Furman is looking to change the SoCon’s national perception
If you thought that Furman’s share of a Southern Conference title was enough to let the Paladins take their guard down in games it should win against VMI , this weekend and at Wofford to close out the season, it is exactly what you should not be thinking. In fact, the time is now or never for Furman and maybe the entire Southern Conference.
The last time a current Southern Conference member was seeded in the Top four of the FCS postseason was Furman back in 2004.
Furman entered the postseason as the No. 2 overall seed after capturing a contentiously fought for league crown, which it shared with Georgia Southern, but won the automatic bid with a late-season, 29-22, win over the Eagles.
Furman easily claimed a 49-7 decision in its opening round home test against Jacksonville State, however, the Paladins would lose a hard-fought defensive battle, 14-13, to eventual national champion James Madison in the quarterfinals. The Dukes became the first team in FCS playoff history to go on the road in all three preceding rounds and make the championship game. Once they arrived in Chattanooga, the Dukes downed Montana, 31-21, on a sloppy Finley Stadium turf.
Furman, which finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation, headed into the ‘05 postseason without a Top 4 seed, despite having defeated SoCon champion Appalachian State (34-31) during the regular-season. SoCon losses at Western Carolina (L, 21-41) and at No. 14 Georgia Southern (L, 24-27 would somehow take the Paladins out of contention, despite a 9-2 finish against an all Division I slate.
Once in the ‘05 playoffs, the Paladins claimed a hard-fought 14-12 win over Nicholls State Furman also became the last current member to make the final four of the FCS playoffs, downing Nicholls State (14-12) before going on the road to defeat Richmond, 24-20, in come-from-behind fashion. Furman and No. 2 App State squared off in Boone and played an epic, with the Mountaineers holding off the Paladins, 29-23, in the postseason rematch in their backyard.
During the former 16-team playoff format, the committee was almost reluctant to ever seed two teams from one conference, but Furman probably should have been the four seed in the ‘05 playoffs. It wouldn’t have changed the destination of the FCS semifinal, but the Paladins likely deserved that distinction over Southland Conference member Texas State.
Then came last season in which Samford was the latest team to get under-seeded by the committee, as the Bulldogs were 10-0 vs. FCS competition, with their lone loss to eventual FBS national champion, yet somehow as baffling to me as it seems, had to travel to North Dakota State in the quarterfinals, who finished the season with a 9-2 record and didn’t win its regular-season conference title. Samford was likely penalized for where it started rather than where it ended up, which was nowhere to be found in the most useless thing ever created in college football—a preseason Top 25 poll.
In the current 24-team format, the committee now seems to look at only two or three conferences (CAA, Big Sky and MVFC) for the four seeds, despite the resume put together by individual teams in other conferences during the regular-season. With Sam Houston, Jacksonville State and Kennesaw State now having all ascended to the FBS, it might have been the last time we see teams from what are often considered from non power three leagues seeded among the top four, which is highly unethical in my estimation. It would be like the NCAA penalizing Gonzaga hoops for the West Coast Conference.
Despite having never won a national title in hoops since becoming relevant with a 1999 NCAA Tournament run as the No. 10 seed to Elite Eight out of the West Region, the Bulldogs have since never been penalized by the selection committee, despite coming from a league not considered one of the big boys of college hoops. If only that same logic were applied to the FCS playoffs. In my opinion, no committee honors conference strength over individual team resume’ and doing all that was ask during a regular season quite like the FCS playoff committee.
Of course, there are a few exceptions, like 11-0 Tennessee State being seeded No. 1 in 1999. There are times that could also be said of a “weak seeded” Eastern Illinois. While an East Coast bias may or may not exist when it comes to FBS football, a west coast/midwest bias seems to pervade the FCS ranks, with the SoCon always ending up in the crosshairs of the committee.
Few probably would have guessed it would take Furman 17 years to really be considered relevant again in the national picture, however, after winning 10 games last season and a strong performance at Incarnate Word, people started to take notice of Clay Hendrix’s Furman Paladins.
The SoCon either deserves four teams to make it, or Furman deserves a Top 4, probably a Top 2 seed if it wins out. The cynical side of me thinks neither will happen, but I am hopeful one of the two scenarios is achievable for a league deserving on its merits over the past couple of seasons.
A Trip down SoCon Playoff Memory Lane
Western Carolina and Furman were the first to seemingly put a stake down for the SoCon in the then Division I-AA in 1983, as the Paladins and Catamounts would have both have a highly successful regular-season, witn the Paladins winning the regular-season crown, despite a 17-17 regular-season tie with WCU in Cullowhee. WCU had won its opening round contest against Colgate (24-23), which was also the league’s first of 112 postseason wins in its history, and then went on the road to knock off Colgate in the next round.
