Welcome to the SoConversation, featuring The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
It’s somehow week eight of the college football season already and the never dull, seldom predictable SoCon had another interesting interesting weekend on the field (and off, at least in Boone, N.C.).
There were a pair of thrillers (Wofford rallied to beat Elon 31-27 and Georgia Southern edged The Citadel 28-21), while in other action UTC’s defense shined in a 31-9 win over Furman, Samford kept rolling and Appalachian State kept falling in a 34-10 whipping and Richard Sigmon’s 49-yard field goal was the only bright spot for Western Carolina in a 62-3 loss to Auburn.
What caught your eye in the SoCon last week?
JEFF: I went to Georgia Southern for the Eagles’ 28-21 win over The Citadel and came away impressed. Not that this is one of GSU’s best teams — it isn’t, by a long shot — but coach Jeff Monken’s squad is not mailing it in, though it’s the Eagles final season in the SoCon, with no trophy or playoffs in sight.
Eagles QB Jerick McKinnon has taken one for the team, moving to fullback, which is hardly his natural position, and ran for 198 yards and two touchdowns. That allowed Kevin Ellison to play the whole game at QB, and he ran for 135 yards and a score, and hit 7 of 10 passes for 138 yards. The Eagles played hard and with emotion, if not always mistake-free.
It’s an easy call to make given App State’s struggles this season, but I see more immediate success in the Sun Belt for GSU than for the Appys.
JOHN: For a long time Elon’s 17-point lead over Wofford was certainly attention-grabbing. It had to be a crushing loss for the Phoenix, especially getting stuffed four plays in a row inside the 5-yard line at the end, but Elon certainly appears to be heading in the right direction.
Elsewhere, Samford continues to look like the class of the league (despite being ranked just 22nd in the Sports Network poll and unranked in the coaches’), while the dismissal of App State All-American Sean Price, and the subsequent information that came out about his arrest, was pretty shocking.
Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said during Tuesday’s teleconference that the Eagles had just 57 players in uniform against The Citadel. As he joked, so much for that advantage the Eagles, and App State, were supposed to have with the extra scholarships this season.
ADAM: As bizarre as it feels to type this, I expected Samford to hang a bunch of points on App State and win. Samford is in its sixth year in the SoCon and yet some fans around the league remain sketchy on where the Bulldogs’ campus is located. It’s in Birmingham, people. Get up to speed. And also get used to seeing Samford at the top of the league standings. Given the way Elon challenged Wofford, Samford seems like the best the SoCon has to offer, even if the FCS coaches still have their heads in the sand.
Elon couldn’t have scripted a better start at Wofford. It was textbook on both offense and defense — Elon led 17-0 and Wofford had minus-2 total yards at the end of the first quarter — and a reminder that those among the Phoenix fan base who gripe about coach Jason Swepson probably aren’t paying close enough attention.
Elon has held impressive first-half leads against Coastal Carolina, Furman and Wofford in each of the last three games. The Phoenix coaches are scheming up some good stuff during the week.
To hear the league’s coaches talk during the teleconference, the league is super-strong from top to bottom and parity is a sign of strength. Maybe it’s a scheduling anomaly or something, but to have just three teams (Samford, Wofford, UTC) with winning records in league play to this point — add Georgia Southern and you have the four teams that have overall winning records — doesn’t seem to imply a lot of strength.
So is this parity or is there a better name for it? And does it matter?
JOHN: Here’s why I don’t think we really know at this point: UTC is 4-2 this season (2-1 SoCon) and the teams the Mocs have beaten have a combined three wins. Samford is in somewhat similar situation with the five teams it has defeated having a combined eight wins, and Georgia Southern has four of those.
Wofford’s resume is only slightly better than Samford’s from a defeated opponents’ wins (nine) perspective, which doesn’t make the picture any clearer.
I do think Western Carolina is improving, as are Elon and Furman, so maybe the teams that have hung out in the cellar of late are climbing the ladder. I’m just not sure how high it goes.
ADAM: An old-school SoCon diehard probably would call it mediocrity rather than parity, given the league’s rich history and current state of flux.
I think what we do have here is parity and, to a certain degree, an intriguing set of circumstances coalescing in an altogether difficult-to-predict way.
App State’s shocking free fall comes under the watch of first-year coach Scott Satterfield, who of course replaced the forced-out Jerry Moore. Adding further to that sense of transition and weirdness is the fact that App State and Georgia Southern (and Elon) are off to other leagues in a matter of months. Does any of this factor into the product on the field? It has to, right?
For years Samford and Chattanooga have been building toward what appear to be big seasons in the making. You could see their growth spurts coming. But as Frierson deftly pointed out, are their records manufactured in some ways? (I’d say no).
Citadel was expected to continue its climb, but the Bulldogs are 2-5 overall and 2-3 in the league. Their last three losses, though, are narrow, one-score misses against the likes of Old Dominion and Georgia Southern. That’s tough.
Elon is 1-2 in the SoCon but, with close-call losses to App State and Wofford, conceivably isn’t too far from being 3-0 in the league.
And so on and so forth. Can Western Carolina end its 25-game losing skid in the SoCon against Wofford (3-0 in the league) on Saturday. That sounds absurd. But the strange way things are going …
JEFF: Super strong? No, as the national rankings attest. Any time the SoCon has the worst App State team in 20 years in its ranks, the league is not going to be at its best. There does not seem to be a national title contender in the SoCon this season, and I think it’s fairly rare that you can say that.
