SoCon Football 2021: The centennial season is a wild one

Rail Rivalry highlights an important week of SoCon football/photo courtesy of UTC sports information

Following week six in Southern Conference football, it might have been true to call it a “Separation Saturday” of sorts, however, the next two weeks will tell us a lot about how the season will pan out.

As we head into week seven, two teams remain unbeaten with perfect 3-0 league marks, as both East Tennessee State and Mercer find themselves sitting atop the league’s standings with 3-0 conference records. 

Now the real story will be written in determining how the championship race will ultimately pan out in the 100th season of gridiron glory in the Southern Conference.

In many ways, as we prepare for another big basketball season inside the league, it’s only fitting that in the league’s centennial season that the pigskin prophets who double as basketball afficianados from November-March, might have to suffer some sleepless nights and some more brain fog than usual, as it appears football season is going to keep those multi-tasking journalists, who cover both beats for the league from fall-to-spring, captivated well into the start of hoops season.

That’s a fun time for fans of both sports in the SoCon, however, it’s a headache for those who cover both sports. That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that in some twisted way, the craziness and excitement of it all is why we love what we do. It’s obviously not the money. That being said, no week has been as pivotal in the 100th season of Southern Conference football as the one before us.

Bucs face toughest tests in next two weeks

The road to a Southern Conference title for East Tennessee State is pretty straightforward, however, pulling off a potential second SoCon title in a three-year span may well come down to the next two weeks on the road against a pair of tricky rivals that always give the Bucs fits on the gridiron.

The first of those comes Saturday in the renewal of something they call the rail rivalry between East Tennessee State and Chattanooga in something they call the rail rivalry. The following week gets no easier when the Bucs travel to Greenville to face a Furman team that is suddenly re-focused following Saturday’s streak-ending win over Wofford, as the Paladins dominated the Terriers en route to getting their first win at Gibbs Stadium for the first time since 2006.

If the Bucs can somehow navigate easily the most difficult part of their schedule, playing on the road at a pair of venues not many teams have been all that successful in getting results in at least the recent past, I think the Bucs (though I could be wrong) will have survived the toughest part of their schedule, as wins in both would see ETSU improve its record to 8-0 overall and would be 5-0 in the SoCon.

It could set up quite the regular-season finale against the other SoCon unbeaten Mercer in Johnson City. There are also tricky tests remaining vs defending league champion VMI (Nov. 6) and at winless Western Carolina (Nov. 13) prior to the showdown with the Bears, but you get the feeling that the next two weeks the toughest tests the Bucs might face in their pursuit of perfection prior to that potential de facto title game showdown with Mercer.

Building the Bear

That’s exactly what second-year head coach Drew Cronic has been doing, as the Bears now find themselves 3-0 in Southern Conference play for the first time since joining the league as an official member back in 2014. The Bears walked out of Cullowhee with a 34-24 win over Western Carolina and have an interesting next couple of weeks of their own.

Saturday the Bears will host VMI in a game that will be another huge test for the Bears defense, which has seemingly stood strong against a pair of high-octane offensive units the past couple of weeks in wins over both Samford (45-42) and the aforementioned win over the Catamounts at E.J. Whitmire Stadium over Western Carolina.

If Cronic’s Bears, who lost to VMI 41-14 in the spring following a bus fire at Golden Corral en route from Macon to Lexington, VA, which happened somewhere near Lexington County S.C., back during the spring, the next test will come against a Wofford team that is reeling right now. Yet it’s the Terriers that remain the lone team Mercer has yet to defeat on the gridiron since joining the SoCon in 2014.

A strange dilemma might have a ranked Mercer team with a 4-0 SoCon record and 5-1 mark hosting a Terrier team that could potentially be 1-5 overall and 0-4 in league play should the Terriers drop a sixth-straight game in the series to Samford this weekend. It’s a strange scenario.