The Paladins entered the Division I-AA playoffs in ‘83 as the No. 2 national seed in the playoffs, while Western Carolina was an at-large invite. It would be the first of what would turn out to be several SoCon head-to-head battles in the Division I-AA playoffs, and one of three in the semifinals, the Catamounts came to Paladin Stadium and claimed a shocking 14-7 win to breakthrough and become the first SoCon team to ever make it into a national title game after dispatching four-time defending league champion Furman and three-time league player of the year Stanford Jennings on its homefield.
In the championship game, which was played in a SoCon Stadium (Johnson Hagood Stadium/The Citadel), the SoCon and the Valley met for the title as the Catamounts squared off with Southern Illinois and its vaunted defensive backfield for all the marbles. The Salukis would overwhelm the Catamounts in the second half en route to a 43-7 win.
It wouldn’t take the league long to get back to the national title game, as Furman, which was in what would be its final season of leadership under the direction of College Football Hall-of-Fame football coach Dick Sheridan before he moved on to NC State, the Paladins would travel west to Tacoma, WA, to face off against future SoCon member Georgia Southern in the national title game.
Furman appeared to be well on the way to garnering the league’s first national championship trophy, however, despite holding a 28-6 third quarter lead, the Paladins would fall victim to one of the greatest comebacks in a championship game at any level in college football history, as the Tracy Ham-led offense would somehow come all the way back for a 44-42 win in arguably the most thrilling game in FCS title game history.
Furman, which is the only current league member to have won it all, would have to wait three more years before getting back to the title game in 1988, facing off once again with an old friend, as Furman and Georgia Southern met at Holt Arena (home of Idaho State) in Pocatello, ID, to decide the national title. A Furman defense that allowed just nine points per game ended up styming Erk Russell’s option offense, which was powered by elusive signal-caller Raymond Gross.
Fittingly, it was an INT with 17 seconds left with Georgia Southern driving for the potential game-winning score, as linebacker Jeff Blankenship, who bobbled Gross’ pass over the middle before corralling it and falling to the ground to clinch the 17-12 win and the program’s only national title, as well as the first captured by a SoCon program,
App State and Georgia Southern’s departure and a declining reputation
Since 2011, the SoCon has not had a team seeded in the top four, with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State exiting the league for the Sun Belt following that particular season. The 2011 season began a series of seasons in which a SoCon team would see its road end in the FargoDome with a loss at North Dakota State.
The 2011 season, as it turned out, would be the beginning of the Bison’s historic run to FCS greatness.
NDSU, who was the No. 2 overall seed entering the postseason tournament, and the Bison ended up trouncing the Eagles, 35-7, before a boisterous Friday night sellout crowd inside FargoDome in what was the start of five-straight national titles and a string of eight in nine seasons. . A year later, the fifth-seeded Eagles would drop a heartbreaking 23-20 decision inside FargoDome and thus the SoCon seemingly was dying a slow death with the exit of the Eagles and Appalachian State Mountaineers, who won a combined five national titles (1999, ‘00, ‘05, ‘06, and ‘07) before leaving the league all together.
After Marshall claimed the 1996 title and moved on to Conference USA a year later, the SoCon was able to maintain its balance of power, with a “Big Three” that included App State, Furman and Georgia Southern routinely in national title contention and national seeding conversations for the better part of the next decade until App State and Georgia Southern had separated themselves even more from the rest of the SoCon in their final five years of membership from 2007-11.
It was the Missouri Valley that seemingly gained a foothold as the top conference nationally during the 2012 FCS postseason, with NDSU’s win over Georgia Southern ending quite a run for the SoCon it has long since struggled to regain. While most will remember NDSU’s win over Georgia Southern in Fargo in the semifinals because it was a part of the first of five-straight and eight in nine seasons for the Bison, few probably remember how Appalachian State’s fate ended in the FCS playoffs, which also came against a Missouri Valley program.
App State battled Brock Spack’s Illinois State team in what was an epic FCS second round playoff game in Boone. The Red Birds would pick up what was a 38-37 win over the Black and Gold courtesy of a blocked PAT in overtime, ending App State’s historic run in the FCS playoffs, and was a changing of the guard in the conference power hierarchy. Since Georgia Southern didn’t join the SoCon until 1993, winning four of its six titles before ever coming into the league, the loss by the Mountaineers was more of an end of an era–a seismic shift in conference strength.
