It’s starting to feel like an upcoming football season in the FCS (sort of), as the Southern Conference released its spring football schedule for 2020-21. It comes just a day after the league released its much anticipated basketball slate.
Wofford is the defending Southern Conference champion, and the Terriers will kick off the 2020-21 campaign on Feb. 20, when Wofford goes in search of a fourth-straight league crown when it hosts Mercer–a team the Terriers haven’t lost to since the Bears resurrected their football program following a 72-year hiatus–and it will mark the SoCon head coaching debut for Drew Cronic on the sidelines for the Bears.
Cronic is a Peach State native, and served on Bobby Lamb’s staff at Furman for nine years as an assistant before going on to head coaching jobs at both Reinhardt and Lenoir-Rhyne before being hired to succeed Bobby Lamb at Mercer, who stepped down following a 4-8 campaign by the Bears in 2019.
Mercer has already played one game in the fall, which was of course Cronic’s debut, as the Bears dropped a 34-28 contest to the Jacksonville State Gamecocks a couple of weeks ago. Cronic and the Bears return to action this Saturday, taking their show on the road once again to face the Army Black Knights before closing out the fall season with a homecoming contest against Abilene Christian at Five Star Stadium on a Halloween Saturday. It marks the only home game the Bears will play in the fall.
Mercer and Wofford will be meeting for the 13th time, with the series all tied, 6-6. The Bears were soundly beaten, 41-7, on their home field last season.
In his second stint back at Furman, Cronic helped the Paladins average 34 PPG, a playoff win, and as high as a No. 22 ranking in the STATS FCS poll. He also was largely responsible for helping senior quarterback P.J. Blazejowski garner Second Team All-SoCon honors.
Cronic would leave Greenville after only one season to re-charge his batteries as a head coach, as he landed at NCAA Division II Lenoir Rhyne for the 2018 and ‘19 campaigns. During his time as the head coach of another school that just happened to have the masoct of a Bear, Cronic was able help engineer the largest turnaround in the nation in his two years at the helm.
The season prior to Cronic’s arrival, the Bears had been a woeful 3-8, however, following two seasons with the 44-year old coach at the helm, the Bears were 25-3 and back-to-back South Atlantic Conference titles during that span. He helped the Bears gain entrance into the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time since 2014 in his first season. The seven-win improvement from 2017-to-2018 marked the sixth-greatest turnaround for any program at the NCAA Division II level.
In 2019, the Bears won a school-record 13 games, and found themselves in some unfamiliar territory, as Lenoir-Rhyne advanced two rounds in the playoffs to the quarterfinals for just the second time in school history. All told, in four seasons as a head coach at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels, Cronic has compiled an impressive 47-6 record as a head coach to go along with four conference titles.
In fact, in each of the past five seasons as either an assistant or head coach, Cronic has been associated with league crowns at Furman as an assistant, as well as two league titles in both seasons as head coach at Reinhardt, and followed up that same feat at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2018 and ‘19.
Prior to returning to Furman for his second stint as an offensive assistant in Greenville, Cronic spent the previous five seasons helping Reinhardt football get up and running under the leadership of his father from 2012-16.
In Cronic’s first stint as an assistant at Furman, he spent nine seasons (2002-10) as both an offensive assistant and recruiting coordinator under the then Paladin head coach Bobby Lamb. Cronic was extremely influential in two of the best seasons on the offensive side of the football in 2004 and ‘05. The Paladins fielded arguably its greatest corps of receivers at one time in school history, in Brian Bratton, Isaac West and Justin Stepp, as Cronic was their positional coach, helping each of their careers of three of the very best in Paladin football history.
He was part of a 2004 Paladin squad that shared the Southern Conference regular-season title, and an ‘05 squad that not only put together an unprecedented season in school history offensively, but also one that finished with an 11-3 record, falling just short of the FCS national title with a 29-23 loss to eventual national champion Appalachian State in Boone.
