Storm Warning

It’s been said by those that make a living at sea, there’s a certain saying that is a good rule of thumb. 

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”  There’s no doubt that in the Port City of Charleston, South Carolina, that has been harbinger throughout history this time of year.

For The Citadel’s football team, it has its own stormy issues to deal with these days. If football had been played for a full SoCon season this fall, the day that would have dawned with a sky as red as El Cid’s battle flag.

At 0-3 now after Saturday’s 37-14, that has become more than apparent. However, prior to the season, you could have fooled Aristotle—the inventor of meteorology—if you said a storm was brewing at sea for the Bulldogs football team.

That’s because the Bulldogs had/have a lot of talent returning from a team that went 6-6 last season and took down No. 8 Furman, 27-10, on a rainy October Saturday to put Brent Thompson’s Bulldogs as a very real contender in the Southern Conference race. 

The season would end up in disappointing fashion, however, as the Bulldogs’ pursuit of their first Southern Conference regular-season title and playoff appearance since 2016 came crashing down with late-season losses at Chattanooga and at home vs. eventual SoCon outright champion Wofford. 

Still, with Brandon Rainey back under center—a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate prior to the pandemic—and All-American linebacker Willie Eubanks back to patrol the middle of the defense, thoughts were of no less than a playoff bid in 2020. I picked the Bulldogs to win the league. I thought the team I witnessed at times last year would show up with more consistency this season. 

Many others preseason prognosticator’s, aside from my own preseason predictions, had a high degree of expectation for the Bulldogs. Those expectations soared even higher when it was announced that VMI All-America running back Alex Ramsey would join The Citadel’s football program as a grad transfer. Seems things to be aligning almost perfectly for head coach Brent Thompson.

However, in August, the dominoes started to fall in shorter order. First the NCAA released their specifications for playing games and having an FCS playoff, which required at least 50% participation for FCS schools to have an FCS playoff in the fall, however, when the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Big Sky Conferences eventually ended up moving their conference seasons to the spring, it took the threshold below 50%.

Then came the opening day of camp. Thirty-four “no shows” for the first day of fall camp for any school is not ideal, but for a title contender, it was not exactly a good look. One of those “no shows” was Ramsey, who announced he had opted out of the season all together due to COVID-19.

There were other allegations among players about lack of transparency about the virus from the coaching staff, however, those remain allegations at this point and haven’t been reported as fact. One thing is quite obvious, there seems to be some mis-communication somewhere.

There was still hope around the Southern Conference schools that at least a conference champion could be decided this fall even late into the summer.

But with the league’s membership almost split down the middle on whether or not to have a season in the fall, or move the season to the spring, it was eventually decided by the academic leadership at each of the member schools to move the season to the spring with the rest of the FCS. 

However, schools were allowed to keep “money games” in place that might have already been scheduled, or were allowed to schedule some money games in the fall to help stem the financial loss levied against each school due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though four teams in Southern Conference will ultimately end up playing games this fall—Mercer, Chattanooga, Western Carolina and The Citadel—No school was seemingly more outspoken about playing football in the fall than the Bulldogs.

Teams had even already reported for fall camp when the season was suddenly canceled. Then the games started to be released by The Citadel. First, a game scheduled with no fans against South Florida on Sept. 12 in Tampa. Then a trip to top-ranked Clemson before a limited crowd for the Tigers’ home opener on Sept. 19. 

The Bulldogs only have one home game with a limited crowd and no tailgating—seemingly a tradition as old in Charleston as Fort Sumter itself—still it was a game in Charleston before home fans even if it was a limited few against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 26. The Bulldogs will close out their fall slate of games against Army in West Point on Oct. 10.

EKU seemed at least on paper like it could be a salvageable win for The Citadel this fall. After all, the Colonels, who had been out-scored 115-10 against a pair of FBS foes coming into this past Saturday’s contest. Similarly, The Citadel had been out-scored 76-6 in a pair of FBS games entering Saturday’s lone fall home contest, including a 49-0 loss at No. 1 Clemson last week.