From 1986-2012, App State was a stalwart in the FCS postseason. Two years after making its first postseason appearance, the Mountaineers made it to the then Division I-AA semifinals (now FCS playoffs) for the first time meeting up with an old friend, Marshall.
The Mountaineers, who were the SoCon champions and had defeated the Thundering Herd (17-10) as part of what would become a 20-game unbeaten streak in SoCon play, however, the playoff rematch in Boone in freezing temperatures would go the way of Marshall and its prolific passing attack, lead by by quarterback John Gregory. App State wouldn’t get back to the semifinals again in the postseason until 2000, losing a 19-16 overtime decision to the Montana Grizzlies in overtime in snowy Missoula.
Four Teams Remain Alive for postseason
With Furman having been the first team to lock up an FCS playoff bid with last weekend’s 17-14 win at Chattanooga, that leaves No. 19 Chattanooga (7-3, 6-2 SoCon), No. 23 Mercer (7-3, 5-2), No. 17 Western Carolina ( 6-3, 4-2 SoCon) all remain in contention for a potential at-large bid to the postseason over the final couple of weeks. If Western Carolina and Mercer win out, and if they do so in convincing fashion, it would be yet another feather in the cap for Furman for a No. 2 seed.
No. 19 Chattanooga will have the weekend off before returning to the gridiron next Saturday for its final game of the regular-season finale next weekend No. 8 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The 17th-ranked Western Carolina Catamounts will celebrate its senior day Saturday afternoon when East Tennessee State comes to town for the “Blue Ridge Border Battle” before the Catamounts close out the 2023 season with a tricky game up in the Shenandoah Valley to take on VMI.
No. 23 Mercer (7-3, 5-2 SoCon) will finish off its 2023 season Saturday with a tricky home game against Samford (5-4, 4-3 SoCon), which is a game that was one of the wildest of all in SoCon play last season last year before the Bulldogs ended up holding on for the overtime win in Birmingham to finish out the SoCon slate unbeaten (8-0).
The Bears will be hoping its third crack at winning their way into the playoffs with a victory in the final game of the regular-season will be a charm. If the Bears can do that, it will mark a historic breakthrough season for Mercer, who will have broken through to make the playoffs for the first time in program history. Fittingly, that would come a decade following a decision to re-start its program following a 72-year hiatus.
My opinion is that if both Mercer and Western Carolina win out, and Furman does as well, the SoCon will have three teams solidly in the field, and if that happens, it would be hard for me to believe Furman is passed over for the No. 2 seed given the fact it would have no FCS losses, and played an FBS power conference foe (South Carolina) along with another team transitioning to FBS (Kennesaw State) and is in its first season with 20 more scholarship players before moving up to the next level, and have an all Division I schedule (opened vs. Tennessee Tech), it would be hard for me to believe that Montana could jump Furman despite what happens in next week’s “Brawl of the Wild” between Montana and Montana State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
It wouldn’t hurt Furman and the SoCon’s chances at the No. 2, however, if Montana State were to find a way past the Grizzlies in that final game. Only time will tell as they say, but if Furman wins its final two games, and the Bears and Catamounts follow suit, the SoCon has earned the right to show what it can do, and that means awarding Furman the No. 2 seed, with two strong at-large berths and another under heavy consideration. Redshirts Sports will have more on the playoffs for the four teams still in contention next week, which will also be the final week of the regular-season.
Saluting Lt Tyler Huff
Furman senior quarterback Tyler Huff, who was commissioned with the US Army Reserves in May of 2022 during his time at Presbyterian College, became the 12th recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) it was announced Thursday.
He is currently a lieutenant with the US Army Reserves, and will report to Fort Huachuca in Arizona for active duty training on Jan 8, 2024 and will be there until May 7, 2024. His report day is a day after the national championship game in Frisco, TX, which is the obvious goal for Huff and his teammates.
Created to honor an individual or group in 2012, the Merit award is presented to an individual or group that has a military background or active involvement and has also made an impact in college football. Huff was interviewed live Thursday afternoon on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
During the nationally syndicated sports news show, the senior signal-caller and commissioned lieutenant was congratulated by the executive director of Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Brant Ringler and FWAA President and Yahoo! Sports national college football beat writer Ross Dellenger during about a five-minute interview segment.
Huff, who is 18-3 all-time as Furman’s starting quarterback since coming to the Furman football program from Presbyterian in the spring of 2022, and that 18-3 mark includes a 17-1 mark and a sterling 13-0 record against FCS and SoCon competition, respectively. Huff will likely miss Furman’s final two regular-season games against VMI and Wofford, nursing a sprained shoulder, hoping to return in time for the FCS playoffs.
