SoCon as Strong as It Has Been Since 2007

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IIOctober 15, 2011

Samford Senior QB Dustin Taliaferro Has Led A Resurgent Samford Team In 2011
Samford Senior QB Dustin Taliaferro Has Led A Resurgent Samford Team In 2011

If you are a fan of SoCon football, it's likely that you have noticed the difficulty of the league race so far in 2011. If we rewind the calendar and look back at the 2007 campaign—the same which saw Appalachian State start the season with a 34-32 win at FBS fifth-ranked Michigan—it has a lot in common with the current campaign in terms of degree of difficulty.

In fact, the SoCon in 2007, which saw as many as five teams ranked in The Sports Network Top 25 poll at one point during the campaign, finished as the nation's second-ranked conference out of 16 FCS leagues in terms of power rankings four years ago.

The SoCon finished out the season with an overall rating of 23.92. The only league to finish higher than the SoCon in 2007 was the Colonial Athletic Association, which posted an overall rating of 21.71.

Still, it was the SoCon which proved its worth in the postseason in 2007. Eventual champion Appalachian State went through three CAA teams on its way to a third-straight national crown, knocking off James Madison (28-27) in dramatic fashion, while making relatively easy work of Richmond (55-35) and Delaware (49-21). And who can forget Wofford's dramatic 23-22 win in Missoula over undefeated Montana in the opening round?

In terms of individual team rankings that season, the Mountaineers, of course, topped FCS football in overall power rating, posting a 1.00 rating, while Wofford ranked eighth with a 9.00 rating and Georgia Southern posted a 17.63 rating to finish 16th. Just behind the Eagles in 17th position was Elon, which posted a 17.88 point total.

Rounding out the impressive five teams in the SoCon teams ranked in the "power top 25" in final "Gridiron Power Index" rankings were The Citadel and Furman. The Citadel finished tied for 22nd nationally, posting a 22.50 rating, while Furman finished 24th nationally, amassing a 23.00 power rank.

Heading into the SoCon Week 7 in 2011, the SoCon has a whopping seven teams represented in the latest GPI Top 25 poll. The seven teams ranked in that power poll give the SoCon the most teams ranked nationally among the power 25, according to the College Sporting News, which provides the basis for those rankings.

The SoCon has the top two teams in the current GPI poll, with Georgia Southern leading the nation in terms of power ranking, posting a 1.43 ranking heading into Saturday afternoon's game against Furman, which ranks 16th in the same poll with a mark of 17.43. Wofford is just behind Georgia Southern in the current GPI poll, which is released every Monday, with a 2.43 mark.

Appalachian State, a team gunning for an unprecedented seventh-consecutive Southern Conference crown, comes in at No. 10 in the latest FCS power poll, with a rating of 11.86. Samford enters the weekend ranked 15th in the poll with a 17.14 mark and just ahead of the aforementioned Paladins at No. 16. Rounding out the SoCon teams ranked in the GPI Top 25 are Chattanooga (21.57) and Elon (27.43), at Nos. 19 and 25, respectively.

As a conference, the SoCon heads into Week 7 ranking ranking No. 1 in the overall conference power rankings, posting a (21.02) mark as a league midway through the 2011 season.

Chattanooga is the Georgia Southern of 2007

It's pretty well documented that the Mocs are one of the "unluckiest" teams in Southern Conference history. However, that's usually the scenario when the league is as tough as it is this season, and, almost always, there's a team that ends up getting the wrong end of the stick.

Elon QB Thomas Wilson Has The Phoenix In The Thick Of The SoCon Race At Mid-Season
Elon QB Thomas Wilson Has The Phoenix In The Thick Of The SoCon Race At Mid-Season

The Mocs have, of course, started out 0-3 in league play, with three SoCon losses by a combined four points. In 2007, a Jayson Foster-led Georgia Southern team lost its three league games by a combined total of 11 points, and its four combined losses for the season came by a meager total of 19 points. Two of those GSU losses in 2007 came in overtime, as the Eagles dropped a 45-38 early-season clash with Chattanooga at Paulson Stadium, while dropping a triple-overtime, 36-33, decision in mid-season at Elon.