The 2005 Furman offense finished the season setting new school single-season standards for points scored (488), touchdowns scored (64), and total offense yardage per game (470.0 YPG). Cronic also helped Furman place in the SoCon annals in five offensive categories for a single season in league history, as the Paladins rank eighth all-time in points scored (488/2005), second in total yards amassed (6,580 yds/2005), ninth in total offense average per game (470.0 YPG/2005), second in total plays (1,061 plays/2005) and tied for ninth all-time in touchdowns scored (64/2005).
After playing for his father as the star quarterback at East Coweta High School before joining the University of Georgia football program as a wide receiver and special teams contributor during the mid-1990s.
He’ll be asked to figure out a lot offensively for the Bears in 2020, starting with the quarterback position. Robert Riddle’s injury status is still up in the air following a compound fracture he suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in a mid-October clash with VMI.
Former walk-on Harrison Frost performed pretty well in the fall opener, as he finished the fall opener against Jacksonville State connecting on 12-of-25 passes for 134 yards, with a pair of TDs and an INT in rainy conditions in what was a six-point loss for the Bears.
In addition to its spring opener against the Terriers, Mercer slate will include home games against The Citadel (Feb. 27), Western Carolina (Mar. 20), vs. Furman (April 3) and vs. East Tennessee State (April 10). Cronic’s Bears will also make road trips to VMI (Mar. 13), Chattanooga (Mar. 27), and Samford (April 17).
The Terriers should once again be one of the favorites to claim the 2020 Southern Conference title, however, navigating the quarterback position is a different issue with the graduation of reigning SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Joe Newman. Appalachian State transfer Peyton Derrick is likely the man who will be leading that offense for the Terriers heading into the 2020-21 season.
Wofford welcomes the return of 11 starters, with nine regulars back on the defensive side of the ball, two back on offense, and two specialists. The Terriers finished the 2019 campaign with an 8-4 record and were 7-1 in Southern Conference play. Wofford suffered a home loss in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, dropping what was a 28-21 decision at home to No. 9 and Big South champion Kennesaw State.
Aside from its home opener vs. Mercer, the Terriers will also play home contests vs. East Tennessee State (Mar. 6), vs. VMI (Mar. 20), vs. East Tennessee State (April 3) and vs The Citadel (April 10). Road trips will include Chattanooga (Feb. 27), Samford (Mar. 6), Western Carolina (Mar. 27) and Furman (April 17).
The peculiar story of Furman and The Citadel
Last season’s Southern Conference runner-up, Furman, will play seven league games this fall with the option to play an eighth. Furman’s annual rivalry with The Citadel will not be played, according to a SoCon and NCAA mandated 11-game rule, which prevents more than 11 regular-season games from being played, excluding of course, any postseason games that might be played.
Since the Bulldogs played four games in the fall at South Florida (L, 6-27), at No. 1 Clemson (L, 0-49), vs. Eastern Kentucky (L, 14-37) and at Army (L, 9-14), the Bulldogs can now only play seven league games in the fall instead of eight to not exceed the 11-game limit. In a blind draw conducted by the league office, Furman was the team chosen as the other team to have to give up a game in league play.
While Furman and The Citadel will not play this season, the Paladins will be awarded the forfeit, which will only count in the league standings and will not count against The Citadel’s overall record. The official release from the league office is below, as well as one from The Citadel’s release, detailing how both went about approaching this matter.
From The SoCon Office:
“The Citadel played four fall contests, which means it can only play seven spring games to avoid exceeding the NCAA-mandated 11-game regular-season maximum. The SoCon Council of Presidents approved a plan for the Bulldogs to compete in seven league games with one no-contest against a randomly selected league opponent. Furman was selected as that opponent in a blind draw. The no-contest is a game not played and will be considered a forfeit in the conference standings only, per NCAA policies.”
Statement From The Citadel:
“After the decision was made to cancel the football season, the administration at The Citadel came to a mutual decision that the best course of action would be to play all of our sports in the fall. We made the decision while it was still unclear if spring sports were going to happen, because we wanted to assure our seniors had the opportunity to play their final season. We knew that playing a full spring schedule was going to be challenging, and we will continue to prioritize the welfare of our cadet-athletes as we move forward.
