Following the fourth Saturday of the season, here is the first installment of SoCon power rankings,
- East Tennessee State (4-0, 1-0 SoCon)--With its thrilling 55-48 overtime win at Samford yesterday, ETSU staked its claim as the Southern Conference title favorite. The Bucs have indeed found an offense to go with their outstanding defense this season. There were four lead changes alone in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over Samford on the road. Tyler Riddell has been the man under center for the Bucs leading a much improved offense, as he has completed 56-of-91 passes for 767 yards, with seven TDs and just one INT. Quay Holmes has once again powered the ground attack for the Bucs, having rushed for 536 yards and six TDs on 84 attempts, averaging an impressive 6.4 YPC. Holmes leads the league in rushing yards after four weeks of league play and is the leading candidate for SoCon Offensive Player of the Year accolades. The Bucs rank fourth in the league in both total offense (455.5 YPG) and total defense (373.8 YPG) after yesterday’s game at Samford. The Bucs return to action next Saturday when they host Wofford at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium in a 3:30 p.m.kickoff
2. Chattanooga (1-2, 0-0 SoCon)–Chattanooga was off this past Saturday and came into the season as the consensus pick to win the Southern Conference crown. The Mocs looked every bit the part in last week’s 28-23 loss to power five SEC foe. Like the Bucs, the Mocs have one of the top running backs in FCS football, in Ailym Ford (61 rush att, 302 yds, 2 TDs, 5.0 YPC). Ford had one of his premier outings as a Moc last Saturday in the loss at Kentucky, as he finished that contest by rushing for 128 yards on 21 attempts vs. the Wildcats. The Mocs continue to have one of the top defensive units in all of FCS football, allowing a just 314.3 YPG as a unit to rank second in the league in total defense. The Mocs have done an excellent job of picking off opponents in their first three games of the 2021 season, having posted six INTs, with defensive back Brandon Dowdell tied for the league lead with three INTs so far this season. Chattanooga returns to action in the first weekend of October, hosting Western Carolina at Finley Stadium, with kickoff set for 1:30 p.m. EST. The Mocs have won 10 of the last 11 meetings with the Catamounts.
3. Samford (2-2, 1-1 SoCon)–It’s been a topsy-turvy season for Chris Hatcher’s Samford Bulldogs to this point in the fall season, and it has a strange resemblance to how the Bulldogs started the spring. The Bulldogs again have among the FCS’ most prolific offenses, leading the SoCon in scoring offense (42.2 PPG), total offense (496.0 YPG), and passing offense (380.2 YPG). Quarterback Liam Welch has lived up to his billing as one of the candidates for the Walter Payton Award so far through the first four weeks of the season, having completed 138-of-203 passes for 1,251 yds, with nine TDs and seven INTs through four games. In the overtime loss to ETSU Saturday, Welch set SoCon records for passing yards in a single game (582) and total offense accounted for in a single game (655), while setting program marks for completions (56) and attempts (73). Defensively, the Bulldogs have been able to once again turn folks over, leading the league with seven INTs, but have had trouble stopping opponents consistently on the defensive side of the football, ranking sixth in the league in total defense (433.5 YPG) and rank last in the SoCon in scoring defense (34.8 PPG). If the Bulldogs want to be part of those championship conversations in November, Nick Benedetto’s defense will need to shore up that scoring defense number especially. Samford’s offense is seemingly good enough to keep them in the title race, however, a consistent defense will be what is needed to put them over the top. Samford travels to Five Star Stadium to face Mercer in. a huge SoCon clash next Saturday, with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. at Five Star Stadium. The Bulldogs claimed a 44-20 win over the Bears in Birmingham last spring.
4. Mercer (2-1, 1-0 SoCon)–We pondered who Mercer might be heading into its matchup with Furman this past weekend. We learned exactly who Drew Cronic’s Bears were following their 24-3 demolition of Furman on Saturday afternoon at Paladin Stadium. The Bears showed the ability to make big plays on offense, with Fred Payton under center, and Fred Davis and Brandon Marshall powering the ground game. Meanwhile, Ty James continued his domination of the Paladin secondary, as he has 11 catches for 256 yards and two scores in two games against Furman last spring and this past Saturday. The Bears’ improvement on the defensive side of the ball continues to overshadow all the window dressing associated with Cronic’s unique offensive scheme, however, as the Bears lead the league in scoring defense (17.0 PPG), total defense (271.7 YPG), while ranking second in rushing defense (96.7 YPG) and passing defense (175.0 YPG). Some of those defensive stats have been skewed, however, by the season-opening, 69-0, win over Point. Mercer hosts Samford in a monster SoCon showdown next Saturday at Five Star Stadium, with kickoff set for 6 p.m.
