Southern Conference Football 2014: Week Nine To Figure Prominently in League Title Race


Wofford Goes In Search of Third SoCon Win Against VMI in The First Meeting Between The Two Since 2005

SoCon Week 9 Preview

A Defining Week In The SoCon Football Race:

GREENVILLE, S.C.–It happens seemingly every year–that week that separates the men from the boys in conference races throughout the country.

One of the neat things about the FCS is that many of the teams remain alive at this point for an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, and in the Southern Conference, it’s as close as ever. There may not be a Georgia Southern or Appalachian State that will factor in the league title race for a second-straight season, but that doesn’t mean the league race is any less exciting.

Outside of the in-depth look I will take at the Furman (2-5, 1-1 SoCon) and Samford (3-3, 2-2 SoCon) which will be released on Friday, there are some other absolutely monumental league clashes that will take place Saturday that will see the kaleidoscope of the conference title race clear up even more, or perhaps become more of a blur.

Renewing A Very Old Rivalry:
Before Mercer (5-3, 1-3 SoCon) canceled its football program after World War II, one of its biggest rivals on the gridiron was Chattanooga (4-3, 3-0 SoCon), and the Bears have played Chattanooga more than any other foe in the Southern Conference in their history.

It will mark the first meeting between the two since 1941, and Saturday’s meeting will mark the 25th all-time between the two old rivals. The Mocs own a commanding a 17-6-1 all-time series edge.

Bobby Lamb and Russ Huesman know each other well, and dating back to Lamb’s days at Furman, and in Huesman’s first Southern Conference game, the Mocs played Furman back in 2009, with the Paladins coming up with a 38-20 win.

A year later, Huesman would steal his first win for the Mocs in Greenville in 16 years, as the Mocs overcame a 28-10 deficit early in the third quarter to get a 36-28 victory.

Chattanooga and Mercer recruit against each other on a lot of players, including Alex Lakes (128 rush att, 823 yds, 12 TDs, 6.4 YPC), and it’s no wonder the two teams are among the most athletic in the Southern Conference. Lakes has taken the league by storm this season, leading the Southern Conference in rushing.

Lamb is 15-5 as the head coach of Furman, while Huesman has compiled a 35-28 record at UTC in his sixth season. Including his time at Furman, Lamb has a record of 82-47.

The game will feature a lot of similar type players as well, with the aforementioned Lakes very much the same type runner as Chattanooga’s Keon Williams (90 rush att, 402 yds, 5 TDs, 4.5 YPC), who has run the football with an agenda this season.

Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman (86-of-137 passing, 929 yds, 10 TDs, 5 INTs) and Mercer signal-caller John Russ (95-of-167 passing, 1,463 yds, 14 TDs, 7 INTs/258 rush yds, 2 TDs) have plenty of similarities, and both offenses are dedicated to using the run to set up the pass. Mercer comes in averaging 217.6 YPG on the ground to rank 22nd nationally, while UTC is averaging 184.6 YPG on the ground to rank 44th in the nation.

The real difference in this matchup is what each team does defensively, and in Huesman’s six seasons as the head coach in the Scenic City, four of them have seen the Mocs end the season with a FCS Top 20-ranked defense.

The Mocs appear to be well on their way to visiting that feat once again, leading the league and ranking eighth nationally in total defense this season, yielding just 290.6 YPG. The Bears have the SoCon’s top offense and rank 35th in the country, averaging 419.6 YPG so far this season.

While Mercer has moved the ball effectively, it’s been the defensive side of the football where the Bears have struggled in their first season in the Southern Conference, surrendering 372.8 YPG this season, ranking sixth in the eight-team SoCon.

The Bears will have the challenge of trying to block the FCS’ active career leader in quarterback sacks, in Davis Tull (35 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 2 FFs), who already owns the school mark and is currently at 33.5 sacks in his career.

Chattanooga has won nine of its last 10 Southern Conference games after compiling a 6-2 league mark in 2013 to gain a share of the Southern Conference title. The Mocs have a string of six-straight Southern Conference wins on the home turf, and it should extend to seven on Saturday, with UTC starting 4-0 in conference play for the first time in program history.

Chattanooga 34, Mercer 17

Fear The Speir:

To top Chattanooga’s start to league play, you have to go a long way, but what’s being done by Mark Speir in Cullowhee is nothing short of remarkable. Consider Western Carolina (5-2, 3-0 SoCon) had just won three total games in two seasons in Speir’s first two campaigns, however, the 2014 season has truly been the “Year-of-the-Cats” so far as Speir so eloquently put prior to the campaign.