Several of our senior athletes will complete their academics at the end of this semester and will opt out of spring seasons to move forward with their careers. They’ve represented our college magnificently, and we are excited for their futures.
We have filed a waiver with the NCAA to allow us to play a 12th game and we are awaiting for a decision to be rendered.”
Of special note in The Citadel’s release on their website, which had been put out Wednesday is that a decision by the NCAA had already been delivered to not honor the waiver for a 12th game days earlier prior to the website story.
Should the NCAA grant the waiver, it would appear the Furman at The Citadel game would be allowed to be played, however, in a year with the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the Bulldogs played a home game in the fall against another FCS opponent, in Eastern Kentucky, it will likely not their waiver request it submitted much to stand on.
That being said, it is in a big way sad that the rivalry won’t be played. It’s the two lone charter members left from the old Southern Conference, and it is also not only arguably the league’s most-heated gridiron rivalry, it’s also the most played.
The 2020-21 meeting between the Bulldogs and Paladins would have marked the 100th meeting between the two SoCon rivals, with Furman holding a 60-36-3 all-time series edge. With the forfeit awarded to Furman, that series will now read *61-36-3 and the 100th game in the rivalry will be chalked up to a game not actually played, so it remains 60-36-3 in the all-time series until 2021/22.
The rivalry has seen only one brief stoppage in its continuation since 1920, as the three did not play from 1943-45 due to World War II. With the contest having not been played in the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it put an end to a streak of 64-straight meetings between the two programs dating back to 1946.
It is a year that has also seen one of the state’s other great rivalries discontinued–at least for a season–as Clemson and South Carolina will not be playing this November either, as the SEC went with a conference-only model during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was voted against by the University of South Carolina.
All that said, things seem to be set up nicely for Clay Hendrix’s Furman Paladins to have a solid spring season, with the potential to compete for the Southern Conference league crown just as they did in 2019.
Furman finished out the 2019 season with a 8-5 overall record and a 6-2 finish in Southern Conference play, with league losses to both The Citadel (L, 10-27) and at Wofford (7-24). The Paladins also dropped regular-season contests at FBS foes Georgia State (L, 42-48) and at Virginia Tech (L, 17-24). Furman’s stay in the FCS playoffs was also short-lived, as the Paladins suffered their second-largest margin of defeat in an FCS playoff game in their history, as Furman dropped a 42-6 decision on the road in rainy Clarksville, TN., to Ohio Valley Conference member Austin Peay.
Despite the loss to Austin Peay, the 2019 season was seen overall as a positive and one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory for Paladin football.
Clay Hendrix (22-14) now heads into his fourth season at the helm of Paladin football, and has either led the Paladins to a conference title or playoff appearances in each of his first three seasons at the helm of the program. The Paladins will return 14 starters (8-offense, 6-defense) for the 2020 season, and for the first time since 2017, will enter the season with some experience under center, with a pair of redshirt sophomores expected to battle it out for the starting quarterback duties in fall camp.
The offense heads into the season as a team strength for the Paladins, which had one of their best offensive seasons in recent memory last fall. Furman closed out the 2019 campaign by losing two of its final three games of the season, with the only win during that three-week stretch coming in a 64-7 demolition of NAIA Point University in the final home game of the 2019 season.
The Paladins finished out the 2019 season with some impressive totals, charting 600 or more yards of total offense three times, while gaining 500 or more yards of total offense in six of 12 games last fall. For the first time in his three seasons since taking over the Furman football program, Hendrix had his ground attack in full effect under George Quarles, who was in his second season as Furman’s offensive coordinator.
He helped the Paladins finish the season ranking seventh overall in the FCS in rushing offense (265.7 YPG), while also ranking 40th nationally in total offense (410.3 YPG), 23rd in scoring offense (33.5 PPG), 114th in passing offense (144.6 YPG), 62nd in pass efficiency offense (131.61), and 22nd in sacks allowed (1.46 SPG).
