The Year of Purple: SoCon Week 4 Recap and Week 5 Preview

The Year of Purple dominates the SoCon as Western Carolina shines. Get a recap of Week 4 and a preview of the action-packed Week 5 ahead!

VMI defenders tackling Wofford's #12
Source: VMI Athletics

After four weeks of football in the Southern Conference, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge as to who will be towards the top of the SoCon’s pecking order as we head into the meat of conference play. Week four also represented the official start of Southern Conference play, with three games that highlighted the weekend slate.

The marquee matchup of the afternoon pitted a pair of ranked league foes against one another, as No. 21/22 Mercer headed to Greenville, S.C., to take on No. 7/8 Furman in a game that many agree that will go a long way in deciding the 2023 Southern Conference title. The other two matchups had Wofford (0-3) traveling to Lexington, VA., to take on the VMI Keydets (1-2), while No. 23 Samford and defending Southern Conference champion Samford was looking to avoid an 0-2 start to Southern Conference play, which would make it nearly impossible for the Bulldogs to get back into the league title race, as the Bulldogs hosted Chattanooga in another key league contest. The lone two out of conference clashes had red-hot Western Carolina (2-1, 1-0 SoCon) hosting Charleston Southern (1-2) at EJ Whitmire Stadium, while The Citadel (0-3) headed to Orangeburg to face off against South Carolina State (0-2) in the first meeting between the two programs since 2001.

Both Furman and Western Carolina appear to be on a collision course for an Oct. 21 matchup in Cullowhee that would put special emphasis on the “Battle of Purple Supremacy” this season, as it will go a long way in deciding the 2023 Southern Conference champion. It would fitting if that were the case, as Dick Sheridan, who passed away back in July, and the late Bob Waters, who passed away in May of 1989 due to complications as a result of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, had some great battles over the years, with 2023 marking the 40-year anniversary of that great Division I-AA semifinal clash at Paladin Stadium between the two Hall-of-Fame coaches, which saw Waters’ Catamounts take a 14-7 win and move on to the national championship game back in 1983. For Western Carolina football, it’s national runner-up season marks its crowning achievement as a football program. The Catamounts have never won a Southern Conference regular-season football crown. Furman has a league-standard 14 league titles.

Mocs Party in Birmingham

Before we start making Furman-Western Carolina the de facto Southern Conference football game on Oct. 21, there is plenty of football left to be played. Chattanooga figures to have something to say about it, as the Mocs are off to a 3-1 start after demolishing defending champion Samford, 47-24, almost ensuring that for a fifth-straight season, the Southern Conference will have a different champion. The Mocs used big plays on both sides of the ball to avenge a 35-24 loss to Chattanooga last season in a game that essentially clinched at least a share of the 2022 Southern Conference title for Samford, as they danced and celebrated and took pictures on the Finley Stadium turf.

A year later, those memories were seemingly still fresh in the minds of the Mocs players and coaches, who in 2023, went about not winning a SoCon title at Seibert Stadium in late September, but rather getting off to a positive start to a potential title run, while effectively ending the defending champions hopes of being able to repeat their incredible feat in the league this season.

The Mocs got off to a fast start and never looked back, as Chase Artopeus found wideout Tyler Smith for a 47-yard scoring connection to give the Mocs the early 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game. On Samford’s ensuing possession, Alex Mitchell picked off a Michael Hiers pass on his first attempt of the afternoon and returned it 38 yards for a score to make it a 13-0 game following a failed PAT.

It would be a hole that Samford would never be able to dig out of the rest of the afternoon, never getting the margin to less than 10 points the rest of the day. Following a 33-yard Wilson Beaverstock field goal midway through the opening quarter, the Mocs would increase their lead to 17 points when Gino Appleberry scored in a 2-yard run less than a minute into the second quarter to give Chattanooga full command of the game with a 20-3 lead.

Hiers and the Bulldogs offense would respond to cut the Mocs’ lead to 10 once again when the reigning SoCon Player of the Year connected with wideout Ty King on what was a 21-yard scoring strike to get Samford to within 20-10 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the first half.

