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In the FCS Huddle: 2013 Southern Conference Preview

5:04 AM, Aug 24, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There's a sense of opportunity in Southern Conference football this season.

With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern headed out the door to the FBS level next year, the other schools will jockey around in a potentially odd conference title race.

During their final season in the FCS, ASU and GSU will play above the 63- scholarship limit, making them ineligible for both the SoCon title and a bid to the FCS playoffs. Their games will count toward the SoCon standings, however, meaning the conference's automatic bid to the playoffs will go to the highest-finishing team that is eligible.

And that could be the third-best finisher.

Still, the other teams believe this is their season to finish higher than ASU and GSU.

Wofford has been the other power in the conference - winning a share of last year's title with its two rivals - and is seeking its fourth straight FCS playoff appearance. But the conference race is so deep that the SoCon head coaches picked the Terriers to finish fifth.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has a talented enough squad to earn its first playoff bid since 1984, Samford and The Citadel their first since 1992.

Only rebuilding Furman, Elon and Western Carolina appear to be out of the title mix.

"Everyone in the league is thinking the same thing about how this is a great time to make a move and establish themselves as a top-three type of team," The Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said.

Elon remains eligible for the SoCon title, although next year it will make a move in FCS conferences to the Colonial Athletic Association. That's when Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI will enter the SoCon.

A strange season? It should be just that this year.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2013 Southern Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

2. Wofford

3. The Citadel

4. Samford

5. Furman

6. Elon

7. Western Carolina

Appalachian State (ineligible for league championship)

Georgia Southern (ineligible for league championship)

Team-by-team capsules:

1. CHATTANOOGA MOCS

LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tenn.

COACH: Russ Huesman (23-21 in four seasons at Chattanooga)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 5-3 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (10 offense/10 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jacob Huesman, So. (167-of-256, 1,712 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT; 195 carries, 904 yards, 7 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Davis Tull, Jr. (56 TT, 19 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: WR/QB Terrell Robinson, Jr. (30-of-44, 301 yards, 2 TD; 40 receptions, 489 yards, 5 TD; 52 carries, 232 yards, 3 TD)

TB Marquis Green, Jr. (24 carries, 126 yards, 3 TD)

TB Kendrix Huitt, So. (57 carries, 288 yards, 3 TD)

TB Keon Williams, Jr. (51 carries, 155 yards, 3 TD)

FB Taharin Tyson, Jr.

WR Marlon Anthony, Sr.

WR/PR Tommy Hudson, Jr. (31 receptions, 304 yards)

TE Faysal Shafaat, Jr. (37 receptions, 295 yards, 5 TD)

LT Brandon Morgan, Jr.

LG Synjen Herren, So.

C Patrick Sutton, Jr.

RG Kevin Revis, Sr.

RT Hunter Dockery, Sr.

DE Zach Rayl, Jr.

DT Derrick Lott, Sr. (57 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FR)

NT Toyvian Brand, Jr.

NT Josh Freeman, So.

NT Danny Ring, R-So. (Navy transfer)

MLB Wes Dothard, Sr. (94 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FF)

OLB Gunner Miller, Sr. (45 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT)

CB Kadeem Wise, Sr. (55 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR)

CB Sema'je Kendall, So.

CB/KR Chaz Moore, Sr. (52 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU)

SS D.J. Key, Sr. (82 TT, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 1 QBH)

FS Zach McCarter, Jr.

PK/P Nick Pollard, So. (9-of-15 FG, 39 long, 55 points; 55 punts, 41.5 ypp)

BIG LOSS: LB Shane Heatherly (73 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 166.36 (46 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 183 (79 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Total Offense, 349.36 (80 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 25.55 (64 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 141.91 (43 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 166 (12 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Total Defense, 307.91 (10 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 20.36 (18 in FCS, 2 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: There's a lot of pressure on the veteran Mocs to make this a breakthrough season under coach Russ Huesman. They have seven returning all- conference selections and have improved greatly as a program, but they have struggled against Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford during the Huesman era. The Mocs should have a dominant defense with the return of two Buck Buchanan Award nominees in Tull and Dothard, a difference maker up front with Lott and two standouts in the secondary in Key and Wise. The overall speed on offense will trouble opponents, but the Mocs have to produce more yards and points after so-so results last season. Huesman turned over the quarterback job to his son Jacob last season, but the Mocs still makes great use of Robinson as a triple threat. A particularly tough schedule in November means the Mocs have to get off to a strong start this season.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 29 - vs. UT Martin

