By Myron Hosea
College Sporting News
Southern Conference football shone brightly in 2010. The new season could be even brighter.
Appalachian State and Wofford fashioned 7-1 conference records to share the league title. Both won a playoff game before falling.
Then Georgia Southern went on a tear to get a third playoff bid for the league and proceeded to knock off South Carolina State, William and Mary, and Wofford to land in a semifinal game where it lost to Delaware.
Three playoff teams and five playoff wins made for one of the SoCon's best postseasons since Appalachian State's three-year run of titles.
In 2011, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Wofford all have the talent necessary to win the league and make the playoffs. They form a top tier to the SoCon.
The middle tier are teams that could threaten the top tier if things go well.
Chattanooga is the most likely of the three to present a challenge. The Mocs have come a long way in two years and were in the playoff discussions before getting dismantled in the season-ender at Wofford.
Elon and Furman bring new coaches to the battle. Both have a lot of talent but possess more question marks than the top three.
The contests among these six teams will be interesting to watch.
The lower tier of the league features three teams in search of an identity.
The Citadel, Samford, and Western Carolina are looking for that spark that could lift them into the upper tiers as Elon did a few years ago or as Chattanooga did the past two seasons.
Here's a quick overview of the nine SoCon teams.
Georgia Southern (10-5, 5-3 – lost in FCS semifinals)
Jeff Monken's return to the past worked out pretty well.
For his first turn as a college football head coach, he went back to Georgia Southern where he had been an assistant. He brought back the option offense.
And he reinstalled the Eagle swagger, even though it didn't begin to assert itself until the ninth game of the season. That's when the 4-4 Eagles upset Appalachian State, launching an impressive six-game winning streak stretching all the way to the FCS semifinals.
Though they lost to Delaware in the semis, the Eagles created a ton of excitement for 2011.
Now, with 23 players who have started, Georgia Southern is poised to challenge for the top spot in the conference and perhaps reclaim more of the program's glory.
WWhen Monken came to Georgia Southern from Georgia Tech, quarterback Jaybo Shaw came with him. That gave the Eagles an advantage in changing offenses last year.
Shaw, who missed some time with injury, ran for 514 yards and 16 touchdowns and threw for 1,233 yards and five touchdowns.
Backup quarterback Jerick McKinnon filled in for Shaw on occasion and rushed for 495 yards and three scores.
Fullback Robert Brown fulfilled this key role in the offense quite well as a freshman in 2010. He ran for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns.
A lot of other runners are on hand, including J. J. Wilcox (484 yards rushing, 22 catches) and Darreion Robinson (460 yards rushing).
All of the blockers from that late-season run have returned: tackles Dorian Byrd and Brett Moore, guards Blake DeBartola and William Maxwell, and center Brandavious Mann.
While the offense made its mark on the turnaround, the defense contributed greatly to the results.
The Eagles led the SoCon in scoring defense (18.5) and rush defense (127) while finishing second in total defense (287). With all of the talent returning, Georgia Southern will be difficult to budge.
Defensive lineman Brent Russell (71 total tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks) anchors the front wall. Russell is one of the favorites for defensive player of the year honors nationally.
Russell and defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley (55 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss) form an imposing pair up front.
Linebackers Josh Rowe (104 tackles) and Darius Eubanks (56) are playmakers.
In the secondary, All-American Laron Scott made plays in a dual role. He intercepted six passes and averaged 26 yards per kickoff return. He's joined in the secondary by Derek Heyden (98 tackles) and Michael Butler.
Making the Eagles more dangerous are a solid pair of kickers. Placekicker Adrian Mora kicked for 102 points while All-American punter Charlie Edwards averaged 41 yards per punt and was brilliant with his ball placement.
Appalachian State (10-3, 7-1 – lost in FCS third round)
The Mountaineers steered through a big challenge in week one at Chattanooga last year and were rolling along at 8-0 before stumbling against Georgia Southern, which was beginning quite a roll of its own.
Appalachian State recovered to crush Wofford, tie for the SoCon title and earn the conference's automatic playoff spot.
After a week-two win, the Mountaineers fell to defending national champion Villanova at home in the quarterfinals.
Entering 2011, head coach Jerry Moore leads a squad that has the talent, depth, and experience to win the SoCon and go deep in the playoffs yet again.