The award is voted on by a panel of nine from the FWAA by the staff of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, and Huff was chosen the winner over 46 nominations, including 41 individuals from five different programs.
Huff has helped the Paladins to an 8-1 record this season and a share of the program’s 15th Southern Conference title by compiling 1,977 yards of total offense (1,489 passing yards/488 rushing yards) and has 14 touchdown responsibilities (9-passing/5-rushing). Huff helped lead the Paladins to a breakthrough 2022 season, as Furman finished with a 10-3 overall mark, which included a 7-1 mark in league play and a second-place finish. Huff would suffer his lone loss in his standout career as a Furman quarterback, dropping what was a heartbreaking 41-38 at semifinalist Incarnate Word in the second round of the 2022 FCS playoffs. His 694 rushing yards last season for the Paladins set a new school single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Saturday’s Game Previews
Game of the Week — VMI (4-5, 3-3 SoCon) at No. 2 Furman (8-1, 6-0 SoCon), 1:30 p.m. EST
Greenville, S.C., Paladin Stadium (14,518)
Series: 41st meeting/Furman leads 41-10
Furman knows the task at hand. Win its final two games, and the Paladins could be in line for a No. 2 seed. Lose either to VMI or Wofford, and the seed is off the table and maybe even one home game. The Paladins will honor an estimated 41 seniors prior to kickoff Saturday. I would venture to guess that’s a program record. Some of those honored will likely have the option to return.
That’s probably what makes Saturday’s contest against VMI most dangerous. The Keydets come in with nothing to lose and have played some very good football of late, coming from behind to beat East Tennessee State, 31-24, last Saturday in Johnson City. A week earlier, the Keydets mounted a furious rally and rushed for over 200 yards against a stout Chattanooga defense only to fall in heartbreaking fashion, 24-23, to the Mocs.
It’s clear the Keydets have taken pretty major steps in the right direction under first-year head coach Danny Rocco, who is in his first year leading the VMI program following the sudden resignation of Scott Wachenheim following the 2022 season. The Keydets have a defense that, for the most part, has kept them in every game so far this season, while the offense continues to improve with each passing week.
Entering Saturday’s contest at Furman, the Keydets rank just 14 places below the Paladins nationally in total defense, allowing just 370.7 YPG in total offense, ranking 66th in the FCS this season. In terms of scoring defense this season, the Keydets rank 40th nationally, allowing only 23.6 PPG this season.
Defense has been Rocco’s forte as a head coach wherever he has gone, and it’s the element to being able to turn around a program in seemingly a shorter amount of time. I think he’d be the first to tell you that. Linebackers Evan Eller (82 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FF) and Eric Rankin () are solid up the middle, making the Keydet defense outfit a tough one to run the football against.
There is no drop off at defensive back either, and it’s arguably the strength of the Keydet defense, which is defending the pass. Senior All-SoCon defensive back Alex Oliver (55 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBUs, 1 FR) holds down things in the secondary for the Keydets on the back line. Teams have had more success running the ball against the Keydets this season, with VMI ranking eighth out of nine teams in the SoCon in stopping the run so far in 2023, with VMI surrendering 197.8 YPG.
Offensively, the Keydets have played multiple quarterbacks this season, with Collin Ironside (122-of-193 passing, 1,222 yds, 4 TDs, 5 INTs ) having been the starter through seven of the first eight games, however, Collin Shannon (39-of-67 passing, 431 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) was the starter in VMI’s win at East Tennessee State last Saturday. Shannon also played a lot against the Paladins last season in what was eventually a 41-3 home loss for the Keydets. It was the first meaningful game action of his career.
The key for the VMI offense Saturday will be keeping Shannon and Ironside upright, as the Paladins rank second in the SoCon in sacks (25), while the Keydets rank second-to-last in the league in sacks surrendered, having 27 quarterback takedowns through the first nine games this season. The Paladins sacked VMI quarterbacks four times in last season’s 41-3 win in Lexington.
The most effective mode of operation for the VMI offense this season is running the football, and when mixing in the ‘wild Keydet’ offense. The leader in that role more often than not has been Hunter Rice (134 rush att, 682 yds, 10 TDs, 5.1 YPC), who is one of the most underrated running backs in the Southern Conference. Rice teams with Rashad Raymond (88 rush att, 340 yds, 3.9 YPC) in the backfield, giving the Keydets a pretty decent one-two punch in the backfield.
When going to the air, the top downfield has been arguably one of the top tight ends in the SoCon, in Aidan Twombly (30 rec, 399 yds, 3 TDs, 13.3 YPR). .