Coming into 2014, the Catamounts had won just five Southern Conference games total since the 2005 coming into the season, however, but wins against the The Citadel (2-5, 0-3 SoCon) and Chattanooga (4-3, 3-0 SoCon) next week–both in Cullowhee–would likely have the Cats and in position to take their first-ever Southern Conference regular-season crown.

In those five league wins by the Catamounts over a seven-season span, two came against The Citadel. The Catamounts snapped what had been a 16-game road losing skid on Oct. 2, 2010, coming up with a 24-13 win at Johnson-Hagood Stadium.

Western has explosiveness on offense, with the best corps of receivers in the Southern Conference heading into the matchup, led by Spearman Robinson (28 rec, 445 yds, 8 TDs, 15.8 YPR), who is simply having an outstanding 2014 season. Robinson leads the SoCon with eight TD catches this season.

Robinson isn’t the only weapon, with Karnorris Benson (11 rec, 106 yds, 1 TD, 9.6 YPR), Willie Police (24 rec, 259 yds, 1 TD, 10.8 YPR) and Terryon Robinson (28 rec, 277 yds, 1 TD, 9.9 YPR) joining the aforementioned Spearman Robinson in the most-feared corps of wideouts in the SoCon.

The health of Troy Mitchell (121-of-185 passing, 1,356 yds, 11 TDs, 3 INTs) has been an issue, but he has looked good the past two weeks in wins over Wofford (26-14) and at Mercer (35-21) after initially sustaining a shoulder injury in a loss at PC a couple of weeks ago.

Mitchell has become Western’s Armanti Edwards, and now in his junior season, the Houston product is starting to run the spread offense with some potent efficiency, as the Purple and Gold seemingly get better on offense with each passing week.

The maturity of Mitchell since the latter part of the 2013 season until now has been outstanding, and it shows in his TDs-to-INT ratio. Last season, Mitchell, who split time with Eddie Sullivan to start the season, three 12 TDS-to-10 INTs last season. This season, the difference between his TDs and INTs is eight, and he has nearly thrown as many TDs and accounted for seven less INTs this season.

Overall, Mitchell has single-handedly accounted for 1,657 yards of total offense (1,356 yds passing/301 yds rushing) and has 14 TD responsibilities (11 passing, 3 rushing).

Rounding out the assortment of offensive weaponry for the Catamount offense is junior running back Darius Ramsey (94 rush att, 452 yds, 5 TDs, 4.8 YPC), who like Mitchell, has come into his own as a junior this season.

Ramsey has rushed for 1,520 yards in his career, and recorded one of his best career rushing performances a couple of years ago against the Bulldogs, with 118 yards on 16 carries.

Perhaps equally as impressive has been the improvement of the Catamount defense, which enters Saturday afternoon’s homecoming clash with The Citadel ranking in the top three in the SoCon in every major defensive category accept run defense, which has the Catamounts ranking sixth in the league (191.4 YPG).

Linebacker Christon Gill (63 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks), who ranks third in the SoCon in total tackles, and Ace Clark (47 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FFs), who anchors a stout secondary that has helped the Catamounts rank fourth nationally in pass defense (145.5 YPG), as well as rank second in the SoCon in interceptions (7).

The Citadel, who is under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Houston, has played one of the toughest schedules in FCS football, with three of its five losses to nationally-ranked foes, including unbeatens, in FCS No. 3 Coastal Carolina (31-16) and FBS defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Florida State (37-12).

Houston’s club was out-classed in all phases of the game for the first time last weekend against Chattanooga, dropping a 34-14 game at home to No. 15 Chattanooga. The Bulldogs still utilize the triple-option offense, ranking third nationally in rushing offense (307.1 YPG).

Aaron Miller (39-of-90 passing, 542 yds, 4 TDs, 0 INTs / 639 rush yds, 5 TDs, 4.8 YPC) is the leader of the Bulldogs’ offense, and has had the tough job of replacing Ben Dupree. The Bulldogs haven’t found that workhorse running back like they had last season with Darien Robinson, however, Tyler Renew (97 rush, 385 yds, 3 TDs, 4.0 YPC) has been effective carrying the football for the Bulldogs, as has Vinny Miller (35 rush att, 196 yds, 1 TD, 5.6 YPC).

Defensively, the Bulldogs are physical, and though the numbers aren’t what would be considered a dominating defense, giving up about 430 yards per game this season, the Bulldogs have some of the best offenses in the nation, including of course Coastal and Florida State. Linebacker Tevin Floyd (56 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) has had an outstanding season in the Bulldogs’ 4-2-5 defensive alignment.