Sept. 7 - at Georgia State

Sept. 14 - vs. Austin Peay

Sept. 28 - at Georgia Southern

Oct. 5 - vs. Western Carolina

Oct. 12 - vs. Furman

Oct. 19 - at Elon

Oct. 26 - vs. The Citadel

Nov. 2 - at Appalachian State

Nov. 9 - vs. Wofford

Nov. 16 - at Samford

Nov. 23 - at Alabama

2. WOFFORD TERRIERS

LOCATION: Spartanburg, S.C.

COACH: Mike Ayers (171-115-1 in 25 seasons at Wofford; 182-136-2 overall)

LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon; No. 7 TSN Ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: FB Donovan Johnson, Sr. (73 carries, 473 yards, 3 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: OLB Alvin Scioneaux, Sr. (70 TT, 14 TFL, 7 sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 8 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB James Lawson, Jr. (20-of-31, 233 yards)

QB Michael Weimer, So. (9-of-12, 76 yards; 27 carries, 256 yards, 2 TD)

HB Will Gay, So.

HB/KR Cam Flowers, So. (39 carries, 217 yards, 3 TD)

WR Jeff Ashley, Sr. (17 receptions, 301 yards, 2 TD)

TE Michael Harpe, Sr.

C Jared Singleton, Sr.

LG Tymeco Gregory, Sr.

LT Tony Goodwin, Jr.

NT E.J. Speller, So.

DE Tarek Odom, Jr.

DE Tom Bove, So.

ILB Mike McCrimon, Sr. (76 TT, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)

ILB Kevin Thomas, Jr. (47 TT, 5 TFL)

ILB Sequan Stanley, Sr.

OLB Travis Thomas, Jr.

FS James Zotto, Sr. (72 TT, 5 PBU, 2 FF)

SS Josh Holt, Sr. (36 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF)

CB Brion Anderson, So.

CB Bernard Williams, Jr.

PK/P Kasey Redforn, Sr. (5-of-9 FG, 53 long, 30 points; 44 punts, 40.1 ypp)

BIG LOSS: FB Eric Breitenstein (290 carries, 2,035 yards, 19 TD)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 349.69 (2 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 51 (121 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Total Offense, 400.69 (41 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 28.85 (43 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 125 (23 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 180.92 (23 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Total Defense, 305.92 (9 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 16.62 (7 in FCS, 1 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: How does a team replace a 2,000-yard rusher? In most cases, it doesn't. Breitenstein had 5,730 rushing yards and 65 touchdowns in his career, but Johnson is a good substitute as he has rushed for 1,793 yards in his first three seasons. He returns to the fullback position from halfback. It might be harder to replace Brian Kass at quarterback, with Lawson and Weimer seemingly ahead in the battle of six candidates. Ayers is looking to pass the ball more often this season. His offensive line has to replace three starters, although Singleton returns as one of the better centers in the FCS. Like the offense, the defense lost six starters. Scioneaux and McCrimon are a pair of highly productive linebackers. There's concern for the secondary as the Terriers replace their starting cornerbacks. But Ayers has reloaded squads before and nothing short of a SoCon title and a fourth straight appearance in the FCS playoffs will satisfy his team.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31 - at Baylor

Sept. 7 - at The Citadel

Sept. 14 - vs. Georgia Southern

Sept. 21 - vs. Gardner-Webb

Oct. 5 - vs. Presbyterian

Oct. 12 - vs. Elon

Oct. 19 - at Western Carolina

Oct. 26 - vs. Samford

Nov. 9 - at Chattanooga

Nov. 16 - vs. Appalachian State

Nov. 23 - at Furman

3. THE CITADEL BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Charleston, S.C.

COACH: Kevin Higgins (38-51 in eight seasons at The Citadel; 94-76-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-3 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: FB Darien Robinson, Sr. (140 carries, 1,007 yards, 6 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Derek Douglas, Sr. (17 TT, 8 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF in eight games)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Ben Dupree, Sr. (25-of-45, 387 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT; 161 carries, 839 yards, 9 TD)

QB Aaron Miller, Jr. (34-of-69, 513 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT; 81 carries, 262 yards, 5 TD)

Slot Back Terrance Martin, Sr.