Furman comes in with some questions offensively, although it will be Carson Jones (21-of-40 passing, 217 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT) and not SoCon Player of the Month Tyler Huff (150-of-225 passing, 1,489 yds, 9 TDs, 4 INTs/488 rushing yds, 5 TDs) leading the Paladin offense into action on Senior Day. It will be a full circle moment of sorts for Jones, who saw the first action of his career against VMI last season in what was his first-career action as a collegiate quarterback.
Huff suffered a shoulder sprain in Furman’s win at Chattanooga last week and is week-to-week. Jones saw the most important snaps of his young career, leading the Paladins to a playoff-clinching win by tossing two touchdowns in the process. He had only thrown 17 passes in his career prior to his insertion into the lineup against the Mocs.
Establishing the run is always a hallmark of the Paladin offense, and that means getting the ball to senior battering ram running back Dominic Roberto (155 rush att, 674 yds, 7 TDs, 4.3 YPC). Teaming with Roberto as of late has been Wayne Anderson Jr. (27 rush att, 169 yds,1 TD, 6.3 YPC ), who has moved over from wide receiver to supplement the running back room, which has been hit by a rash of injuries as of late. His nine-yard game-winning scoring grab against Chattanooga last Saturday was his only reception of the game. He has hauled in 14 passes for 98 yards and a TD this season, averaging 7.0 yards-per-catch.
Furman’s offensive line is considered among the best in the FCS, and the unit excels at run-blocking behind road-graders like Fred Norman Jr. (RT), Pearson Toomey (LT) and Jacob Johanning (RG). The Paladins rank 27th in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 169.4 YPG on the ground.
One critique of the Paladin offense is its lack of chunk plays it has been able to produce this season, however, it’s not because the ability to produce them isn’t already there. Like the Keydets, Furman does about as good of a job of throwing to its tight ends as anyone in the SoCon, and Mason Pline (17 rec, 179 yds, 2 TDs, 10.5 YPR) has stepped in nicely and been a nice asset as a downfield option. The top option in the passing game and was capable deep threat is Joshua Harris (34 rec, 310 yds, 2 TDs, 9.1 YPR), while a pair of freshman wideouts–Colton Hinton Jr .(24 rec, 276 yds, 2 TDs,11.5 YPR) and Ben Ferguson (21 rec, 265 yds, 1 TD, 12.6 YPR)--have played a bigger role than expected this season with Anderson now having moved back to running back due to injuries at the position.
On defense, the Paladins have seemingly gotten better as the season has progressed. The Paladins currently lead the league and rank tied for 15th nationally in scoring defense (19.2 PPG), which has been a staple of defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn’s defenses over the past three seasons. This defense might be his best yet.
A big reason the Paladins have been able to pass every test put before them this season is an extremely physical unit along the defensive front, with Matt Sochovka (17 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 QBHs), Jack Barton (19 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 PBUs, 4 QBHs, 2blkd kicks ), Xavier Stephens (17 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT) and Jeremiah Jackson (9 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 7 QBHs) highlighting one of the most talented units in FCS football. Furman had just six sacks on the season when it headed for a key road test at Samford, however, over the past four games, the Paladins have 19 quarterback takedowns.
A testament to that defensive front, as well as Furman’s dominance of late, as well as Vaughn dialing up the pressure at times. However, a majority of the time it’s been Furman’s front four just winning individual battles up front. The ‘wild Keydet’ offense, which places Rice behind center instead of Ironside or Shannon, and that is designed to neutralize an obvious weakness the Keydets have, which is its offensive line.
Making it tough to run up the middle against Furman have been linebackers Evan DiMaggio (48 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF) and Braden Gilby (52 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 6 QBHs, 1 FR), while Luke Clark (38 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBHs), Alex Maier (16 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 1 PBU), and Jalen Miller (16 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF) have been key when Vaughn has decided to dial up pressure of late.
The secondary is another unit that is deep and loaded with veterans, with many of those slated to play their regular-season final home game on Saturday against the Paladins.
Cally Chizik (41 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 1 FF), who started his career as a cornerback, has over the past couple of seasons been key when the Paladin roll in their nickel package on the defensive side of the ball, has eight-career INTs, with his first coming against VMI back in 2019.
Hugh Ryan (57 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 QBH), who is Furman’s leading tackler this season, was ejected in the first quarter of last Saturday’s win at Chattanooga, will be back in his starting role alongside veteran senior Kam Brinson (32 tackles, 6 PBUs, 1 INT) at safety. Ryan will be making his 42nd-career start in his 54th game as a Paladin on Saturday.
