SoCon Football 2021: Power Rankings Following Week 8

Chattanooga RB Ailym Ford/photo courtesy of UTC athletics
  1. Chattanooga (4-3, 3-1 SoCon)--Following a 37-34 loss at VMI in overtime a couple of weeks ago, Chattanooga has done all they could to show us they are the team to beat heading down the stretch in the Southern Conference race.

The Mocs have gotten wins in the Rail Rivalry over East Tennessee State with a 21-16 win over previously unbeaten East Tennessee State before putting the hammer down against Samford with a 55-13 win at Samford’s Seibert Stadium yesterday.

Cole Copeland had likely heard enough about the struggles he had encountered this season under center for the Mocs, as he promptly went out and hit on all but three of his passes in what was a balanced attack, which saw the Mocs put up 299 yards through the air and 193 on the ground in the win.

The win by Chattanooga also meant Samford suffered another of its worst home losses in school history under the direction of Chris Hatcher, having also surrendered a 58-14 setback to Furman a little over two years ago against Furman.

In yesterday’s win over the Bulldogs, the Mocs rolled up a 492-200 advantage, and Copeland had one of his best days throwing the football for the Mocs, as he ended up passing for 261 yards on 11-of-14 passing to go with two touchdowns and an INT.

Ailym Ford continued his strong season running the football, and again showed why he is among the best running backs in FCS football, rushing for 139 yards on 28 carries.

It’s no surprise the Mocs continued their stout play on the defensive side of the football, as UTC held Samford to a season-low 200 yards of total offense, including just 69 on the ground and 13 through the air. The Mocs, who entered the contest leading the league with 10 INTs this season as a team, intercepted the league’s leading passer Liam Welch three times on the afternoon. Brandon Dowdell recorded his fifth INT of the season, which now leads the SoCon.

The 13 points allowed by UTC’s defense was the lowest point total scored by the Bulldogs against an FCS foe in Chris Hatcher’s six years as the head coach of the Bulldogs.

What’s Ahead For UTC:

Directly on the horizon is another huge test for the Mocs, who will host Furman at Finley Stadium next Saturday in the Scenic City.

ETSU wide receiver Malik Murray/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

2. East Tennessee State (7-1, 4-1 SoCon)–In my humble estimation, despite its loss to Chattanooga on the road a couple of weeks ago, the Bucs are the team to beat in the Southern Conference. The Bucs continue to win thrillers, as be become their MO during the Randy Sanders era.

The Bucs came into the contest in Greenville as the highest ranked team in the SoCon at No. 14 in both the STATS FCS poll as well as the AFCA FCS coaches poll.

Malik Murray’s 3-yard scoring catch with nine seconds left gave ETSU its only lead of the day, and in turn, its most important one, as the Bucs escaped Greenville with a 17-13 win–just its third win in Greenville in 19 times, including just the second win in the history of Paladin Stadium, which opened in 1981 with the first game in the facility involving ETSU–a 21-0 win by Furman.

Many elements went into the Bucs defensive slugfest win in Greenville, namely the ability to convert on third down, as ETSU converted on 10-of-15 third down conversion rate, and held a narrow 322-302 edge in total yards over a tough Furman squad.

Quay Holmes, who came into the contest as the nation’s second-leading rusher with 814 yards on the ground, Holmes got stronger as Saturday’s game went along, finishing with 75 of his 112 rushing yards in the second half, including one of the two second half touchdowns by the Bucs. He emerged with 926 rushing yards and 10 TDs following Saturday’s tough win in Greenville.

Not to be overlooked is the job that both ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell put forth, which was extremely efficient, connecting on 22-of-30 passes for 177 yards with a touchdown, including his most completion of the day, which was a three-yard strike on a quick slant to Murray to help deliver the road win for the Bucs–its first in Paladin Stadium in 24 years. Riddell stood in and took hits from a gritty Paladin defense all afternoon, as he was sacked six times on the day.