Slot Back Dalton Trevino, Sr.

Slot Back Vinny Miller, So.

WR Matt Thompson, Sr. (13 receptions, 284 yards, 1 TD)

LT Devin Bice, Sr.

LG Keith Carter, Sr.

RG Jim Knowles, Sr.

RT Cullen Brown, Sr.

OG Robert Fink, Sr.

DE Bay Amrhein, Sr.

DE Justin Oxendine, Jr.

DE Mark Thomas, So.

NT Colin Parson, So.

NT Mitchell Jeter, So.

LB Carl Robinson, Jr.

LB Carson Smith, Jr. (91 TT, 1 sack, 1 INT, 4 PBU)

LB Rah Muhammad, Jr. (46 TT, 1 FR, 2 FF)

LB James Riley, So. (43 TT, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks in four games)

CB Brandon McCladdie, Sr. (45 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 3 FF)

CB Sadath Jean-Pierre, Sr. (80 TT, 5 PBU, 1 FR)

S Julian Baxter, So.

S Nick Willis, So.

PK Thomas Warren, Sr. (9-of-15 FG, 47 long; 70 points)

BIG LOSSES: DE Chris Billingslea (51 TT, 9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FF) and C Mike Sellers

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 300.64 (4 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 81.82 (119 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Total Offense, 382.45 (54 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 29.82 (35 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 221.73 (111 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 161.45 (7 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Total Defense, 383.18 (67 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 27.64 (64 in FCS, 5 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: A stunning sweep of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern last season fueled The Citadel to its first winning season since 2007. The winning should continue this season while the Bulldogs play disciplined football under Higgins. The triple option, which ground out 300.6 rushing yards per game to finish fourth in the FCS (but only third in the SoCon), has five fifth-year senior offensive linemen paving the way. Robinson averaged 7.2 yards per carry while going over 1,000 yards. Dupree and Miller both see time at quarterback. On defense, it's still a relatively young nucleus, although cornerbacks McCladdie and Jean-Pierre are fifth-year seniors who helped key a No. 7 ranking nationally in pass defense last year. A healthier Riley will make a big difference with the Douglas-led defense. The Bulldogs' SoCon opener against Wofford will go a long way in determining if they can win the conference's automatic bid to the playoffs.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31 - vs. Charleston Southern

Sept. 7 - vs. Wofford

Sept. 14 - at Western Carolina

Sept. 21 - at Old Dominion

Sept. 28 - vs. Furman

Oct. 5 - vs. Appalachian State

Oct. 12 - at Georgia Southern

Oct. 26 - at Chattanooga

Nov. 2 - vs. Samford

Nov. 9 - at Elon

Nov. 16 - vs. VMI

Nov. 23 - at Clemson

4. SAMFORD BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Birmingham, Ala.

COACH: Pat Sullivan (32-34 in six seasons at Samford; 56-76-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-3 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB/KR Fabian Truss, Sr. (206 carries, 1,063 yards, 11 TD; 35 receptions, 291 yards; 27.1-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: SS Jaquiski Tartt, Jr. (94 TT, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 10 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Andy Summerlin, R-Sr. (244-of-365, 2,269 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT)

RB Jeremiaha Gates, Jr.

RB Stanley Robinson, Jr.

WR Kelsey Pope, Sr. (68 receptions, 552 yards, 4 TD)

WR Kelvin Clay, Jr. (25 receptions, 214 yards)

TE Zeke Walters, Sr.

LT Kyle Champion, Jr.

LT Brandon Moore, R-Jr.

LG Kasey Morrison, Sr.

RT Gunnar Bromelow, So.