Furman’s biggest loss on the offensive side of the football heading into the 2020 season is wide receiver Thomas Gordon, who set a new standard for most receiving yards in a career () in the next-to-last game of the season against Point. The good news for the Paladin offense is that the entire backfield returns for the 2020 season.
Defensively for the Paladins in 2019, it was a different matter all together. It’s an area the Paladins need to see improvement in key areas this in 2020 if the Paladins are to hope to challenge for a Southern Conference title.
Furman did rank highly both nationally and in the SoCon in scoring defense this past fall. The Paladins ranked () in the FCS and led the Southern Conference in scoring defense in 2019, yielding just 20.5 PPG.
All told, the Paladins are projected to return 13 starters (7-offense/6-defense) from a team that claimed eight wins last season.
Furman will have the option to add an eighth game, however, in place of not being able to travel to face its arch-rival this fall. The Paladins will also be on the road for games at East Tennessee State (Mar. 13), at VMI (Mar. 27), and at Mercer (April 3). The Paladins will host games against Western Carolina (Feb. 20), vs. Samford (Mar. 6), vs. Chattanooga (Mar. 20) and vs. Wofford (April 17).
The Citadel will open its spring portion of the season looking to put an end to what is a six-game losing streak when it kicks off the spring season with a contest at Mercer on Feb. 27. It will mark the first of four road contests during the spring slate, as the Bulldogs will also be on the road at Western Carolina (Mar. 13), at Wofford (Mar. 20) and at VMI (April 17).
Since the Bulldogs already forfeited the Furman game, which was slated to be a home game, the Bulldogs will have just two home games as a part of their slate for the 2020-21 campaign, taking on both Samford (Mar. 27) and East Tennessee State (April 3) inside the friendly confines of Johnson-Hagood Stadium. All told, the Bulldogs will play just a combined three of their allotted 11 games at home during the 2020-21 football season.
Coming into the fall season, The Citadel was slated to 20 starters and high-profile transfer Alex Ramsey, as a part of what was to be a stacked deck heading into what would have been a normal season had the pandemic not canceled season’s across the country for FCS schools. With a number of seniors having opted out of returning for a fall or will not return for a spring season, it’s unclear what the Bulldogs’ squad will look like in the spring.
While Ramsey has already entered the transfer portal, players like linebacker and NFL hopeful Willie Eubanks will have some decisions to make over the next few weeks, as to whether they will return for the spring. Eubanks is likely the most draft-able player on either side of the football heading into April’s NFL Draft.
Jaylan Adams was impressive enough in the fall season to look as if he will be the quarterback to replace Brandon Rainey. The Bulldogs literally went from 20 returning starters and one of the favorites prior to COVID-19 to so much uncertainty entering the spring season.
The Citadel will host three games this spring, while traveling to four SoCon venues. The Bulldogs will be on the road when they open the season on Feb. 27 against the Mercer Bears. The Bulldogs were 35-24 victors over the Bears at Johnson Hagood Stadium last season.
All told, the Bulldogs hold an 11-5-1 all-time series edge vs. Mercer, and have won the past two games in the series, and five of six of the clashes between the two schools since the Bears joined the SoCon as an official member in 2014. The Bulldogs will also make road trips to Western Carolina (Mar. 13), Wofford (Mar. 20) and VMI (April 17).
The Bulldogs will also host home games against Chattanooga (Mar. 6), Samford (Mar. 27) and East Tennessee State (April 3).
Chattanooga is slated to play its only game of the fall this Saturday when it travels to FBS foe Western Kentucky for a 4 p.m. contest against the Hilltoppers. The Mocs have a legitimate shot to upset the Hilltoppers, and while The Citadel has its questions to be answered in the spring, there is a feel of positive mojo surrounding Rusty Wright’s Chattanooga program coming off what was a solid 6-6 overall season, which included a 5-3 record in Southern Conference play last season.
The Mocs were just a few plays away from being a potential SoCon title contender and potential FCS playoff participant. However, in a game which the Mocs led nearly the entire way on the road against eventual SoCon champion Wofford, the Mocs had a dropped two-point conversion pass in overtime against Wofford, dropping what was a heartbreaking, 35-34, decision to the Terriers.
