The 2021 football season concluded last Saturday with East Tennessee State claiming the regular-season league crown with a 38-35 win over Mercer in what was the de facto Southern Conference title game, with the Bucs being the only team from the Southern Conference chosen to play into the FCS Playoffs.
In the spring, VMI was the lone representative from the Southern Conference to participate in the FCS playoffs, as the Keydets dropped a 31-24 decision in the opening round of the postseason.
The Bucs will enter the FCS playoffs as the No. 7 overall seed, with a bye in the opening round and will face the winner of Big South champion Kennesaw State (10-1) and Pioneer Football League champion Davidson (8-2), which will take place this Saturday in Kennesaw.
Like Mercer, Kennesaw State was a former rival during the Bucs’ short time as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, and most of the rivalry will be remembered for the time the two spent facing each other on the basketball hardwood. However, the rivalry was rekindled in 2015 with both starting football programs, with Kennesaw State having the gridiron sport for the first time in its history.
However, the Owls and Bucs have faced each other twice on the college football gridiron, which came in both the 2015 and ’16 campaigns, respectively.
In fact, the first matchup between the Bucs and Owls would be the inaugural football game for ETSU after returning to the gridiron for the first time in 12 years, with the Owls posting a resounding 56-16 win over the Bucs.
A year later, Kennesaw State came to Johnson City where the Paladins were able to post what was a 20-17 overtime win over the Owls. KSU is unbeaten against FCS competition (9-0) against FCS competition this season, with the lone loss of the season coming against FBS and ACC member Georgia Tech (L, 17-45) in the season opener.
ETSU’s 2016 win sparked a bit of a rivalry between the two that remains. ETSU was given little credit for that win by the opposition, fueling heated message board discussions and plenty of social media banter.
The Bucs and Wildcats have also only faced off against each other twice in the history of the two programs, ETSU having won both previous meetings. Like the rivalry with the Owls, the Bucs rivalry with the Wildcats is known mostly for the times the two met each other in heated hardwood matchups. The only two meetings against ETSU on the football gridiron came in 1986 and ’88, respectively.
The Bucs claimed a 41-16 win over the Wildcats on Sept. 20, 1986, while also posting a 31-28 win over the Wildcats on Nov. 5, 1988. A 45-14 win over Drake this past Saturday allowed the Wildcats to claim a second-straight PFL title and subsequently be making the program’s second all-time trip the FCS postseason, with the only other trip coming this past spring.
The Wildcats finished with an 8-2 overall record and as champions as the non-scholarship football conference. The Wildcats were participants in the playoffs for the first time ever this past spring, losing an opening round matchup to Jacksonville State.
ETSU got a 132-yard and one-touchdown rushing effort from Quay Holmes in Saturday’s title-clinching win over Mercer (W, 38-35), which was good enough to help him become the school’s all-time leading rusher (4,142 yds), surpassing former Bucs great Brandon Walker (1996-99).
SoCon in the FCS Playoffs:
The Southern Conference has been one of the traditional powers of the FCS postseason, and the SoCon has posted a 109-78 all-time record in the FCS postseason, however, the SoCon has not tasted victory in the postseason since 2018, when Wofford downed Elon 19-7 in an opening-round contest at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg.
Since that time, the SoCon has lost four-straight FCS postseason games, including last spring’s seven-point loss by VMI at James Madison (L, 24-31). Despite some lean years as of late, the league boasts a .593 winning percentage in the postseason, which is tops among all FCS leagues.
SoCon gets only one bid
What had once been rare has now become something of a regularity now. For the second-straight season, the SoCon has just one participant in the FCS postseason, with VMI having been the SoCon’s lone representative in the spring, while ETSU, who enters the postseason as the No. 7 seed, is the lone seed in the fall.
Two conferences make up nearly half the FCS playoff bid, with the Missouri Valley Football Conference having received six invites to the FCS playoffs, which includes a 6-5 Northern Iowa team, while the Big Sky received five bids to the FCS postseason.
Both league’s tout the strength of their non-conference schedules, however, that includes wins over the likes of transitional Division I programs like St. Thomas (MN) and Dixie State (UT), which count now as Division I wins over essentially Division II programs.
Mercer scheduled only 10 games, having played a full eight-game slate in the spring. In the fall, the Bears did have 11 games originally scheduled, but bought out the game with Charleston Southern for health and safety concerns due to the pandemic and amount games played within a calendar year.
