With the Southern Conference media getting together in Spartanburg, S.C., for the league's preseason media day today, I went ahead and made my 2012 predictions.
This will be part one of my preview articles. In part two, I will include my second-team all-conference, predicted "upset of the year" in non-conference and conference play, along with finishing out my "mark your calendar" segment of the article.
Once again, the 2012 season should be one that sees the Southern Conference among the strongest league's in the FCS. In the coming weeks, I will have team-by-team previews of the nine teams, while also continuing to take on the positional rankings heading right up to the opening week of the 2012 campaign.
Southern Conference Forecast 2012
1. Georgia Southern
Eagles looking to win two straight SoCon crowns since winning back-to-back crowns in 2000 and '01.
2. Appalachian State
Appalachian State looks to transition roles from being "the hunted" to "the hunters" in 2012.
Mocs return 17 starters from a team that lost five league games by a combined 12 points last fall.
Terriers hope another big year from Walter Payton Award candidate Eric Breitenstein will be enough to keep the Terriers in the SoCon title conversations.
After seeing its string of 12 straight winning seasons ended in '10, Furman returned to its winning ways in Bruce Fowler's first season, finishing 6-5. Now the Paladins go in search of their first postseason invite since 2006.
6. The Citadel
Kevin Higgins' Bulldogs return a league-standard 19 starters and will be a dark-horse candidate for a playoff spot this season.
Replacing the school's second all-time leading passer won't be easy, but Samford has some of the top skill-position players in the SoCon returning this fall in running back Fabian Truss and wideout Kelsey Pope.
The Phoenix were good at playing the role of "spoilers" in 2011, but head coach Jason Swepson hopes his second season at the helm will see Elon become a factor for a playoff spot or a league title in November.
9. Western Carolina
A new era is set to begin in Cullowhee, with the arrival of former Appalachian State defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mark Speir, who brings three reinforcements to the other side of the Mountain Jug battle.
With the offseason dominated by talks of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leaving for the FBS (from FOX News), along with rumors of teams leaving for the CAA (from the Daily Press), it's nice to finally get down to pure football talk and predictions for the upcoming season.
For the first time since 2005, Appalachian State enters a season without having to defend a title, and Georgia Southern will be defending a regular season league crown for the first time since entering '03. If GSU is able to claim a second straight title this fall, it will mark the first time the Eagles have accomplished the feat since the tail end of their six straight title runs in 2000 and '01.
Chattanooga lost a total of five games by 12 points last season—and it was a heartbreaker all the way around for the Mocs. But with 17 starters returning this fall, and with Terrell Robinson already having gained some valuable experience under center last fall, winning SoCon freshman of the year plaudits, the Mocs should be able to cope with the loss of B.J. Coleman to graduation.
Chattanooga's defense ranked best in the league and 13th in the FCS (311.8 YPG) last fall, and the unit returns eight starters.
With so much talent returning at running back in the SoCon, it is Wofford that returns the best ground threat in Eric Breitenstein.
The Terriers mail-carrier is just 151 yards from becoming the school's second all-time leading rusher, having already rushed for 3,695 yards in his career. The Terriers must replace quarterback Mitch Allen, who finished his career third all-time in school history in total offensive yards (4,958 yards). Seven starters return from a defense that ranked second in the SoCon in total defense (364.6 YPG) last fall.
Bruce Fowler got Furman back on track in his first season as the head coach of the Paladin football program, helping the Paladins to a 6-5 overall mark and wins over a pair of top five foes in No. 4 Wofford (26-21) and No. 3 Appalachian State (20-10).
Furman must replace its top players on both sides of the ball, with the graduation of First Team All-SoCon quarterback Chris Forcier and All-American CB Ryan Steed. The Paladins do return one of the league's top running backs, Jerodis Williams (1,055 rushing yards) who became the Paladins' first 1,000-yard rusher since '03 last fall.
The Citadel enters its third season with visions of becoming a major factor in the Southern Conference race, and with the return of a league-high 19 starters for the 2012 season, the Bulldogs expect to be a dark horse in the SoCon this fall.