However, by this point in the game the Chattanooga offense was beginning to look unstoppable. Artopeus had full command of the Chattanooga offense and he was putting the ball where Samford defenders weren’t, and that set things up quite nicely for the Mocs ground game, led by star running back Ailym Ford and arguably the best reserve running back in the SoCon, Gino Appleberry. It would be Ford that would cap the first of consecutive scoring drives for the Mocs, plunging in from three yards out to increase the lead to 17.

After the Mocs defense forced a turnover on downs, Chattanooga’s offense would make Samford pay. Artopeus and the Mocs offense needed just six plays to cover then needed 52 yards to pay dirt, and it was Ford that drove the ball into the end zone once again, as his 3-yard score gave Chattanooga it’s largest lead of the afternoon, at 34-10, with 2:46 left in the half.

Hiers and the Bulldogs would at least give themselves a chance to make a comeback in the second half, as the Bulldogs covered 75 yards in 10 plays, with Jay Stanton’s 3-yard scoring run with 30 seconds left in the half, slicing the Mocs lead in half at the break, as Chattanooga went into the locker room with a 34-17 lead.

Samford at least made things interesting temporarily in the third quarter when Chandler Smith scored on a 21-yard run from his wideout position. His run came just 1:24 just in the second half to make it a 34-24 contest. The only points for the remainder of the third quarter came from Chattanooga, as Georgia Tech transfer kicker Jude Kelley added a 48-yard field goal with 9:09 left in the quarter, extending the Mocs lead back to 13 points.

In the fourth quarter, the Mocs would tack on 10 more points to make the game academic, as Kelley added.a 26-yard field goal a little over three minutes into the final frame to make it a 40-24 game. The final nail in Samford’s coffin and maybe its season came when Kameron Brown picked off a Michael Hiers pass and returned it 78 yards for a score, giving the Mocs a 47-24 lead with just 7:23 remaining. That would obviously end up being the final score.

The 95 points scored in back-to-back games by the Mocs to open SoCon play against both The Citadel and Samford to open league play marked the most points in back-to-back games since 1928. Chattanooga returns to the gridiron next Saturday traveling to Wofford, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. EST. Samford will be at home once again, hosting East Tennessee State with kickoff set for 1 p.m. EST at Seibert Stadium.

Furman takes down Mercer

In a key battle between a pair of ranked foes in the Southern Conference, Furman took its first step towards realizing its preseason expectations, using 222 rushing yards to eventually overpower No. 21 Mercer in the second half, as the eighth-ranked Paladins claimed a convincing 38-14 win to open SoCon play in style.

The Paladins allowed back-to-back scoring drives by Mercer, pulling the Bears to within 17-14 in the contest. However, the Paladins would put the clamps down defensively for the remainder of the game, allowing only 14 yards and no first downs after that initial scoring drive to start the second half for the Bears. Meanwhile, Furman was again led by another outstanding effort from its graduate senior quarterback Tyler Huff, who connected 20-of-24 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 82 yards on 11 carries to lead a balanced ground attack en route to leading Furman’s 15th win in its last 17 games against FCS foes.

All told, Furman held an advantage of 387-267 in total offense, including a 233-170 edge in rushing yards. Peevy finished the contest completing 11-of-16 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts, leading Bears’ rushing efforts.

The opening quarter for Furman was much like it was last week at Kennesaw State, with the Paladin offense struggling to find much of a rhythm, as the Bears’ defense kept the Paladin offense in-check, forcing a pair of punts, while the Paladin defense was equally as strong forcing a punt, and Jack Barton recorded his fifth blocked kick in the past two seasons after the Bears drove into the Paladin red zone, keeping the game scoreless.

With 1:26 remaining in the first quarter, the Paladins took over their own eight-yard line and would embark on their most impressive drive of the afternoon so far, and 11 plays later, Ian Williams’ 31-yard field goal gave the Paladins a 3-0 lead with 11:37 left in the half.

After that, Furman would slowly get going—first through the air—and then on the ground. It appeared Mercer had matched Furman’s big play in the special teams department with a blocked punt, however, a flag against the Bears for holding on the play provided a stark change in momentum, giving the Paladins a first down and the offense new life.