Saturday’s meeting between the Catamounts and Bulldogs will mark the 39th meeting in the series, with the Bulldogs holding a 22-15-1 all-time series and the Bulldogs have won eight of the last 10 in the series, including three-straight.

That comes to an end Saturday, as the Catamounts win four SoCon games for just the 11th time in their 38th season as a SoCon member. Western is the only one of only two league members to have never won a SoCon regular-season title, with Mercer being the other.

Western Carolina 20, The Citadel 17

Un-Happy Returns:

While no one would have prognosticated VMI (1-7, 0-3 SoCon) to win the Southern Conference in their first season returning to the league since 2002, there was a sentimental hope for some, at least, that the Keydets might offer some competitiveness.

In their final season as an official member on the gridiron in 2002, the Keydets were not only competitive, but respectable under the direction Cal McCombs. In fact, the Keydets would finish out their initial SoCon tenure with a 6-6 record and a 3-5 record in league play–VMI’s most SoCon wins since 1995 when Thomas Haskins was ripping up opposing defenses.

Wofford (4-3, 2-1 SoCon) head coach Mike Ayers won’t soon forget VMI’s final season as a Southern Conference member, as it would be one of the most memorable Saturdays in Southern Conference history–Oct. 12, 2002. The day of the two-point play, with Josh Jeffries miraculous INT return for two points on a Furman two-point play to allow Appalachian State to upset Furman, 16-15.

Then, there was a game just up the road in Lexington, VA, and heavy favorites Wofford, who had already defeated eventual league champion Georgia Southern in Statesboro, and the Terriers would lose 27-16 to the Keydets, posting a 9-3 record and despite wins over the Eagles and perennial league power Appalachian State, would be snubbed from the playoff, thanks in large part to the events of 10-12-02 in Lexington.

Wofford was sluggish early on in the season, especially on offense, and that continued last week, with the Terriers generating just 249 yards of total offense, including only 197 on the ground. However, just like the win over The Citadel earlier this season, the Wofford defense would rise to the occassion, limiting the Samford Bulldogs to a meager 49 yards rushing.

Wofford can’t keep living on the edge offensively, but facing a VMI defense that ranks no lower than 115th nationally in rushing, scoring and total defense, the Terriers probably won’t need Lorenzo Long (103 rush att, 564 yds, 6 TDs, 5.5 YPC) to channel his inner Eric Breitenstein or for Evan Jacks (30-of-50 passing, 399 yds, 3TDs, 3 INTs / 450 rush yds, 5 TDs, 5.6 YPC) to become Jeff Zolman for the Terriers to find their third league victory of the league season this year.

VMI will put up some passing numbers, as the Keydets actually put up a great performance last week in an overtime loss (47-41) to a decent Gardner-Webb team last week–the same Gardner-Webb team that lit up the Terriers through the air earlier this season, who posted 232 yards through the air. The Terriers gave up 279 yards through the air against UVA-Wise and a season-high 370 aerial yards to North Greenville.

Al Cobb (185-of-286 passing, 1,904 pass yds, 14 TDs, 6 INTs) has been one of the best young QBs in FCS, and he has a star-studded cast of wideouts to throw to, iN Aaron Sanders (40 rec, 544 yds, 2 TDs, 13.6 YPR) and Doug Burton (28 rec, 447 yds, 3 TDs, 16.0 YPR). It won’t be enough to stymie the Terriers, however.

Wofford 38, VMI 20

Saturday’s Other Bold Predictions:

–Furman will pass for its most yards of the season, as the Paladins come out throwing against Jaquiski Tartt and the Samford defense, totaling over 300 passing yards on homecoming, as P.J. Blazejowski flashes his arm and his talents as a passer in Saturday’s contest.

–The Paladins record another game with four or more sacks against Samford.

–Karel Hamilton has over 100 yards receiving, as Paladin defense gives up its most passing yards to date this season.

–The Citadel blows two-score lead, as Western Carolina wakes up and comes from behind to beat the Bulldogs on homecoming to notch fourth SoCon win.

–Huesman and the Mocs win their fourth SoCon game by at least 14 points, as Russ Huesman moves to 2-1 against Bobby Lamb.

–Be sure to stay tuned to my blog (SoCon John’s Statistical Research Bureau) and to for an in-depth preview of the Furman-Samford homecoming matchup to be released Friday.