SoCon Week 1 Recaps, Power Rankings and Game of the Week Preview

Recap of Week 1 SoCon action and a thrilling Game of the Week preview as Samford faces Western Carolina in a pivotal matchup.

VMI QB Collin Ironside throws against Davidson
Source: Chuck Steenburgh/

There always seems to be one of these types of Saturdays for the SoCon each season. One in which the league runs into mostly power-five, FBS opponents, so the scores should be taken with a grain of salt.

Coming into the season, we knew that both Samford and Furman had two of the league's very best signal-callers, however, the quarterback position at the rest of the programs around the league, with the exception of VMI, is a bit concerning. I also am well aware that it's the first week of the season and, most of these—many of which new starters in a new program—were facing elite level defenses, so week one is probably not a week in which I am going to come down too hard on stats.

I will go on to say this. We all wondered how the transfer portal and the exodus to FBS football might affect the FCS landscape. While it hasn't affected it as much overall in terms of a decline of talent, I do feel the one position on the decline at the FCS level, at least from my perspective, appears to be at quarterback.

There is a distinguishable talent gap starting to develop between FBS programs and FCS programs at that one singular position. It's something I will be keeping a keen eye on this season in the SoCon.

The other dynamic in-play here is talent assessment of FCS staff of the incoming transfers from other programs, mostly from the FBS. I am not sure if some of it is taken for granted, or if recruiting for that position is completely different now and maybe everything has been fast-tracked since the COVID-19 pandemic. I will say the seeds of the chaos that the pandemic caused in college sports all together is starting to show up in some areas. I can't be completely sure, but I think I am starting to see the negative effects of how it affects programs at the FCS level under center.

As the 2023 season progresses, I think it's a trend that we all should keep an eye on as we continue to go through non-conference play and into league play.

Outside the predictable outcomes of the FCS vs. FBS power five matchups, the SoCon got a much-needed win from VMI, who survived a woeful kicking performance in head coach Danny Rocco's debut as the head coach to down back-to-back FCS playoff qualifier Davidson, to get the odd 12-7 win.

The other game which involved all FCS competition took place in the league's nightcap in Florence, Alabama, as Chattanooga took on North Alabama. The Lions, of course, looked good in their opener against a ranked Mercer team last weekend, losing 17-7.

The confidence gleaned from that performance apparently carried over to their home opener Saturday night against Chattanooga.

The Mocs had outscored the Lions 61-14 in each of the previous two clashes between the programs in 2022 and '21, respectively, however, in their 2023 home opener, the Lions exploded to score 41, downing the Mocs 41-27 in a game that I would say was the one that really surprised me from Saturday's seven games.

Listed below is a brief recap and some notes from each of those games. I have also included a brief recap of Furman and Samford's wins on Thursday evening below, as well as power rankings following weeks zero and one, respectively.

I’ve also included the SoCon Game of the Week preview between Samford and Western Carolina. Look for the rest of the previews to follow on Thursday.

Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13

Western Carolina ran into a buzz-saw in the form of SEC West member and No. 22 Arkansas, as KJ Jefferson passed for 246 yards and three scores on 18-of-23 passing, as the Razorbacks rolled to a 56-13 win in the season opener over Western Carolina.

The Catamounts would settle in after falling behind 21-0 in the opening frame before settling into the game.

Quarterback play was an issue for much of the afternoon for the Catamounts, which used a pair of quarterbacks in the contest, with Cole Gonzales starting under center for the Purple and Gold, however, it was Harvard transfer Charlie Dean, who ended up seeing more time under center when the day ended. Neither shined in the contest, which had more to do with ill-advised throws into coverage more than the fact they were playing against SEC caliber talent.

Gonzales finished the day connecting on 9-of-14 throws for 114 yards with an INT, while Dean finished the day 15-of-23 for 98 yards, with three picks. Brody Palhegyi ********was the third QB to play for the Catamounts in the contest, and he connected on 1-of-3 passes for 11 yards.

While the Catamount offense left much to be desired, the one real bright spot to emerge from Saturday's loss for fans of the Catamounts is the improvement, especially up front, defensively.

In a game that was 56-13, you'd expect offensive numbers for the victor to be approach the 500-yard range—something not uncommon for SoCon foes to routinely do the Catamount defense in recent years.

