Samford clinches share of Southern Conference Title
Source: Chase Cochran/Samford Athletics
FCS

SoCon Week 11 Recap and Power Rankings

The playoff picture in the Southern Conference got a little bit clearer this past Saturday As Samford clinched at least a share of the title.

John Hooper
John Hooper

Samford clinched at least a share of the 2022 Southern Conference title marking its first since it joined the SoCon in 2008. It would mark the second Southern Conference title except for the fact the 2013 Southern Conference title had to be vacated because the Bulldogs played with ineligible players. If you count the 2013 championship, which I do, the Bulldogs claimed no worse than a share of their second Southern Conference title with their 35-24 road win at No. 12 Chattanooga.

The Bulldogs could clinch an outright conference title if they can find a way past Mercer in the regular-season finale at Seibert Stadium on Senior Day against Mercer. The Bulldogs sit atop the league with an impressive 9-1 overall record, which includes a perfect 7-0 record against Southern Conference competition. No. 10 Samford’s 11-point at No. 11 Chattanooga coupled with No. 13 Furman’s 23-13 win at No. 14 Mercer means that the Bulldogs clinched the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The win also kept Samford undefeated against FCS competition (9-0) this season, with the lone loss being a 33-0 setback at No.1 Georgia on Sept. 10. With Saturday’s win, the Bulldogs now have won eight-straight and are 2-0 against FCS ranked foes, defeating No. 8 Kennesaw State, 27-17, back on Sept. 1, while defeating the 14th-ranked Mocs this past weekend.

The Mocs, who were the consensus preseason Southern Conference favorite for the second-straight year, will for the second-straight year fall short of those preseason expectations, falling to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in SoCon play. If the Mocs hope to return to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016, the game against Western Carolina next Saturday becomes a “must win” game.

Samford’s win in Chattanooga also snapped what was a seven-game Mocs winning streak in the series, which ironically, dated back to the 2013 season. The Mocs had won 11 of 13 matchups with the Bulldogs since Samford joined the SoCon in 2008 until yesterday. The Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth by the league’s coaches and media in the preseason SoCon polls.

How the Bulldogs took down the Mocs

Samford got another big day from the frontrunner for SoCon Offensive Player of the Year, in quarterback Michael Hiers, who connected on 37-of-47 passes for 353 yards with four touchdowns and no INTs. Hiers also added a rushing score, and helped the Bulldogs generate 474 yards of total offense on an impressive 93 total snaps. That was 17 more snaps than the Mocs.

The Mocs actually had more yardage, rolling up 507 yards of total offense, with Ailym Ford eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in his career, as he rushed for 144 yards and a pair of scores on 24 rush attempts. Ford scored on runs of 41 and 1 yards, respectively. Preston Hutchinson completed 24-of-37 throws for 320 yards, with a pair of picks and added a rushing TD. One of Hutchinson’s INTs led directly to a Samford touchdown in the first half of play.

The Mocs went into the halftime locker room trailing the contest 28-10, but got within 11 points, at 28-17, when Ford plunged in from a yard out to make it a 28-17 game with 10:35 remaining in the third quarter.

However, the Bulldogs would respond with what equated to a deflating score just 18 seconds later. On the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing offensive possession, Hiers found wideout DJ Rias for an 80-yard touchdown, making it an 18-point Samford lead once again, at 35-17.

Chattanooga would get on the board one more time in the game, as Hutchinson finished off a 9-play, 70-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run to make it a 35-24 game with just 1:16 remaining in the third quarter. That would turn out to be the final points for either team of the game.

Blue Ridge Border Battle

No. 90 of Western Carolina celebrates against ETSU

Although defending champion East Tennessee State was well out of the FCS playoff conversation, the Bucs had pride and the matter of a rivalry on the line when they took the field to take on Western Carolina in the Blue Ridge Border Battle Saturday afternoon at William B. Greene Stadium in Johnson City.

The rivalry game didn’t come without controversy, however. In a season unfortunately marred by some questionable officiating decisions in league games, Saturday’s Blue Ridge Border Battle was not immune. ETSU senior quarterback Tyler Riddell faced a crucial 3rd-and-goal, however, was sacked for an 8-yard loss, and despite having his helmet twisted entirely around via a grabbed facemask by a Catamount defender, no flag was thrown or infraction issued for the apparent penalty, and the Bucs had to settle for the game-tying field goal from Tyler Keltner.