Also, ETSU’s defense continued to show its mettle holding the Paladins to just 302 total yards, including star running back Devin Wynn to just 48 yards on 12 carries and held the Paladin ground attack to a mere 75 yards on 28 attempts for the entire day.

What’s Ahead for ETSU:

The Bucs get a much needed week off following easily the toughest stretch of its schedule, with trips to Chattanooga and Greenville, managing the stretch with a 1-1 mark to get to 7-1 and 4-1 in league play. The next test ahead will be against VMI on Nov. 6 at William B. Greene Stadium. The Keydets were the spring SoCon champions, and the last three meetings between the two have been decided by a combined 14 points, with ETSU winning two of those meetings, including a 24-20 win in Lexington last spring. VMI claimed a thrilling 31-24 overtime win in Johnson City back in 2019.

3. VMI (5-2, 3-1 SoCon)–The No. 23/21 VMI Keydets–the defending Southern Conference spring champions–had a week off following their 45-7 beat down of Mercer a couple of weeks ago in Macon.

Despite the fact that the Keydets have struggled to find some consistency at quarterback, with Seth Morgan and Collin Ironside splitting the snaps this season, the running game and an opportunistic defense has come through as of late after the Keydets’ lone hiccup in league play, which was a defeat at the hands of The Citadel on the road.

The Keydets’ last two wins have been impressive over the past two games, with wins over Chattanooga and a 45-7 victory at Mercer–two of the teams tied atop the league’s hierarchy. Korey Bridy, Hunter Mitchell and Rashad Raymond have combined to lead the Keydets ground game of late, including Mitchell and Raymond, who both crossed the 100-yard rushing plateau a couple of weeks ago in the win over the Bears.

What’s Ahead for the Keydets:

It’s been a golden era for VMI football, which is 9-2 in its last 11 SoCon games. It gets tough from here on out, however, as the Keydets close out the month of Oct against at home against Samford (Oct. 30) before heading on to ETSU (Nov. 6) to start the final month, and that’s followed by a trip to Greenville on Nov. 13 to face Furman on Senior Day.

Paladin Stadium is place that the Keydets have not won since a 31-28 win in 1977. The Keydets complete the season with a home test against suddenly improved Western Carolina.

Directly ahead is Samford. It’s been one of the series in the SoCon of late that has been a “must see” game. Each of the past two have been decided in overtime, including the meeting last spring, which saw the Keydets win a 38-37 thriller on the road at Samford.

Mercer enjoys first-ever win over Wofford as a SoCon member

4. Mercer (5-2, 4-1 SoCon)–It’s been a long time coming for Mercer football. Wofford remained the lone team the Bears had yet to defeat as a SoCon member. That is until Saturday, and the Bears did the thing in a big way, knocking off the Terriers 45-14 en route to handing the Terriers their ninth-straight Southern Conference loss.

The Bears rolled up 567 yards and scored 31 unanswered points en route to the big day against the Terriers. Mercer rebounded in a big way from their 45-7 loss to VMI at Five Star Stadium last time out. The only other loss for Mercer came in a 49-14 setback to current No. 4 Alabama. That’s important because the Bears only play 10 games, and one of their wins came against a non-Division I foe, with its 69-0 win over NAIA Point to start the season.

All told, in the lopsided win over the Terriers in front of a crowd of 7,224 fans on hand at Five Star Stadium, the Bears owned a 389-yard advantage in total offensive yards (567-176).

Between quarterbacks Fred Payton and Carter Peevy, the Bears passed for a season-high 357 yards en route to a 357-58 advantage in passing yards. A solid 210 yards came via the ground for the Bears, which saw Fred Davis lead the way with 91 yards and a score on the ground, improving his season total to 666 rushing yards and 10 rushing scores–he has been a beast toting the pigskin to say the least.