In Saturday's loss, that narrative seems to be changing. At least after one week. Credit to Catamount defensive coordinator Chazmon Scales for shoring up a unit that was woeful just a couple of years ago.

Saturday saw the Razorbacks finish the contest with a 379-291 advantage in total yards, holding a slight 274-227 edge in passing offense, while the Razorbacks owned a 105-64 advantage in rushing offense.

Highlighting Western Carolina's solid defensive performance was All-SoCon safety Andreas Keaton, who posted a team-high seven stops, while CJ Williams and Samaurie Dukes added six tackles apiece.

The second game of the season serves as an interesting test for the Catamounts, as they will host No. 9 Samford at E.J. Whitmire Stadium. The Bulldogs are led by Walter Payton Award candidate quarterback Michael Hiers, and were picked in a tie for first by the league's head coaches with Furman, and second by the league's media at last month's preseason SoCon media rouser held at Hotel Hartness in Greenville, S.C.

The Western Carolina-Samford contest is listed as the SoCon's Nexstar Game of the Week, and it will also mean that the Catamounts will face a second-straight ranked foe inside the friendly confines. The Catamounts concluded the 2022 campaign with a 32-29 upset win over No. 15 Chattanooga—it's first win over a ranked foe since defeating No. 17 Samford 38-34 in 2017.

The Bulldogs claimed a 35-12 win in Homewood last season, as they began their march towards the 2022 Southern Conference title. The Catamounts have lost 17 out of 20 meetings against the Bulldogs, and are just 2-7 vs. Samford at E.J. Whitmire Stadium. Kickoff is in Cullowhee is set for 2:30 p.m. EST

No. 22 Ole Miss 73, No. 22 Mercer 7

After opening with a 17-7 win over North Alabama in the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, AL., last Saturday in scorching temperatures, Mercer got a rude greeting from Ole Miss in just the second all-time meeting between the two programs and first since 1911. It was Mercer's first game in the Magnolia State in 82 years, and might be the last for 82 more.

Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart posted a big day throwing the ball, connecting with freshman wideout Tre Harris for three scores inside the first five minutes, as the Rebels handed Mercer its worst loss since bringing its football program back to the gridiron after a 72-year hiatus in 2013, as Ole Miss posted a 73-7 win over the Bears, displaying a wide array of offensive weapons in Lane Kiffin's prolific and versatile offense.

Things actually started well early for the Bears offense after falling behind 7-0 when Dart found Harris for a 38-yard scoring connection just 55 seconds into the contest, as Mercer needed only one play to knot the score following a 75-yard ran up the gut from the deceptively quick Mercer field general, Carter Peevy.

From there, however, the Lane-Train offense was a crazy-train offense, and it attacked Mercer's talented defense in a variety of ways following Peevy's run.

When Dart found his freshman phenom wideout Harris again, it was a 28-yard scoring strike and it would be the start of 66-unanswered points for the Rebels offense.

By the time the dust had settled, the Rebels had rolled up a 667-235 advantage in total offense, with 524 of that impressive total coming through the air.

Dart completed his afternoon by connecting on 18-of-23 passes for 334 yards with four scores before calling it an afternoon. Ole Miss backup signal-caller Spencer Sanders completed 8-of-14 throws for 134 yards and a pair of scores.

Mercer's Carter Peevy finished the afternoon by going 16-of-29 for 138 yards, with an INT. He also was the Bears' leading rusher, thanks in large part to his 75-yard run for a score on Mercer's opening play from scrimmage, finishing the day with a net total of 49 yards on the ground.

Tre Harris had a sensational debut in an Ole Miss uniform, hauling in six passes for 133 yards and a school-record four touchdown catches. Jordan Watkins also caught six balls for 111 yards.

Mercer will look to put the lopsided loss to SEC West contender Ole Miss behind it when it hosts Morehead State in the home opener next Saturday at Five Star Stadium. Kickoff for that contest is slated for 2 p.m. EST.

VMI 12, Davidson 7

It certainly didn't come easy, however, VMI claimed its 12th-straight win over two-time defending Pioneer Football League champion Davidson, despite experiencing its share of struggles in the kicking game, downing the Wildcats 12-7 in the Keydets home opener Saturday afternoon at Foster Stadium.