Heading into Saturday's game with Western Carolina, the Mocs have lost heartbreakers at Appalachian State (14-12), Georgia Southern (28-27) and at home to The Citadel (28-27)—a game where the Mocs held a 27-0 third-quarter advantage.

Great Games Have Been the Theme in 2011

Throughout the first four weeks of SoCon play, there have been six games decided by a TD or less. Week 6 of the league season might be the most exciting to date, as Samford knocked off Furman, 26-21, in a thriller in Greenville, while the game of the day was Georgia Southern's 28-27 win over Chattanooga in Statesboro.

Elon was able to hold off a furious Catamount rally in E.J. Whitmire Stadium for a 38-31 victory. Additionally, the league has had one overtime game, with Elon posting an 18-15 win over The Citadel a couple of weeks ago. Additionally, Wofford's win over Appalachian State (28-14) and Furman's win at The Citadel (16-6) were also exciting affairs that weren't decided until the fourth quarter.

There was plenty of exciting, late-game drama in 2007, too. That season, the league had 13 games decided by a TD or less, with nine of those being decided by a field goal or less. Chattanooga has been involved in all three SoCon games decided by a field goal or less this season.

The 2007 season saw three overtime games, with GSU involved in two of those games against Elon (33-36) and Chattanooga (38-45). The SoCon has had one overtime game this season, which was Elon's 18-15 win over The Citadel three weeks ago.

The Downside of a Strong Conference

One of the drawbacks of having such a strong, competitive league is the simple fact that teams usually end up beating up on each other, and worthy teams are left at home as a result of the stout competition.

In 2007, Georgia Southern (7-4, 4-3 SoCon), Elon (7-4, 4-3) and The Citadel (7-4, 4-3) all missed the postseason as a result of the tough competition. Meanwhile, Furman (6-5, 4-3) was also a tough out for many foes in 2007 and the Paladins ended up spoiling the playoff hopes of both Georgia Southern and Elon with a pair of late-season wins.

The Paladins' 24-22 win at GSU late in the campaign meant the Eagles needed a win at Colorado State to pick up its seventh Division I win of the season on the final week of the regular season. The Eagles nearly did that, however, falling to the Rams, 42-34, in Fort Collins.

It would appear that several conference clashes will be crucial over the next few weeks, with more emphasis on almost every league game as a result of the strength of the league from top-to-bottom. This weekend, the biggest matchup pits Georgia Southern and Furman in a crucial league tilt for both clubs.

The argument can be made that the matchup is obviously bigger for the Paladins than the Eagles, as Furman already has two losses and still has a trip to Chattanooga (Oct. 29) and Florida (Nov. 19) on the slate, while matchups remain at home against Wofford (Oct. 22), Appalachian State (Nov. 5) and Elon (Nov. 12).

Chattanooga must finish 5-0 over the final half of its slate to end the season 7-4 and be playoff eligible. The Mocs hope to get the ship righted on Saturday, hosting Western Carolina on homecoming at Finley Stadium.

In other action this afternoon, Elon and Samford meet in another crucial SoCon matchup, with Samford looking to play the role of dark horse in the SoCon race this season. Meanwhile, Elon is off to a quiet 4-2 start, including a 2-1 SoCon mark, as the Phoenix go in search of the first postseason bid since 2009.

Mid-Season Report Card

1. Georgia Southern (5-0, 4-0 SoCon)

Grade: (A) The Eagles are off to a strong start and are living up to the expectations many felt the Eagles were warranted coming into the 2011 season, as the Eagles welcomed back 19 starters off last season's squad that made an FCS semifinal appearance and won 10 games.

The six-time national champs enter Saturday's proceedings ranked tops in the nation in total offense (475.0 YPG), scoring offense (42.8 PPG) and rushing offense, while ranking second nationally in passing efficiency (171.5).