One thing I knew when I tuned in to ESPN3 to watch about a quarter of the football game is that many of those names we are so used to hearing as a part of The Citadel backfield haven’t been a part of the backfield this spring.

There’s more than an 0-3 problem for the Bulldogs and its football staff, however. With all indications “a go” for a spring football season in the SoCon, there is a rule put in place by nearly every conference around the country that places a hard limit on the number of games a team can play during the 2020-21 school year as a part of its regular-season. 

When the conference allowed money games for schools in the fall, one would assume that would essentially mean up to three. That makes last weekend’s home loss to Eastern Kentucky a real head-scratcher. In the early-mid 1980s under the direction of Roy Kidd, the Colonels were one of the real powers of FCS football (then referred to as I-AA Football).

 Before there was Georgia Southern, Youngstown State, Marshall or Appalachian State at the Division I-AA pinnacle, there was Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels became the dominant force in the early days of the sub-classification under the direction of Kidd, as the Colonels became the first I-AA school to win multiple national titles, claiming crowns in 1979 and ’82.

Kidd’s career as a head coach, which spanned 39 years and all as the head coach at EKU, saw him amass an astonishing 315 wins during his tenure, while finishing with just 123 losses–a remarkable .716 winning percentage.

The Citadel didn’t get paid anything by EKU, but rather a good old-fashioned butt-whipping by the Colonels. It’s certainly one that would have made former legendary head coach Roy Kidd proud.

A look at the game stats for last Saturday’s Citadel game will tell you that, as expected, the Bulldogs rushed the football well. The Bulldogs ended the contest by rushing for 347 yards in the contest, so the offense got its usual production on Saturday and actually out-rushed EKU, 347-154.

Brandon Rainey has seen everything in this shortened season, and on Saturday, the Colonels brought blitzes from plenty of different places. As expected, these four games were never going to be easy for Rainey and the Bulldogs.

Rainey is coming off what was a record-breaking season for the Bulldogs last season, as his 17 touchdowns on the ground and 13 through the air gave Rainey 30 TDs accounted for during the 2019 campaign, which is a new school record.

Two of Rainey’s best games of the season came in the season-opening loss to Towson, and in mid-season, maybe the Bulldogs biggest win of the season at No. 8 Furman. In the season opening, 28-21, loss to No. 11 Towson, Rainey rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown. In the huge 27-10 win at Furman, Rainey was able to finish the day 165 yards on 29 attempts in another gutsy effort. 

Rainey finished Saturday’s contest against the Colonels rushing 22 times for 70 yards and a score. The normally efficiency as a passer for Rainey, however, was missing in Saturday’s loss. He finished the contest completing just 2-of-9 throws for 36 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

All told, the Bulldogs got out-gained 428-383 in total yards. Emeka Nwanze led The Citadel’s ground game by rushing 22 times for 114 yards. He’s been one of the bright spots for the offense this fall.

Too Many Games?

For the SoCon, that hard limit of games is 11, meaning The Citadel could be in danger of being ineligible for the SoCon title race in 2020/21 as a result of playing four games in the fall should the Bulldogs decide to go through with its game contract and play Army.

That would mean the Bulldogs could only play seven of its eight Southern Conference regular-season games in the spring, which would all but make the Bulldogs ineligible for the conference title.

I am told The Citadel will submit a waiver to the NCAA to accept its 12-game appeal based on financial concerns during the pandemic, however, that appeal for a 12th game is likely not to be granted by the NCAA. 

There’s a strange irony in all of this I suppose. It’s that The Citadel is a program that prides itself on honor and playing by the rules. It had to have known the rule put forth by the league office, yet somehow there was an oversight or a presumption that the NCAA might, in fact, be more lenient in a year like this than it normally is.

Whatever the case, the fall season has been a stormy one for all of us in more ways than one. The silver lining is there is still a chance for The Citadel to fix it’s mistakes before the spring, but the question remains, will it?

The Citadel has plenty of pride within its football program, so I am sure the troops will be rallied if the Bulldogs are eligible for the fall. Below are my revised SoCon rankings heading into the spring.

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

I’ll update more about FCS football, and in particular, SoCon football when I know more.

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