The win helped the Keydets snap a nine-game losing streak, which closed the 2022 season after a 1-1 start.

Colin Ironside was solid under center for the Keydets, as he helped orchestrate Saturday's lone win by a SoCon team after he connected on 17-of-27 throws for 239 yards, with a touchdown and an INT. His lone scoring toss of the afternoon proved to be the game-winner, as he hooked up with VJ Johnson for a 25-yard scoring strike with just 51 seconds remaining, providing a dramatic conclusion to the Keydets 2023 opener.

All-SoCon cornerback Alex Oliver sealed the win, as he picked off Davidson's Luke Durkin at the Keydet 21 with just 12 seconds remaining to seal the win.

In the opening half of play, VMI took the lead just before halftime when Grant Swinehart scampered 14 yards for a score with just 71 seconds to play in the second quarter. However, Caden Beck couldn't convert the PAT, leaving the advantage, 6-0.

Beck had a chance to give the Keydets the lead a little earlier than Ironside's dramatic game-winning scoring toss, however, his 42-yard field goal attempt with 6:32 remaining was no good.

VMI's six-point advantage would hold up until late in the third quarter, when Christian Perry was able to haul in a 24-yard scoring strike from Durkin with 3:32 remaining in the third, making it a 7-6 Davidson lead following Adam Zougai's PAT. The TD catch by Perry capped off Davidson's most impressive drive of the day, concluding what was a 16-play, 75-yard drive.

The Keydets finished the defensive struggle with one of its most impressive performances since its spring of 2021 SoCon championship run, with linebackers Eric Rankin and Evan Eller putting up double-digit tackle totals in the opener, as Rankin led the way with 14 stops, while Eller contributed 11. Both had half-a-tackle-for-loss in the win.

The Keydet defense rendered a Davidson ground attack, which led the FCS in rushing average last season by averaging 329 YPG on the ground, to just 101 yards on 39 attempts. It allowed the Keydets to roll up what was a substantial 421-184 advantage in total offense.

VMI was led on the ground by Rashad Raymond's 62 yards on 12 carries, while Hunter Rice added 40 yards on 14 attempts.

Davidson's Durkin was 6-of-12 for 83 yards, with a TD and an INT.

VMI will look to move to 2-0 to start the Danny Rocco era when it travels to Bucknell for a 6 p.m. contest next Saturday.

Jacksonville State 49, East Tennessee State 3

In keeping with the theme of SoCon teams facing FBS competition, East Tennessee State was down in Jacksonville, AL to face the Jacksonville State Gamecocks playing in the same venue that the Gamecocks had handed the Bucs a narrow 34-27 loss on that occasion.

Less than five full years later, however, the story was much different, and playing in just its second FBS game in program history, the Jacksonville State Gamecocks showed they were making quite strides already in its new classification, knocking off ETSU 49-3 in the season opener for the Bucs.

Jacksonville State did have the advantage of getting their season underway in week zero, as the Gamecocks were able to knock off UTEP, 17-14, in their first-ever FBS game.

Like Mercer, the Bucs at least got off to a strong start in the game and even had the lead, as Ewan Johnson's 22-yard field goal concluded a seven-play, 56-yard drive to give the Bucs the early lead.

However, like Mercer, the Bucs would see their FBS competition respond angrily, as the Gamecocks reeled off 49 unanswered points and limited the Bucs to just 148 yards the remainder of the game, shutting down ETSU's offense.

On the offensive side of the football, the Gamecocks rolled up 364 yards, with 237 of those coming on the ground, as they out-gained the Bucs 237-87 in rushing yards. A true game that was decided and one-sided in the trenches.

Veteran Bucs quarterback Tyler Riddell finished the contest by connecting on 10-of-17 passes for 117 yards, with an INT.

Jacksonville State finished the contest led by quarterback Logan Smothers, who finished the day going 13-for-17 passing with 127 yards and a touchdown.

ETSU will look to even its overall record Saturday night when it hosts in-state rival Carson-Newman at William B. Greene Stadium, with kickoff for that contest set for 5:30 p.m.

Pittsburgh 45, Wofford 7

The Shawn Watson officially got underway with him returning to one of his most recent coaching stops, as Wofford took on the Pittsburgh Panthers for its 2023 season opener.