Quarterback DeAndre Presley is primed for a special senior season after throwing for 2,631 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for 1,039 yards and 13 more scores.
He'll lead an offense that could match last year's 34 points and 431 yards per game.
Taking handoffs will be running back Travaris Cadet (671 yards rushing) and a number of solid reserves.
Cadet will also be even more involved in the pass offense, even splitting out of the backfield, after catching 19 passes for 218 yards last season (11.5 average per catch) and is also dangerous on returns.
Presley can throw to one of the nation's best wide receivers in game-breaker Brian Quick (47 receptions, 844 yards, nine touchdowns in ASU's balanced attack).
Tight end Ben Jorden (27-306-6) is a four-year starter and joins Quick and Presley as All-Americans.
Freshman Bobo Beathard has earned a starting nod at wide receiver along with Andrew Peacock and Tony Washington and there is even more young depth behind them.
The development of the offensive line, with three new starters could be the key to the Mountanieers' hopes of winning a record seventh-straight SoCon title.
Kendall Lamm and Xan Thomas are the tackles, Kalan Jones and Matt Ruff the guards, and Orry Frye the center. Returning starters Frye and Ruff, along with Thomas are seniors while Lamm and Jones are freshmen.
On defense, ASU lost three players to the NFL, safety Mark LeGree, linebacker D.J. Smith and defensive end Jabari Fletcher and the Mountaineers have changed their defensive scheme to a 3-4 under coordinator Dale Jones.
The Mountaineers defensive front wall includes Gordy Witte, Jr. (15 tackles) and Ronald Blair at the ends and Dan Wylie (39).
Lanston Tanyi is the Bandit. Jeremy Kimbrough (45), Brandon Grier, and John Rizor are the linebackers. Tanyi, who missed all of last season with injuries, and Rizor were defensive ends in the old system.
Senior cornerback Ed Gainey leads the secondary. Demetrius McCray is the other cornerback. The safeties include Troy Sanders, Patrick Blalock, and Dominique McDuffie (four interceptions).
Sam Martin, who averaged 39 yards per punt, assumes the placekicking duties as well.
Wofford (10-3, 7-1 – lost in FCS quarterfinals)
The Terriers rebounded in a big way from a disappointing 2009 campaign by winning 10 games in 2010 and sharing the SoCon title.
Wofford won at Jacksonville State in the second weekend of the FCS playoffs before losing at home to Georgia Southern.
A wealth of returning starters gives Wofford reason for excitement heading into the new season.
All-American fullback Eric Breitenstein is the spark to Wofford's high-octane rushing attack, which led the FCS last year with 298 yards rushing a game. Breitenstein ran for 1,630 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Quarterback Mitch Allen is an experienced senior, and he ran for 681 yards and threw for 871 in 2010. Brian Kass added 156 yards rushing and 297 passing as the backup quarterback.
As usual, Wofford's wingbone will feature a bevy of backs. Donovan Johnson (353 yards rushing) provides solid relief for Breitenstein.
When Wofford does throw, it likes to call on Brenton Bersin (32 catches, 703 yards, nine touchdowns), who always seems to find a way to get open deep.
The Terriers are having to replace a lot of starters up front. Calvin Cantrell and Jake Miles are expected to man the tackles while Tymeco Gregory and Nate Page are the guards. Jared Singleton is the starter at center.
Coach Mike Ayers welcomes back eight starters to a defense that led the SoCon in total defense and finished second in scoring defense.
Defensive end Ameet Pall (60 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks) is a defensive player of the year candidate.
Pall is joined on the three-man front by nose tackle Eric Eberhardt and end Alex Goltry. Mike Naim and Mike McCrimon are the middle linebackers while Phillip LeGrande and Alvin Scioneaux are the outside backers.
Blake Wylie and Preston Roseboro have experience on the corners. The safeties are Kendall Bratcher and James Zotto.
Placekicker Christian Reed scored 82 points and returns along with punter Kasey Redfern.
Chattanooga (6-5, 5-3)
The first two seasons under Russ Huesman have seen the Mocs football program rise from the depths of the SoCon to being a potential contender in 2011. If Chattanooga can fill a couple of holes here and there, it will be a tough out.