Defensively, the Eagles have left something to be desired in terms of defending the pass, ranking ninth (234.4 YPG) in the SoCon in that particular category. However, the Eagles have faced some of the league's top passing foes, including Samford and Chattanooga. Both the Mocs and Bulldogs are easily the toughest foes GSU has faced this season.

In his second season at the helm of the GSU football program, Jeff Monken heads into Saturday's showdown with Furman with a 15-5 record as head coach, including a 9-3 mark against SoCon competition.

2. Wofford (4-1, 3-0 SoCon)

Grade: (A+) After beginning the season with a somewhat questionable eight-point win at Presbyterian, the Wofford Terriers have looked every bit the part of a juggernaut ever since, as the Terriers head into their final non-league game of the 2011 season, facing NAIA foe Virginia-Wise at 1 p.m. at Gibbs Stadium.

If fans weren't convinced by Wofford's performance at Clemson—a game in which the Terriers led in the third quarter and ended up losing by only eight points (35-27) to the eighth-ranked, undefeated Tigers—surely they came around when the Terriers posted 388 yards on the ground en route to a 28-14 win over No. 2 Appalachian State a couple of weeks ago.

Preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Eric Breitenstein enters the weekend ranking second in the SoCon in rushing thus far, having posted 574 yards and six TDs on 122 attempts (4.7 YPC) so far this season. Despite the loss of four starters along one of the best offensive lines in Mike Ayers' tenure from last season, the Terriers have managed to post the nation's sixth-best total offense (453.0 YPG) and second-best ground attack (359.6 YPG).

Defensively, the Terriers enter Saturday's contest ranked second in the league in sacks (14) and ranked third in the league and 23rd nationally in total defense (313.4 YPG). Is this Wofford's best team since joining the Division I ranks some 14 years ago? Only time will tell. However, the Terriers are angling themselves nicely for a Nov. 5 showdown with Georgia Southern in Spartanburg, in what could be the deciding matchup for the league title.

3. Elon (4-2, 2-1)

Grade: (A) Predicted to finish sixth by the SoCon coaches in the preseason, Elon is already exceeding some expectations under first year head coach Jason Swepson. The fact is, the major step back the offense was supposed to take with the graduation of Scott Riddle has not happened, at least not yet.

That's because Thomas Wilson has provided a smooth transition under center, as he already had an excellent understanding of the Phoenix offense coming into the season.

Wilson has helped Elon post the nation's 25th-ranked passing offense (258.2 YPG), while Wilson ranks as the league's top passer, entering Saturday's action having completed 145-of-212 passes for 1,295 yards, with 11 TDs and 11 INTs.

Wilson has obviously had the luxury of throwing to All-America wideout Aaron Mellette, who comes into Saturday's contest at Samford ranked third in the FCS in receiving yards per game, averaging 136.5 YPG.

The big surprise for Elon might be its defense, as the Phoenix enter Week 7 with the nation's 10th-best total defense (297.8 YPG). Elon is led defensively by LB Joshua Jones, who ranks fifth in the league with 53 stops.

4. Furman (3-2, 2-1)

Grade: (A-) Furman is off to a strong start under its first-year head coach Bruce Fowler, as the Paladins have looked like an upper echelon team for four out of their first five games. However, in the 26-21 loss to Samford loss at Paladin Stadium last week, the Paladins showed some deficiencies for the first time this season.

Still, Furman is a solid football team and still has a shot at qualifying for the postseason for the first time in five years. Senior quarterback Chris Forcier is off to a sensational start this season, after being forced to miss the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury. The UCLA transfer leads the nation in passing efficiency (190.5).

In all, Forcier has connected on 76-of-108 passes for 1,027 yards, with a league-leading 15 TD passes and only three INTs. He leads a Furman offense that ranks third in the league in scoring offense (33.8 PPG) and total offense (415.2 YPG).

The Paladins also have the SoCon's third-ranked rusher in Jerodis Williams (98 rush att., 559 yards, 4 TDs, 5.7 YPC). Williams has already nearly doubled his team-leading 389-yard rushing total last season, and is on pace to become FU's first 1,000-yard rusher since Hindley Brigham's 1,043 yards in 2003.