The Terriers lone bright spot offensively came late in the game, as quarterback Bryce Corriston, who was named as the Terriers' starter earlier in the week, connected with wideout Tyler Parker late in the fourth quarter for a 75-yard scoring connection for what would be Wofford's lone points of the afternoon.

All told, Corriston finished out his first-career start by connecting on 12-of-17 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh got a solid afternoon from signal-caller Phil Jurkovec, who finished the afternoon by connecting on 17-of-23 passes for 214 yards, while also rushing for 53 yards.

The biggest discrepancy in yardage came on the ground, as the Panthers finished the day with a 217-(-1) advantage in rushing yards, which accounted for a decisive overall margin of 491-126 in the contest.

All things considered, the Terrier defense did a decent job most of the afternoon, considering the defense was on the field for much of a hot and humid afternoon at Acrisure Stadium. The Panthers held sizable advantages in both time of possession (41:33-18:27) and total plays (77-36).

Wofford's defensive efforts were led by safety John Michael-DiRoberto, who finished with 11 stops and a quarterback hurry.

The Terriers return to the field Saturday, as they head to Williamsburg, VA., to square with No. 4 William & Mary in the first meeting between the two since 1988. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Walter Zable Stadium.

Georgia Southern 34, The Citadel 0

The Maurice Drayton era got underway for The Citadel, as they faced off against former Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, and like Wofford, the Bulldogs would have some severe issues offensively.

The Eagles would all but put the game on ice in the opening half of play, as Georgia Southern would score 24 of its 34 points in the opening half en route to a 34-0 win over the Bulldogs Saturday afternoon at Allen E. Paulson Stadium.

The highly anticipated arrival of Dustin Fletcher to run Drayton's new data-based triple-option was tempered, at least for the opening game of the season, as the Bulldogs were led by Graeson Underwood, who ended up winning the starting job late in preseason camp.

Underwood led a Bulldogs offense, which generated 198 on the ground, however, had only 14 through the air. The Eagles ended up owning a 473-212 advantage in total offense, which included owning a substantial 273-14 edge through the air. Underwood finished the day completing just 2-of-8 passes for 14 yards, while rushing nine times for 21 yards.

Bulldogs running back Cooper Wallace led the limited offensive efforts for The Citadel, as he rushed for 113 yards on 16 attempts, averaging an impressive 7.1 yards-per-carry.

Georgia Southern quarterback Davis Brin finished the opener by connecting on 27-of-36 passes for 244 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and an INT.

On the ground, Eagles running back Jalen White rushed for 125 yards and scored a touchdown on 19 carries, while Derwin Burgess Jr. hauled in six passes for 76 yards and a score to lead the receiving efforts for the Eagles.

Linebacker Hasan Black led The Citadel's defensive efforts, recording nine tackles and a tackle-for-loss.

The Citadel returns to gridiron Saturday for its home opener at Johnson-Hagood Stadium, hosting Campbell. Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. EST.

North Alabama 41, Chattanooga 27

The final game of the opening Saturday of SoCon football’s opening weekend would see Chattanooga travel to face North Alabama in the Lions’ 2023 home opener.

Buoyed by a good performance in a loss to Chattanooga’s SoCon rival Mercer a week earlier, the Lions came out with an offensive onslaught early, and the Mocs never really recovered after falling behind 21-0 early in the second quarter, as Chattanooga’s furious second half rally wasn’t enough in what was a 41-27 setback.

The Mocs defense would show signs of its 2022 self in the second half, allowing just 28 yards in the third quarter, however, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome what was an offensive outburst in the opening half, which seemingly saw the Lions dial up big plays on-demand en route to taking what was a 21-10 lead into the half.

The opening play of the final quarter would see the Mocs take their first and only lead of the day, at 27-21 lead to complete a string of 27 unanswered points, as Gino Appleberry found the end zone from two yards out, making it a 27-21 Mocs advantage.

Despite the good performance by the Mocs against the Lions defensively in the third quarter, the day offensively was dominated by the Lions. Following the Mocs brief lead, the Lions responded with 20 points in the final frame, highlighted by touchdown runs of 10 and 81 yards from Jalyn Daniles to bookend the final scoring flurry for the home team.

After generating just 170 yards of total offense in their season-opening setback against Mercer, the Lions rolled up 511 yards of total offense, out-gaining the Mocs, 517-488 in total offense.

