As we approach the final two weeks of the 2012 football season in the Southern Conference, five teams remain alive for a playoff berth heading into Saturday afternoon's action.
Of course, the game that everyone will seemingly has an eye on around the league this weekend is the clash between No. 2 Georgia Southern and No. 15 Appalachian State on Saturday.
Other important matchups on Saturday will see No. 6 Wofford on the road in Birmingham, Ala., taking on the Samford Bulldogs, who will be looking to keep their fading playoff hopes alive. The Citadel, who has aspirations of making its first postseason appearance since 1992, will look to keep its hopes alive for the postseason by hosting Elon on Saturday. Rounding out the weekend's action will be a clash between Chattanooga and Western Carolina in Cullowhee,S.C.
1. Georgia Southern (7-1, 6-1 SoCon)
Georgia Southern continues to be the strongest team in the Southern Conference and one of the strongest in the country, as the Eagles emerged from Chattanooga with a hard-fought 39-31 triple-overtime win over Chattanooga last Saturday, effectively ending the playoff aspirations of Chattanooga.
The eight-point, triple-overtime win by the Eagles marked the sixth straight win by the Eagles since an early season, 23-21 loss at the Citadel to open Southern Conference play back in early September.
The Eagles had a tough week, having to deal with the death of freshman football manager Elizabeth Volker, and went into Saturday night's game against the Mocs with heavy hearts. In what was an extremely physical football game and in a game that might be characterized as the game of the year in the league, the Eagles actually led 21-7 before seeing the Mocs storm back with 17 unanswered points in front of its home crowd to take a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter.
Facing their first adversity of the night, the Eagles were able to respond and come up with a 24-yard field goal by Alex Hanks to tie the football game as the Eagles forced overtime.
In the third overtime session, it was quarterback Jerick McKinnon who would turn out to be the Eagles' hero as he plunged into the end zone from a yard out, and then it was McKinnon who ran it in from two yards out on the two-point conversion to take the eight-point win.
It would be the Georgia Southern defense that would bring home the win, keeping the Mocs out of the end zone on the ensuing possession in the third overtime to help the Eagles escape the Scenic City with a hard-fought Southern Conference victory.
It's been that nationally-ranked Georgia Southern defense, which has allowed the Eagles to put themselves in position to win at least a share of a second straight Southern Conference crown on Saturday afternoon against No. 15 Appalachian State. In fact, heading into Saturday's game against ASU, the Eagles rank fourth nationally in total defense (279.8 YPG).
Offensively, the Eagles are starting to look comfortable, whereas in the early portion of the 2012 schedule, turnovers and poor execution revealed some of the inexperience the Eagles had coming into the season in certain areas on the offensive side of the ball, particularly under center.
However, McKinnon now looks like a seasoned veteran under center, and though he had seen action in the two previous seasons behind Jaybo Shaw, McKinnon is really starting to be composed in the GSU offense, and that has especially been evident over the past couple of weeks in wins over Furman and Chattanooga.
In the win over the Mocs on Saturday night, McKinnon rushed for 141 yards and three scores while completing 3-of-5 passes for 55 yards.
The deal is simple for Georgia Southern on Saturday night. With a win on Saturday night, the Eagles would clinch the automatic bid out of the Southern Conference for the FCS postseason.
The Eagles and Mountaineers represent one of the top rivalries on the FCS landscape and will be meeting for the 28th time on Saturday, with the Mountaineers holding a 14-12-1 all-time series edge. The Mountaineers claimed a 24-17 victory over the top-ranked Eagles last season in Boone, accounting for the Eagles lone conference loss last season.
In the last meeting in Statesboro between the two, GSU was able to get a 21-14 overtime win over the No. 1-ranked Apps and that win help the Eagles gain momentum down the stretch, which led to GSU's first playoff appearance in five years.
A win would allow the Eagles a chance at back-to-back league titles for the program for the first time since the Eagles repeated as league champs under the direction of Paul Johnson and Mike Sewak in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
2. Wofford (7-1, 5-1 SoCon)
Wofford has been steady this season, and this might be the best Terrier team Mike Ayers has had in Spartanburg since the 2003 squad that went unbeaten in Southern Conference play and advanced all the way to the FCS semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Delaware.