The Paladins, as good teams do, turned it into points shortly thereafter when Dominic Roberto scampered nine yards untouched into the end zone to give the Paladins their first two-score advantage of the game, as Furman assumed a 10-0 lead following a Roberto 9-yard scoring jaunt with 5:16 left in the half.

The Bears then gave Furman’s offense a gift. Devron Harper fumbled a Ryan Leavy punt after signaling for a fair catch with 1:24 left in the half, and there to pounce on the loose football at the Mercer 13 yard line was Paladin senior wide receiver Luke Shiflett. It took Wayne Anderson Jr. just one hand-off from Huff to give the Paladins a comfortable 17-0 lead with 1:18 remaining in the opening frame, and seemingly all the momentum into the halftime locker room.

But just when you thought the Paladins would have the momentum heading to the half, Mercer and Peevy put together its most impressive drive of the day. The Bears needed just five plays to cover 75 yards, taking only 1:11 off the clock, with Peevy finding a streaking Ty James down the far sideline for a 26-yard scoring strike and giving the Bears new life, cutting Furman’s lead to 10 (17-7) at the break.

Fueling that momentum even more was the fact that the Bears offense would get the ball first coming out of the locker room to start the second half. Carter Peevy’s eight-yard scamper to the end zone got the Bears back to within a field goal and concluded an 11-play, 74 yard drive with 8:02 left in the third quarter.

Huff and the Paladin offense responded much the same way they did last week playing in the Peach State against Kennesaw State after the Owls knotted the score late in the fourth quarter. The Paladins didn’t flinch, but instead turned it up a notch on both sides of the football.

The Paladins fashioned their most impressive drive of the day, putting together a 14-play, 80-yard response, which was capped by a Myion Hicks 1-yard scoring plunge with 53 seconds left in the third. Hicks, who teamed with Jay’Quan Smith for much of the game in relief of Dominic Roberto, who left the game late in the first half and did not return due to an apparent lower body injury, restored Furman’s two-score lead (24-14) with his scoring plunge. Hicks finished with 19 yards and a touchdown on six carries, as the Paladins platooned the ground game after Roberto’s departure.

For the remaining 15 minutes and change left in the game, the Paladin defense would turn up the heat. Following Mercer’s scoring drive to open the second half, the Paladin defense didn’t allow another first down the rest of the game, including stopping the Bears on three-straight fourth downs to force a turnover on downs, while limiting the Bears to just 14 yards the remainder of the game.

The back-breaker for Mercer would come shortly thereafter. With precious time now a factor and trailing by two scores, the Bears faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 48 early in the final frame. Al Wooten was stopped for no gain and the Paladins had the ball in great field position. Huff needed only five plays to get the Paladins back in the end zone.

The graduate quarterback capped the short drive by beautifully lofting 10-yard alley-oop to former Ferris State hooper Mason Pline, who could have slammed it over the goalposts on Huff’s aerial without much of a challenge from a Bears defensive back, which were an endangered species on the play. It was Pline’s first scoring catch as a Paladin, as two of Furman’s three TD passes have been caught by tight ends this season.

Furman’s final score was set up by another short field, and it came from Jay’Quan Smith—a player that is beginning to show why he was so highly-touted as a recruit coming into the program. After the Paladin defense held the Bears on another three-and-out, Furman took over the ball at the Bears 28 and needed just three plays to find pay dirt.

Huff found Anderson on a short six-yard completion, and after Smith gained two on second down, his number was called again on third and short. He responded by taking a handoff, out-racing one Bears defender before stiff-arming another en route to a 20-yard scoring run to the far corner of the end zone, giving Furman a decisive 24-point, 38-14 lead, with 8:04 left. The rookie running back finished with 46 yards and a TD on just six carries.

The Paladins out-gained the Bears 84-11 in the final quarter on only three more plays (12-9).

Furman will have next Saturday off, while Mercer will be at home at Five Star Stadium to face the VMI Keydets. Kickoff for that contest is set for 4 p.m. EST.

VMI captures first SoCon win under Danny Rocco

VMI’s defense has shown its been the real deal all season, and Saturday was no different as the Keydets were able to secure their first Southern Conference win under Danny Rocco, as the Keydets downed Wofford, 17-14, in rainy conditions Saturday afternoon at Foster Stadium.