UNA ended the day out-gaining the Mocs on the ground, posting a 246-177 edge, while Chattanooga had the better passing day, edging the Lions in that department, posting a 311-277 yardage advantage in passing offense.

UCLA transfer Chase Artopeus ended up much better than he initially started the game, as he connected on 22-of-46 passes for 311 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and an INT.

His favorite targets in the contest were Javin Whatley (6 rec, 106 yds) and Jamoi Mayes (5 rec, 75 yds), while Sam Phillips (4 rec, 54 yds) and Chris Houston (1 rec, 36 yds) hauled in TD catches of eight and 36 yards, respectively.

UNA quarterback Noah Walters was impressive all afternoon, hitting on 16-of-28 passes for 271 yards and four TDs and no INTs. Takairee Kenebrew led all receivers, as he was undoubtedly Walters’ favorite big play target, catching only five passes for 172 yards and three scores.

Daniels led a solid, balanced ground attack, rushing eight times for 147 yards and two scores. Daniels’ two scoring runs netted 91 yards in the final frame, ultimately sealing the Mocs’ fate.

Chattanooga’s All-SoCon running back had a solid debut to his final season in the Blue and Gold, rushing for 90 yards on 24 attempts.

The Mocs will open the home slate Saturday at Finley Stadium, as Kennesaw State pays a visit to the Scenic City. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. EST.

Thursday Night (Aug. 31)

No. 9 Samford 69, Shorter 14

Quarterback Michael Hiers began his charge towards a potential Walter Payton Award, and No.9 Samford and defending SoCon champion opened the season in style last Thursday night, downing Gulf South member Shorter, 69-14, in its home opener.

The Bulldogs improved to 7-2 under the direction of head coach Chris Hatcher in home openers. Preseason All-America quarterback Michael Hiers posted a career-high five TDs, and the prolific “Hatch Attack” offense was in mid-season form in the lopsided home-opening win in just the second all-time clash between the two programs.

Hiers and the Samford offense generated its most points since posting 73 against VMI in a league game back in 2018. The 2022 Southern Conference Player of the Year connected on 28-of-35 passes for 375 yards along with those five scoring tosses.

Hiers’ favorite target in his strong performance Saturday night came from All-America wideout Chandler Smith, as he hauled in two scoring passes along with making a team-best five catches, as well as posting a team-high 84 yards in receiving yards.

Smith wasn’t the only one that got into the receiving act, with both Ty King and DJ Rias also hauling in five passes apiece, with King totaling 61 yards receiving, while Rias contributed 57. Hiers also spread it around to newcomers E. Jai Mason and Brendan Jenkins, with each player also finding the end zone in the rout.

Running back Mychael Hamilton paced the ground attack with 73 yards on nine carries and a pair of scores in his Bulldogs debut. Damonta Witherspoon added two more TDs via the ground.

Samford posted 560 yards of total offense, including 438 through the air, out-gaining the Bulldogs 560-274 en route to the lopsided win.

Samford opens Southern Conference play Saturday afternoon on the road in Cullowhee, facing Western Carolina at EJ Whitmire Stadium. Kickoff for that contest is slated 2:30 p.m. and is the Southern Conference Game of the Week.

Furman 45, Tennessee Tech 10

The Paladins forced six turnovers for the first 2009, returning INTs of 42 and 68 yards for scores to bookend the scoring, as sixth-ranked Furman downed Tennessee Tech, 45-10, in the opener for both teams last Thursday night at Paladin Stadium.

The win was Furman’s 13th in its last 16 games, and the Paladins have now won seven of their last eight games inside the friendly confines of Paladin Stadium.

The Paladins ended the night with a 384-291 edge in total offense.

While the offense wouldn’t find some explosiveness until late in the contest, which came when senior Paladin signal-caller Tyler Huff hooked up with redshirt freshman wideout Ben Ferguson, as the redshirt freshman made an acrobatic grab in-stride on a 3rd-and-4 play early in the fourth quarter to set up one of the three fourth quarter scores that came within a seven-and-a-half minute span as a part of that late offensive flurry, which saw the Paladins outgain the Golden Eagles 178-18 in a dominating final 15 minutes.