In fact, Wofford, which has lost seven-straight Southern Conference games to tie a program record since joining the league as an official member way back in 1997, sports its last league win in a 31-14 spring-opening victory over the Mercer Bears at Gibbs Stadium. However, should the Bears clear those two hurdles at home in beautiful Five Star Stadium,

I would imagine UGA alum Rick Cameron will probably be the happiest play-by-play man in the country. It would mean both the school that gave him his sheepskin and the one that employs him will more than likely be undefeated in their respective conferences as the fall chill starts to set in a little more.

Mercer remains one of the hottest teams in FCS football since the start of last spring, as the Bears have won eight of their last 11 Southern Conference games and now the team picked sixth looks like a very real contender for its first Southern Conference title heading down the stretch as we inch closer towards the month of November.

Wrong Way Wofford

Not much has gone right for Wofford under Josh Conklin in recent times. Saturday’s 42-20 blasting at the hands of rival Furman probably didn’t go unnoticed among fans that have taken a somewhat condescending view of that school just up the road.

However, surrendering the Terriers’ first loss to Furman in 15 years at Gibbs Stadium might not have been so bad had the Terriers not lost six-straight Southern Conference games dating back to last spring coming into Saturday’s contest.

When Mike Ayers retired, it didn’t come unglued right away. The Terriers won a SoCon titles in 2018 and ’19 under Conklin, going 14-2 against league foes. Ah, but what is it fans always say about new head coaches that have success right away–oh yeah that’s it–“he’s winning with Ayers’ players.”

I am sure those shouts are no doubt being shouted from the top of the glass palace that is the Denny’s building in Spartanburg, however, fans seem a lot shrewder than they actually are by making such statements. In my opinion, Wofford’s demise has far more due to offensive philosophy and having an identity of who they are than it is one of someone else’s players.

If Conklin can figure that out, he’ll have Wofford back on track. That task was made all the more trickier when Wade Lang stepped away into retirement this past spring.

Lang was an offensive innovator. I remember how ahead of the game he was by implementing the spread bone offense to the Terriers’ offensive scheme back in 2007, and it was enough to yield one of Wofford’s most successful runs at any level in program history.

Those days seem long gone. If you believe a program with the success and tradition of Wofford can’t tank overnight, then you haven’t been paying attention to major power five college football lately. Florida State and to some degree, Tennessee, are two prime examples of how easily that switch can almost be flipped immediately.

Wofford will put its program-record tying seven-straight league losses on the line Saturday at Gibbs Stadium when it faces the Bulldogs Saturday at Gibbs Stadium. Like Furman, Chris Hatcher’s Bulldogs enter the clash against Wofford coming off an off-week.

In 2019, the Terriers were dusting off a third-straight SoCon title and fourth-straight FCS playoff appearance and were a SoCon dynasty. However, since that bottles were popping in the locker room following an outright SoCon crown by winning in Charleston over The Citadel in the 2019 regular-season finale, the Terriers have won just two of its last 10 games.

It’s forced many Wofford fans to take the action and circle the date Oct. 30, and not to dress the kiddos up for Halloween, but because a loss to a Western Carolina team that might still be in search of its first win might cause Terrier fans to turn into pumpkins rather than playing their best football by the time frost collects on top of the famous fall decoration.

Right now, ghouls and goblins are likely the least of worries of his program. He may need to turn to an exorcist to turn Wofford’s fortunes around this season. Sometimes coaches can make things worse by searching for a quick fix no matter the sport. That’s never a good idea to sell out to an identity for an unfamiliar quick fix. What Conklin is doing at Wofford unfortunately for Wofford fans feels like what is happening.

Best ground-gainers in the FCS?

Collectively, the Southern Conference has a real argument of having the best running backs from top to bottom anywhere in FCS football. It’s a collection of talent that could play in any league.

The SoCon has a lineage of success in the backfield that would be hard to be matched. The names seemingly fly off the tongue when considering the league’s history at the position, which includes a pair of Walter Payton Award winners, in former Georgia Southern great Adrian Peterson (1999 Payton Award winner) and Louis Ivory (2000 Payton Award winner).