The Bulldogs return one of the league's top up-and-coming running backs from a year ago, in Darien Robinson (862 yards rushing, nine TDs). Robinson is a rugged back who can be a difference-maker for the Bulldogs this fall.
The Bulldogs always have one of the top defensive units in the SoCon, but question marks remain at linebacker entering the 2012 season. They suffered a significant loss at defensive end during the spring, as Derek Douglas (14.5 tackles for loss) went down with a torn ACL. The good news is that Douglas will likely return to the team by midseason.
Another team to watch will be the Samford Bulldogs, who are coming off a 6-5 season and return some solid talent at the skill positions, including all-league performers in running back Fabian Truss (150 rushing attempts, 847 rush yards, seven TDs) and wide receiver Kelsey Pope (86 rec, 810 yds, six TDs).
The big question to be answered on the offensive side of the ball for the Bulldogs is at quarterback, where they must replace the program's second all-time leading passer Dustin Taliaferro.
The strength of the Samford offense will be its offensive line, which welcomes the return of four out of five starters. The defense, which brings back six regulars, will be strong at linebacker and safety. Alvin Hines II (66 tackles, three INTs) returns at safety, where he will be one of the top DBs in the SoCon.
Elon finished 5-6 last fall, and second-year head coach Jason Swepson will be keen on seeing the Phoenix restore order by challenging for a playoff spot this fall. One of the biggest problems on the offensive side of the football last season was the inability to take care of the football.
That was especially true for quarterback Thomas Wilson, who tossed 19 INTs last season to lead the league. He struggled trying to fill the void left by Scott Riddle under center, but he still managed to help the Phoenix lead the SoCon in passing offense (284.0 YPG) yet again in 2011.
With the Aaron Mellette (113 rec, 1,639 yds, 12 TDs, 14.5 YPR) returning as the top wideout in the FCS this fall, the Phoenix will be the odds-on favorites to capture the league's passing crown once again in 2012.
Elon was solid on the defensive side of the football in 2011, finishing the campaign ranking fourth in the SoCon in total defense (344.9 YPG). The Phoenix did lose their top defensive player—linebacker Joshua Jones—to graduation.
Western Carolina has new enthusiasm about its program, due in large part to the hiring of athletic director Randy Eaton and new head football coach Mark Speir. But the Catamounts have much work to do to get out of the league's cellar, which will be difficult.
Still, I expect the Catamounts to be competitive and I expect them to surprise someone in the league.
Mark Your Calendar (Non-Conference)
Chattanooga at South Florida
There are several non-conference games worth circling on the calendar for the upcoming season, starting with the opening week.
One of the most intriguing non-league matchups of Week 1 is between Chattanooga and South Florida. The Mocs are anxious to rebound from a 2011 season which saw them lose several games in heartbreaking fashion.
The Mocs opened up 2011 by heading to Lincoln, Nebraska, to take on the Cornhuskers. Though the Mocs lost 40-7, they did manage to put forth a solid effort in the 33 point loss against the 10th-ranked Cornhuskers.
The season opener with the Bulls will mark the first meeting between the two programs, and marks a game between a couple of schools that didn't meet expectations a year ago.
It will also be a matchup that will feature two exciting, dual-threat quarterbacks—South Florida's B.J. Daniels and Chattanooga's Terrell Robinson.
Despite the 5-7 finish last season, the Bulls had an explosive offense that averaged 250 yards through the air and 183 yards on the ground last fall. With nine starters back, the Mocs will field one of FCS' top defenses this fall.
This should certainly be an interesting encounter.
Appalachian State at East Carolina
Meanwhile, Appalachian State heads to Greenville, N.C., to take on East Carolina for the season opener. It will be the first meeting between the two since the Mountaineers dropped a heartbreaking 29-24 decision to the Pirates to open the '09 season.
That was a game the Mountaineers played without reigning Walter Payton Award winner Armanti Edwards, who was sidelined with an injury.
The Apps found themselves trailing 24-0, less than 17 minutes into the game, and 29-7 going into the fourth quarter, before charging back within five points.
At one point, they even put themselves in position to win the game.