This past weekend, the Terriers took a seemingly safe 24-7 first-half lead over the Citadel, and then took the foot off the pedal a bit and had to hold on for a 24-21 win over its Palmetto State rival. It marked the 14th consecutive win by the Terriers over the Bulldogs.
In the win over the Citadel, the Terriers got another strong performance from Eric Breitenstein, who finished the contest with 110 yards and a couple of TDs.
His performance last Saturday afternoon helped the Walter Payton Award candidate to 1,223 rushing yards and 13 TDs this season. Breitenstein, who leads the SoCon and ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game (153.5 YPG), brought his career rushing total to 4,923 yards, and he needs just 206 rushing yards to become the school's all-time career leading rusher, surpassing Shawn Graves's 5,128 career yards. Breitenstein currently ranks as the league's fifth all-time leading rusher.
It was a good week for the Wofford special teams, and in particular junior punter/placekicker Kasey Redfern, who was selected as the Southern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week after averaging 42.0 yards-per-punt on four punts in the win over the Bulldogs, including a career-best 54-yarder. Redfern also contributed a 42-yard field goal in the win.
Like Georgia Southern, Wofford has made its success on the defensive side of the football this season, and enter this week's contest against Samford ranking 20th nationally in total defense (319.8 YPG), while ranking eighth in the nation in scoring defense (16.7 PPG).
The Terriers will be on the road this Saturday to face the Samford Bulldogs, which has seen a couple of hard-fought wins by the Terriers in their past couple of meetings with the Bulldogs. The last time the Terriers played in Birmingham, during the 2010 season, they were able to escape with a 10-3 win, and in last season's meeting, the Terriers opened what was a tight game in the first half and got a 38-23 win.
Saturday's meeting will mark the 10th all-time meeting between the Terriers and Bulldogs, with Samford holding the narrow 5-4 series edge.
The playoff possibilities are extremely good for the Terriers, and Wofford has a chance to gain a share of a Southern Conference title by winning out. If Georgia Southern loses to Appalachian State on Saturday in Statesboro, Wofford would have a chance to garner the automatic bid to the postseason by winning its final two league games at Samford and the home regular-season finale against Chattanooga.
By finishing the season strong, the Terriers have a strong possibility to get a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs and would have an excellent chance to host an FCS second-round playoff game.
3. Appalachian State (6-3, 4-2 SoCon)
Appalachian State was solid this past weekend in its win 38-27 win over Western Carolina, claiming the Mountain Jug for a ninth straight season and for the 26th time in the last 28 meetings. What ASU hadn't anticipated was having to do it without starting quarterback Jamal Jackson, who went out early in the contest with a knee injury.
There was certainly plenty of concern if Jackson should go down with an injury, especially with Kameron Bryant being done for a the season with a knee injury, and with third-stringer Logan Hallock having only mop-up duty experience under center in his career.
However, Hallock would come in and the ASU offense wouldn't miss a beat. Hallock, in similar fashion to the way Jackson took over the starting job under center for an injured DeAndre Presley last season against the Citadel by calmly completing 15 straight passes, showed plenty of composure in coming in and connecting on his first 20 throws.
Hallock would go on to finish the day completing 20 of 21 passes for 230 yards and a couple of TDs. However, as amazing as it may seem, there was a performance that overshadowed that of Hallock's performance on the afternoon, as Steven Miller compiled a career-high 245 rushing yards to go along with a TD run on 34 rush attempts.
He finished the day averaging 7.2 yards per carry in the contest. With his efforts, Miller garnered SoCon Offensive Player of the Week accolades.
With Miller's performance on Saturday, he now has 1,077 rushing yards for the season. He becomes the first ASU running back to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since Devon Moore eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in 2009, and he becomes the 14th Mountaineer to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing milestone in a single season, and also becomes the 11th running back in program history to accomplish the feat.
The Mountaineers' dedication to getting yards between the tackles this season is evidence of improvement on the offensive line, and is also a product of having Scott Satterfield back in Boone calling the plays in his officially titled role of offensive coordinator.
Heading into Saturday's clash with arch-rival Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers currently rank 10th nationally in total offense (465.7 YPG) and rank 22nd in the nation in scoring offense (32.7 PPG).