Rounding out the veteran leadership in the Furman secondary is top cornerback Travis Blackshear (21 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 8 PBUs, 1 TD), who is in his sixth year with the Furman football program, has made a school-record 46-career starts. It was Blackshear’s INT and subsequent 46-yard return that helped turn the game around last week in Furman’s SoCon title-clinching win at Chattanooga.
Final Thought: I think this is a game that Furman knows it has to put up style points for the FCS playoff committee, and with that knowledge, will respond accordingly. Doing that will ensure the first outright SoCon title since 1990, and would give Furman its 13th-straight SoCon win, which would tie a program record.
Final Score Prediction: Furman 42, VMI 6
Wofford (0-9, 0-6 SoCon) at The Citadel (0-9, 0-6 SoCon), 2 p.m. EST
Charleston, S.C.. Johnson-Hagood Stadium (20,000)
Series: 77th meeting/The Citadel leads 44-31-1
The Citadel hosts Wofford in the old “someone has to win” contest at Johnson-Hagood Stadium. It’s a rare occurrence to see two opponents meet in week 10, with both not having lost a football game all season, however, it’s no less rare to see two teams clash that haven’t won once.
Wofford’s trip to The Citadel will mark a meeting between two of the league’s three new head coaches, with both looking for their first win in week 10. That might be a first in college football history. So who wins this matchup of SoCon teams from the Palmetto State that were the toast of the league not all that long ago (The Citadel–2016 SoCon Champion/Wofford SoCon Champions–2017-19)? Well, it’s basically a lot like throwing darts at a board, however, it’s hard not to notice that the Terriers seemed to have made some significant improvements last week in their game against ranked Western Carolina in a game, which saw the Terriers nearly spring the upset of the year in FCS football, however, faltered late in the contest to lose a 28-25 heartbreaker.
It’s been like that for a lot of the year for the Terriers under first-year head coach Shawn Watson, who have flirted with victory far more than the Bulldogs. By comparison, The Citadel’s season has more resembled exchanged glances across a smoke-filled bar. That also counts as a kind of flirting I suppose, but it’s been seemingly more rare.
The issue for each is finding a rhythm under a new signal-caller, with the Terriers entrusting Paul Seeley (84-of-154 passing, 864 yds, 5 TDs, 3 INTs) and Bryce Corriston (37-of-66 passing, 366 yds, 2 TDs), while the Bulldogs have looked to Graeson Underwood (80-of-157 passing, 899 yds, 4 TDs, 6 INTs/197 rushing yds and 2 TDs) and Dustin Fletcher (22-of-36 passing, 211 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT) to lead their offense this season.
One might expect points at a premium on Saturday when you consider the Terriers rank 116th (235.9 YPG) out of 122 teams nationally in total offense, while the Bulldogs rank 117th (250.8 YPG) in total yardage output.
The one area the Terriers have been substantially better this season is on the defensive side of the football, ranking a full 33 spots higher nationally than The Citadel, which ranks 113th (457.2 YPG) in the FCS in total defense. That will be the difference here, as the Terriers snap an 11-game losing streak in Charleston.
Final Score Prediction: Wofford 24, The Citadel 17
Blue Ridge Border Battle — ****East Tenn. St (2-7, 1-5 SoCon) at No. 17 Western Carolina (SoCon), 1 p.m. EST
Cullowhee, N.C., EJ Whitmire Stadium (13,742)
Series: Western Carolina leads 26-25-1
Western Carolina closes out the home slate Saturday by welcoming East Tennessee State to EJ Whitmire Stadium in one of the newly adopted SoCon rivalries–the Blue Ridge Border Battle.
Western Carolina rebounded from back-to-back losses last week, gutting out what was a 28-25 win over Wofford, avoiding the embarrassment of having their FCS playoff hopes end with a loss to a winless team. It will mark the 52nd all-time meeting between the Bucs and Catamounts, with the series all tied 26-25-1.
ETSU has won each of the past two of the past three matchups in this rivalry, which includes a wild, 56-35, contest last season at E.J. Whitmire Stadium back in 2021. Western Carolina’s hard-fought 20-17 win in Johnson City last season was part of a three-game winning streak to close out the season and was one of the wins that helped propel the Catamounts into such a strong start this season.
Richard McCollum has had a knack for kicking walk-off field goals against teams from the Volunteer State, and along with his game-winning kick that allowed the Catamounts to escape Chattanooga with a 52-50 win this season, he was able to knock through a 33-yard game-winner last season against ETSU, allowing the Catamounts to escape Johnson City with a 20-17 win. The Catamounts were able to roll up 468 yards under the guidance of Cole Gonzales (177-of-268 passing, 2,418 yds, 23 TDs, 8 INTs), who also passed for 268 of those yards in the win.