Though the Mocs will have to replace veteran quarterback Nick Tiano under center, there’s plenty of reason for optimism heading into the spring.
Former Mocs coach and tight end Rusty Wright returned to his roots looking to revive a program suddenly staggering after seeing some dominance in the latter part of Russ Huesman’s eight years at the helm, which ended in 2016.
After Huesman left for the CAA’s Richmond, the Mocs hired the young and up and coming coach, Tom Arth out of Division III power John Carroll College.
The experiment, and maybe thankfully so for Mocs fans, ended before it started, as Arth bolted following the 2018 season to take one of the worst FBS coaching jobs back in Ohio at Akron. That left the door open for Wright to return.
In recent seasons, however, the Mocs have used one of the more consistently sound defenses in the FCS to become one of the SoCon’s elite, and while maybe the elite wasn’t the correct word for where the Mocs have been the past three seasons, there were glimpses of that past dominance under Huesman under Wright in 2019. It was reminiscent of the head coach’s former days as an assistant under Huesman in the Scenic City.
All told, the Mocs finished the 2019 season with a defense that ranked 74th nationally in total defense (398.6 YPG), and one that also finished the campaign tied for 80th in scoring defense (30.0 PPG), however, those numbers were skewed a bit when you consider the difficulty of the schedule that the Mocs took on during the 2019 campaign.
After opening the season with a 24-10 win over Eastern Illinois, a predictable three-straight losses came at No. 18 Jacksonville State (L, 20-41), at Tennessee (L, 0-45) and vs. No. 2 James Madison (L, 14-37), starting the season 1-3, the Mocs rallied when entering SoCon play in-earnest. Each of their losses the remainder of the season–to Wofford (L, 34-35), No. 13 Furman (L, 24-35) and VMI (L, 24-31)–were all at least respectable, with the one the Mocs would wish to have back being obviously the game against the Keydets. The biggest win of the season was arguably the late-season, 34-33, win over The Citadel, spoiling the Bulldogs’ hopes of a SoCon title and potential FCS playoff bid.
Aside from its very winnable game against Western Kentucky this Saturday, the Mocs will play its four home games against VMI (Feb. 20), Wofford (Feb. 27), Mercer (Mar. 27), and vs. Samford (April 10).
The Mocs will head out on the SoCon road for matchups with The Citadel (Mar. 6), Furman (Mar. 20), Western Carolina (April 3) and the regular-season season finale at East Tennessee State (April 17) in the “Rail Rivalry.”
It was just two years ago that ETSU made that magical run to the Southern Conference title under first-year head coach Randy Sanders. What did the defending champs do for an encore? They did something no other team has in the modern history of the Southern Conference, which is go from first-to-worst. That’s right. The Bucs went from winning just their second Southern Conference title in school history in 2018 to finishing ninth out of nine teams in the SoCon last fall, posting just a 1-7 mark in league play.
But it’s not as if the Bucs didn’t know what their problems were heading into the season. After all, the Bucs had no experience under center, which made for a rocky start to the season to say the least. Add to the fact that the quarterback who won the starting job in fall camp–Chance Thrasher–went down early in the second quarter of the season opener against Appalachian State, and the Coastal Carolina transfer never factored in to the plans for the Bucs in 2020.
Trey Mitchell played a majority of the season under over center for the Bucs, and did enough to manage the offense and keep ETSU in every game. In fact, the Bucs were in most every game in conference play in what could otherwise be considered a most bizarre season for the men in the Old Gold and Blue uniforms.
The Bucs defense must replace some key pieces on the defensive side of the football like Nasir Player and the media Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and STATs Buck Buchanan Award finalist, Artevius Smith.
ETSU should still be solid on the defensive side of the ball this season, however, as some key pieces return to the unit. Defensive back Tyree Robinson will be anchor the 2020-21 ETSU defense.
