, in Ailym Ford (89 rush att, 358 yds, 3 TDs, 4.0 YPC),however, the Player of the Year has gotten off to a slower than expected start this season, as the Mocs have relied on the arm of quarterback Chase Artopoeus (93-of-146 passing, 1,307 yds, 9 TDs, 4 INTs/128 rush yds, 1 TD) as its primary option of moving the football down the field this season.

I’m of the opinion that the reason for the more pass-heavy Mocs is two-fold: 1. The Mocs have some explosiveness at the wide receiver. 2. The Mocs are struggling to run the ball more than they have in seasons prior in the Rusty Wright era in the Scenic City. With that said, it’s easy to get spoiled as a fan or media member by thinking its always supposed to be as easy running the football, especially when you have guys plowing ahead of Mocs RBs like McClendon Curtisor New England Patriot first round draft pick Cole Strange.

The challenges to run the ball were all too easy to see in Chattanooga’s 23-13 win over Wofford in Spartanburg last Saturday, as the Mocs struggled at times to run it straight ahead against the Terriers, finishing the contest with 165 yards on 33 rush attempts. Ford had one of his lowest end-game rushing totals in recent memory, as he finished the contest with just 31 yards on 11 carries, averaging just 2.8 YPC.

As result of having some issues running the ball straight ahead this season, the Mocs have had to get a little more creative in how they have gained yards on the ground this season, and fortunately for UTC, Artopoeus is not a bad running threat himself under center, as he ranks third on the team in rushing yards this season. The other luxury is having a pretty good compliment to Ford at RB, in Gino Appleberry (41 rush att, 205 yds, 3 TDs, 5.0 YPC), who gained a tough 93 yards on 13 carries in last week’s win, which also included one rushing score.

Leading the way for the Mocs ground game this season have been a new crop of talented players along the offensive front this season, however, UTC’s offensive staff also had faced the issue of replacing four starters along the offensive front coming into the 2023 season. With that, there has been both positives and negatives, which is nothing out of the ordinary when you are replacing nearly your entire offensive front.

Sophomore Center Reid Williams and University of Florida grad transfer left tackle Griffin McDowell have helped anchor the newly fashioned offensive line unit this season, and while the Mocs have struggled to run the ball at times, but still rank a modest 54th in the nation in rushing offense (150.8 YPC), which is actually pretty solid given the fact that there are four new starters along the OL. That OL unit, however, will get its sternest challenge Saturday against the Catamounts. Like WCU’s offensive front, the Mocs have done a nice job of protecting their signal-caller this season, as UTC has surrendered only four sacks through five games.

The other aspect that teams probably underestimate about the Mocs this season, but less as the season progresses, is the fact that the Mocs have explosive big-play ability at wide receiver and in the passing game. It is arguably the most explosive big-play passing offense in Wright’s five years in the Scenic City.

Leading the crop of big play wideouts for the Mocs is Sam Phillips (31 rec, 303 yds, 3 TDs, 9.8 YPR), who is a guy that seemingly does everything asked of him. He’s sure-handed enough to be a reliable option over the middle, while possessing enough speed to take the top off of a defense if the opposition lacks the attention to detail to respect that aspect of his game.

He has a pair of speed merchants alongside him in the Mocs’ passing attack, with both Jamoi Mayes (25 rec, 460 yds, 1 TD, 18.4 YPR) and Javin Whatley (18 rec, 315 yds, 2 TDs, 17.5 YPR) giving the Mocs speed to stretch opposing defenses.

Finally, a hallmark of Wright’s teams in Chattanooga, and really dating all the way back to the Russ Huesman era, UTC has seemingly always gotten strong play at the tight end position. If you think back to that Huesman era, the Mocs had some pretty good ones, with the most notable being among the best pass-catching tight ends in school history—Faysal Shafaat (2011-14).

Huesman wasn’t afraid to use the tight end as a downfield weapon, and much like his mentor, Wright has followed that same route in terms of offensive aggressiveness. However, when Kendall Toney decided to move on to South Carolina State during the off-season, Wright and the Mocs staff had to find a new primary downfield threat at tight end in the pass game.

Fortunately, both senior Jay Gibson (4 rec, 62 yds, 15.5 YPR) and sophomore Camden Overton (6 rec, 40 yds, 1 TD, 6.7 YPR) have been able to tag-team the position this season, with both being solid downfield options in the passing game, providing enough a threat as receivers to keep opposing defenses honest.