Chattanooga's offense begins with quarterback B. J. Coleman, a two-year starter who threw for 2,996 yards last season with 26 touchdown passes versus 13 interceptions.
Coleman's leading receiver, All-American Joel Bradford, returns after catching 81 passes for 1,284 yards and eight scores.
The Mocs need some new faces to step up in the other receiving positions. J. J. Jackson (223 yards) and Chris Awuah (113) should be the top running backs.
Blocking for them will be tackles Taylor Dodds and Adam Miller, guards Omre Harris and Kevin Revis, and center Austin Wilson.
Leading tackler Ryan Consiglio (110 stops) returns at strongside linebacker. He's joined by Shane Heatherly and Wes Dothard at middle linebacker and Gunner Miller and J. D. Dothard on the weakside.
Defensive end Joshua Williams (32) and nose Nick Davison (45) headline the front wall along with tackle Keyon Reen and end De'Markus Lee.
Cornerback Kadeem Wise picked off six passes in 2010. Chaz Moore is the other corner while Jordan Tippit and Chris Lewis-Harris are the safeties.
Furman (5-6, 3-5)
A new era is beginning in the Furman football program as the school reached out to another of its family to replace Bobby Lamb, who spent almost 30 years on campus as player, assistant, and head coach.
Former player and assistant Bruce Fowler comes on board to help the Paladins rebound from their first losing season since 1998.
Fowler has promised a strong rushing attack, and he has the talent in the backfield for such a plan. Tersoo Uhaa (325 yards, seven touchdowns) and Jerodis Williams (389, six) are established running backs, and redshirt freshman Hank McCloud figures to get carries in 2011.
Furman has two quarterbacks vying to lead the offense.
Former UCLA performer Chris Forcier appeared to be assuming command early last season, but an injury shelved him for the year. He returns and could split time with junior Dakota Derrick.
When Furman goes to the air, the quarterbacks have a deep corp of wide receivers featuring Tyler Maples, Sederrik Cunningham, David Hendrix, and Darren McFadden.
The Paladins also have tight ends Colin Anderson and Phillip Silverstein. Dakota Dozier, Ryan Lee, and Daniel Spisak are returning starters on the offensive line.
Furman welcomes back one of the nation's best linebackers in Kadarron Anderson, who made 121 total tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.
The Paladins have a pair of solid defensive ends in Josh Lynn (54 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and Shawn Boone.
Colton Keig and Neal Rodgers are expected to man the middle spots in the line. Ricky Lang and Brandon Boykin are experienced backups at defensive end.
Helping Anderson at linebacker will be Chris Wiley and Mitch McGrath. Furman also has experience and talent in the secondary.
All-American Ryan Steed is all-star worthy at one corner. Austin Williams should be the other corner. E. J. Vinsang and Marcus McMorris line up at strong safety while Greg Worthy and Nathan Wade will handle free safety.
Placekicker Ray Early and punter Chas Short return. Early scored 73 points as a true freshman in 2010.
Elon (6-5, 5-3)
Pete Lembo's success rebuilding Elon's football program earned him a shot at the next level, which led to the hiring of first-year head coach Jason Swepson.
Coming over from North Carolina State, Swepson will try to build on a grand finish to 2010 when the Phoenix rose from a 2-5 overall and 1-3 conference start to win their final four games, all in the conference.
The new staff has to replace record-setting quarterback Scott Riddle, who started all four years. Thomas Wilson (28 of 45 for 290 yards) is the man expected to take over at quarterback.
He can hand the ball to senior running back A. J. Harris, who rushed for 608 yards and eight touchdowns and has shown an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
The Phoenix welcome back All-American wide receiver Aaron Mellette, who snared 86 passes a year ago for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The defense is missing several key parts, but a lot of talent remains to work with some new players who will have to step up.
Linebacker Joshua Jones headlines the returnees after making 74 total tackles. Defensive backs Blake Thompson (61), Ronnie Hardison (54), and Andrew Straus return. Linebacker Dale Riley will be counted on as well.
Placekicker Adam Shreiner scored 60 points last year, hitting all of his extra-point attempts and seven of 14 field goals.
The Citadel (3-8, 1-7)
The Bulldogs' return to the triple option rush offense last year didn't come close to the results Georgia Southern had with its return to that offense.
