(STATS) – Anything less than the Southern Conference looking like last season would be surprising … and a letdown.
The conference enjoyed one of the premier title races in the FCS. Wofford, ETSU and Furman combined on a three-way share of the title and the top seven teams finished within two games of each other in the standings.
Most of the teams are challenging themselves out of conference this season. Good thinking with what’s ahead.
Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 SoCon race:
5. The Citadel
8. Western Carolina
LOCATION: Spartanburg, South Carolina
STADIUM: Gibbs Stadium
HEAD COACH: Josh Conklin (9-4, one season)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st) – No. 13 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Joe Newman, QB, Sr.; Miller Mosley, QB, Jr.; Blake Morgan, HB, Sr.; Nathan Walker, FB, So.; Josh Burger, RT, Jr.; Blake Jeresaty, C, Jr.; Justus Basinger, RG, Sr.; Michael Ralph, LT, Sr.; Liam Ronan, LG, Sr.; Thad Mangum, DL, Sr.; Mikel Horton, DL, Jr.; D.T. Wilson, LB, Sr.; Jireh Wilson, LB, Sr.; Mason Alstatt, S, Sr.; George Gbesee, CB, Sr.; Like Carter, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Andre Stoddard, FB; Miles Brown, DL, JoJo Tillery, S
OUTLOOK: After sharing the SoCon title and earning the conference’s automatic playoff bid, the Terriers are favored to sit alone atop the standings. Only Cal Poly and Portland State bested Wofford’s average time of possession of 33 minutes, 14 seconds per game. It should remain high with Newman directing a SoCon-leading triple option (311.7 rushing yards per game) that returns its entire offensive line. The defense lost six starters, but DL Horton returns from a season-ending injury and can be teamed with All-SoCon pick Mangum up front. Carter is a weapon in the kicking game. The schedule is manageable early on with a Nov. 2 visit to FBS national champion Clemson on the horizon.
LOCATION: Greenville, South Carolina
STADIUM: Paladin Stadium
HEAD COACH: Clay Hendrix (14-9, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 6-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Darren Grainger, QB, R-Fr.; Hamp Sisson, QB, R-Fr.; Devin Wynn, TB, Jr.; Corey Watkins, TB, So.; Thomas Gordon, WR, Jr.; Andy Godwin, OT, R-Sr.; Bo Layton, OT, R-Jr.; Jordan Harris, OG, R-Jr.; Jonah Tibbs, DT, Sr.; Elijah McKoy, ILB, Sr.; Donavan Perryman, ILB, Sr.; Adrian Hope, OLB, R-So.; Quandarius Weems, CB, R-Sr.; Jordan Willis, Spur, Sr.; Bryan Okeh, FS, Sr.; Grayson Atkins, PK/P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Harris Roberts, QB; Jaylan Reid, NG; Aaquil Annoor, SS
OUTLOOK: The Paladins have a chip on their shoulder after not being selected for the playoffs despite earning one-third of the SoCon title. All of the pieces are there to make amends if they get steady play at quarterback, where a redshirt freshman (Grainger or Sisson) figures to be leading the offense. The Paladins are adept at grinding out long drives, ranking 15th in the FCS in time of possession last season. All five starters on the offensive line return, which is welcome news to RBs Wynn and Watkins. The headliner on defense is only a sophomore, Hope, who collected an FCS-high 15 sacks as a freshman while coming off the bench. Three of Furman’s first four conference games are in Greenville, so they need to position themselves high in the standings heading into November.
LOCATION: Johnson City, Tennessee
STADIUM: ETSU Football Stadium
HEAD COACH: Randy Sanders (8-4, one season)
2018 RECORDS: 8-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/1st) – No. 22 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (4 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Cade Weldon, QB, R-So. (Miami-Florida transfer); Chance Thrasher, QB, R-Sr. (Coastal Carolina transfer); Quay Holmes, RB, R-So.; Jacob Saylors, RB, So.; Greg McCloud, OL, R-Jr.; Ben Blackmon, OL, R-Sr.; Tre’mond Shorts, OL, R-So.; Jason Maduafokwa, DL, R-Sr.; Nasir Player, DE, R-Sr.; Jared Folks, LB, Gr.; Blake Bockrath, LB, R-Jr.; Jeremy Lewis, DB, Sr.; Tyree Robinson, FS, Jr.; Karon Delince, DB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Austin Herink, QB; Matt Pyke, C; Dylan Weigel, LB
OUTLOOK: While earning a share of the SoCon title and advancing to the playoffs, the Buccaneers turned close wins into an art form last season. There’s no more sneaking up on the competition, the Bucs will be more of a target in 2019. Sanders appears to have an answer for losing longtime QB Herink, bringing in transfers Weldon and Thrasher. There’s strength at running back with SoCon freshman of the year Holmes (15 touchdowns) and Saylors, who combined for 1,543 rushing yards and 57 receptions. The defense returns two of the conference’s top defensive players in DE Player and FS Robinson. There are two FBS opponents (Appalachian State and Vanderbilt) on the schedule, but the Bucs could very well make the playoffs again.
LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tennessee
STADIUM: Finley Stadium
HEAD COACH: Rusty Wright (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Nick Tiano, QB, Sr.; Tyrell Price, RB, Sr.; Bryce Nunnelly, WR, Jr.; Cole Strange, OL, Jr.; Noah Ramsey, OL, Jr.; Malcolm White, OL, Sr.; Devonnsha Maxwell, DL, So.; Marshall Cooper, LB, Sr.; Zay Brown, LB, So. (South Carolina transfer); Brandon Dowdell, DB, Jr.; Jerrell Lawson, DB, Jr.; D.J. Jackson, DB, Jr.; CaMiron Smith, DB, So.; Victor Ulmo, PK, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Isaiah Mack, DL; Derek Mahaffey, DL; Kareem Orr, DB
OUTLOOK: With an opening nonconference run of Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State, Tennessee and James Madison, the Mocs will be hardened before joining the SoCon race in Wright’s first season. He was on Russ Huesman’s staff from 2013-16 and part of three teams that won conference titles and advanced to the FCS playoffs. QB Tiano is quietly having a strong career and again teams with Nunnelly, whose 1,237 receiving yards were just 47 shy of the school’s single-season record. Even bigger, and not just because White stands 6-foot-7, is five starters return on the offensive line. The defensive line must replace Mack, the SoCon defensive player of the year, but the Mocs replenished at linebacker, with four of their six incoming transfers playing the position. Leading tackler Cooper (98) returns to lead the unit.
5. THE CITADEL
LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina
STADIUM: Johnson Hagood Stadium
HEAD COACH: Brent Thompson (20-14, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Brandon Rainey, QB, Jr.; Clay Harris, RB, So.; Keyont Sessions, RB, Jr.; Dante Smith, RB, So.; Remus Bulmer, RB, Gr. (Sam Houston State transfer); Raleigh Webb, WR, Jr.; Drew McEntyre, OL, Sr.; Haden Haas, OL, So.; Joseph Randolph II, DL, Sr.; Aaron Brawley, DL, Jr.; Willie Eubanks, LB, Jr.; Airan Reed, LB, Gr. (Southern Illinois grad transfer); Phil Barrett, CB, Jr.; Chris Beverly, DB, So.; Matthew Campbell, P, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tyler Davis, OL; Ken Allen, DL; Noah Dawkins, LB
OUTLOOK: The Citadel will be one of the more fun teams to watch in the FCS. QB Rainey sparked a 3-1 finish last season, and the loss was in an impressive performance at Alabama. With the return of an experienced lineup, including an influential sophomore class, The Citadel are aiming for a playoff bid, but it will face a difficult nonconference schedule plus the SoCon games. The triple option offense should go higher than last year’s 283.6-yard average with the return of four starters on the O-line and the addition of grad transfer Bulmer, who rushed for 2,117 yards and 15 touchdowns in 41 career games at Sam Houston State. LB Eubanks III will try to spark improvement defensively.
LOCATION: Macon, Georgia
STADIUM: Moye Complex
HEAD COACH: Bobby Lamb (37-31, six seasons; 104-71 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 SoCon (Tie/5th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Robert Riddle, QB, R-So.; Kaelan Riley, QB, R-Jr.; Tyray Devezin, RB, Jr.; David Durden, WR/RS, So.; Chris Ellington, TE, Sr.; Austin Sanders, OL, R-Sr.; Dorian Kithcart, DL, R-Sr.; Richard Benton, DL, Fr.; Sidney Otiwu, LB, R-Jr.; Will Coneway, LB, R-Sr.; B.J. Bohler, DB, Jr.; Malique Fleming, DB, R-Jr.; Eric Jackson, DB, R-Sr.; Harrison Poole, DB, R-Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tee Mitchell, RB; Marquise Irvin, WR; LeMarkus Bailey, LB
OUTLOOK: With three straight 4-4 records in the conference, the Bears seek a potential breakthrough to the playoffs. There’s a strong returning mix to try to make that happen. QB Riddle wrestled the starting job away from Riley, the 2017 SoCon freshman of the year, but he was lost to a broken collarbone in the fourth game. The Bears relied heavily on RB Devezin down the stretch, when he had 107 touches in the final four games. The defense was on the field too long and was mediocre, so defensive coordinator Mike Adams was hired from defensive-strong Charleston Southern. There’s a standout in each unit with DL Kithcart, LB Coneway and DB Fleming. Road matchups against Western Carolina and Furman in the first three games will indicate the season’s direction.