It’s a light week in the SoCon with just three games. Jeff finally gets an off week, while Adam and John go head to head (or their beats do) at Rhodes Stadium. The other games are App State at Furman and Wofford at Western Carolina. What’s going to happen on the field this weekend?
ADAM: Rock-solid lock of the week — there will be many meaningful hugs in the Elon press box. As for on the field, both App State and Furman are starving for something to go right. Worse for the Paladins, who are hanging on by a thread at quarterback with true freshman third-stringer Duncan Fletcher and converted defensive back Richard Hayes III there due to injuries, is the their schedule. Up next are LSU, Georgia Southern and Samford. Yikes.
If App State loses to Furman and drops to 1-6, the suffocation meter could become unbearable.
At Elon, I’m not sure what to expect. That Chattanooga defense and sack master Davis Tull look pretty ferocious. But whether it’s bolting out to big halftime leads (ahead by a combined 52-17 against Furman and Wofford) or stagnating in second halves (outscored by a combined 39-3 against Furman and Wofford) Elon surprises me constantly every Saturday. We’ll see what happens.
JEFF: The only game that carries a lot of weight is Chattanooga at improving Elon. The Mocs are right there in the title chase and should be favored in their next three games against Elon, The Citadel and Appalachian State.
This is the time for coach Russ Huesman’s team to take a step forward and emerge in the final weeks as a true contender, along with Samford and Wofford.
JOHN: If I’m Jeff, I’m definitely stopping by the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston to see the exhibit on photography from the Civil War. I’m hoping it’s still there the next time I’m in town.
On the field, Wofford will likely win easily and I think the Mocs should be able to handle the Phoenix, though I won’t be surprised if it’s close heading into the fourth quarter. At Paladin Stadium I’m expecting a close game with no clear favorite.
Maybe the dismissal of Price will be a turning point for the Mountaineers, but in which direction? It’s anybody’s guess at this point.
We’ve passed the halfway point of the marathon that is the college football season, which means Adam and John’s farewell/nostalgia tours through the SoCon are heading toward the finish line. With that in mind, what has been the most interesting, memorable or your favorite place to visit in your years covering the league? It can be a city you love or a restaurant you always visit or anything that comes to mind.
JEFF: Believe it or not, one of my most memorable experiences was when The Citadel played at Wyoming a few years ago. The drive from Denver to Laramie is beautiful, of course, with mountain views and pronghorn antelopes running free alongside the highway.
I remember coming through the mountain pass (on a horse with no name, of course) and seeing the Laramie valley spread out for miles, with a thundercloud rolling in. War Memorial Stadium is scenic, as well, with the Laramie Mountains in the background.
After The Citadel lost, I enjoyed a buffalo burger and drove back to Denver. On a cold, cloudless night, I stopped alongside the road. The wind was howling, the stars were close, and I wondered how those cowpokes survived back in the day. Then, I got back in the car and found a hotel with ESPN.
JOHN: It’s not in the SoCon, but I greatly enjoyed Norman, Okla., when I went to see the Mocs get crushed to start the 2008 season. It was much more of a college town than I anticipated, and I love a good college town. I felt the opposite about Lincoln, Neb.
Charleston is one of my favorite cities on the planet and I visit as often as I can. My love affair with that city started long before I was covering the SoCon, but it’s been nice to have an extra reason to go there. Whenever I go I spend a lot of time walking along the beach at Sullivan’s Island and eating at Poe’s Tavern. I also love the restaurant Fish, which is located on King Street (the less touristy section). A day at Folly Beach is hard to top, as well.
As I’ve written here before, Furman has my favorite campus in the SoCon, but Boone is my favorite college town in the league. I’m glad I get one last trip up there, and if it wants to snow a little I’m not going to complain.
ADAM: Elon’s 2009 trip to Presbyterian uncovered for me the hidden gem that is Clinton, S.C. OK, that’s not true at all. And apologies to the Blue Hose for having their name in my mouth.
I’d never been to Nashville until Elon played Vanderbilt to open the 2011 season. That was fun.
Elon’s 2009 and 2010 games at Richmond were quite memorable. The Phoenix’s only FCS playoff appearance came in 2009 and it was a tight 16-13 slugfest at Richmond’s old city-owned stadium, a steel slab built in 1929 that quite literally was decaying. How the Spiders recruited at such an elite level with that place is puzzling. Then in 2010, Richmond opened on-campus Robins Stadium, an absolutely gleaming place, against Elon. (And Scott Riddle said he felt like Doug Flutie while scrambling around to force overtime with a last-minute drive and touchdown pass to a heavily covered Aaron Mellette).
Totally agree that Charleston is fantastic. Such a unique vibe down there. Chattanooga and Boone are great, too. The views in Cullowhee around Western Carolina’s stadium are stellar. I feel like Birmingham has more to offer than I’ve been able to find in two trips there to see Elon play Samford.
My most-frequented restaurant on SoCon road trips – Waffle House.
That’s it for this week and thanks for reading, as always. If you’ve got a question or comment, e-mail the writers at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @MocsBeat.