The Citadel did average 207 yards a game on the ground (fourth best in the league), but the offense left the ball on the ground way too often. The Bulldogs lost 23 fumbles and finished last in the SoCon in turnover margin. They also scored just 15 points a game.
Head coach Kevin Higgins brought on a new quarterback coach, and the staff is hopeful another full year of prepping for the ground-based attack will generate better results.
Quarterbacks Ben Dupree (187 rushing) and Matt Thompson (264) return to guide the offense.
Only Thompson reached triple figures in passing yardage at 353 yards with the team's three passing touchdowns.
As you might expect, The Citadel can bring a bevy of backs to the rushing scheme, led by Terrell Dallas, who ran for 665 yards and six touchdowns. The Bulldogs need big yards from him to key a revival.
Other runners figuring into the mix include Darien Robinson, Rickey Anderson, Terrance Martin, VnDyke Jones, and Dalton Trevino. Tackles Neil Strange and Tyler Thornton team with center Mike Sellers and guard Keith Carter to clear the way for these runners.
Defensively, the Bulldogs played pretty well, finishing third in the league and allowing up only 338 total yards a game.
Defensive end Chris Billingslea and linebacker Tolu Akindele (80 total tackles) give The Citadel solid players on defense.
Quintin Turner and Derek Douglas join Billingslea up front while DeAndre Smith provide help at linebacker.
Safeties Joseph Boateng and Austin Boyle and cornerbacks Keith Gamble and Sadath Jean-Pierre form the secondary.
Placekicker Ryan Sellers and punter Cass Couey are returnees.
Samford (4-7, 2-6)
Samford put together a 4-4 record with the opportunity for a winning season. That crashed over the final three games, though, as the Bulldogs lost a seven-point game to Wofford, got whipped by Chattanooga, and then experienced a tough one-point loss to The Citadel.
With some key defensive players and leading rusher Chris Evans departed, Samford will be challenged to rebound in 2011.
Senior quarterback Dustin Taliaferro has started since his freshman year. He completed 133 of 224 passes for 1,427 yards, but he tossed only five touchdowns against nine picks.
Fabian Truss (301 yards rushing) gets first crack at replacing Evans. Riley Hawkins, Chris Cephus, and Kelsey Pope are the starting wide receivers while Zeke Walters is the tight end.
The offensive line starters are tackle Charlie Sanford and guard George Allers on the left side, tackle Jacob Kirschenbaum and guard Joe Collins on the right, and Ryan Dudchock at center.
Placekicker Cameron Yaw (70 points) is another weapon for head coach Pat Sullivan, who is in the final year of his contract and under pressure to record a winning season.
The leaders of the defense should be end Alex Davis (41 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss) and cornerback Corey White (31 tackles).
Other starters up front are end Austin Hayes, tackle Nicholas Williams, and nose guard Devyn Keith.
The linebackers will be Durrell Hill, Sean Thompson, Keith Shoulders, and Darion Sutton. Supporting White in the secondary will be cornerback Tae Lewis and safeties Alvin Hines II and Omar Johnson.
Western Carolina (2-9, 1-7)
The Catamounts' search for the answer to its football doldrums resumes in 2011, and that can be a big climb in the SoCon.
Since 2005, Western Carolina has won just three SoCon games and only 10 overall, so the desire for a turnaround certainly is there.
Coach Dennis Wagner has nine offensive starters back, and the Catamounts will seek to find consistency as well as scoring punch.
Quarterbacks Brandon Pechloff (357 yards passing) and Zac Brindise (1,405) have competed to be the leader of the new pistol offense.
Running back Michael Johnson was eighth in the league in rushing with 611 yards and five scores. Nate Harris added 342 yards rushing.
The quarterbacks can throw to some experienced receivers in wideouts Deja Alexander (32 catches), Jacoby Mitchell (39), and Josh Cockrell (31) as well as tight end Andrew Rogers (18).
Ryan Moore, Rory Pederson, Nathan Postelle, and Teddy Rhoney provide experience along the offensive line.
The defense must improve for the Catamounts to make progress. They allowed 443 yards and 34.5 points each game in 2011.
Only four starters are back on this side of the ball. The linebacking corps is one source of potential. Rock Williams (66 total tackles) returns along with Ricky Schwarz (60) and Brandon Vaught (52).