Huff added an acrobatic 18-yard scamper earlier in the second half, which saw him hurdle a would-be Golden Eagle tackler. He also added a beautifully flighted pass to wideout Kyndel Dean, who brought in the pass over his outside shoulder for a gain of 24 yards for one of the Paladins’ longest passing plays of the night in the first half, which was one of Furman's handful of highlights on that side of the football.

A native of the Sunshine State by way of Orange Park, Huff entered the 2023 with some high praise from the league's other eight coaches, garnering preseason second-team All-SoCon recognition. He would not wow like he did in the 2022 season opener, though he really didn't need to, as the Paladins know what the main horse in the stable is all about by now. Huff would finish the night completing 15-of- 27 passes for 172 yards, with an INT.

He once again showed flashes of his overall athleticism and versatility at times, finishing with 42 rushing yards on 10 attempts and was sacked twice.

Huff’s understudy Carson Jones finished seeing some mop-up duty, completing 1-of-2 passes for 18 yards. Jones' father, Michael Jones, was a first-team All-OVC quarterback at Tennessee Tech in the mid-1990s.

As far as the ground game was concerned in the contest, All-SoCon running back Dominic Roberto finished the contest with 59 rushing yards and a pair of scores on 18 carries. Myion Hicks added 45 yards on two carries, while Grant Robinson added 26 yards on four carries. Jayquan Smith rushed for 18 yards and his first TD as a Paladin on four rushing attempts.

Kyndel Dean, who scored his first TD as a Paladin on a 6-yard scoring run in the second quarter, hauled in five passes for 56 yards. Ben Ferguson hauled in two passes for 56 yards, matching Dean’s game-high receiving total.

Tennessee Tech was paced offensively by quarterback Ethan Roberts, who finished the night connecting on 25-of-38 passes for 204 yards, with one TD and three INTs.

Bradley Clark was Roberts’ top target in the passing attack, hauling in six passes for 73 yards. Willie Miller, who had two catches on the night for 28 yards, accounted for the Golden Eagles’ lone TD of the night, hauling in a 26-yard scoring pass from Roberts with just under a minute remaining in the first half.

Defensively, the Paladins got 12 stops and a forced fumble from All-SoCon safety Hugh Ryan, while All-SoCon cornerback Travis Blackshear started the scoring with a 42-yard interception return for a score.

Linebacker Dan Scianna, who was starting in place of Bryce McCormick, lost his grandfather last week. As a tribute to his late grandfather, Scianna ended the day by returning a Jordyn Potts errant throw 68 yards for a touchdown to provide Furman’s final score of the night.

The Paladins return to action Saturday when they head on the road into SEC country, as Furman will battle South Carolina Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network+.

Southern Conference Players of the Week for Aug. 31-Sept. 2

Offense: QB Michael Hiers (Samford)

Defense: DB Alex Oliver (VMI)

Special Teams: P Atkins Roberts (Wofford)

Redshirt Sports SoCon Players of the Week

Offense: Michael Hiers (Samford)

Defense: DB Alex Oliver (VMI)

Special Teams: P Ryan Leavy (Furman)

League Power Rankings Following Week 1

  1. No. 6 Furman (1-0) Next: at South Carolina (0-1), 7:30 p.m. EST
  2. No. 9 Samford (1-0) Next: at Western Carolina (0-1), 2:30 p.m. EST
  3. No. 20 Mercer (1-1) Next: vs. Morehead State (1-0), 7 p.m. EST
  4. Western Carolina (0-1) Next: vs. No.9 Samford (1-0), 2:30 p.m. EST
  5. Chattanooga (0-1) Next: vs. Kennesaw State (1-0), 6 p.m. EST
  6. East Tennessee State (0-1) Next: vs. Carson-Newman (1-0), 5:30 p.m. EST
  7. VMI (1-0) Next: at Bucknell (0-1), 6 p.m. EST
  8. The Citadel (0-1) Next: vs. Campbell (0-1)
  9. Wofford (0-1) Next: at No. 4 William & Mary (1-0), 6 p.m.

Saturday’s (Sept. 9, 2023) Game Capsules

Game of the Week

The Game: Samford (1-0, 0-0 SoCon) at Western Carolina (0-1, 0-0 SoCon)

Coaches: Samford–Chris Hatcher (173-95/24th year as a HC)/Western Carolina Kerwin Bell (103-55/15th year as a HC)

Series: Samford holds a 17-3 all-time series edge, including claiming a 35-12 win last season in Homewood.