C Armando Bonheur, So.

DT Jeremy Towns, R-Sr.

NG Jerry Mathis, Jr. (32 TT, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 PBU, 2 QBH)

DE Brandon Wilkinson, R-Jr.

DE Brinson Porter, Jr.

DE Michael Pierce, R-So. (Tulane transfer)

MLB Justin Shade, Sr. (70 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FF)

OLB Josh Killett, R-So.

CB Tae Lewis, Sr.

CB Brandon Nettles, R-Jr. (39 TT, 1 INT, 1 PBU)

CB James Bradberry, R-So.

SS Trey Wesley, R-So. (32 TT, 4 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR)

P Greg Peranich, R-Jr.

BIG LOSS: DT Nicholas Williams (31 TT, 8 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 BLK)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 142.27 (69 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 209.36 (60 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Total Offense, 351.64 (77 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 24.73 (T/68 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 164.64 (65 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 171 (16 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Total Defense, 335.64 (29 in FCS, 3 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 20.64 (19 in FCS, 3 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: After Samford posted its best overall record since 2003, and its best conference mark since joining the SoCon in '08, the Bulldogs' veteran squad believes it can make a run at the conference crown. And rightfully so. Truss, a threat out of the backfield and on kickoff returns, finished third in the FCS with 179.8 all-purpose yards per game. The NCAA granted QB Summerlin a sixth year of eligibility and he has a dynamite wide receiver in Pope. The offense should be ahead of the defense, which has to replace an NFL Draft choice (Williams) and its co-tackle leader (linebacker Darion Sutton). Tartt was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist as a sophomore and sets the tone with his playmaking style. A particularly tough road schedule could wear on the Bulldogs.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Georgia State

Sept. 7 - at Arkansas

Sept. 14 - at Florida A&M

Sept. 21 - vs. Southeastern Louisiana

Sept. 28 - vs. Western Carolina

Oct. 5 - vs. Georgia Southern

Oct. 12 - at Appalachian State

Oct. 26 - at Wofford

Nov. 2 - at The Citadel

Nov. 9 - at Furman

Nov. 16 - vs. Chattanooga

Nov. 23 - vs. Elon

5. FURMAN PALADINS

LOCATION: Greenville, S.C.

COACH: Bruce Fowler (9-13 in two seasons at Furman)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-6 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: LT Dakota Dozier, R-Sr.

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Gary Wilkins, R-Jr. (92 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 BLK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Reese Hannon, So. (160-of-260, 1,896 yards, 7 TD, 8 INT)

RB Hank McCloud, R-Jr. (103 carries, 521 yards, 6 TD)

RB Marcus Anderson, R-Fr.

WR Ryan Culbreath, R-Sr. (34 receptions, 415 yards, 2 TD)

WR Gary Robinson, Jr.

WR Jordan Snellings, R-So.

C Eric Thoni, R-So.

OG Ryan Storms, R-Sr.

OL Charles Emert, R-Jr.

OL Tank Phillips, R-Jr.

OL Joe Turner, R-So.

DE Shawn Boone, Sr. (26 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

DT Ira McCune, Jr. (26 TT, 3 TFL)

DT John Mackey, R-So.

LB Carl Rider, So.

LB Cory Magwood, So.

CB Austin Williams, R-Sr.

CB Reggie Thomas, So.

SS Greg Worthy, R-Fr. (77 TT, 2 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 QBH)

FS Marcus McMorris, R-Jr. (30 TT, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FR)

PK/P Ray Early, Sr. (10-of-16 FG, 52 long, 62 points; 39 punts, 42.1 ypp)