The win saw the Keydets improve to 2-2 overall and 1-0 in SoCon play, while Wofford fell to 0-4 overall and 0-1 in SoCon play. The Keydets ended the game currently ranking as the SoCon’s leading defense, allowing a league low 353.3 YPG.

Rocco has established himself as a defensive mastermind as VMI’s head coach, and that was the case Saturday, as the Keydets were very much bend but no break in Saturday’s win over the Terriers. The Terriers did end up with a substantial 342-216 in total offense, with the Terriers holding a decisive advantage in aerial yardage, posting a 180-62 advantage through the air.

Hunter Rice ended up being VMI’s main offensive weapon in the game, as he was the Keydets leading ground gainer with 90 rushing yards, while posting a rushing and passing touchdown in the win. Both teams exchanged first quarter touchdowns, with Wofford getting a 4-yard scoring run from Ryan Ingram to take an early 7-0 lead. However, VMI responded with a 9-play, 75-yard drive, with Hunter Rice’s 7-yard scoring run tying the game, 7-7.

The only score of the second quarter came just 11 seconds remaining before the break, as tight end Aidan Twombly hauled in a jump pass from Hunter Rice on a trick play, helping the Keydets carry all the momentum into the locker room, as well as a 14-7 lead.

The Keydets would make it 17-straight points by posting the only score of the third quarter and what turned out to be their final points of the game, as Caden Beck knocked through a 25-yard field goal following a big forced turnover from the VMI defense. Jabari Haslem forced a Wofford fumble, which was recovered by VMI linebacker Josh Knapp at the Wofford nine. It would eventually lead to the Keydets field goal and give VMI a 17-7 lead.

Wofford would make things interesting in the fourth quarter when Ingram sprinted 83 yards for a TD with 7:16 left and the ensuing PAT would get Wofford to within a field goal, at 17-14. Late in the game, Wofford had a chance to tie the game, however, the rainy, wet conditions led to a bad snap and Wofford would come up empty, as the VMI offense ran out the clock en route to a big league-opening win.

VMI’s SoCon win snapped an 11-game league losing streak, dating back to Nov. 6, 2021.

Western. Carolina thrashes Charleston Southern

Western Carolina scored early and often in its 77-21 win over Charleston Southern. The 77 points scored by the Catamounts tied a school record, which was set just last season in a 77-21 win over Presbyterian. The Catamounts didn’t break much of a sweat in their 56-point win over the Buccaneers, improving to 3-1 overall on the season, while Charleston Southern dropped to 1-3.

Cole Gonzales only got in a half of work, as he tossed all five of his touchdown passes in the opening half of play, with four of those scoring strikes going to different receivers, leading Western Carolina to a 42-7 halftime lead.

Gonzales, who would go on to garner Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors, ended up connecting on 14-of-16 passes for 299 yards, with five touchdowns and no INTs. He was one of three quarterbacks to see action for the Catamounts in the contest, with Taron Dickens (3-of-4 passing, 91 yds, 1 TD) and Brody Palhegyi (3-of-4 passing, 56 yds, 1 TD) also logging time under center for WCU in the contest.

Desmond Reid finished out the game with his third-straight 100-yard rushing effort, finishing the contest with 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns on only 13 carries. Corey Washington hauled in three passes for 108 yards, while AJ Columbo finished the contest with three grabs for 95 yards and a pair of scores. Censere Lee had two catches for 86 yards and a TD.

The Catamounts finished the contest with a substantial 683-223 advantage in total offense, which included a 446-82 advantage through the air. The Catamounts get back into Southern Conference play Saturday, traveling to The Citadel for a 2 p.m. contest at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

South Carolina State thrashes The Citadel in Battle of the Bulldogs

The other non-conference game of the fifth Saturday of the college football season saw The Citadel travel just up I-26 to face South Carolina State in Orangeburg at Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium, and things certainly wouldn’t get any easier for The Citadel, as South Carolina State’s Bulldogs picked up their first win of the season in a battle of winless teams, handing The Citadel a 31-10 setback.

South Carolina State, which is in its final season under legendary head coach Buddy Pough, improved to 1-3 on the season, while The Citadel, which is in its first season under the direction of Maurice Drayton, fell to 0-4. It was the first meeting between the two programs in 22 years and marked just the fifth all-time clash between the two programs. It was South Carolina State’s first-ever win over The Citadel on the gridiron.