5. VMI (3-1, 1-0 SoCon)–Reigning SoCon champion VMI has won two-straight since its debacle at Kent State a couple of weeks ago. The Keydets made it seven wins in its last eight Southern Conference outings, opening league play with an impressive 31-23 home win over Wofford at Foster Stadium in a matchup of the past two Southern Conference champions. The Keydets were without SoCon Freshman of the Year, Seth Morgan, from this past spring, as he was out with an injury. It didn’t matter, as another freshman signal-caller–Colin Ironside–started his first game under center for the Keydets, and proceeded to complete 18-of-22 passes for 183 yards with a pair of scores and no INTs. However, the improved VMI ground game continues to be a significant story this season, and at the forefront of that improvement has been multi-talented running back Korey Bridy, as he rushed for 171 yards and a pair of scores in the win over the Terriers. Bridy currently ranks fourth in the SoCon in rushing, having rushed for 364 yards and four TDs on 65 attempts this season, averaging 5.6 YPC. Stone Snyder’s 19 tackles were part of another impressive Saturday at linebacker for the Keydets in the win over Wofford, and he currently leads the SoCon with 43 tackles in four games so far this season. The Keydets currently lead the league in passing defense, allowing just 175.0 YPG through the air this season, but have been absolutely porous against the run, yielding 272.5 YPG. That will have to change in a hurry, as the Keydets head to Charleston to battle The Citadel for the Silver Shako next Saturday, with kickoff set for 2 p.m. at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
6. Furman (2-2, 0-1)–Furman’s problems offensively having seemingly carried over from last spring. After scoring 35 and 44 points in two of their first three games of the 2021 spring season, the Paladins have gone eight-straight games without breaking 30 points in a game. That has to change if the Paladins are going to avoid fading once again before the end of October. Furman started the season with Hamp Sisson (66-of-113 passing, 785 yds, 4 TDs, 5 INTs) at quarterback, but in Saturday’s 24-3 SoCon-opening loss to Mercer, Sisson was replaced by true freshman Jace Wilson (6-of-12, 60 yds, 1 INT) and it appears both will see action going forward for the Furman offense. The Paladins have been pretty solid on defense this season, despite leaving a little to be desired on the field in the loss to Mercer last Saturday. Furman ranks third overall in the SoCon in total defense (339.0 YPG) and fourth in scoring defense (19.3 PPG). The Paladins have one of the top corners in FCS football, in Travis Blackshear, who is tied for the league lead in INTs, having picked off three passes so far this season. Furman has a week off before heading to Wofford in two weeks. The Paladins haven’t tasted victory at Gibbs Stadium since 2006.
7. Wofford (1-2, 0-1 SoCon)–It’s almost hard to believe that Wofford was the Southern Conference champion as recent as 2019, especially when you consider the Terriers are just 2-6 in their last eight games dating back to last spring. It’s not exactly clear with what the Terriers are trying to do offensively, and in last Saturday’s loss at VMI, the Terriers played just one of its two signal-callers under center, with Jimmy Weirick going the entire way. With Wofford looking to introduce more of a passing threat into its offense in the post-Wade Lang era, it’s not exactly gone well thus far through the first three games, with four INTs and 0 TDs. Irving Mulligan has been good running the football, as he rushed 284 yards and three TDs this season. Wofford’s defense has exactly been great either, having surrendered 31 points in each of the past two weeks, ranking seventh out of nine teams in rushing defense, surrendering 196.0 YPG through the first three games of the 2021 season. The Terriers will be at home Saturday when they host ETSU in a key SoCon showdown slated for 3:30 p.m. at Gibbs Stadium. The Terriers have won nine-straight against the Bucs, and haven’t lost to ETSU since 1998, when the Bucs were 45-24 winners at the Memorial Center in Johnson City. The Terriers haven’t lost at Gibbs Stadium to the Bucs since a 31-28 setback to ETSU in 1997.
8. The Citadel (1-2, 0-0 SoCon)–Like Chattanooga, The Citadel had an off week before beginning SoCon play next week in earnest, when the Bulldogs host VMI in the Battle for the Silver Shako. The Bulldogs at least looked a little better in a convincing 45-13 win over North Greenville last time out. The Bulldogs rolled up 489 yards of total offense, which included 135 yards through the air. Raleigh Webb continues to be among the best big-play threats in all of FCS football, having posted a 72-yard scoring reception and a 24-yard scoring run in the win over North Greenville last time out. Quarterback Jaylan Adams continues to lead The Citadel offense, having rushed for 220 yards and a pair of scores in three games, while having connected on 17-of-30 passes for 300 yards, with a touchdown and a pick through the first three weeks.
9. Western Carolina (0-4, 0-1 SoCon)--Kerwin Bell’s Western Carolina Catamounts remain the lone SoCon team without a win through the first four weeks of the season, and in FCS games, the Catamounts have had trouble stopping anyone on defense once again, and that was the main question mark coming into the season. In the 52-34 loss at Gardner-Webb, the Catamounts lost despite amassing 650 yards on 99 plays. The Catamounts rank last in the SoCon in total defense (516.0 YPG) and last in turnover margin (-4), having thrown eight picks and surrendered six fumbles through the first four games of the season. That’s not a recipe for success. It gets no easier this week, as the Catamounts travel to Chattanooga to face a Mocs team that has won 10 of the last 11 games in the series between the two this coming Saturday.
In The Rankings:
No. 15 ETSU
No. 22 VMI