The last time the Bucs and Catamounts met at Whitmire Stadium in 2021, ETSU broke open a wild game last season in the second half, as the Bucs went almost literally “Buc-wild” in the second half of the game, as ETSU rolled up 461 yards of total offense and ended up out-scoring the Purple and Gold 21-0 in the second half to come up with the thrilling 56-35 win. It was a big day for running back Jacob Saylors, who set a new single-game rushing record, rushing for 266 yards, as he broke the former record set by teammate Quay Holmes, who rushed for 255 yards in a win on the road at Mercer. Saylors also added three rushing scores to highlight the big-time offensive effort by the Bucs. Holmes also put in an outstanding day at the office, as he finished the contest with 212 yards and three scores.
This series has been one of the more exciting rivalries in Southern Conference football of late, with the previous three prior to last season having been decided by a touchdown or less. Last season’s clash saw the two teams enter the locker room all tied at 35-35 before ETSU’s second-half explosion. The series between the Catamounts and Bucs got underway during the 1932 campaign, as the Bucs won in Cullowhee, and in fact, ETSU claimed the first six meetings in the series, out-scoring the Catamounts a combined 85-2. Western Carolina’s first win in the series wouldn’t come until 1948, as the Catamounts were able to score what was a 32-12 win in Johnson City.
Offensively of late, Gonzales has had more on his plate this season than even he had last season when these two met in the rivalry matchup, with Desmond Reid (115 rush att, 857 yds, 12 TDs, 7.5 YPC) in the backfield toting the pigskin for the Catamounts having been injured since the Chattanooga game, having played only sparingly since. Despite it all, however, he has led the Catamounts to the top total offense average output per game (490.9 YPG) through nine weeks of the season. Gonzales has some elite options in the wide receiver group, highlighted by Censere Lee (38 rec, 660 yds, 7 TDs, 17.3 YPR.
The Catamounts have seen a good start on the defensive side of the football slowed a little bit the past few weeks, ranking 80th nationally in total defense (390.7 YPG). It’s about where the unit ended last season, and it is still performing above average in comparison to say Kerwin Bell’s first season as the head coach back in 2021.
ETSU has struggled to find offensive rhythm under the second-year head coach, with health issues under center virtually from the start of the 2023 campaign. The Bucs might have starter Tyler Riddell (21-of-46 passing, 241 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs) back, but it will more likely be William Riddle (43-of-96 passing, 472 yds, 1 TD, 5 INTs) leading the Bucs offense again Saturday.
Despite the struggles, ETSU is seemingly getting better offensively, out-gaining VMI last Saturday, 424-330, in total offense. The Bucs have been solid running the ball at times this season, and totaled a season-high 286 yards on the ground last Saturday.
Leading the ground attack as of late has been Trey Foster (49 rush att, 299 yds, 1 TD, 6.1 YPC) continues to get better and better running the football, posting a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries in last week’s loss to VMI. The Bucs have almost had to rely solely on a ground attack, with injuries at quarterback and after having lost top receiver Will Huzzie prematurely, as he suffered an MCL and ACL tear earlier this season, bringing an earlier end to what has been a brilliant career in the Blue and Gold.
Defensive coordinator Billy Taylor’s defense will be stressed on Saturday if the Bucs aren’t able to sustain anything offensively, and that’s a dangerous prospect against an offense as explosive as the WCU brings into the contest. Leading a Bucs defense which currently ranks a solid 69th overall in the FCS in total defense (371.1 YPG) have been linebacker Stephen Scott (68 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and defensive backs Sheldon Arnold II (73 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 4 INTs) and Chris Hope (72 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 3 PBUs).
Final Score Prediction: Western Carolina 38, East Tennessee State 17
Samford (5-4, 4-3 SoCon) at No. 23 Mercer (7-3, 5-2 SoCon), 3 p.m. EST
Macon, GA, Five Star Stadium (11,500)
Series: 30th meeting/Samford leads 15-13-1
One of the rivalries that has emerged as one of the more intriguing in recent seasons is the one between Mercer and Samford. In fact, it’s literally home for Bulldogs head coach Chris Hatcher, who was born in Macon.
Mercer finds itself in a similar situation as has the previous two, which heading into its final regular-season game, it will have a chance to win eight games and garner the program’s first FCS playoff bid in program history. With wins over Mercer and next week against potential playoff participant UT-Martin, the Bulldogs would have put together a decent playoff resume, however, a game against Shorter and three league losses probably will cancel out two resume-building wins.