The Bucs will be young along the offensive line, however, that won’t likely phase the All-America running back Holmes, who comes off another outstanding season running the football for the Bucs.
He finished the 2019 campaign as the SoCon’s third-leading rusher, with 1,143 yards and seven touchdowns on 206 carries, averaging 5.5 YPC. The 1,143 rushing yards in a season last fall was an ETSU single-season record. In two seasons for the Bucs, Holmes has 2,071 rushing yards and 20 rushing TDs.
Last season, ETSU fielded an impressive unit that yielded just 20.1 PPG and just 373.3 YPG.
Many of the problems that ETSU had last season came offensively, outside the play of All-SoCon running back Quay Holmes. At quarterback, Mitchell finished the season by connecting on 148-of-256 passses for 1,615 yards, 11 TDs and six interceptions.
Mitchell’s competition for the starting job during fall camp will likeky be Tyler Riddell, who saw action in four games as a true freshman last season.
The Bucs will host home games against Samford on Feb. 20 at William B. Greene Stadium in an intriguing opener for ETSU. Samford captured a 24-17 win over ETSU in Seibert Stadium in 2019. The Bucs will also host games vs. Furman (Mar. 13), Western Carolina (Mar. 27) and Chattanooga (April 17) in the regular-season finale.
The Mar. 27 game against Western Carolina is the “Blue Ridge Border Battle” and has produced a couple of thrillers the past couple of seasons. The Catamounts were able to avenge a heartbreaking, 45-43, triple-overtime setback in Johnson City in 2018 by getting a 23-20 overtime win over their own in the friendly confines of E.J. Whitmire Stadium last season.
The Bucs four road games will include trips to VMI (Feb. 27), Wofford (Mar. 6), The Citadel (April 3), and Mercer (Mar. 10).
Samford comes into the season after struggling to a 5-7 mark last fall in what was the first season post Devlin Hodges.
With so much talent two years ago (2018) and having failed to live up to preseason expectations as the prohibitive favorites to win the SoCon, some have wondered if 2020-21 might be a make-or-break season for Chris Hatcher, who heads into his sixth season at the helm for the Bulldogs.
In the five previous seasons, though, Hatcher has maintained the level previous bar set by his predecessor Pat Sullivan, however, he hasn’t elevated better talent than the Sullivan days to that next naturally progressive level. He’ll have another chance to do that this fall, as the Bulldogs return 14 starters (7-offense, 7-defense).
The Bulldogs were inconsistent on both sides of the ball for the majority of the 2019 season, with the Bulldogs ranking 111th (456.8 YPG) nationally in total defense last fall, while ranking tied for 117th nationally in scoring defense (37.8 PPG) in 2019.
The biggest struggles for the Bulldogs came in the same area that virtually every other team in the SoCon had trouble solving defensively last season, which was stopping the run.
The Bulldogs ranked 113th of 124 teams in the FCS at defending the run last season, surrendering 235.5 YPG on the ground in 2019.
The Bulldogs operate out of a 3-4 defensive alignment, and return two of three starters along the defensive front four the 2019 season, including Armond Lloyd, who earned second-team All-SoCon honors as selected by the media. The senior finished the 2019 campaign with 63 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery last fall.
Also returning on the defensive side of the football is first-team All-SoCon selection John Staton at linebacker. Staton led the Bulldogs and the SoCon with 116 tackles last season, 3.0 tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery last season.
On offense, both Oladokun and Liam Welch split time behind center for the Bulldogs’ high-octane, ‘Hatch Attack’ offense.Oladokun got off to the stronger start, but suffered some mid-season nagging injuries, which slowed his pace down the stretch of the season.
Still, Oladokun completed his first season in Birmingham, connecting on 169-of-272 passes for 2,064 yards, with 18 TDs and seven INTs. Oladokun was also strong running the football for the Bulldogs in 2019, completing the campaign with 493 yards and eight scores. He finished with 2,557 yards of total offense.
The biggest challenge offensively for the Bulldogs this fall offensively is replacing three starters along the offense, as well as its top two receivers, in Chris Shelling and Roland Adams.