Others, too, like former Wofford great Eric Breitenstein, former VMI standout Thomas Haskins, and former Marshall and Appalachian State hall-of-famers Chris Parker and John Settle are just a small sample size of what the league has been able to produce during its proud century of football.

But this season has seen a collection of backs from the top of the league all the way to the bottom that could rival any in FCS.

We already knew the SoCon was a running league coming into the season, however, in an era of pass-happy spread air-raid type offenses, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the SoCon is largely known for the running success it has enjoyed over the years.

The other thing that has been intriguing this season has been the play of VMI running back Korey Bridy, at a place where normally its considered to be a pass-happy attack. That hasn’t been the case this season.

It could be argued that Bridy is the reason that VMI, despite the loss at The Citadel a couple of weeks ago, still finds itself as a real contender to defend the league title it won in the spring.

Bridy currently ranks third in the league in total rushing yards, having rushed for 614 yards and six TDs on 120 carries this season, as he is averaging 5.1 yards-per-tote.

His introduction into the conversation as one of the best in the land is primarily and directly related to the fact that he’s been able to carry the offense while the Keydets have managed injuries and inconsistency under center through the early portion of the season.

ETSU’s Quay Holmes is still having the best season of his career in a career that has already been outstanding to date. The junior running back currently leads the nation in rushing, and he, along with his backfield version of Robin–Jacob Saylors –are a big reason why the Bucs find themselves unbeaten to the midway point of the season.

Through the first six games of the season, Holmes has rushed for 749 yards and nine TDs on 128 attempts (5.9 YPC). Holmes also ranks second in the nation in all-purpose yards (914 yds/165 rec yds) and he’s a real threat to become the SoCon’s third running back in league history to claim the coveted Walter Payton Award.

Meanwhile, Saylors also ranks in the top 10 in the SoCon rushing this season, as he has posted 401 yards and six rushing scores on six touchdowns on 65 rush attempts this season, averaging 6.2 YPC.

Like Bridy, a newcomer to the already stacked deck of cards at running back is Fred Davis from Mercer. He burst onto the scene after posting a league best and school record 276-yard, five-touchdown performance in the thrilling 45-42 win over Samford last week.

In fact, Davis ranks second in the league in rushing currently. It’s probably not a surprise that both ETSU and Mercer remain the lone two teams unbeaten in the SoCon. He has rushed for 560 yards and nine scores on 89 carries this season, and he’s averaging a league-best 6.3 yards-per-carry through five games for the Bears this season.

Then. there’s Furman’s Devin Wynn, who is the SoCon’s career-active rushing leader, had his breakout performance of the season in the Paladins’ 42-20 win over Wofford this past weekend. Only Mercer’s Davis has posted a better rushing performance than that of Wynn on Saturday against the Terriers. All told, the senior running back finished the day with 204 yards and two touchdowns on 31 rush attempts, while hauling in three passes for 42 yards and another score.

Wynn totaled a large majority of his yards by running with both anger, and to an extent, a great amount of legal violence. It was as if Wynn were looking for Terriers to physically hit to somehow parlay the frustrations of six quarters without a touchdown coming into the matchup.

His body language and body blows delivered were enough to at least for the moment, awaken the offense from a slumber they have been in for the better part of two years, dating back to a 58-14 win at Samford in 2019. His threat as a receiver cannot be overlooked, either.

His 204-yard performance Saturday was nearly as much as his 225 yards on 55 attempts coming into the clash with the Terriers. He now has 29-career rushing scores to rank eighth on Furman’s all-time rushing ledger, while upping his career rushing total to 2,897 career yards rushing en route to garnering SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Both Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price have been an outstanding tandem at the running for Chattanooga. Ford is a known entity in the backfield. Few have forgotten the 2019 season he delivered a couple of years ago–one of the best by a freshman in Mocs or in SoCon history.

The preseason Walter Payton Award candidate currently ranks fifth in the league in rushing this season, having rushed for 504 yards and five touchdowns to this point in the season.