BIG LOSS: RB/KR Jerodis Williams (199 TT, 1,170 yards, 11 TD; 26 receptions, 171 yards; 35.2-yard KO return average, 2 TD)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 167.55 (43 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 200.91 (68 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Total Offense, 368.45 (60 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 24.73 (T/68 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 171.91 (73 in FCS, 5 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 228 (81 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Total Defense, 399.91 (79 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 30.73 (90 in FCS, 7 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: The Paladins went from six wins in Fowler's first season in 2011 to three last year. Fowler has been trying to restock the program with young talent because his team has only 11 seniors. The Paladins will have to play better in the second half of games, having been outscored by a combined 184-83 in the third and fourth quarters last season. Their team suffered a big loss with Williams, but it returns all five starters on the offensive line, which gives McCloud a chance to excel as the new starting running back. At quarterback, Hannon splashed onto the scene as a freshman and will keep getting better. Three veterans on the defensive line took their 87 career starts to graduation, leaving DE Boone as the lone returning starter up front. To fill some of the production, Wilkins, who led the team in tackles last season, has moved up to defensive end from linebacker. A brutal five-game stretch starting with Chattanooga will be difficult, but the Paladins should improve on last year's record.

SCHEDULE

Aug. 31 - at Gardner-Webb

Sept. 7 - at Coastal Carolina

Sept. 14 - vs. Presbyterian

Sept. 28 - at The Citadel

Oct. 5 - vs. Elon

Oct. 12 - at Chattanooga

Oct. 19 - vs. Appalachian State

Oct. 26 - at LSU

Nov. 2 - at Georgia Southern

Nov. 9 - vs. Samford

Nov. 16 - at Western Carolina

Nov. 23 - vs. Wofford

6. ELON PHOENIX

LOCATION: Elon, N.C.

COACH: Jason Swepson (8-14 in two seasons at Elon)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 1-7 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (4 offense/9 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/KR Kierre Brown, Jr. (45 receptions, 642 yards, 4 TD; 24.6- yard KO return average)

DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Jonathan Spain, Jr. (118 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Mike Quinn, Jr. (20-of-29, 115 yards, 2 TD)

RB Karl Bostick, Jr. (103 carries, 354 yards, 2 TD)

WR Andre Davis, So.

WR Rasaun Rorie, Sr. (21 receptions, 256 yards, 1 TD)

TE Doug Warrick, So.

LT Austin Sowell, Jr.

LG Dennis Wagner, Sr.

C Clay Johnson, Sr.

RG Jacob Ingle, So.

RT Thomas McGuire, So.

DE Jay Brown, Sr. (38 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR)

DE Jordan Jones, Sr. (38 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF)

DE Gary Coates, Jr. (35 TT, 7 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR)

DT Michael Pearson, Jr.

NT Tony Thompson, Sr.

OLB Odell Benton, Jr. (47 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)

OLB Alexander Dawson, So.

CB Ed Burns, Sr. (36 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU)

CB Akeem Langham, Jr. (33 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF)

SS Chandler Wrightenberry, Sr. (70 TT, 3 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 FF)

FS Miles Williams, Jr. (59 TT, 2 INT, 2 QBH, 1 FR)

BIG LOSSES: QB Thomas Wilson (249-of-381, 3,161 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT) and WR Aaron Mellette (97 receptions, 1,408 yards, 18 TD)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 88.36 (113 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 296.73 (12 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Total Offense, 385.09 (51 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 24.27 (70 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 229.55 (113 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 156.91 (5 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Total Defense, 386.45 (71 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 31.82 (95 in FCS, 8 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: Swepson is still trying to get the Phoenix to a higher level after posting two straight losing seasons. This is their final season in the SoCon before moving to the Colonial Athletic Association. They appear to be building toward a better 2014, especially with the young offense returning only four starters. Quinn, last year's backup quarterback, played in four games as a sophomore and indicated he is ready for a bigger role. He won't be throwing the ball to Mellette, the two-time All-American, but Brown and Rorie will improve their numbers. The Phoenix struggled to stop the run, which in turn helped them to allow a SoCon-low 156.9 passing yards per game. Their veteran secondary should be strong again. The defensive leader, though, is Spain, whose 118 tackles were the fourth-most in the program's single-season history.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31 - at Georgia Tech

Sept. 7 - vs. West Virginia Wesleyan

Sept. 14 - at North Carolina A&T

Sept. 21 - vs. Appalachian State

Sept. 28 - vs. Coastal Carolina

Oct. 5 - at Furman

Oct. 12 - at Wofford

Oct. 19 - vs. Chattanooga

Oct. 26 - at Western Carolina

Nov. 9 - vs. The Citadel

Nov. 16 - vs. Georgia Southern

Nov. 23 - at Samford

7. WESTERN CAROLINA CATAMOUNTS

LOCATION: Cullowhee, N.C.