Game Preview

Samford and Western Carolina will face off in the first Southern Conference game of the 2023 season, and it’s one of those games that is expected to go a long way in determining the league race this fall. While the loser certainly won’t fall out of the race completely, it will severely but a dent in that team’s Southern Conference title aspirations.

Western Carolina, which has never won a regular-season outright or shared title, has maybe its highest hopes of being able to do so since the early-mid-1990s when guys like the late David Patten were suiting up for the Purple and Gold.

The Catamounts are coming off a 56-13 loss at Arkansas last Saturday, struggling more on the offensive side of the ball than on defense. That’s probably good news if you’re a Catamount football fan, especially since each of the past two seasons under Bell have seen the Catamounts produce two of the more prolific offenses in league history.

With that said, neither Cole Gonzales nor Charlie Dean looked all that impressive under center this past Saturday, however, the good news is it’s better to get those early-season miscues out of the way against an SEC program like Arkansas rather than someone in the league.

This week it gets real for the Catamounts, however, as league play officially gets underway. The improved Western Carolina defense, which limited the Razorbacks to just 379 total yards in the lopsided loss, including holding Arkansas to just 105 yards rushing on the day.

Western Carolina’s improvement defensively was evident down the stretch last season, which they won to finish out the season with a 6-5 record.

Western’s front seven is its strength, going toe-to-toe with and SEC team in the trenches, and winning their share of battles along the defensive front in the contest. It appears the Catamounts might again be without preseason All-SoCon linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Antoine Williams, and that’s a big missing piece on the defensive side of the football. I am assuming he is out with an injury, however, I haven’t been able to find out definitively whether or not that is the issue.

That being said, the Catamounts have solid performers at all three levels of the defense, led along the defensive front by one of the SoCon’s more talented nose tackles, in Marlon Alexander. It will be interesting to see how Western’s big, physical defensive front does against its first competition from its own classification, after holding up pretty well most of last Saturday’s contest in Little Rock.

Linebacker Va Lealaimafatao and safety Andreas Keaton are both all league performers, and are playing a big role in both making plays against the run, as well as in coverage. Keaton is one of the biggest hitters on the team, and is one of the best athletes on the team, with the ability to give help in run support, as well as in pass coverage.

With that said, the Catamounts might not be facing the Arkansas Razorbacks this Saturday, but the team they are set to face Saturday is one of the best offenses in the FCS, and has a quarterback in Michael Hiers, that in his own way, is at least as talented as Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson.

The Bulldogs will bring more of an authentic test to see how much improvement the Catamounts have made defensively, thanks to a wide range of offensive threats. Hiers is only part of the puzzle, and though he’s the biggest part, he’s made better because of having a wideout like Chandler Smith and a running back like Jay Stanton at his disposal.

Stanton, an elder statesman now in the Bulldogs backfield, has a chance to end his career as the program’s second all-time leading rusher. He’s truly a player that I have said more than once that I think is one of the most underrated in the SoCon, and perhaps in the FCS, because of his versatility as a threat in the running game, as well as a receiving threat in the passing game.

Smith is one of the most reliable receivers in all of FCS football. Blessed with great hands and route-running skills, he presents headaches to any defensive coordinator scheming against Samford’s offense. Just last season he accounted for 1,071 receiving yards to go with 11 receiving scores. Both Ty King and DJ Rias offer great alternatives in the passing game, and offer a pair of options at Hiers’ disposal, which allow him to stretch the defense.

Samford’s offensive line is a veteran unit. The unit is one of the largest in the SoCon, with the interior four averaging over 300 lbs (306.5), with massive 335-lb left guard Jabari Brooks–a preseason All-SoCon selection–anchoring the unit.

Offensively, Western will likely again go with two quarterbacks. One of the areas that will be interesting to watch for the Catamounts is their offensive line, which has been praised throughout the preseason by head coach Kerwin Bell.

That said, things were a little underwhelming in the opener against the Razorbacks, however, that’s to be expected facing an SEC team. The first real litmus test will come Saturday afternoon in Whitmire Stadium against the Bulldogs’ defensive front.