South Carolina State finished out the domination of The Citadel with a 556-202 edge in total yards. South Carolina State would take a 14-3 lead into the half, using a 34-yard scoring pass from Corey Fields Jr.-to Justin Smith-Brown to make it a 7-0 lead for the hometown Bulldogs with just under six minutes remaining in the opening quarter. The Citadel answered with its only points of the half when Colby Kintner connected on a 25-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, getting the visitors to within four.

However, South Carolina State would carry all the momentum into the locker room when Fields found Chattanooga transfer tight end Keshawn Toney for a 21-yard scoring strike with just 38 seconds remaining in the opening frame to make it 14-3.

SC State would eventually assume a 31-3 lead before The Citadel would find the end zone. In the third quarter, Fields tossed a 35-yard scoring pass to Justin Smith-Brown to make it 21-3 and then Gavy Zimmerman connected on a 22-yard field goal to increase the advantage to 24-3. South Carolina State’s final points of the evening would come on a 1-yard scoring plunge from Tyler Smith on a 1-yard scoring plunge, which made it 31-3 with 11:!1 remaining in the game.

The Citadel’s lone score of the night would come with just 2:16 remaining, as Graeson Underwood connected with Cooper Wallace on a 39-yard scoring pass to make it a 31-10 contest.

South Carolina State’s Corey Fields Jr. finished the night connecting on 19-of-25 passes for 301 yards, with three touchdowns and an INT. Graeson Underwood connected on 10-of-19 passes for 138 yards, with one touchdown and an INT. Dustin Fletcher, who left the game injured, finished the contest 2-of-7 passing for 10 yards, while rushing for 20 yards on six attempts.

Through the first four games of the 2023 season, The Citadel has been outscored 169-20 through its first four games of the 2023 season. Things don’t get any easier either, as The Citadel faces arguably the two best teams in the SoCon over the next two Saturdays, hosting Western Carolina in a 2 p.m. this coming Saturday, while traveling to Furman next Saturday.

SoCon Power Rankings Entering Week 5

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

Preview for Sept. 30, 2023

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

Seibert Stadium/Homewood, AL, 1 p.m. EST

Series: 11th meeting/Samford holds a 7-3 all-time series edge

Coaches: East Tennessee State — George Quarles (4-10, 2nd yr)/Samford — Chris Hatcher (52-41, 9th yr at Samford)

Preview: Samford is now officially in scramble mode, as the defending Southern Conference champions are off to an 0-2 start to league play and with three losses already and a game against non-Division I Shorter, the Bulldogs' playoff hopes look to be all but over and we’re only a month into the 2023 season.

The Bucs, meanwhile, have had a couple of weeks to try and get a quarterback healthy enough to play and put a 63-3 loss at Austin Peay behind them the last time they took the field. It’s likely that Tyler Riddell (10-of-17 passing, 117 yds, 1 INT), who hasn’t played since ETSU’s 49-3 season-opening loss at Jacksonville State, will be ready for the Bucs SoCon opener Saturday.

Having Riddell would be a huge asset for the Bucs Saturday, as he has thrown nine TDs and only one INT in his last two outings against Samford. His top weapon in the passing game is all-league wideout Will Huzzie (8 rec, 82 yds, 1 TD, 10.3 YPR), who continues to move up the receiving charts at ETSU.

The Bulldogs are led by Michael Hiers (100-of-148 passing, 1,130 yds, 8 TDs, 4 INTs) under center, and one thing that Samford has struggled to do through the first four games of the season is keep their Payton Award candidate signal-caller upright, as Hiers has taken some vicious hits through the first four games this season. The Bulldogs have already yielded 11 sacks through the first four games. Hiers has already equaled his number of INTs this season as he had through 13 games last season. That will certainly be something to keep an eye on Saturday.

Through the first four games of the 2023 season, Samford is averaging 403.0 YPG and 28.2 PPG, including putting up 299.0 YPG through the air. Samford’s defense, however, has struggled. The Bulldogs are surrendering 438.2 YPG through the first four games, which ranks them 94th nationally in total defense.