Samford will also be concluding its SoCon slate Saturday against the Bears. In case you missed last season’s clash, you missed maybe the best game of the SoCon season, as ninth-ranked Samford claimed a memorable 50-44 overtime win to claim the outright SoCon title. Last season’s clash had just about everything. Mercer needed a win to have a shot at a potential FCS playoff bid, while a Samford win ensured the Bulldogs an unbeaten season in the Southern Conference and an 10-0 regular-season mark against FCS competition.
It was a day for Mercer, which would see offensive records fall, yet the Bears still managed to come up short in overtime in a six-point road loss in Birmingham. The win by the Bulldogs ultimately would be enough to garner the Bulldogs a seeding in the FCS playoffs, while the Bears were left out of the 24-team FCS playoff field without a "good win."
Mercer would generate a program record 695 yards of total offense, eclipsing the previous program record of 625 yards of total offense generated by the Bears in the season opener against Morehead State. Wide receiver Ty James was the star of the Mercer offensive show in the contest, as he hauled in 13 passes for 351 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The performance by James was both a SoCon single-game receiving record, as well as a school single-game receiving record.
This season, there’s no championship on the line. Mercer doesn’t have a chance to win one like it did in 2021 when it lost a heartbreaker, 38-35, in Johnson City, nor does it have a chance to prevent an outright title, as it did when it traveled to Seibert Stadium last season to drop that six-point heartbreaker. What is true for Drew Cronic’s Bears is that it has a chance for eight wins and a potential FCS playoff bid for a third-straight season. So will the third time be a charm for Mercer?
Well, it certainly could and the Bears, which have a defense ranked first overall in the SoCon and 32nd nationally (331.9 YPG), could be a tough out in the postseason because of their gritty, physical defense. It’s a veteran group, which has virtually had many of the same starters around each of the past three seasons. The Bears are solid through all three levels of their defensive unit, with Solomon Zubairu (37 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR) being one of the top defensive lineman in the SoCon this season. Linebacker and leading tackler Ken Standley () makes it tough to run the ball up the middle on the Bears, while Lance Wise Jr. (65 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 2 FFs) is the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Month and highlights a solid run-stopping secondary unit.
As the season has progressed, things have seemingly started to come together for the Bears offense, which is led by veteran signal-caller Carter Peevy (154-of-231 passing, 1,950 yds, 11 TDs, 3 INTs/224 rush yds, ). The Bears have slowly but surely started to find their rhythm offensively as the season has progressed. After failing to reach 30 points in four out of its first six games to start the season, the Bears have averaged 35.3 PPG over the past three weeks. Al Wooten II (114 rush att, 558 yds, 6 TDs, 4.9 YPC) heads up the ground attack, while Ty James (52 rec, 982 yds, 7 TDs, 18.8 YPR) and Devron Harper (42 rec, 497 yds, 2 TDs, 11.56 YPR) are still around to highlight one of the nation’s top one-two punches at wideout.
Samford’s offense, will of course, offer even the best defense a great test, as Michael Hiers (268-of-369 passing, 2,641 yds, 15 TDs, 7 INTs) winds down his career, which has seen him be one of FCS football’s most prolific passers over the past couple of seasons under center for the Bulldogs. His 2,641 yards passing this season ranks him second in the FCS in passing yards. The problem for much of the season has been keeping Hiers upright, as the Bulldogs offensive line has allowed 28 sacks through nine games, which is a yield of about 3.1 quarterback takedowns per game. Like Hiers, Jay Stanton (116 rush att, 680 yds, 10 TDs, 5.9 YPC) is also winding down a stellar career running the football, and will close out his time at Samford as the program’s second all-time leading rusher.
Chandler Smith, to no one’s surprise, has once again been outstanding in the ‘Hatch Attack’ and he leads Samford’s stellar receiving unit entering its final SoCon game. The story of Samford’s corps of receivers this season, however, has been Brennan Jenkins (40 rec, 304 yds, 4 TDs, 7.6 YPR), who has been one of the most impressive freshman performers on either side of the ball in the FCS of late.
Samford’s defense has made some improvements over the latter half of the season after experiencing what was a rough start. The Bulldogs, who are led by linebacker Noah Martin (78 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 blkd kick) in total tackles, currently rank 72nd nationally and fifth overall in total defense (378.6 YPG). The Bulldogs enter having won four of their last five games since losing 47-24 at home to Chattanooga. That one loss was a 27-21 setback to current No. 2-ranked Furman at Seibert Stadium back on Oct. 14.
Final Score Prediction:
Mercer 35, Samford 31