Samford will open its 2020-21 slate on the road East Tennessee State on Feb. 20. The Bulldogs have won six of seven all-time meetings, which includes a 24-17 victory late last October. The Bulldogs will also take trips to Furman (Mar. 6), The Citadel (Mar. 27) and Chattanooga (April 10).
The Bulldogs will kick off the home slate at Seibert Stadium for the 2020-21 season against Western Carolina on Feb. 27. The Bulldogs 31-`13 victors in Cullowhee last season and won 14 of the 17 all-time meetings between the two programs.
Samford will also host games against Wofford (Mar. 13), VMI (Mar. 20) and Mercer (April 17). Despite Wofford’s dominance in the SoCon over the past three seasons, Samford has been the Terriers’ kryptonite, having won five-straight over the Terriers, including a 21-14 win in Spartanburg last season.
Western Carolina and VMI round out the nine-team league, and both have reasons for optimism entering the 2020-21 campaign, as each has enough offensive talent to cause any defense some headaches. However, both teams have to replace two of the best offensive players in the SoCon, in Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams, who has graduated, and VMI and SoCon leading rusher Alex Ramsey.
Like Samford’s Hatcher, Western Carolina head coach Mark Speir probably faces a make-or-break season heading into his eighth season at the helm in Cullowhee. Speir made some coaching adjustments, and that started with the defense side of the football, as the Catamounts came off a second-straight season in which they struggled to stop virtually anyone.
The Catamounts, however, finished the season strong on the defensive side of the football to finish rank 97th nationally (434.7 YPG) in total defense, however, it wasn’t enough for defensive and Speir’s longtime friend as staffmates at Appalachian State to keep his job as the Catamounts’ defensive coordinator.
Speir first promoted Tripp Weaver to defensive coordinator in January only to see Weaver return to his alma mater at East Carolina a couple of weeks later as a defensive assistant in mid-January. Speir finally ended up hiring former Middle Tennessee State head coach Andy McCollum for the post. McCollum brings a experience and a track record of success as both a head coach and a defensive cooach during his 39 years of experience as both an assistant and head coach.
McCollum most recently served as a part of Paul Johnson’s staff at Georgia Tech in Atlanta where he coached several different positions on the defensive side of the football under former App State defensive coordinator Nate Woody. His most recent role as a defensive assistant at Goergia Tech came as the coach of nickel backs and safeties.
The Catamount head coach must first address the vacancy at the quarterback position, however, with the graduation of one of the greatest to ever suit up in the Purple and Gold behind center–Tyrie Adams.
The favorite to replace Adams under center the fall for the Catamounts will be redshirt junior Will Jones, who saw some action in each of the past two seasons in key moments when Adams was missing due to injury or suspension. Jones comes off a 2019 season, which saw him complete 62-of-97 passes for 443 yards, with a touchdown and an interception.
The Catamounts biggest homerun hitter on offense this fall might come from the running back position, where Donavan Spencer returns following a season which saw him lead the Catamounts in rushing, completing the season with 530 yards and four touchdowns. He was also an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield, as he hauled in 19 passes for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Catamounts top threat through the air will be Owen Cosenke, who heads into the 2020 campaign as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in all of college football. Cosenke finished the 2019 season with 22 catches for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The offensive line had to learn on the job last season, but with a year of a true learning experience under its collective belts, the Catamounts should be in much better shape along offensive line than they were last fall. All five starters return along the offensive line, and it will be anchored by Grady Thomas at left tackle, and right guard Matthew Bair.
Defensively, the Catamounts welcome the return of some talented players, but must replace talented defensive back John Brannon III. Brannon was one of just three starters that won’t return for the 2020 season in a unit that continued to show improvement as the season progressed.
One of the top returnees on the defensive side of the football will be cornerback Ronald Kent Jr., and he will compete for All-America honors this fall. Kent finished out the 2019 season with 32 tackles, 0.5 tackles-for-loss, seven pass breakups, and recovered a fumble.