What’s ahead for Mercer:

Seemingly the toughest part of Mercer’s football schedule remains before it. The Bears end the month of October with a pre-Halloween date with The Citadel at Johnson-Hagood Stadium before a much-needed off-week, as the Bears close the campaign with games against Chattanooga (Nov. 13) on Senior Day at Five Star Stadium before closing out the season with a trip to Johnson City for a potentially monumental game against East Tennessee State in a game that could have both conference title and FCS playoff implications on it.

Furman’s Luke Clark, Parker Stokes and Bryce McCormick meet ETSU QB Tyler Riddell/photo courtesy of Furman sports information

5. Furman (4-3, 2-2 SoCon)–It’s been a season of adjustments for Furman football, and there have been some particularly tough moments in that process along the way.

One of those was Saturday’s 17-13 loss to No. 14 East Tennessee State. On the positive side, Furman’s defense remains among the best in FCS. The Paladins lost for just the third time to ETSU in 19 tries in Greenville on Saturday.

It was a loss that definitely deflating for the Paladins for a variety of reasons, but it’s one that there were far more positives than negatives to be gleaned from after a few days pass and the pain of the loss has some time to diminish.

The positives come from the fact that the Paladins held a very good ETSU offense to just 322 yards after the Bucs came into the contest averaging 455.7 YPG offensively, which ranked eighth nationally. The Bucs had also been averaging 36.0 PPG and held ETSU to less than half that total yesterday.

The Paladin defense also came up with six quarterback sacks on Saturday, which was their most since 2017. Nose guard Parker Stokes and freshman defensive end Bryce Stanfield ended up producing two.

Another positive was the play of true freshman signal-caller Jace Wilson, who is seemingly improving with each outing. He finished Saturday’s contest with going 15-of-26 passing for 226 yards, with a touchdown and an INT. Wilson will only get better as the season progresses. He took plenty of hits on Saturday, but only was sacked once.

Tight end Ryan Miller continued his outstanding season to this point, hauling in eight passes for 139 yards and a touchdown.

The negatives came from the fact that the Paladins couldn’t find a way to establish the ground game, with All-SoCon running back Devin Wynn having been held to 48 yards on 12 carries by a stingy ETSU defense. In Furman’s 17-13 win in the spring season, Wynn was able to generate 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries.

The morale of the team going forward into their final four games of the season will be especially important for the Paladins. Furman’s defense has given up 30 or more points only once to FCS competition twice over the past 24 games to FCS competition, with only Samford (37 pts in 2020) and Austin Peay (42 pts in 2019). In fact, in the past 13 games, Furman’s most points surrendered to any FCS opponent other than Samford is 26 twice in the spring to both Mercer and The Citadel.

The 24 points surrendered to Mercer in the 24-3 SoCon loss in the league opener is the most surrendered to a FCS foe this season in six games against its own classification.

What’s Ahead for Furman:

Furman has a 9-2 record at Finley Stadium all time

The Paladins still have faint FCS playoff and SoCon title hopes alive, however, it is going to require somewhat of a herculean effort down the stretch this season to achieve those goals.

The immediate horizon presents maybe the toughest challenge of the season, as the Paladins will be in the Scenic City next weekend to face off against Chattanooga. The Mocs defeated the Paladins 20-18 in the spring, and were the consensus SoCon title favorites coming into the season.

Chattanooga and Furman will be renewing that rivalry for the 51st time on Saturday, with the Paladins owning a 30-20 all-time series edge. However, in games played at Finley Stadium, which opened in 1997, the Paladins sport a 9-2 record, including a 35-20 win in the facility the last time the two met there back in 2019.

The Paladins will then travel to Western Carolina (Nov. 6) to open the final month of the season, while the Paladins will host senior day against VMI (Nov. 13) and close out the season on the road at Samford (Nov. 20). Winning out will give the Paladins an opportunity to make the FCS Playoffs, especially with an all Division I slate, but that’s an especially tall order. But hey, anything is possible.

Samford defensive lineman Seth Simmer/photo courtesy of Samford athletics

6. Samford (3-4, 2-3 SoCon)–Things certainly aren’t trending in the right direction for the Samford Bulldogs, and for the seventh-straight game in the series, the Bulldogs couldn’t solve Chattanooga’s defensive puzzle.