Other key defenders are defensive back Elijer Martinez and defensive lineman Trey Selby.
Punter Blake Cain average 39.3 yards per punt. A new placekicker will need to be found.
2011 Southern Conference Football Game of the Week
September 3 – Furman at Coastal Carolina
Yes, there is a SoCon game on the first weekend, but Georgia Southern should win that one at Samford. Furman at Coastal Carolina represents big stuff: SoCon vs. Big South; Upstate South Carolina vs. South Carolina coast. Of course, this game is big because both teams need a great start. Coastal wants to stay a playoff team while Furman’s new regime wants to get the Paladins back to being a playoff team.
September 10 – Furman at The Citadel
The Paladins spend another Saturday on the coast, this time facing their long-time rival. These programs want to start the SoCon slate in a good way. The Bulldogs are looking for a win that will propel the program in a new direction, and beating Furman could do that. Furman can’t let any games slip.
September 17 – Chattanooga at Eastern Kentucky
The fact that two-thirds of the SoCon teams are taking this week off doesn’t diminish the importance of the Mocs trip to EKU. It’s a good inter-conference contest – Chattanooga’s second game in as many weeks against an Ohio Valley Conference team. The Mocs need these early games to build their post-season resume.
September 24 – Chattanooga at Appalachian State
It’s the first full weekend of SoCon games, so there were options here. This is the game, though. The Mountaineers rallied in week one last year to edge the Mocs, and the 2011 game should be competitive, too. A loss doesn’t put either team out of the race, but it makes things more challenging.
October 1 – Appalachian State at Wofford
These teams tied for the title last year, and they will compete for the title again in 2011. In recent years, Wofford has tended to play Appalachian State better in Spartanburg than in Boone. Will be an influential game in the shaping of the conference standings.
October 8 – Chattanooga at Georgia Southern
Chattanooga’s challenging road schedule continues with a visit to Statesboro. The Eagles are coming off a road trip to Elon, so we could classify this as a trap game for them. Whatever you want to call it, it will be important, especially if either team has already tripped up.
October 15 – Furman at Georgia Southern
Normally an end-of-season game, this rivalry kicks off the second half of the 2011 schedule. For Furman’s new coach, Bruce Fowler, it’s not just about conference titles and playoff berths. It’s about beating their big three rivals – Appalachian State, Wofford, and Georgia Southern. This is game one in what’s been Furman’s triangle of pain.
October 22 – Wofford at Furman
The Terriers didn’t have a fun visit to Greenville two years ago, and they can ill afford a repeat performance. This game marks the start of the key stretch of the season for Wofford. For Furman, see October 15 for the importance.
October 29 – Georgia Southern at Appalachian State
Last year, Appalachian State seemed headed for a league sweep while Georgia Southern appeared to have only an outside shot at the postseason. Then, the Eagles upset the Mountaineers. That Eagles win didn’t knock Appalachian State out of the league title, but it did launch Georgia Southern on a winning streak that ended in the national semifinals. Many think this game will decide the 2011 SoCon automatic bid.
November 5 – Appalachian State at Furman
By this date, it will be clear whether these teams remain in the post-season chase. Appalachian State should be. Furman could be. Either way, I think this is a game Paladin Nation has highlighted.
November 12 – Georgia Southern at Wofford
The Eagles and the Terriers split two games last season with Georgia Southern’s victory coming in the playoffs. The crowd for this key late-season contest may be the biggest thing to watch. In that playoff game in Spartanburg, the Eagles’ fans vastly outnumbered Wofford’s. Will Terrier Nation respond?
November 19 – Appalachian State at Elon
Wofford at Chattanooga
While this is another SoCon-SEC Showcase weekend (Furman at Florida, Georgia Southern at Alabama, Samford at Auburn) the big games of the weekend are two that should have great influence on who will continue playing past this point. Appalachian State ventures to Elon, a matchup that has produced some really good games in recent seasons. Chattanooga fell flat in the season-ender at Wofford a year ago, so the Mocs likely will be primed for some redemption.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Georgia Southern
2. Appalachian State
7. The Citadel
9. Western Carolina
Offensive Player of the Year
Appalachian State quarterback DeAndre Presley
Defensive Player of the Year
Wofford defensive end Ameet Pall
Biggest Shoes to Fill
Elon quarterback Scott Riddle