All told, the Mocs enter Saturday’s homecoming showdown with the visiting Catamounts averaging 423.6 YPG of total offense, which ranks the Mocs third in the league in total offensive output, while the 34.4 PPG scoring average ranks UTC second in the league in scoring offense.

I think without question the key to this game, and really the key to the season, as I detailed in my preseason preview of Western Carolina for Redshirt Sports, is the Catamount defense.

To this point, the Catamounts have been better than they’ve had to be. The reason this team is going to be knocking at the door of the Top 10 or higher the entire season has little if anything to do with the offense, although it’s human nature to get infatuated by the crazy averages put up by a Cade Bell offense. However, this is no slight at all on Cade Bell or the WCU offensive staff, which I think is among the best in the FCS, however, if you’ve been paying attention, during the better part of the Mark Speir era, the Catamounts put up some pretty gaudy numbers.

It was a defense that for the better part of a decade gave up 450+ yards the other way, particularly against the opposition’s ground game that canceled out anything some of those outstanding offenses did in the Bell era or for several years prior to that under Mark Speir.

So when I tell you WCU comes into Saturday’s showdown with a defense that is surrendering just 339.6 YPG and only 24.4 PPG, people should take note. It’s easily congruent, then, to make the accurate assumption that Chazmon Scalesis among the most underrated defensive coordinators in the FCS and that some day and somewhere, that man is going to get paid some big money at power program. What he’s done with WCU’s defense is like flipping a dilapidated shack into a billion dollar mansion, although he’d be the first to tell you it’s still a project under construction but well on its way.

Two things stand out when you watch the Catamounts play on the defensive side of the football this season. One of those is the Catamounts are getting really good play along their defensive front this season. Western Carolina utilizes a 4-2-5 defensive alignment and have gotten really good play from its two players on the defensive interior this season—nose tackle Marlon Alexander (9 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Jaquaris Guinn (14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks). To further enhance how tough, it has been for opponents to run the ball against the Catamount can be gleaned from both the conference and NCAA stats. The Purple and Gold currently rank atop the SoCon and 24th nationally against the run (111.6 YPG) this season.

Jayelin Davis (5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH, 1 FR), who started his career at Florida State as a four-star recruit, has taken circuitous route to the mountains of western North Carolina that even Ferdinand Magellan would proud, is the most athletic player along the Catamount defensive front and its best pass-rusher along the front. Veteran Caleb Fisher (8 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QBHs) rounds out the talent front at defensive end.

The second thing that stands out about this Catamount defense is its physicality, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. That aspect of Scales’ defense started to pick up on tape late last season during WCU’s three-game winning streak to close out the 2022 season. The leader at the heart of the Catamount defense is Curtis Fann Jr (13 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 3 FFs) and Hayward McQueen Jr. (12 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH), while Va Lealaimatafao (10 tackles) was a preseason All-SoCon selection.

Andreas Keaton Jr. (12 tackles) might be the best overall defensive player in the Southern Conference and is one of the leading candidates for SoCon Defensive Player of the Year. Keaton anchors the Catamount secondary from his free safety position where he teams with Samaurie Dukes (17 tackles,1.0 TFL, 1 PBU), who has picked up right where he left last season after he garnered SoCon All-Freshman Team honors, ranking third on the team in tackles and has one of the team’s two INTs this season.

CJ Williams and Rod Gattison (18 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs) are both physical corners and are adept at coming up and making plays against the run and do a nice job of blowing up blocks by opposing wide receivers on the perimeter.

I think Western finally breaks its road curse of 48-straight losses to ranked opponents away from Cullowhee. Western Carolina is definitely approaching some rare territory this season.