Liam Welch, who had such an impressive spring season, has struggled for a majority of the fall, and Saturday’s loss to the Mocs saw him complete 15-of-29 passes for 131 yards with a touchdown and three picks.

It led to the Bulldogs’ worst offensive afternoon of the season, as Samford was held to just 200 yards of total offense, getting out-gained 492-200 in total offensive yards. Rashun Freeman’s 2-yard INT return for a score pretty much summed up the tough afternoon for the Bulldogs, giving the Mocs a 41-6 lead in the third quarter.

The Mocs dominated the Bulldogs in every phase of the football game, posting a 299-131 edge in passing yards, while finishing the day with a 193-69 advantage in ground yardage.

The loss all but ended any hopes of an FCS playoff or outside shot of a Southern Conference title.

What’s ahead for the Bulldogs:

The Bulldogs will be on the road to end the month of October, traveling to Lexington, VA for a pre-Halloween showdown with VMI. Each of the last two games have been claimed by VMI in thrilling overtime games.

Samford will start the month of November with a home date against The Citadel–a team the Bulldogs have beaten in each of the past two meetings between the two teams, including a 55-7 win in Charleston during the spring before playing at FBS Florida on Nov. 13. The final game of the season will see Furman visit Seibert Stadium/Bobby Bowden Field just like the 2017 season, when it was also the final game of the regular-season.

Kerwin Bell celebrates first win in locker room following win over The Citadel/photo courtesy Western Carolina athletics

7. Western Carolina (1-6, 1-3 SoCon)–The Catamounts had been close all season, and on Oct. 23, 2021, it will be something of a milestone memory for Catamounts head coach Kerwin Bell. That’s because Bell’s Catamounts rung the Bell of The Citadel, with a 45-31 win in Charleston.

The new attitude Catamounts not only did what they wanted to offensively, but they also managed to limit the Bulldogs to their lowest rushing total of the season, as The Citadel mustered just 177 yards on the ground entering the matchup between the two.

Though the Catamounts have won just five Southern Conference games since the start of the 2018 campaign, two of those wins have come against The Citadel. The Catamounts were also 21-14 victors over the Bulldogs back in the spring season.

Carlos Davis had a career day throwing the football for the Catamounts, which included throwing for 320 of his 401 passing yards in the opening half of the contest, helping the Catamounts take a 31-10 lead into the halftime locker room, leaving the fans on-hand at Johnson-Hagood Stadium in a state of shock.

In fact, Western Carolina was never seemingly threatened in picking up its first win of the season. All told, the JUCO transfer Davis finished the day completing 31-of-40 throws for 401 yards, three touchdowns and only one INT. He completed passes to an impressive nine different receivers.

The Catamounts ended up holding as much as a 28-3 at one point in the second quarter. Raphael Williams ended up being the favorite target of Davis, who hauled in 12 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown.

Out of the backfield, TJ Jones rushed 15 times for 132 yards and two scores, while finishing the contest while hauling in three passes for 73 yards and another score. Jones ended the contest with 205 all-purpose yards.

The Citadel would make things at least a little interesting in the contest in the third quarter when Logan Billings’ 2-yard run made it a 31-24 game with a little over a minute remaining in third quarter. The Bulldogs could get no closer, however, as Jones added runs of 30 and 53 yards, respectively, to close out the win.

WCU’s defense, which limited the Bulldogs to just 374 yards of total offense for the entire afternoon, as linebacker Kareem Taylor posted 10 tackles and 2.0 TFL.

What’s ahead for the Catamounts:

Western Carolina makes the 90-minute trip to Spartanburg, S.C. on Saturday to face off against the Wofford Terriers at Gibbs Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. game against the Terriers.

Wofford leads the overall series between the two, 28-14, including having won 20 of the past 24 meetings between the two programs, dating back to 1996. Wofford and Western Carolina had met in every season since 1996 until 2020-21, as COVID-19 had caused the Terriers to bring an early end to their spring season to an early end due to attrition.