Ford turned in one of the most impressive performances by a SoCon running back this season when is galloped for 128 yards on 21 carries against SEC unbeaten Kentucky (6-0). That game saw the Mocs put up quite the fight, as Chattanooga held a fourth quarter lead before eventually dropping a 28-23 contest in Lexington.

Like Saylors at ETSU, Price has given the Mocs a nice one-two punch at the running back position, as he ranks eighth in the SoCon in rushing yards, having gained for 359 yards and four scores on 52 attempts this season.

Perhaps the one anomaly is Wofford’s Irivin Mulligan, who is quietly having an outstanding season, despite Wofford’s overall struggles. In fact, in somewhat of a bizarre development, following Saturday’s 72-yard scoring run that put the Terriers ahead of the Paladins, he carried the ball for a total of 126 yards on the day and was the biggest chunk of Wofford’s offense.

Mulligan, who has game-breaking speed and already with scoring runs of 64 and 72 yards this season, respectively, and leads the league in yards per carry, averaging 6.9.

I won’t ever be mistaken for a football coach, but maybe getting the ball that can literally rip off big plays every time he touches the ball might need to get the ball more. To date, Mulligan has 63 rush attempts for 432 yards and five scores so far in 2021.

Three-Dog Night…Which Dog needs to have its day most?

Everyone loves a dog, and on Saturday, all three schools represented by a Dog mascot have key contests. But which one needs to have the phrase “Every Dog has its Day” apply to it most? That’s more difficult than when Albert Einstein solved the theory of relatively.

All three dogs are wounded dogs, and Saturday offers a bounce back opportunity. Samford, which had the week off to both rest its defense and ice Liam Welch’s arm, heads to Spartanburg Saturday to face another wounded dog, in Wofford, who has lost four-straight and seven-straight SoCon games.

The Terriers enter Saturday’s contest having lost four-straight at Gibbs Stadium and that winning percentage slipped to winning 79 of its last 104 games inside the friendly confines with last Saturday’s loss

The Bulldogs have won six-straight in the series against Wofford, and a seventh-straight win over the Terriers would mean the Terriers would have lost more consecutive SoCon games than it ever has since entering the league as an official member way back in 1997. Wofford has lost five-straight home games heading into Saturday’s contest.

Wofford slipped to 83-47 in that span

The Terriers have also been the most successful team over the past 18 years in the Southern Conference heading into Saturday’s contest against Samford. That trend is quickly changing.

Though Mike Ayers left the program better than he came to it, and by no means is it comparable to Jimbo Fisher’s mess left at Florida State, the trend is moving as quickly as it did in Tallahassee, and the FCS level, that’s not a good thing.

Perhaps the most interesting team on that winning percentage list is Samford. Samford, which tied for the 2013 SoCon crown along with Furman and Chattanooga, was later stripped of that league title after having to vacate six wins after playing six games with ineligible players.

Both Wofford and Furman, which are the two teams ahead them on the list compiled by Wofford’s esteemed Sports Information Director Brent Williamson, have both claimed SoCon titles since 2008, with Wofford having won five, and Furman two.

What’s interesting here is the fact that without Samford’s win over Chattanooga and Elon during that 2013 season, Furman would have not been locked in a three-way tie for the automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs, but as a result of Samford’s win in the dying embers of the regular-season finale, it knocked Chattanooga out of the postseason in a strange three-way tie for the league crown with all having 6-2 records in league play.

Furman’s losses to both Chattanooga and Elon in conference play accounted for their two setbacks. However, Furman beat Georgia Southern and Samford, which accounted for both of Chattanooga’s league losses, and by virtue of Samford’s wins over Chattanooga and Georgia Southern, it left the Mocs out of the postseason ultimately canceled out Chattanooga’s head-to-head win over Furman since both Furman and Samford beat Georgia Southern.

Furman’s other SoCon crown during that span came in 2018, which was also a three-way tie that involved the Terriers. But this time the Paladins weren’t so lucky, as the tiebreaker came down to a canceled home game with Colgate due to Hurricane of Hurricane Florence.

In the bylaws that season, the SoCon tiebreaker policy had been changed from what it had been five years earlier, and was based on points given up heading into the final week of games.