Earlier this season, the Southern Conference issued a reprimand to the officiating crew of the Furman-Samford game due to a play review, which should have never taken place. The stoppage of play in that contest involved what was a 15-minute play review and like the WCU-ETSU game, didn’t determine the outcome, however, certainly altered the momentum for the remainder of the game.

The Catamounts spoiled ETSU’s Senior Day festivities, when place-kicker Richard McCollum was able to connect on what was a 33-yard field goal as time expired, allowing Western Carolina escape with a 20-17 win over the Bucs to claim the 2022 Blue Ridge Border Battle in a game that had just about everything you’d expect between two old mountain rivals in the Southern Conference.

The win by Western Carolina saw the Catamounts improve their 2022 record to 5-5 overall and 3-4 in SoCon play, while the Bucs dropped to 3-7 overall and finished SoCon play 1-7. The Catamounts will try and capture a winning season in the regular-season finale, hosting league rival Chattanooga on Senior Day. ETSU will close out its regular season with a trip into SEC country, as the Bucs will take on Mississippi State next Saturday in Starkville.

The game-winning drive started with runs of 13 and 16-yard runs, respectively, by Catamount running back Desmond Reid, as the Catamounts were able to move into ETSU territory. On the next play, the Catamounts were able to move the ball well within McCollum’s kicking range, as freshman starting quarterback Cole Gonzales connected with found classmate Censere Lee for a 31-yard pitch and catch to get the Catamounts all the way down to the Bucs 16.

Four plays later, which included a 10-yard holding penalty against the Catamounts, McCollum trotted on to attempt the 33-yard game-winner, which split the uprights and allowed the Catamounts to snap a two-game losing streak in the series, and it also marked the 26th win in the all-time series, as the Catamounts took the lead in the all-time rivalry series between the two, 26-25.

Reid had a big day for the Catamount offense, as he accounted for 134 yards of total offense, rushing for a team-best 72 yards, while hauling in three passes for 62 yards. The Catamounts finished the contest with 475 yards of total offense, with 268 of those coming through the air and Gonzales tossed a pair of scoring passes to go along with two INTs in the Western Carolina win.

ETSU celebrated what was a star-studded class of 13 seniors, which was largely responsible for helping the Bucs to the 2021 Southern Conference regular-season title and school-record 11-win campaign. Preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors ended up leading the Bucs offense, as he rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries.

Furman wins fifth-straight at No. 14 Mercer

Furman defensive line up against Mercer’s offense

As I detailed yesterday in my full recap of this game, No. 13 Furman went on the road and was able to run its road winning streak to five games with a crucial 23-13 win over Mercer, which was the Southern Conference Game of the Week and was a game that had big SoCon title and FCS playoff implications heading into the Homecoming showdown at Five Star Stadium in Macon.

The story of the game was a Furman defense that held a Mercer offense, which entered the game averaging 40 PPG and 203.9 rushing yards per game to just 13 points and 57 yards on the ground. The Paladin defense also sacked Mercer quarterback Fred Payton five times in the contest. The Bears had allowed a league-low six sacks the entire season coming into the contest.

The win saw the Paladins improve to 3-1 against FCS ranked opposition this season, and over the past two seasons, the Paladins are now 5-2 when facing a ranked FCS foe. Furman’s three wins over ranked foes lead the SoCon this season, and the Paladins will look to garner their ninth win of the 2022 season when they face Wofford in the regular-season finale Saturday in Greenville.

Should the Paladins close out the season with a win, it would mark the first time since 2005 that the Paladins will have enjoyed nine regular season wins. The five road wins are the most by a Furman team since extending a five-game road winning streak across two seasons, as the Paladins did so in both the 1989 (4) and 1990 seasons, respectively. Also notable, Furman hasn’t finished a season with seven Southern Conference victories since the 2001 campaign, which of course, saw Furman’s season finish in the national championship, dropping a 13-6 contest to Montana in Chattanooga.

In Saturday’s win over Mercer, Furman’s offense was again led by Tyler Huff, who has been especially impressive as of late and remained undefeated against FCS and SoCon competition in games he has started this season, as he improved to 6-1 as a starter and 5-0 against Southern Conference competition. He amassed 369 of Furman’s 460 yards of total offense in the victory over the Bears, passing for 293 and a TD, while rushing for 76 yards and a score on 10 attempts. Over the past four games, Huff has accumulated 1,026 yards of total offense and eight touchdown responsibilities, all while leading the Paladins to a 4-0 record. In wins over Mercer and Chattanooga each of the past two weeks, Huff has accounted for 83% of Furman’s offense, throwing for 496 yards and rushing for another 208.