Prior to 1996, the series had a 12-year hiatus, with the Catamounts blanking the Terriers 31-0 in 1984. The two first met on the gridiron in 1952 in Spartanburg, with the Wofford able to claim a 20-14 win. Western Carolina’s last win in Spartanburg came in 2015, as the Catamounts came away from Gibbs Stadium with a 24-17 victory on that particular occasion.

It was one of just four wins the Catamounts have been able to come up with in the Hub City, as Wofford holds a 16-4 all-time edge in Spartanburg. In addition to winning in Spartanburg in 2015, the Catamounts have also claimed wins in Spartanburg in 1981, ’78, and ’71.

Additionally, the Catamounts will also face contests against vs. Furman (Nov. 6), vs East Tennessee State (Nov. 13) and at VMI (Nov. 20).

The Citadel RB Logan Billings/photo courtesy of The Citadel athletics

8. The Citadel (2-5, 1-3 SoCon)--Following Saturday’s loss at home to Western Carolina (L, 31-45), their are serious warning clouds gathering in Charleston and there’s no hurricane on the horizon. Red skies in morning type stuff, as the Bulldogs are struggling to find their footing as a program under sixth-year head coach Brent Thompson,

The Bulldogs are just 30-35 on his watch, which included that magical 2016 season, which saw the Bulldogs claim its second-straight Southern Conference title, finishing with a 10-2 record and an 8-0 perfect league mark, winning 10-straight games to set a program mark, besting a mark previously set under Charlie Taafe’s Bulldogs in 1991-92.

The Bulldogs ended up being the No. 6 seed overall in the FCS postseason, and broke the school’s single-season record for road wins with six. Thompson broke the school record for wins for a first-year head coach, previously set a century earlier in 1916 under the direction of Harry J. O’Brien. Thompson also led the Bulldogs to an FBS win over Georgia Tech in 2019. They even were tied at the half (10-10) with No. 1 Alabama in 2018.

Those were the good times, however. Recent times have seen some historic lows for Bulldog football, which included a school-record 11-game losing streak stretching back to the end of the 2019 season all the way to the spring of the 2020 season.

Following four-straight wins from a 35-17 win over Western Carolina on Oct. 12, 2019-a 31-27 win at East Tennessee State on Nov. 2, 2019, things have gone bad for The Citadel football program. Losses to Chattanooga (L, 33-34) and Wofford (L, 11-31) started an alarming trend that continued in 2020-21.

The Bulldogs, who insisted on playing 12 games in 2020-21, lost their first nine, which includes setbacks to three FBS programs–at South Florida (L, 6-27), at No. 2 Clemson (L, 0-49) and at Army (L, 9-14). The Bulldogs closed the limited fall season with a surprising 37-14 home loss to Eastern Kentucky. The losing streak reached 11 with a 55-7 drubbing at Johnson-Hagood Stadium to Samford.

Wins over Wofford (W, 28-24)–which came in stunning come-from-behind fashion–and a win over bitter rival Furman (26-7) provided a thankful end to the streak. The Bulldogs closed out the season with a 31-17 setback to VMI in a Battle for the Silver Shako–its second-straight loss in that series–and one that prior to 2019, the Bulldogs had won 12-straight in the rivalry series dating from 2003-2018.

In fact, since the season-ending losses to Chattanooga and Wofford in 2019, the Bulldogs are just 4-17 overall, and if you take out the four FBS games (also opened the 2021 season with a 52-14 loss to No. 20 Coastal Carolina) the Bulldogs are 4-13 overall and just 3-13 against FCS programs.

The Bulldogs posted a 45-14 win over North Greenville earlier this season. In Southern Conference play since the final two games of 2019, the Bulldogs are just 3-11 in SoCon games, which includes two losses to Western Carolina. The three wins have come against rivals Furman, Wofford and VMI.