LOCATION: Birmingham, Alabama
STADIUM: Seibert Stadium
HEAD COACH: Chris Hatcher (27-19, four seasons; 148-76 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-3 SoCon (4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Chris Oladokun, QB, Jr. (South Florida transfer); Liam Welch, QB, Jr.; DeMarcus Ware, RB, So.; Antwione Sims, RB, So.; Yassar El-Amin, WR, Sr.; Chris Shelling, WR, Sr.; Jai’Rus Creamer, WR, Jr.; Brendan Loftus. OL, Sr.; Mike Williams, OL, Jr.; Nick Nixon, OL, Sr.; Justin Foster, DT, Sr.; Nelson Jordan, DE, So.; Jalen Nash, DE, Sr.; Tre’Shun Floyd, LB, Jr.; Nathan East, LB, So.; William Bryant, SS, Sr.; Koi Freeman, FS, So.; Mitchell Fineran, PK, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Devlin Hodges, QB; Kelvin McKnight, WR; Ahmad Gooden, DL
OUTLOOK: The depth in the program must shine as the Bulldogs replace QB Hodges, the 2018 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award recipient, and fellow All-Americans in WR McKnight and DE Gooden. Behind center it will be Oladokun, the USF transfer, or Welch, who was Hodges’ backup, and maybe both because they’ve been strong in preseason camp. The new starter will look toward Shelling, who has caught 136 passes and 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Despite the loss of Gooden, the defensive front is strong with DT Foster and DE Jordan, and the secondary is a strength. The Bulldogs won five of their final six games last season. They’ll get an early jump this season in Week Zero, facing Youngstown State in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff.
8. WESTERN CAROLINA
LOCATION: Cullowhee, North Carolina
STADIUM: E.J. Whitmire Stadium
HEAD COACH: Mark Speir (29-51, seven seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 1-7 SoCon (8th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Tyrie Adams, QB, R-Sr.; Connell Young, RB, Sr.; Nate Mullen, WR, R-Sr.; Daquan Patten, WR, R-Jr.; Owen Cosenke, TE, Jr.; Grady Thomas, OL, Jr.; Ty Harris, LB, Jr.; Adam Henderson, DL, So.; JerMichael White, DB, R-Sr.; Ronald Kent Jr., DB, So.; Reggie Jones, DB, Jr.; Michael Murphy, DB, R-Jr.; Will Horton, PK, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Zach Weeks, OL; Marvin Tillman, DB; Ian Berryman, P
OUTLOOK: Consider the Catamounts a wild card in the SoCon, having been so porous last season yet posting three seven-win campaigns in the last five years. The 464.5 yards and 31.5 points per game were splendid a year ago, but the 491.9 yards and 41 points allowed per game were way too much. QB Adams’ 9,389 yards of total offense in his career tops all active FCS signal callers, and he has plenty of returning weapons on offense. But graduation took four starters and a fifth senior reserve from the O-line. Only a sophomore, CB Kent Jr. is a building block on defense. The Catamounts will face North Carolina State and Alabama in FBS matchups.
LOCATION: Lexington, Virginia
STADIUM: Alumni Memorial Field
HEAD COACH: Scott Wachenheim (6-38, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 0-8 SoCon (9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Reece Udinski, QB, Jr.; Alex Ramsey, RB, R-Jr.; Javeon Lara, WR, Sr.; Jakob Herres, WR, So.; Rohan Martin, WR/Rs, Sr.; Brad Davis, OL, Jr.; Marshall Gill, OL, So.; Jarrod Richmond, DL, R-Sr.; Warren Dabney, DL, So.; Jordan Ward, DL, So.; Elliott Brewster, LB, R-Jr.; Tyren Cloyd, LB, Jr.; A.J. Smith, S, Jr.; Ethan Casselberry, S, So.; Kaleb Tucker, DB, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Kris Thornton, WR; Cole Brummit, OL; Colin Loftis, CB
OUTLOOK: The Keydets have lost 22 straight conference games since 2016, but their struggling program went through a youth movement last season, so Wachenheim can be excited about having a more-experienced team. QB Udinski still has two seasons ahead after he passed for 3,082 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore. He lost his top receiver, Thornton, who is not back after catching 87 passes as a sophomore. But WR Lares as well as S Smith were named to the SoCon preseason first team. The defense was punished by the run last season, making progress imperative. The first two home games – Mars Hall and Robert Morris – are quite winnable.