Like the Bulldogs, the Catamounts will put a veteran unit out on the field Saturday. The two offensive lines are nearly identical in average weight, and are two of the bigger units in the league. The Catamounts interior four linemen sport an average weight of 306.2, with big left guard Christian Coulter being the biggest Catamount on the block, coming in at 320 lbs at left guard. The anchor of the unit is veteran left tackle Tyler Smith, who will contend for the Jacob’s Blocking Award (an award given to the league’s top offensive lineman each season), and his assignment will likely slowing one of the SoCon’s top pass-rushers, in Samford’s Joseph Mera.

The similarities on offense between the Catamounts and Bulldogs don’t stop with the offensive line, either. Like the Bulldogs’ Stanton, Western Carolina offers a versatile speed demon of its own, in Desmond Reid. Getting the ball in his hands in a variety of different ways is paramount if Western Carolina wants to end up at the destination it has set out to go from the outset of the season.

Reid has 4.3 speed, and was the 2022 SoCon Freshman of the Year. He had an understandably muted performance in the season opener against the Razorbacks, with just 11 yards on 11 carries, however, he did the lone TD of the day for the Catamounts.

Western Carolina’s receiving threats are diverse, ranging from tight end Ajay Bellenger-to speeders like Censere Lee, Corey Washington and Calvin Jones. But Bellenger is a guy to look for in this game. He could be a real key for the Catamount offense looking to get on track after a subpar performance in the opener. He’s a safe underneath target that has reliable hands, and for a pair of young quarterbacks, that could be a crucial safety net Saturday.

The Samford defense is one that has yet to be tested, and doesn’t return many starters from its unit a year ago, which was much improved under new and former defensive coordinator Chris Boone, however, it will get its first real test Saturday in Cullowhee.

I feel like Samford’s strengths are up front and in their secondary. The aforementioned Joseph Mera, who will be the main pass-rushing threat at defensive end, is the veteran leader of the unit and one of the most talented pass-rushers in the SoCon. He had a tackle, including half-a-tackle-for-loss in the opener against Shorter.

The Bulldogs are also experienced and solid along their defensive interior, with Joshua Mathiasen and Nick Jackson slated to man the nose tackle and defensive tackle positions, respectively.

The second level of the defensive is led by Noah Martin. The senior linebacker led the Bulldogs with eight tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage in the season opener.

Perhaps the position that I am most interested in observing Saturday, however, is Samford’s corners vs. Western’s track star speed receivers, especially to see which of Austin Peay transfer Devin Smith and Akron transfer Dontae Pollard draws the unenviable task of keeping up with WCU speedy wideout Censere Lee the entire afternoon.

The best player on the back end is Kourtlan Marsh. The preseason All-SoCon selection can provide aid both in pass coverage, but especially coming up in run support.

Ordinarily, both of these teams also excel in the kicking game, with the Catamounts entering with one of the best kickers in FCS football, in Richard McCollum, while the kicking duties will be handled by UAB grad transfer Wilson Beaverstock for the Bulldogs. If it comes down to a game-winning kick, I like my chances with McCollum over just about anyone in the country.

Who Wins and Why

I’ve thought about this a lot during the off-season at times. Going into Western Carolina is like an SEC team going to Williams-Brice Stadium for a road contest to face the South Carolina Gamecocks. No matter how good or bad the team is, the place is going to be loaded with fans and crowd noise to accompany the rabid fanbase. So no matter what, the opposition is going to get a fight.

A win for Western Carolina Saturday would mean back-to-back home wins over FCS ranked foes. The Catamounts, of course, closed out the 2022 season with a 32-29 win over No. 17 Chattanooga.

The last time the Catamounts won consecutive SoCon games against ranked foes at home was way back in the 1992 and ‘93 seasons. The Catamounts knocked off No. 2 Marshall on Halloween of 1992 (38-30), while downing 23rd-ranked Furman (23-20) on Oct. 2, 1993. And for those that want a good comparison to what this game could look like. Think 2005, when Western Carolina opened up against defending SoCon champion and second-ranked Furman at home, ultimately defeating the Paladins 41-21.

But this game I have a feeling will go to Samford. They’re polished now and have a veteran leader under center that looks poised in leading them on a charge to defend that crown this season. I think this will be one heck of a football game, however.

Final Score Prediction: Samford 41, Western Carolina 38