Final Prediction: Western Carolina 31, Chattanooga 27

A quick look at the other league games

Samford (2-3, 1-2 SoCon) at Wofford (0-5, 0-2 SoCon)

Oct. 7, 2023/Gibbs Stadium (13,000)/Spartanburg, S.C./1:30p.m. EST

Series: 21st meeting/Samford leads 15-5

Quick Preview: Death, Taxes and Samford over Wofford. Well, the first two are more certainties, however, the Bulldogs have absolutely owned Wofford on the gridiron in recent seasons, having posted eight-straight wins in the series, dating back to 2015. The Terriers are off to an 0-5 start in consecutive seasons, and have lost 23 of their last 27 games, including having lost 15 of their last 18 SoCon games. There’s a new man under center for the Terriers, with Pauly Seeley (37-of-62 passing, 409 yds, 1 INT) now being the man to lead Shawn Watson’s offense, seemingly for the foreseeable future. Though the Terriers have struggled this season, they are getting better each week on the offensive side of the ball, with Ryan Ingram (57 rush att, 333 yds, 3 TDs, 5.8 YPC) being the most reliable offensive option in the ground attack. One thing is for sure and that is the Terriers need to avoid third down of any distance, if possible, as the Terriers rank 121st out of 122 teams nationally in total in third down conversion percentage (.210) this season, having converted just 5-of-62 attempts. Wofford’s defense is a solid unit, which is physical and is especially strong at linebacker. The defense was the primary reason the Terriers were able to make things interesting for 3.5 quarters in last Saturday’s 23-13 home loss to Chattanooga. The unit is led by linebacker David Powers (39 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU), and with his tackles total this season, ranks fifth in the league. There couldn’t be more of a stark contrast between Samford’s offense and Wofford’s offense, as the the prolific passing attack of the Bulldogs is led by preseason SoCon player of the Year Michael Hiers (142-of-198 passing, 1,529 yds, 9 TDs, 6 INTs). The Bulldogs who are the defending league champions and preseason co-favorites, according to the SoCon head coaches, have not found it an easy path being the hunted instead of the hunter. A win Saturday would get the Bulldogs to .500 on the season heading into a home matchup against Furman next week at Seibert Stadium in a game that many tabbed as the de facto SoCon title game prior to the season, and suddenly the Bulldogs would have all the momentum again going into that clash. But Samford must avoid looking to next week, get some big plays out of a porous defense (419 YPG), and on offense keep Hiers upright (sacked 15 times already this season) and should head coach Chris Hatcher’s Bulldogs do that, it could make for quite an interesting last half of the season for Samford. The Bulldogs have already seen the title race a foregone conclusion, but playoff hopes hang by a thread. To do that, they’ll need to win all of them from here on out.

Final Score Prediction: Samford 31, Wofford 21

The Citadel (0-5, 0-2 SoCon) at No. 5 Furman (3-1, 1-0 SoCon)

Oct. 7, 2023/Paladin Stadium (14,518)/Greenville, S.C./2 p.m. EST

Series: 103rd meeting/Furman leads 62-37-3

Quick Preview: It’s the SoCon’s most-played rivalry and one of the most heated in FCS football. When I think of this rivalry, I am reminded of great moments on both sides, however, at least on the surface, this not to be one of those years, with the Bulldogs struggling offensively, which is readily apparent with one glance at their season stats. Furman has had a week off to prepare for the Bulldogs, who were busy getting their fill of another shade of Purple in Charleston last week when Western Carolina came to Charleston. And while Western Carolina has its best team since I’ve been paying close attention to the SoCon, The Citadel, may in fact, have its worst. It’s no fault of first-year head coach Maurice Drayton, who discovered he had issues on both sides of the ball soon after his arrival by saying “We aren’t very good.” Rivalry games are supposed to record-less, in that they don’t matter, however, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Bulldogs have been outscored () so far this season. It is interesting to note that only seven of the past 22 matchups have been decided by single digits. Furman’s offense, which has been led by Tyler Huff (73-of-108 passing, 706 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs/218 rush yds, 4 TDs) through the first four games has been workmanlike, and its defense has been more bend and less break. Furman doesn’t have a big numbers guy yet this season, and as we’ve seen over the course of the past couple of seasons, it probably won’t. The Paladins defend like a pack of wild knights—more barbaric and less chivalrous. But if you're looking for that guy to provide that moment, it more than likely will be All-SoCon and veteran cornerback Travis Blackshear (14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 5 PBUs). The Citadel has seen its evolving, data-based option led by a pair of signal-callers this season, with both Graeson Underwood and DustinFletcher playing the leading roles. The best weapon in the passing game has been a running back—Cooper Wallace (49 rush att, 202 yds, 4.1 YPC/9 rec, 110 yds, 2 TDs, 12.2 YPR). He’s kind of the Carlos Frank of this team. He’s a do-everything guy for an offensive that is struggling. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stanley Myers. A quarterback that was outstanding in his day as a Bulldogs quarterback, died suddenly last week at the age of just 47. It was indeed tragic news to hear, and no matter which side of this rivalry you're on, that news hit particularly hard. One of his most memorable performances in The Citadel Blue came in 1998 at Paladin Stadium in this rivalry game, leading the Bulldogs back from a 21-3 first quarter deficit, as he completed 17-straight passes to lead the Bulldogs to the 25-24 win. This game, however, I expect it will be pretty much a cut-and-dry result.