The rivalry between the Apps and Pirates has been a good one over the years, with ASU holding a 19-11 all-time series edge. There will also be a touch of familiarity when the two teams square off in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sept. 1, with former ASU coaches Ruffin McNeil and John Wiley now members of the ECU staff, serving as head and assistant head coach, respectively.
The Pirates will have to find a way to replace superstar quarterback Dominic Davis, who has graduated, while ASU will counter with Jamal Jackson—a quarterback who will really come into his own this season under the direction of offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield.
ASU could have one of the top defenses in the nation this fall, with Jeremy Kimbrough and Brandon Grier leading one of the nation's top corps of linebackers. The black and gold could make things very frustrating for the Pirates offense in the post-Dominic Davis era during the season opener.
Montana at Appalachian State
The non-conference game everyone seems to be looking forward to is the one between Appalachian State and Montana.
The two programs have been the standards be compared to in FCS football since 2005, boasting the most victories by any of the FCS programs in the past seven seasons, with ASU posting an FCS best 79 wins and Montana right behind with 77 victories.
Montana has had much turmoil to deal with during the offseason, and will have only nine starters, including just two on defense, from a team that finished with 11 wins and just one game short of the FCS title game last fall.
Montana will be welcoming in head coach Mick Delaney, who takes over for Robin Pflugrad, who was fired in late March after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct involving several Montana players.
ASU has never defeated the Grizzlies, ironically, with both previous meetings coming in Missoula in the FCS semifinals. In 2009, the Mountaineers dropped a 24-17 decision on a late TD pass from quarterback Andrew Selle to wideout Jabin Sambrano.
In 2000, the Apps were again on the wrong side of heartbreak, dropping a 19-16 contest to the Grizzlies on a game-winning scoring connection between quarterback Drew Miller and Grizzlies legendary wideout Jimmy Farris, in overtime. The Sept. 8 meeting will mark the first meeting between the two teams in Boone.
ASU and Montana have won a combined five national titles, with ASU claiming FCS crowns in 2005, '06 and '07, while the Grizzlies climbed to the top of the FCS mountain in 1995 and '01.
Both of the Grizzlies' national title wins came against Southern Conference opponents, as Dave Dickinson led Montana to a 22-20 win at Marshall in 1995, while Yohance Humphrey and the Griz rushed past Furman, 13-6, in 2001 in Chattanooga.
Coastal Carolina at Furman
Also on Sept. 8, Furman will open its home slate against Coastal Carolina in a key non-league tilt for the Paladins, who will be looking to avenge a 30-23 loss in Conway.
The meeting between the Chanticleers and Paladins will mark the fourth contest between the two programs, with Coastal Carolina now holding a 2-1 all-time series edge. The Chanticleers collected wins in Conway in 2006 and 2011, while Furman's lone win against its Palmetto State rival came in 2007 at Paladin Stadium.
Furman enters the 2012 matchup with the Chanticleers with more question marks as a team than it did in the 2011 season opener. The biggest question mark is, obviously, at quarterback, where the Paladins must replace First Team all-league quarterback Chris Forcier.
Coastal Carolina will have 15 starters returning, including dual-threat signal-caller Aramis Hillary, who was strong against Furman in the seven-point win for CCU in the season-opener last season. He amassed 191 yards of total offense (131 passing, 61 rushing) and a pair of rushing scores, including the game-winning score on a three-yard scamper with 1:32 to play to lead CCU to the seven-point win.
Other Non-Conference Games To Keep An Eye On
Chattanooga at Jacksonville State (Sept. 8)
A rivalry that has gotten more intense in recent seasons.
Western Carolina at Marshall (Sept. 8)
This is the first matchup between the two since they were both SoCon members in 1996.
No. 1 Marshall claimed a 56-21 win over the Catamounts in Huntington, West Virginia, in the last meeting. WCU recorded one of its top wins in program history against the Thundering Herd in 1992, with a 38-30 win over the second-ranked Herd in 1992.
Furman at Presbyterian (Sept. 15)
Furman makes its first trip to Clinton since 1975. The Paladins have not lost to the Blue Hose since 1979. Furman claimed a resounding 62-21 win over the Blue Hose last season, which was the most points it has scored against a Division I foe since the 65 against VMI in 2001.