Hiers’ top targets in the passing game are Chandler Smith (22 rec, 297 yds, 3 TDs, 13.5 YPR) and Ty King (17 rec, 233 yds, 1 TD, 13.7 YPR). Jay Stanton (31 rush att, 142 yds, 2 TDs, 4.6 YPC) has played less of a role to this point this season than maybe last season, however, in each of the past three weeks the Bulldogs have been playing from behind, and getting Stanton involved in the running game has for the most part been tough to do by the nature of playing catch up. Mychael Hamilton (27 rush att, 156 yds, 2 TDs, 5.8 YPC) is actually the top rusher for the Bulldogs through the first four games.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by nickel safety Garrett Morris (28 tackles, 1.0 TFL). One of the keys to this game will be third-down conversions. ETSU is last in the FCS in third-down conversions (12%), while the Bulldogs have surrendered 56% of third-down conversions against a pair of SoCon foes this season.

I look for this game to be a high-scoring affair, with the Bulldogs getting their first SoCon win of the season.

Redshirt Sports Prediction: Samford 51, East Tennessee State 40

No. 17 Western Carolina (3-1, 1-0 SoCon) at The Citadel (0-4, 0-1 SoCon)

Johnson-Hagood Stadium/Charleston, S.C., 2 p.m.

Series: 48th meeting/The Citadel leads 27-19-1

Coaches: Western Carolina — Kerwin Bell (13-13/3rd yr)/The Citadel — Maurice Drayton (0-4/1st yr)

Preview: Western Carolina looks to keep its strong play to open the season going, as the Catamounts head to Charleston to face The Citadel in their second Southern Conference game of the season. A win by the Catamounts would give them their first 2-0 start to Southern Conference play since the 2017 campaign, while also giving the Catamounts their first 4-1 start to a campaign since that same season. A win by the Catamounts would also mark a seventh-straight against FCS competition dating back to last season.

The Catamount offense has been machine-like to open the season, with WCU leading the nation in total offense, averaging 518.7 YPG. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game ranking 116th out of 122 teams in FCS football in total offense (226.0 YPG), while ranking 121st in scoring offense (5.0 PPG).

Western Carolina’s prolific offense is led by quarterback Cole Gonzales (70-of-98 passing, 1,019 yds, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) and running back Desmond Reid (80 rush att, 469 yds, 5 TDs, 5.9 YPC), while the lone offensive weapon for the Bulldogs to this point in the season has been running back Cooper Wallace (42 rush att, 178 yds, 4.2 YPC/6 rec, 66 yds, 1 TD, 11.0 YPR).

On defense, the Catamounts are led by defensive backs CJ Williams (17 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBUs) and Andreas Keaton (16 tackles). The Bulldogs, who statistically rank 119th in the FCS out of 122 teams in FCS in total defense, surrendering 520.5 YPG, are led by senior linebacker Carson Walter (29 tackles).

I don’t expect this game to be too close, as the Catamounts easily avenge what was a surprising 34-21 home loss last season.

Redshirt Sports Prediction: Western Carolina 63, The Citadel 17

VMI (2-2, 1-0 SoCon) at Mercer (2-2, 0-1 SoCon)

Five Star Stadium/Macon, GA., 4 p.m.

Series: 10th meeting/Mercer leads 6-3

Coaches: VMI — Danny Rocco (2-2/1st yr at VMI)/Mercer — Drew Cronic (21-15/4th yr at Mercer)

Preview: VMI looks to be much improved under the direction of Danny Rocco, and it shows particularly on the defensive side of the football, where the Keydets have the top defense in the Southern Conference (355.5 YPG) so far this season. The area that has provided the most struggle has been the offensive side of the football, where the Keydets are averaging just 278.5 YPG this season, ranking 104th overall in the FCS in total offense.

Leading the VMI offense so far this season has been Collin Ironside (45-of-67 passing, 518 yds, 3 TDs, 2 INTs). Hunter Rice (59 rush att, 184 yds, 1 TD, 3.1 YPC) has been a “do everything” running back for the Keydets this season, and that includes having thrown a touchdown last Saturday against Wofford. The top pass catcher for the Keydets first four games is Chance Knox (18 rec, 205 yds, 11.4 YPR).