The defense has had to battle injuries and suspensions this season, and if there's an area that has performed below expectations to this point in the season, it's been a defense that has been surrendering 88th nationally in total defense (409.7 YPG) and 94th nationally in rushing defense (189.7 YPG). That will obviously need to change, and change quickly heading into Saturday's matchup against the No. 2 rushing offense in the nation, and the second-ranked Georgia Southern Eagles.
The defense continues to be led by veteran linebackers and All-America candidates Jeremy Kimbrough and Brandon Grier, who sat out last week's game with an injury.
Kimbrough had a monster game against Western Carolina, recording nine tackles, 3.5 TFL and three sacks to lead the ASU defense in maintaining its grip on the Old Mountain Jug. With his performance on Saturday, Kimbrough has now recorded 100 tackles for the second straight season, now with 101 stops on the campaign. He's the only player in the SoCon to have reached double digits in tackles through the first nine weeks.
ASU's next challenge will be maybe its greatest of the 2012 season, and that is finding a way to defeat a Georgia Southern team that is playing as well as anyone in the FCS right now, and is currently riding a 14-game winning streak on its home turf of Allen E. Paulson Stadium.
The Mountaineers were able to claim a 24-17 win over a top-ranked Georgia Southern team in Boone last season, and an un-ranked Georgia Southern team dug deep to battle back from an early deficit to force overtime and eventually take a 21-14 win over a No.1-ranked Appalachian State squad.
Appalachian State has a simple path to the playoffs—win out, and they are assured of a bid. If the Mountaineers lose one of their final two ballgames to Georgia Southern on Black Saturday to Furman, the Mountaineers' postseason hopes would be up in the air with three league losses.
If ASU loses in one of its final two games this season, it likely would need the Citadel to lose one of its three games to either Elon on Senior Day at Johnson-Hagood Stadium on Saturday, or at a loss at one of the Bulldogs' two arch-rivals VMI or Furman in the final two regular-season games.
The Bulldogs own victories over both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern this season, which would weigh heavily in their favor should the committee have to choose between the two. There is the possibility, however, that the SoCon to garner two invitations to the postseason for the first time in league history in 2012.
With an ASU win this weekend and a Wofford loss to either Samford or Chattanooga in either of its final two SoCon games, the Mountaineers would claim a share of their 12th Southern Conference crown.
4. Samford (5-3, 3-3 SoCon)
Samford is a team that had a much-needed off week last Saturday and will look to rebound from a tough two-game losing skid, which has seen the Bulldogs lose tough battles on their home field to Appalachian State (28-25) three weeks ago, and a tough setback at Chattanooga (20-13) the last time the Bulldogs took the field a couple of weeks ago.
However, Pat Sullivan's team still remains in contention for a playoff spot, which is later than the Bulldogs have remained in contention for a postseason bid since Samford joined the Southern Conference in 2008.
There's also some good news to report, as Sullivan, who missed the Chattanooga game with a relapse of pneumonia, will be back on the sidelines on Saturday for the game against the Wofford Terriers.
The Bulldogs have gotten solid play out of transfer quarterback Andy Summerlin (180-of-280 passing, 1,889 yds, 7 TDs, 6 INTs) this season, but its been a defense that enters the weekend ranking fourth in the Southern Conference and rank 32nd in the SoCon in total defense (336.8 YPG) this season.
That defense has been anchored by the play of Jaquiski Tartt (73 tackles, league-leading 4 INTs, 12 PBUs, 2 TDs), who has come out of nowhere to put himself on the Buck Buchanan Award list, which is given to the nation's top defensive performer.
The Bulldogs have been ranked on two occasions this season, as they headed to Statesboro to face Georgia Southern back on Sept. 29 ranked as the No. 25 team in the nation, dropping that contest, 35-16. The Bulldogs also hosted nationally-ranked Appalachian State ranked No. 25, dropping a 28-25 at Seibert Stadium. This weekend, the Bulldogs will welcome another nationally-ranked foe into Seibert Stadium, as No. 7 Wofford pays a visit.
The Bulldogs have a 5-4 all-time series edge, last defeating the Terriers in 2009, when Samford went to Wofford and escaped with a 35-24 win.