The Paladins hold a 41-11-1 all-time series lead against the Blue Hose, including having won 13 straight against their Palmetto State rival.
The Citadel at North Carolina State (Sept. 22)
Can the Bulldogs' flexbone offense give Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack defense problems for a half, maybe three quarters?
We will see. It will mark the first meeting between the two programs since 1983.
Samford at Kentucky (Nov. 17)
It will mark the first meeting between the Wildcats and Bulldogs, and with Samford's strong performance at Jordan-Hare Stadium last season in a 35-16 loss to defending FBS national champion Auburn, the game should be a good one.
The Wildcats won't have quite the intimidation factor the Tigers did, coming off a 5-7 season under the direction of third-year head coach Joker Phillips.
Wofford at South Carolina (Nov. 17)
We know the struggles that South Carolina has had defending the spread-option in the past, including last season's contest against The Citadel (41-20) and the narrow escape for Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks in 2006, with a 27-20 win.
In 2008, the Gamecocks posted another too-close-for-comfort 23-13 win. Wofford held the lead against Clemson in the third quarter last season before losing 37-28. South Carolina holds a commanding 18-4 series edge.
Georgia Southern at Georgia (Nov.17)
Normally, in-state FBS teams don't hate their in-state FCS little brother, and the fans hold cordial, friendly tailgates at such places. Much like Clemson when it plays Furman or Wofford, or when Elon plays Wake Forest, etc. However, that same friendship isn't shared between Georgia and Georgia Southern fans.
And with Georgia Southern's respectable performance against eventual BCS national champion Alabama last season, don't expect there to be many friendly tailgates shared in this late October clash.
It will mark the fifth all-time meeting between the Eagles and Bulldogs, with Georgia winning all five previous meetings, including a 45-21 by the top-ranked Bulldogs in '08.
Mark Your Calendar (Conference)
Furman at Samford
For the first time since 1974, Furman will begin a season with a conference road contest, as the Paladins travel to Birmingham to take on the Samford Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, it will be the second straight season in which the Bulldogs have opened against a league foe in the friendly confines of Seibert Stadium, dropping a 31-17 decision to No. 2 Georgia Southern in 2011.
The last time Furman opened the campaign with a Southern Conference test was in 2003, as the Paladins claimed a 24-7 win over Elon, however, that game was at Furman.
This game is monumental for both teams hoping to break out of the middle of the pack in the SoCon and join the upper echelon of the league this fall.
Both teams enter the season in similar predicaments, having to replace experienced, talented signal-callers. Furman has to replace First Team All-SoCon quarterback Chris Forcier, while Samford must replace the school's second all-time leading passer, Dustin Taliaferro.
Since joining the SoCon in 2008, Furman and Samford have played some of the most exciting games in the Southern Conference. Last season, Samford was able to claim a win over the Paladins, with a 26-21 triumph in Greenville, which marked its first win over Furman since 1969.
The 2012 meeting between the Paladins and Bulldogs will mark the 15th all-time meeting, with Furman holding an 8-6 all-time series edge.
The matchup will feature two of the league's more explosive running backs, as Furman's Jerodis Williams, who became the Paladins' first 1,000 yard rusher since 2003 last fall, will lead the Furman ground game, while sophomore sensation Fabian Truss, who rushed for 136 yards on 26 attempts last season for the Bulldogs in the five-point win in Greenville, leads the way for Samford.
Georgia Southern at The Citadel
Georgia Southern and The Citadel always seem to play tight games against each other, and last season was no different, as the Eagles barely survived a gritty effort by the Cadets, getting a 14-12 win in Statesboro.
The Eagles come into the Sept. 8 league opener having claimed the past five meetings between the two programs, and hold a commanding 17-4 all-time series edge.
In the 21 previous encounters, seven of those matchups have been decided by a TD or less. In fact, the series has seen some really good games as of late, as five of the last six meetings between the two programs have been decided by that margin.
The Citadel's last win over the Eagles came in 2006, when the Bulldogs claimed a 24-21 win in Charleston.