Defensively, a unit that is built solid at all three levels is led at linebacker by Christian Dunn (28 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 2 QBHs), and on the back end All-SoCon defensive back Alex Oliver (26 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 1 INT).

Like VMI, Mercer also has had an offense that has struggled through the first four games of the season. Carter Peevy (52-of-81 passing, 644 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT/156 rush yds, 3 TDs) leads a Bears offense that ranks 83rd (309.5 YPG) nationally in total offense. One of the biggest problems for Peevy so far has been figuring out how to get the ball to both Ty James (17 rec, 315 yds, 3 TDs, 18.5 YPR) and Devron Harper (17 rec, 207 yds, 12.2 YPR) and how to keep the offense from becoming too one-dimensional without a true major ground threat outside Peevy and Al Wooten II (38 rush att, 184 yds, 2 TDs, 4.8 YPC).

Defensively, the Bears have been solid this season, led by linebackers Isaac Dowling (27 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 QBH) and Ken Standley (26 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack). The Bears currently rank 80th in the FCS in total defense (402.0 YPG).

I think VMI will keep this game close, but the Bears have been tough at home in SoCon play the past three seasons, and the Bears have won 14 of their past 16 games at Five Star Stadium. One of those two losses did come against VMI in 2021. The Keydets will fight hard for three quarters, however, Mercer pulls away in the fourth quarter for their first SoCon win of the season.

Redshirt Sports Prediction: Mercer 24, VMI 14

No. 22 (Coaches Poll) Chattanooga (3-1, 2-0 SoCon) at Wofford (0-4, 0-1 SoCon)

Gibbs Stadium (13,000)/Spartanburg, S.C., 6 p.m. EST

Series: 30th meeting/Wofford leads 15-14

Coaches: Chattanooga — Rusty Wright (25-18/5th yr)/Wofford — Shawn Watson (3-7/2nd yr)

Preview: The team that perhaps everyone overlooked or maybe underestimated is Chattanooga. However, it’s evident that the Mocs are here to stay and this could be the breakthrough year for head coach Rusty Wright at the helm of the Mocs football program.

Now in his fifth season, the Mocs appear to be well on their way to competing for a SoCon title once again this season, with UCLA transfer Chase Artopeus (78-of-116 passing, 1,110 yds, 9 TDs, 2 INTs/116 yds) leading what has been a potent Mocs offense so far this season.

Artopeus was one of the bigger question marks for the Mocs offense coming into the season, however, has offered an emphatic answer to those preseason question marks by leading a Mocs offense that has scored an eye-popping 95 points in its first two Southern Conference games this season.

The Mocs also have bruising All-SoCon running back Ailym Ford (78 rush att, 327 yds, 3 TDs, 4.2 YPC) to lean on, while Jamoi Mayes (21 rec, 417 yds, 1 TD, 19.9 YPR) and Sam Phillips (27 rec, 273 yds, 3 TDs) have been the top options at wide receiver.

After surrendering 517 yards of total offense in the season opener against North Alabama, the Mocs defense has rallied to be solid ever since. The Mocs currently rank 49th nationally in total defense (357.8 YPG), and rank just behind VMI at second in the league in total defense.

Defense has been a strength for winless Wofford thus far in the 2023 season. Shawn Watson’s Terriers showed some signs in the loss at VMI last weekend, and in particular, the ground game, which was led by running back Ryan Ingram (48 rush att, 269 yds, 3 TDs, 5.6 YPC).

The new man leading the Terrier offense is Paul Seeley (22-of-33 passing, 259 yds), who is coming off his first start a week ago. Kyle Pinnix (9 rec, 147 yds, 16.3 YPR) has been the top receiving option for Wofford this season. The Terriers have to get better on third down, as they have converted just 7-of-45 third-down attempts this season.

Wofford’s defense, which has spent an inordinate amount of time on the field to this point in the season through the first four games, has been solid given the circumstances, surrendering just 373.5 YPG.

This game will be a good physical battle, and I think Wofford’s defense will keep them in it, however, in the end, the Mocs have too much firepower.

Redshirt Sports Prediction: Chattanooga 34, Wofford 21