The Bulldogs need to win out to have a chance at the FCS postseason, since they have only four Division I wins and the requirement is seven Division I wins to be considered for the postseason, one of the Bulldogs' wins being a 34-6 win over West Alabama.
The Bulldogs don't have any easy slate remaining this season, hosting No. 7 Wofford this Saturday, while facing road contests at Elon (Nov. 10) and at Kentucky (Nov. 17). Given the way that Samford played at Auburn last season, a win at Kentucky isn't out the realm of possibilities.
5. The Citadel (4-4, 3-3 SoCon)
The Citadel has a chance to return to the FCS postseason for the first time since 1992 if the Bulldogs can claim wins in their last three games of the season.
The Bulldogs got off to a dynamic start to the 2012 season, and the Bulldogs rose to as high as No. 11 in the nation, their first ranking the 2008 season.
In fact, the Bulldogs got out to a 3-0 start and were the hottest team in FCS football, but after a 24-21 loss to No. 7 Wofford, marking the Bulldogs 14th straight loss to the Terriers.
The good news is the Bulldogs have played pretty well the past couple of weeks against Wofford and Western Carolina.
The Bulldogs are clearly having their best season in the third season of utilizing the triple-option offense. Coming into Saturday's game at home against Elon, the Bulldogs rank fifth in the nation in rushing offense (301.8 YPG).
The Citadel also ranks 52nd in the nation in total offense (383.2 YPG), which is improvement of about 60 yards on the offensive side of the ball from where the Bulldogs finished the 2011 season, meaning the Bulldogs are having some success throwing the football.
Leading the Bulldogs' offense this season have been senior quarterback Ben Dupree (19-for-32 passing, 279 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT/610 rush yds, 6 TDs), who is having his best season in The Citadel Blue, while Darien Robinson has his sights set on a 1,000-yard rushing season, with 701 rushing yards so far this season.
The real struggles for the Bulldogs have uncharacteristically come on the defensive side of the football. The Bulldogs come into Saturday's contest against Elon ranking 116th nationally (263.1 YPG) in rush defense this season, but do rank third nationally against the pass (141.5 YPG).
The Bulldogs will host Elon on Senior Day at Johnson-Hagood Stadium on Saturday. It will mark the 12th all-time meeting between the Bulldogs and Phoenix, with the Citadel holding a narrow 6-5 series edge. The Bulldogs will be looking to rebound from an 18-15 overtime loss at Elon last season.
The playoff possibilities are actually pretty good for the Bulldogs if they can win out and finish with a 7-4 record this season, and to do that, the Bulldogs must win their home season finale against Elon this weekend and need to claim wins over a couple of arch-rivals on the road to close out the season, traveling VMI (Nov. 10) and Furman (Nov. 17).
The Bulldogs should be able to get wins the next couple of weeks, with a playoff bid likely hinging on that Nov. 17 game against hated rival Furman. With its 24-21 loss to Wofford this past weekend, the Bulldogs have not won in the Upstate of South Carolina since 1998.
Other Notes From The Weekend
- Furman avoided becoming the first Paladin team since 1972 to win less than than three games, getting a 31-17 win at Elon
- Furman running back Jerodis Williams became the first running back since Louis Ivory (2000 and 2001) to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons with his 95-yard, two TD performance against Elon on Saturday
- Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman was named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Week for the second week in the month of October, accounting for 288 yards total offense and three TDs in the 39-31 triple overtime loss to Georgia Southern.
- Furman sophomore defensive back Marcus McMorris garnered SoCon Defensive Player of the Week accolades after his performance in the 31-17 win over Elon, which included had a 95-yard fumble return for a score to change the complexion of the game against the Phoenix, giving the Paladins a 21-7 second-quarter lead. It was the second TD of the season for McMorris, who also returned an INT 52 yards for a score in a 45-24 win over Western Carolina.
- With its 38-27 loss to Appalachian State on Saturday, Western Carolina saw its Southern Conference losing streak extend to 21 games.
Southern Conference Power Rankings Going Into Week 10
1. Georgia Southern
3. Appalachian State
6. The Citadel
9. Western Carolina