Yet Samford, who was the prohibitive favorite heading into the 2018 season under current head coach Chris Hatcher and with Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Devlin Hodges, was already eliminated from the three-team race by the time the final week of league play arrived.

However, a 38-27 win in Johnson City meant that East Tennessee State could not win the 2018 title outright. Wofford had already finished its conference season a week earlier with a 38-23 win at Western Carolina to finish 6-2. Both Furman and Wofford needed ETSU to lose to Samford to factor in a three-way tie. That obviously happened.

Wofford needed Mercer to score 15 or more points or just beat Furman in the final regular-season game to end up with a share of the league spoils. While Furman claimed a share of the title, it did so by winning 35-30, but by giving up 15 more points than it needed to hold the Bears to less than, it gave the auto bid to Wofford.

Despite a 34-14 regular-season win by the Paladins over the Terriers, Furman was left out of the postseason, and ETSU, which beat Furman, 29-27. in the largest come-from-behind win in program history, was chosen as the at-large qualifier to the FCS Playoffs.

But Samford. Yes Samford has affected the SoCon title, yet despite being the third most successful program since joining the league in 2008, has seen exactly 0 SoCon titles.

With Chris Hatcher’s club having already lost two SoCon games this season in games in which the Bulldogs scored 48 and 42, respectively, Samford likely won’t factor into the league regular-season title race this season.

With Wofford’s 0-3 conference start, it is just playing out the season at this point. So why is this game important you might ask? Well, for the loser between Samford or Wofford, this season will likely get ugly the rest of the way.

A win by Samford would at least keep some faint hopes alive for the Bulldogs to gain their first SoCon title since entering the league in 2008, but faint at best.

Wofford, which prior to the spring of 2021 season, had posted three-straight SoCon titles, four-consecutive FCS playoff appearances, and had posted a SoCon record of 26-6 from 2016-19, now is in danger of starting 0-4 in league play for the first time since its first season as a league member 24 years ago.

The 0-3 start to league play ties Wofford’s worst start to a SoCon season, which also occurred in 2009, as the Terriers opened with league losses at Chattanooga (L, 9-38), vs. Georgia Southern (L, 21-26) and vs. Appalachian State (L, 34-44). Luckily, Western Carolina was just around the corner to at least end the streak.

A loss to Samford Saturday would see Wofford head to Five Star Stadium–a place it delivered a 41-7 beat down to Mercer on its home turf–0-4. Add to that the fact that Wofford is 7-0 against Mercer since the Bears joined the league in 2014, and it has the makings of a dish served with nitrous oxide in Macon. But the Terriers could still change the trajectory of a lot of things by getting a win at Gibbs Stadium over Samford this Saturday.

Meanwhile, in the 100th season of football in the SoCon, The Citadel’s Bulldogs will play Furman for the 101st time in a rivalry defined by everything from a horse painted blue to a field spray-painted prior to kickoff in those meetings.

While Wofford’s woes have been notable, and Samford’s lack of a title remains head-scratching,

The Citadel hasn’t been doing much more than running in circles either. I would say chasing its tail, but Bulldogs don’t really have one. That being said, other than wins over Wofford, Furman (2) and VMI, the Bulldogs have been not exactly good since the end of 2019.

With its 28-24 win at Wofford last spring, the Bulldogs snapped what had been a school-record 11-game losing streak. It followed that with a 26-7 win over Furman. But going back to a four-game winning streak that featured wins over No. 8 Furman (27-10) in Greenville, a 35-24 win at home vs. Mercer, a 35-17 victory vs. Western Carolina and a 31-27 win at East Tennessee State to put itself in the SoCon title and FCS playoff conversation in 2019, the Bulldogs descended from grace about as fast as a Terrier.

In fact, since those four-straight wins, it was met with 11-straight losses. The Bulldogs are 5-13 in their last 18 games, including 4-13 against Division I competition. But hey, every dog has its day so there’s always that to remember going forward.

Enjoy the SoCon football this weekend…It should be another wild weekend.

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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