Mercer will close out its 2022 regular season on the road, as the Bears will travel to Birmingham to face No. 10 Samford in another crucial league clash. The Bears, who are 7-3 overall and 5-2 in Southern Conference play, might need to win a tough road game against an unbeaten Bulldogs team to clinch the school’s first FCS playoff invitation.

The Bears were on the verge of accomplishing that feat last season, however, a 38-35 loss at East Tennessee State de-railed those playoff hopes. A win over the Bucs last season would have clinched Mercer’s first SoCon title and subsequent FCS automatic playoff bid. While the league title aspirations will have to wait until at least next year, head coach Drew Cronic’s Bears could all but punch an at-large invite to the postseason if the Bears can do what no other FCS team has, which is hand the Bulldogs their first FCS loss at Seibert Stadium this coming Saturday.

The Citadel sends its seniors out in grand fashion

Citadel players celebrate their victory over Virginia University of Lynchburg

In what has been a second-straight challenging season for The Citadel players and coaches, the Bulldogs were able to send their seniors out in a good way, as The Citadel blasted non-Division I HBCU Virginia University of Lynchburg, 66-0, in the regular-season finale at Johnson-Hagood Stadium.

The win saw the Bulldogs improve to 3-7 overall, while VUL dropped to 0-10. The Bulldogs will close out the regular season this coming Saturday with a trip to the Commonwealth of Virginia to take on VMI in the Military Classic of the South at Foster Stadium in Lexington. Kickoff for that historic league rivalry battle is set for noon.

As for Saturday’s lopsided win for head coach Brent Thompson’s Bulldogs, it marked The Citadel’s first shutout of a foe since blanking Davidson, 69-0, on Sept. 5, 2015. It also marked the most points scored by The Citadel since that very same game. The Citadel finished the day holding a 531-108 advantage in total yards, with the Bulldogs rolling up 452 yards on the ground.

Wofford wins again

Wofford’s turnaround this season has been nothing short of remarkable, as the Terriers got off to a fast start and never looked back in their 34-16 Southern Conference victory over VMI. The turnaround that interim head coach Shawn Watson and Wofford has undergone has been one of the more interesting stories in FCS football this season. Under Watson, the Terriers have now won three of five games under the interim head coach, which comes after having lost a school-record 16 straight games.

Saturday’s win over the Keydets on Senior Day at Gibbs Stadium saw the Terriers improve to 3-7 overall and 3-4 in Southern Conference play, while the Keydets fell to 1-9 overall and 0-7 in SoCon play. VMI, which has struggled to stay healthy at key positions, and in particular at quarterback, dropped their 10th-straight league game with Saturday’s 18-point road loss.

The Terriers jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and never looked back, with the opening quarter highlighted by a 26-yard scoring pass from Terrier quarterback Jimmy Weirick-to-Dylan Djete, while R.J. Khayo returned a Keydet punt 84 yards to the house for Wofford’s third and final score of the opening quarter. The Terrier defense also set up one of those first quarter scores, as John Boyles sacked VMI quarterback Seth Morgan, with the ball coming free as Morgan went back to pass, and it was recovered by Wofford’s standout defensive lineman Michael Mason at the VMI 19. It was originally ruled an incomplete pass, however, after the play was reviewed by the officiating crew, it was determined that Morgan’s arm had not yet come forward and the ball was awarded to Wofford. Ryan Ingram’s 21-yard scamper gave Wofford its second score of the day shortly thereafter.

Wofford ended the contest with a 408-309 advantage in total yards, with quarterback Jimmy Weirick connecting on 17-of-26 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. The Terriers will head to Furman to take on the 13th-ranked Paladins in a noon kickoff next Saturday, while VMI will return home for its senior day in search of ending that 10-game league losing streak against arch-rival The Citadel. Kickoff for the Military Classic of the South is slated for noon at Foster Stadium.

SoCon Power Poll

  1. Samford
  2. Furman
  3. Chattanooga
  4. Mercer
  5. Western Carolina
  6. Wofford
  7. The Citadel
  8. East Tennessee State
  9. VMI