Defense is where Furman's strength lies, and entering Saturday's contest, the Paladins rank second in scoring defense (20.8 PPG) and have the league's second-leading tackler, as linebacker Kadarron Anderson enters Saturday's game against Georgia Southern having posted 55 stops.

The Paladins have a brutal schedule ahead, starting with this afternoon's contest at top-ranked Georgia Southern. Furman must win two of its next three to keep those postseason hopes alive, which include a homecoming date at Paladin Stadium against No. 5 Wofford next Saturday and a trip to Chattanooga the following week.

5. Appalachian State (3-2, 1-1 SoCon)

Grade: (C) For a team looking for its unprecedented seventh-straight league crown, Appalachian State has looked almost a shell of its former self through five games so far in 2011.

The Apps have struggled more than they ever have since employing the spread offense back in 2004. ASU enters Saturday's contest at The Citadel ranked seventh in the SoCon in total offense (354.2 YPG).

Part of the offensive struggles have been a direct result of the graduation of three offensive linemen. DeAndre Presley is also off to a slow start under center, entering Saturday's showdown having completed 68-of-112 passes for 761 yards, with 4 TDs and 4 INTs.

As a running threat, Presley has been nowhere near the rushing threat he was last season, as he comes into Saturday's contest with only 161 yards and four TDs on on 54 attempts (2.8 YPC) this season.

Brian Quick continues to inch ever closer to Rick Beasley's all-time receiving yards mark of 3,124, as he has hauled in 26 passes for 384 yards (14.8 YPR) and four TDs so far this season. Quick needs 419 yards receiving over the final six games to eclipse Beasley's career mark.

The biggest positive for the Apps this season has been the 3-4 defense, which keyed ASU's monumental league-opening, 14-12, win over Chattanooga. The Mountaineers have gotten solid play out of linebacker Brandon Grier and freshman cornerback Doug Middleton. Grier leads the Apps in tackles with 36 stops, while Middleton has two INTs, including one in which he returned 97 yards for a score in the home-opening win over North Carolina A&T.

We'll find out a lot about ASU in the next three weeks, as the Apps faced an improved Citadel team in Charleston this afternoon, while hosting Samford and Georgia Southern the following two Saturdays.

6. Samford (3-2, 1-2)

Grade: (A) The Bulldogs graduated 25 seniors, including the school's all-time leading rusher Chris Evans, off of a team that was supposed to have a breakthrough year in 2010.

After the Bulldogs finished 4-7, head coach Pat Sullivan found that his seat was getting a bit warm, so he went out and got a Gus Malzahn disciple, Rhett Lashlee, to coach his offense.

What has transpired through five games is much more consistency on the offensive side of the ball, as the Bulldogs' offense enters Saturday's home showdown with Elon ranking third in passing offense (245.0 YPG), while ranking sixth in the league in rushing offense (148.0 YPG) showing some offensive balance.

Senior quarterback Dustin Taliaferro has looked like the Dustin Taliaferro of his freshman season, when the strong-armed signal caller collected SoCon Freshman of the Year accolades back in 2008.

So far this season, Taliaferro has completed 101-of-163 passes for 1,158 yards, 10 TDs and only three INTs through the first five games. He has one of the league's top receivers to toss the pigskin to, Kelsey Pope, as he leads the league in scoring (9.6 PPG) and is second in the league in TD receptions with five.

Defensively, the Bulldogs need to improve, currently ranked eighth in the league in total defense (371.8 YPG), but Samford has been able to compensate for that low rank with the league's leading turnover margin (+7) coming into Saturday.

Samford has a chance to come up with its first wins over a couple of SoCon foes it has not beaten since joining the league in 2008. The Bulldogs host Elon today and travel to Appalachian State next week.

7. The Citadel (2-3, 1-3 SoCon)

Grade: (B-) The Citadel is a much better football team than it was a year ago. However, the Bulldogs continue to find it tough treading offensively. All three losses have come to league foes this season, however, and the Bulldogs have posted the biggest SoCon shocker to date, with their 28-27 come-from-behind win at Chattanooga.