COACH: Mark Speir (1-10 in one season at Western Carolina)

LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 0-8 SoCon

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Darius Ramsey, So. (111 carries, 503 yards, 2 TD; 25 receptions, 131 yards)

DEFENSIVE STAR: S Ace Clark, R-Jr. (88 TT, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Troy Mitchell, So. (85-of-142, 862 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT; 112 carries, 433 yards, 8 TD)

QB Eddie Sullivan, R-Jr. (95-of-176, 979 yards, 4 TD, 6 INT; 54 carries, 274 yards, 2 TD)

RB/KR Shaun Warren, Jr.

WR Karnorris Benson, Jr. (19 receptions, 349 yards, 1 TD)

WR Garrett Brown, Jr.

OL Quevalas Murray, R-Sr.

OL Tyler Philpott, So.

OL Matt DeGraffinreed, So.

OL Josh Wineberg, So.

C Jake Thornton, R-So. (Carson Newman transfer)

DE Brian Johnson, R-Sr. (36 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 3 QBH)

DE Andre Whitmore, Sr.

DT Peter Balthrop Jr., Sr. (31 TT, 2 TFL, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 BLK)

DT Andre Shishkin, R-Sr.

LB Christon Gill, Jr.

LB De'Von Richardson, R-Sr. (37 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR)

LB Courtland Carson, Sr. (97 TT, 6 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)

LB K.P. Hicks, R-So.

LB Marcus Stokes, Sr.

CB Jaleel Lorquet, So. (44 TT, 2 INT, 2 PBU

CB Sertonuse Harris Jr., So. (93 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 4 FF)

PK Richard Sigmon, Jr.

P Clark Sechrest, Sr. (64 punts, 41.9 ypp)

BIG LOSS: LB Rock Williams (108 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 4 FF)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 166.91 (45 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 168.82 (96 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Total Offense, 335.73 (88 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 23.36 (78 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 329.36 (120 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 185 (27 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Total Defense, 514.36 (119 in FCS, 9 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 40.82 (117 in FCS, 9 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: Western Carolina has an exceptionally young squad as it moves forward in Speir's second season since he arrived from Appalachian State. The Catamounts' only two wins in the last two seasons are against Division II Mars Hill, which they play again. They also have lost 22 straight SoCon games. But they are switching to a read-option on offense and a 4-3 alignment on defense, hoping brighter days are ahead. Mitchell took over the regular starting role at quarterback as a true freshman after Sullivan was injured. The Catamounts are well served by using both dual-threat signal callers. There's also a double threat at running back with Ramsey and Warren. The Catamounts' defense is deep at defensive back and also has some good returning linebackers despite the loss of Williams, their leading tackler in each of the past two seasons. The Catamounts are one of three FCS teams playing three FBS opponents, so it might be hard to improve a lot in the win-loss column. Gaining a SoCon victory would be a good start.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 29 - at Middle Tennessee

Sept. 7 - at Virginia Tech

Sept. 14 - vs. The Citadel

Sept. 21 - vs. Mars Hill

Sept. 28 - at Samford

Oct. 5 - at Chattanooga

Oct. 12 - at Auburn

Oct. 19 - vs. Wofford

Oct. 26 - vs. Elon

Nov. 9 - at Georgia Southern

Nov. 16 - vs. Furman

Nov. 23 - at Appalachian State

APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS (ineligible for league championship)

LOCATION: Boone, N.C.

COACH: Scott Satterfield (first season at Appalachian State)

LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon; No. 9 TSN Ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jamal Londry-Jackson, Sr. (268-of-406, 3,278 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT; 114 carries, 328 yards, 6 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Ronald Blair, Jr.

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Ricky Ferguson, So.

RB Tysean Holloway, R-Fr.