Final Prediction: Furman 38, The Citadel 10

Mercer (3-2, 1-1 SoCon) at East Tennessee State (1-3, 0-1 SoCon)

Oct. 7, 2023/William B. Greene Jr. Stadium (7,694)/Johnson City, Tenn/3:30 p.m. EST

Series: 9th meeting/tied 4-4

Quick Preview: Perhaps the most intriguing game in the league to keep an eye on Saturday will take place in Johnson City on what will be a homecoming Saturday in William B. Greene Jr. Stadium. The intrigue builds from the inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball for both teams, and interestingly enough, the intrigue builds even more when you consider both coaches were at one time on the same offensive staff back in 2017 at Furman, with East Tennessee State’s George Quarles and Mercer’s Drew Cronic , who were both a part of the Paladins’ 2017 staff under Clay Hendrix in what was his first season as Furman’s head coach. Quarles served as Furman’s tight ends coach, while Cronic was the offensive coordinator in 2017 for the Paladins. These two coaches know each other well to say the least, and this game was one that for three quarters last season looked as if it could go either way before the Bears eventually went on to a pull away and get a 55-33 win in Macon. Both teams are led by veteran quarterbacks, with the Bears offense led by the ever-athletic Carter Peevy (64-of-99 passing, 756 yds, 4 TDs, 1 INT/193 rush yds, 3 TDs),while ETSU will go with Tyler Riddell (19-of-40 passing, 235 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs), who returned under center after an injury in the season-opening loss to Jacksonville State (L, 3-49), and was ETSU’s quarterback back in 2021 when these two faced off for the de facto Southern Conference title game. Both teams also have some superior playmakers in the passing game, with the Bears having two of the most accomplished big-play threats in the nation, in DevronHarper (23 rec, 276 yds, 1 TD, 12.0 YPR) and Ty James (18 rec, 317 yds, 3 TDs, 17.6 YPR). Will Huzzie (11 rec, 114 yds, 1 TD, 10.3 YPR) is still around catching passes and setting new career receiving marks for the Bucs, and like Harper and James, is among the best aerial targets both the SoCon nationally. The game might very well be determined on which team can do a better job of establishing the ground game, however. The Bears were able to get their ground attack going in a big way last week in the win over VMI, rushing for 298 yards in the 38-3 home victory. Al Wooten II (50 rush att, 348 yds, 4 TDs, 7.0 YPC) had a career day running the ball for the Bears, highlighted by a 76-yard scoring run on the first possession, as he finished the contest with a total of 164 yards on just 12 carries. The most impressive aspect of the Bucs’ offense in their loss last Saturday in Birmingham was a ground attack, which racked up 224 yards on the ground in the 42-28 road loss and was paced by Bryson Irby’s (47 rush att, 230 yds, 4 TDs, 4.9 YPC) 126 yards and three scores on 16 attempts. Mercer brings a defense to Macon that is maybe the most experienced unit in the league and one of the most veteran-laden the FCS, and it’s led by defensive lineman Solomon Zubairu (18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 4 QBHs) and linebackers Ken Standley (35 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 1 PBU)and Isaac Dowling (32 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 sack). The Bears are allowing a modest 364.4 YPG, while surrendering 28.6 PPG, which is skewed by the Ole Miss game, which saw the Bears surrender 73 points. ETSU has a young defense which has struggled early, but also faced some really good offensive units. Linebacker Stephen Scott (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL) is one of the best in the SoCon, while Sheldon Arnold II (30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR), who intercepted two passes and had a fumble recovery in last week’s road loss, anchors the secondary.

Final Prediction: Mercer 35, ETSU 28