The Bulldogs trailed that contest 27-0 early in the third quarter before storming back for the miraculous win over the Mocs. The Bulldogs enter Saturday's contest posting the league's ninth-ranked total offense (309.2 YPG) and scoring offense (18.8 YPG).

The Bulldogs rank third in the SoCon in rushing offense (273.8 YPG) and, despite losing All-SoCon candidate running back Terrell Dallas in the season opener to an injury, have not seen a drop off, with the insertion of Darien Robinson into Dallas' vacated fullback position. Coming into Saturday's contest, Robinson has been solid, as he has rushed for 320 yards and four scores on 43 rush attempts (7.4 YPC).

The good news is that The Citadel has one of the league's top defensive units once again this fall, as the Bulldogs currently rank fourth in the league in total defense (324.8 YPG). Linebacker Rod Harland enters Saturday's contest leading the SoCon in tackles, with 61 stops on the campaign.

The Bulldogs have a chance to make a statement this week with their second win over a ranked foe this season, which would be the first time since the 2007 season the Bulldogs have been able to accomplish that feat.

8. Chattanooga (2-4, 0-3)

Grade: (C-) It's tough to give the Mocs a C- so far this season, but while the Mocs have proven they are at least among the top three teams in the league, losses in their first three league games makes for plenty of ground to be made up the rest of the way if Chattanooga wants to make its first postseason appearance since 1984.

Russ Huesman certainly has had a defense to brag about this season, as the Mocs enter Saturday's homecoming contest at Finley Stadium against Western Carolina, with the nation's eighth-ranked total defense (292.7 YPG), while the Mocs are posting the nation's top pass defense (111.8 YPG).

Leading the talented defense have been linebacker Ryan Consiglio (58 tackles) and safety D.J. Key (52 tackles), who both rank in the top six in the league in total tackles.

It has not been the start the offense would have hoped for this season for Huesman and the Mocs. B.J. Coleman is still the league's best quarterback, and he comes into Saturday's game at Western Carolina having thrown for 1,205 yards, with six TDs and six INTs.

Coleman has taken plenty of shots this season, with a young offensive line in front of him, and Chattanooga has currently yielded a league-leading 16 sacks this season. The biggest problem for the Mocs offense is running the football, as UTC ranks last in the SoCon (116.3 YPG) through the first six games.

The Mocs need to finish 5-0 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. It won't be easy, with three ultra-tough remaining on the slate, but the good news is Furman and Wofford both have to visit the Scenic City, while the toughest road test is at Samford on Nov. 5.

9. Western Carolina (1-4, 0-3 SoCon)

Grade: (D-) The days might be winding down on the career of Dennis Wagner in Cullowhee, but, then again, the total blame for Western's demise can't all be put at the doorstep of Wagner. After all, the program lacks the overall funding and support at this point to ever be a major player among the SoCon's elite

The one area where the Catamounts have shown significant improvement this season is the offense. The Catamounts have utilized the pistol offense this fall to head into Saturday's action, ranked fourth in the SoCon in total offense (403.0 YPG) and second in passing offense (257.4 YPG).

Two of the brightest stars on the WCU offense this season have been quarterback Brandon Pechloff and wide receiver Josh Cockrell. Pechloff enters Saturday's contest against the Mocs having connected on 82-of-154 passes for 1,203 yards, with seven TDs and seven INTs through the first five games.

Meanwhile, Cockrell has hauled in 19 passes for 342 yards (18.0 YPR) and four TDs. Deja Alexander has done even better, leading the Catamounts and ranked third in the SoCon in receiving yards per game. Alexander has 20 catches for 414 yards (14.3 YPR) and a TD.

The defense is awful. The Catamounts enter Saturday's contest ranked 119th in scoring defense (46.2 PPG) and total defense (543.8 YPG), while ranked last, or 120th, nationally against the run (330.4 YPG).


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