After the SoCon announcement Thursday, somebody called me on the phone, wanting to know what the Big South would do about replacing VMI.
My answer: “Click.”
I’ve had enough of “conference realignment” for a while, as I’m sure SoCon commish John Iamarino has. For at least the time being, he can turn those duties over to the bosses of the Atlantic Sun and Big South.
First, a couple of extras from Thursday:
– Davidson and Elon will compete for league championships in 2013-14, their final year in the league, as will App State and Georgia Southern. The only exception is football, where App and GSU are ineligible because they will exceed the FCS 63-scholarship limit.
– The SoCon basketball tournament will be held in Asheville through 2016-17 after the city and league agreed to a three-year extension.
Now, on to how the SoCon will look as of July 1, 2014, when the five departing members are all gone and VMI, ETSU and Mercer are on board.
In football, the 8-team lineup will look like this in 2014:
The Citadel, Wofford, Furman, Samford, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Mercer, VMI. (ETSU does not plan to start league play until 2016).
Capt. Obvious reports that it’s a weaker football league without App State and GSU and their nine FCS national titles. And Wofford, the only team to seriously threaten those two in recent years, looks set up to rule the roost for a while. But it might be a more competitive, balanced league than it was in some years under App State and GSU’s rule. I can see Citadel, Wofford, Furman, Samford and Chatt as perennial contenders.
As for playoff bids, don’t forget that the FCS is going up to a 24-team field this year, and App State and GSU won’t be getting two of them. Those bids have to go somewhere, so I think the SoCon will remain a 2 or 3-bid league.
A seven-game SoCon slate in 2014 means league ADs will be scrambling to fill holes. For example, The Citadel will have 12 games in 2014: seven against the SoCon (with VMI now a league foe), a money game against Florida State and non-conference games with Coastal Carolina and Charlotte. That leaves two games for the Dogs to fill.
Among the start-up programs, Mercer is well ahead of ETSU. The Bears have former Furman coach Bobby Lamb at the helm (ETSU does not yet have a coach), have had a couple of recruiting classes already and begin play this season in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Mercer has already had to expand its stadium from the original 6,000 to 10,000 because of season-ticket demand. I don’t think Mercer will have a Old Dominion-type liftoff to its program, but Lamb knows what it takes to compete in the SoCon.
ETSU, meanwhile, does not yet have a coach, though former Tennessee boss Phil Fulmer is serving as a “football expert.” The Bucs have yet to sign a recruiting class, though they are having a reunion of former players. The best news is ETSU won’t be playing football in the old Mini-Dome; ETSU plans to build a new, on-campus, open-air stadium in time for the 2016 season.
Then there’s VMI, which left the SoCon in 2003 largely because it could not compete in football, and hasn’t done any better in the Big South. The commish said VMI has made promises of stepping up its game in football, but even former USC coach Sparky Woods has failed to make inroads in that regard; he’s 9-24 in three seasons. Of course, VMI won’t have to play GSU and App any longer, and that should help.
In 2014, the 10-team lineup will be: The Citadel, Wofford, Furman, Samford, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, UNC Greensboro, Mercer, VMI and ETSU
All together now: Yikes.
Mercer, which won the Atlantic Sun regular season last year (ahead of NCAA darling Florida Gulf Coast) comes in as a top contender immediately. Heck, VMI might too. But after last season, the SoCon has no where to go but up (we hope). Wofford coach Mike Young won’t be down for long, and new coaches at Furman and Chattanooga offer hope.
With a 10-team league, the SoCon is likely to play an 18-game, round-robin slate with no divisions, which works out pretty well for scheduling purposes.
A 9-team lineup in 2014: Western Carolina, The Citadel, Furman, Samford, Wofford, UNCG, Mercer, VMI, ETSU.
The SoCon loses top programs in College of Charleston, Elon and Georgia Southern, and App State made strides in recent years. But Mercer and ETSU are NCAA playoff teams this year, and that means SoCon baseball will suffer the least of the three major sports. Plus, it’s great to have ETSU coach and Citadel College World Series hero and two-sport star Tony Skole back in the league.
A 24-game league slate means coaches will have to fill a couple of extra weekends. That’s good for The Citadel and College of Charleston, who plan to play 3-game non-conference series at least for the next couple of years.
All in all, the SoCon will not be what it was. But neither is the Atlantic 10 or Colonial Athletic Association, or even the Big East.
Your comments on the new-look SoCon are welcome.