Western also returns the league’s fourth-leading tackler in the Southern Conference, with the return of all-conferene linebacker Ty Harris. Harris completed his junior season with 106 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery.
Western Carolina will play three road games in the fall, starting with a Nov. 14 against currently unbeaten FBS independent Liberty, while traveling to 1980s FCS juggernaut Eastern Kentucky–an opponent that was ranked when the Catamounts upset back in 2006–on Nov. 21. The Catamounts close out the fall with a trip to ACC power North Carolina on Dec. 11
The Catamounts will start Southern Conference play in the spring with “The Battle for Purple Supremacy” in Greenville, facing one of the league favorites, in the Furman Paladins. The Paladins claimed a 28-7 win in Cullowhee last season, and the Catamounts have lost four-straight in the series, and trail in the all-time ledger, 33-12-2.
Western will also be on the road to face Samford (Feb. 27), at Mercer (Mar. 20) and at East Tennessee State (Mar. 27). The Catamounts will host beautiful, brisk spring Saturdays at E.J. Whitmire Stadium against VMI (Mar. 6), The Citadel (Mar. 13), Chattanooga (April 3) and Wofford (April 10).
VMI made major during the 2019 football season in what was Scott Wachenheim’s fifth season at the helm, as the Keydets finished with a 5-7 overall record, which included a 4-4 record in league play.
The four Southern Conference wins by the Keydets marked the first time since the 1991 season that VMI finished the season with four or more Southern Conference wins. It also marked the first time since the 2002 season that the Keydets knocked off military arch-rival The Citadel, as the Keydets took a 34-21 win in Charleston.
While Alex Ramsey will be missed as a part of the Keydets’ backfield, another extremely important piece returns to the VMI offense this fall, in record-setting signal-caller Reece Udinski.
The rising senior set a new mark for passes thrown without an interception, spanning the end of the 2018 season and into the 2019 campaign, as he completed the campaign with 368 passes thrown without an INT, shattering the old mark of 342, which was once set by jimmy Blanchard at Portland State back in 1999.
All Udinski did was establish himself as a worthy Walter Payton Award candidate in his own right, completing the 2019 campaign by connecting on 306-of-479 passes for 3,276 yards, 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions and will enter the 2020 campaign as the top quarterback in the Southern Conference.
Udinski will lead what should once again be an outstanding offense even without Ramsey, and it will be a unit that returns eight starters, including big-play threat and all-conference wideout Jakob Heres. Heres finished out the 2019 season by leading the SoCon in virtually ever receiving category, completing the 2019 season by hauling in 72 passes for 1,096 yards.
The Keydets also retun all five starters along their offensive line, which helped the Keydets finish the 2019 season ranked 35th nationally in scoring offense (30.8 PPG), 18th in passing offense (286.6 YPG), and tied for 41st nationally in total offense (407.3 YPG).
The area where VMI has continued to struggle during the Scott Wachenheim era has been on the defensive side of the football, where the Keydets finished last season ranking among the worst of all of FCS football, as the Keydets finished the campaign ranking 120th in total defense (494.8 YPG).
The Keydets return some solid players on the defensive side of the football, however, as the Keydets welcome back all-conference defensive back AJ Smith will be one of the lynch pins on the defensive side of the ball this fall. He finished the 2019 campaign by totaling 67 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, seven passes defended, and one forced fumble.
The top returning tackler is Elliott Brewster at inside linebacker, as he finished the season with 108 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups and a sack.
VMI will open the spring slate on the SoCon road at Chattanooga. The Keydets played spoiler to the Mocs’ faint playoff hopes last season, delivering Chattanooga a 31-24 loss in the regular-season finale. The win by the Keydets snapped a five-game winning streak in the series for the Mocs, putting the all-time series at 17-8-1 in favor of the Mocs.
The Keydets are also slated for trips to Western Carolina (Mar. 6), Samford (Mar. 20) and Wofford (April 3). Home games at Foster Stadium will include contests against East Tennessee State (Feb. 27), Mercer (Mar. 13), Furman (Mar. 27) and The Citadel (April 17).