The Bears played and won a non Division I game with a 69-0 victory over NAIA Point University, and then headed to Alabama to face off against the No. 1 Crimson Tide, losing that contest 48-14.
The Bears would begin conference play following an off-week, proceeding to get wins at Furman (W, 24-3), vs. Samford (W, 45-42), and at Western Carolina (W, 34-24) before dropping its first of two Southern Conference games, with a bad home loss to VMI (L, 7-45).
In fact, while the Bears were much improved overall and certainly probably deserved inclusion as one of the best 24 teams in the country and playing the FCS playoffs, the Bears struggled most against VMI during the past year. Going back to the spring, which saw the Bears drop a 41-14 contest up in Lexington last spring, the Bears have been outscored 86-21.
After the loss to VMI, the Bears would proceed to reel off wins over Wofford (W, 45-14), at The Citadel (W, 34-7), and vs. Chattanooga (W, 10-6) to head into last Saturday’s game at East Tennessee State playing for all the marbles under second-year head coach Drew Cronic.
The Bears lost a memorable 38-35 contest. The Bears were in search of their first-ever Southern Conference regular-season title and subsequent FCS playoff bid.
It probably also did not help the Bears that both Chattanooga and VMI, which accounted for Mercer’s two best wins, both suffered losses in the final week of the regular-season.
The Mocs lost at home to The Citadel (L, 21-24), while the Keydets also loss their final home game of the regular-season, with a 52-24 setback to Western Carolina. If VMI or Chattanooga or both had won, it might have been enough to push the Bears and Keydets or Mocs into the postseason, however, that was not the case and Mercer was left as the last team left out of the FCS postseason.
SoCon John’s 2021 SoCon Specialty Awards and All-Conference Teams:
Offensive Player of the Year: RB—Quay Holmes (East Tennessee State)
Defensive Player of the Year: DL—Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)
Jacobs Blocking Award: RG—Tre’Mond Shorts (ETSU)
Freshman of the Year: DB—Andreas Keaton (Western Carolina)
Coach of the Year: Kerwin Bell (Western Carolina)
First Team Offense:
QB—Liam Welch (Samford)
RB—Quay Holmes (East Tennessee State)
RB—Ailym Ford (Chattanooga)
RB—Jacob Saylors (East Tennessee State)
OL—Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State)
OL—Joe Schreiber (East Tennessee State)
OL—Anderson Tomlin (Furman)
OL—Cole Strange (Chattanooga)
OL—Nick Hartnett (VMI)
TE—Ryan Miller (Furman)
WR—Raphael Williams (Western Carolina)
WR—Montrell Washington (Samford)
First Team Defense:
DL—Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)
DL—Parker Stokes (Furman)
DL—Ben Brewton (Chattanooga)
DL—Solomon Zubairu (Mercer)
LB—Stone Snyder (VMI)
LB—Donovan Manuel (ETSU)
LB—Nathan East (Samford)
DB—Brandon Dowdell (Chattanooga)
DB—Tyree Robinson (ETSU)
DB—Travis Blackshear (Furman)
DB—Jerrell Lawson (Chattanooga)
First Team Specialists:
PK—Tyler Keltner (ETSU)
P—Jack Culbreath (VMI)
RS—Montrell Washington (Samford)
Second Team Offense:
QB—Rogan Wells (Western Carolina)
QB—Tyler Riddell (ETSU)
RB—Fred Davis (Mercer)
RB—Irvin Mulligan (Wofford)
OL—Steve Strand (VMI)
OL—Tyler Smith (Western Carolina)
OL—Haden Haas (The Citadel)
OL—Harrison Moon (Chattanooga)
OL—McClendon Curtis (Chattanooga)
TE—Michael Vice (Samford)
WR—Will Huzzie (ETSU)
WR—Michael Jackson (VMI)
Second Team Specialists:
PK—Timmy Bleekrode (Furman)
P—Matt Campbell (The Citadel)
RS—Calvin Jones (Western Carolina)
Second Team Defense:
DL—Joseph Mera (Samford)
DL—Nelson Jordan (Samford)
DL—Warren Dabney (VMI)
DL—Chris Hill (Mercer)
LB—Kareem Taylor (Western Carolina)
LB—Lance Wise (Mercer)
LB—Jalen Porter (ETSU)
DB—Destin Mack (The Citadel)
DB—Andreas Keaton (Western Carolina)
DB—Dominick Poole (The Citadel)
DB—Alijah Huzzie (ETSU)