Despite 10 turnovers in the last meeting in Charleston, The Citadel defense stepped up and made a statement despite the 20-0 loss, as the Eagles held nearly a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, setting up camp in the Bulldogs' territory for much of the game.
The Bulldogs missed a pair of PATs and a 37-yard field goal that sailed wide right with 13 seconds remaining that would have given the Bulldogs a 15-14 lead, and quite possibly just their second win all time in Statesboro.
Both teams utilize the same triple-option/flexbone offense, although Georgia Southern's attack will feature some spread option mixed in as well, similar to Wofford's spread bone.
The matchup will feature two of the league's top running backs, in Georgia Southern's Dominique Swope and The Citadel's Darien Robinson. Both teams also have two of the league's top defensive lines, with GSU's line anchored by reigning league defensive player of the year Brent Russell, while The Citadel's defensive line will feature veteran All-SoCon defensive end Chris Billingslea.
This game is a dangerous one for Georgia Southern and this might offer The Citadel its best chance at getting an upset against the Eagles this fall. It will be hot and the crowd should be rowdy. This will be one of the tougher road environments GSU will face this fall.
This is definitely one to watch!
Western Carolina at Wofford
It might not be the game you would think of as one worth marking your calendar for, but I look for Western Carolina to offer an exciting tenacity this fall despite being less talented than many of the teams in the league.
It will be Mark Speir's first Southern Conference game as a head coach, and he enjoyed plenty of success scheming against Mike Ayers' Terriers during his time as a defensive line coach at Appalachian State.
The Catamounts will also have the athletes on offense to challenge one of the league's better defenses. Eddie Sullivan takes over under center, and the Catamounts have a glut of running backs who are talented—including Michael Vaughn and Michael Johnson—while Deja Alexander is one of the best wide receivers in the SoCon.
Offense, however, hasn't been a problem for WCU in the past, it has been the defense, particularly against the run. The Catamounts ranked dead last in the nation in rushing defense last season, yielding 334 yards per game on the ground.
That doesn't bode well when facing the reigning SoCon offensive player of the year and Wofford's third all-time leading rusher Eric Breitenstein.
Coming into the 2012 meeting, the Terriers hold a commanding 22-12 all-time series edge, including holding a 13-3 advantage in Spartanburg. WCU has lost six straight to Wofford dating back to a 24-0 win over the Terriers in Cullowhee in '05.
Western Carolina hasn't won in Spartanburg since 1981, when the Catamounts claimed a 37-30 win.
I don't think WCU goes to Wofford and wins, however, the trend of success that Wofford has enjoyed against WCU won't continue. WCU is going to be back as a regular competitor among the SoCon elite a lot quicker than some think. Mark Speir can flat-out coach, but it will take him about three years to turn the ship in the right direction and have the Catamounts competing regularly as a SoCon power.
My 2012 All-SoCon Teams
First Team Offense
QB—Jamal Jackson (Appalachian State)
RB—Eric Breitenstein (Wofford)
RB—Jerodis Williams (Furman)
OT—Calvin Cantrell (Wofford)
OT—Dorian Byrd (Georgia Southern)
C—Mike Sellers (The Citadel)
OG—Blake DeBartola (Georgia Southern)
OG—Tymeco Gregory (Wofford)
TE—Colin Anderson (Furman)
WR—Kelsey Pope (Samford)
WR—Aaron Mellette (Elon)
First Team Defense
DE—Josh Lynn (Furman)
DT—Brent Russell (Georgia Southern)
DT/DE—Ronald Blair (Appalachian State)
DE—Josh Williams (Chattanooga)
LB—Jeremy Kimbrough (Appalachian State)
LB—Wes Dothard (Chattanooga)
LB—Alvin Scioneaux (Wofford)
DB—Nathan Wade (Furman)
DB—Kadeem Wise (Chattanooga)
DB—Demetrius McCray (Appalachian State)
DB—Deion Stanley (Georgia Southern)
First Team Specialists
PK—Cameron Yaw (Samford)
P—Cass Couey (The Citadel)
RS—Fabian Truss (Samford)
*Second team will be included in part two of this season preview article.