All that said, the storm clouds surrounding a football program that won back-to-back SoCon titles in 2015 and ’16 and had at one point won nine-straight SoCon games under Thompson spanning 2016 and ’17, things are not looking good. Ironically, it’s the one team ranked lower in the power rankings–Wofford–that ended one of the best seasons in The Citadel’s history with a 17-3 loss at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

What’s ahead for the Bulldogs:

Directly on the horizon for the Bulldogs is a game against a team wearing Orange on Halloween, as the Bulldogs will host Mercer to close out the month of Oct. In November, the Bulldogs will travel to Samford (Nov. 6) and Chattanooga (Nov. 20), while hosting what could be a rather interesting Senior Day on Nov. 13 against Wofford.

Wofford dropped its first game to Mercer since 1941 over this past Saturday/photo courtesy of Wofford athletics

9. Wofford (1-6, 0-5 SoCon)–Things only seem to be getting worse for Wofford football. The Ingles SoCon Game of the Week at Mercer saw the Terriers experience one of their worst Southern Conference losses to Mercer on Saturday evening in Macon to the Mercer Bears. The loss marked Wofford’s ninth-straight Southern Conference loss–a program record.

Wofford was playing its 180th SoCon game since joining the league in 1997, while Mercer was playing its 60th, and by the time expired at Five Star Stadium, the Terriers were handed one of their worst losses of their 24-year history inside the tradition rich league, as Mercer claimed a 45-14 win. It was Mercer’s first win over Wofford since 1941, and the first win for the Bears over the Terriers since joining the SoCon as an official member in 2014.

Wofford fell to 107-73 as a SoCon member, while Mercer improved to 28-33 as a league member, however, the Bears are 9-4 in league play dating back to the start of the spring 2020-21 season. The 31-point setback is something Wofford fans aren’t all that used to. Here are some of the worst setbacks of the Terriers’ 73 setbacks as a league member.

There’s not much more to say here other than if the Terriers can’t find a way to win at home Saturday vs. Western Carolina, Wofford could go winless in SoCon for the first time in its 24-year SoCon membership, which has featured five league titles and 10 FCS playoff appearances and 18 winning seasons in its 25 campaigns as a league member.

30+point losses vs league foes in Wofford’s SoCon history

at Appalachian State L, 70-24 (Oct. 31, 2008)-46

vs Georgia Southern L, 14-55 (Sept. 11, 1999)-41

at Furman L, 21-58 (Nov. 21, 2009)-37

at Georgia Southern L, 10-45 (Sept. 19, 1998) -35

vs. Appalachian State L, 17-49 (Oct. 22, 2005)-32

at Mercer L, 14-45 (Oct. 23, 2021)-31

at Appalachian State L, 13-43 (Nov. 13, 2010)-30

What’s Ahead for Wofford:

vs. Western Carolina (Oct. 30)–

vs. Chattanooga (Nov. 6)

at The Citadel (Nov. 13)–Circle your calendars for this one…This is a series that Wofford has dominated since joining the league in 1997, but things are not well in Charleston and in Spartanburg. It’s hard to believe that these two teams have won outright or tied for five of the past six SoCon crowns!

at North Carolina (Nov. 20)

Coaches on the hot seat:

Josh Conklin (Wofford-on fire like my best friend Matt Davis’ father (Robert Davis) when he sat too close to the kerosene heater after sprinting in from a 30 deg winter afternoon in Greer, S.C., and his Kansas Jayhawks sweatshirt caught on fire after sitting as close to that heater as humanly possible prompting the following quotes…”My God it’s cold”…moments after sitting close to the heater… “Oh my God I’m on fire!!!”)

Brent Thompson (The Citadel-His seat is as hot as a metal chair sitting out in the Charleston heat from 8am until about 3 pm in the afternoon.

Chris Hatcher (Samford–A slow simmer and getting warmer)

Players of the Week:

Offense: Carlos Davis (Western Carolina)

Defense: Parker Stokes (Furman)

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