WR Sean Price, So. (81 receptions, 1,196 yards, 8 TD)

WR Andrew Peacock, Sr. (79 receptions, 795 yards, 4 TD)

WR/RS Tony Washington, Sr. (39 receptions, 472 yards, 3 TD; 27.3-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

WR Malachi Jones, So. (32 receptions, 370 yards, 2 TD)

TE Drew Bailey, Jr.

LT Kendall Lamm, Jr.

LG Shaq Counts, So.

C Graham Fisher, Jr.

RG Alex Acey, Jr.

RG Tucker Lee, Jr.

RT Will Corbin, Jr.

NT Thomas Bronson, So.

NT Stephen Burns, So. (37 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FF)

DE Deuce Robinson, Jr. (39 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 QBH)

OLB Patrick Blalock, Sr. (63 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)

ILB Karl Anderson, Sr.

ILB Brandon McGowan, Jr.

CB Joel Ross, Jr. (46 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR)

CB Rodger Walker, Sr.

SS Doug Middleton, So.

PK Drew Stewart, Sr. (6-of-10 FG, 41 long, 52 points)

BIG LOSSES: RB Steven Miller (239 carries, 1,368 yards, 11 TD; 34 receptions, 377 yards, LB Jeremy Kimbrough (143 TT, 12.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and PK/P Sam Martin (60 punts, 45.9 ypp)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 170.25 (39 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 293.75 (14 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Total Offense, 464 (9 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 32.92 (23 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 190.58 (94 in FCS, 6 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 222.58 (73 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Total Defense, 413.17 (90 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 29.33 (77 in FCS, 6 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: Talk about a wild offseason. First, Appalachian State replaced legendary head coach Jerry Moore after 24 seasons and then the Mountaineers became ineligible for the SoCon title and an FCS playoff bid because it accepted an invitation to join Conference USA on the FBS level next year. Satterfield, who spent 17 of the last 22 years as a student-athlete and assistant coach at ASU, takes the reins for an interesting season ahead. The Mountaineers haven't quite lived up to their talent level in recent seasons - losing home playoff games in three straight seasons - but they are as ready as any program for a move up in levels. Dynamic QB Londry-Jackson is a Walter Payton Award finalist coming off an ACL injury, but to help him through his recovery are seven of his top eight pass catchers from last season, led by Price, Peacock and Washington. They need a running back to replace Miller, but the offensive line returns all five starters. The Mountaineers had one of the top linebacker units in the FCS last season, but there's some inexperience there as they switch to a 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Nate Woody, formerly the defensive whiz at Wofford. A healthier Middleton will boost the secondary, which lost veterans Demetrius McCray and Troy Sanders. An opening win at Montana would set up a potential big run to open the season.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31 - at Montana

Sept. 7 - vs. North Carolina A&T

Sept. 21 - at Elon

Sept. 28 - vs. Charleston Southern

Oct. 5 - at The Citadel

Oct. 12 - vs. Samford

Oct. 19 - at Furman

Oct. 26 - vs. Georgia Southern

Nov. 2 - vs. Chattanooga

Nov. 9 - at Georgia

Nov. 16 - at Wofford

Nov. 23 - vs. Western Carolina

GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (ineligible for league championship)

LOCATION: Statesboro, Ga.

COACH: Jeff Monken (31-12 in fourth season at Georgia Southern)

LAST SEASON: 10-4 overall, 6-2 SoCon; No. 3 TSN Ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jerick McKinnon, Sr. (20-of-49, 597 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT; 269 carries, 1,817 yards, 20 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Lavelle Westbrooks, Sr. (43 TT, 2 INT, 7 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: FB Dominique Swope, Jr. (204 carries, 1,246 yards, 16 TD)

FB William Banks, Sr. (72 carries, 442 yards, 4 TD)

RB Johnathan Bryant, Sr. (55 carries, 506 yards, 2 TD; 7 receptions, 197 yards)

RB Tray Butler, Jr.

WR Zach Walker, Jr. (9 receptions, 343 yards, 3 TD)

WR Kentrellis Showers, Jr. (10 receptions, 130 yards, 2 TD)

LT Garrett Frye, Jr.

LG Trevor McBurnette, Jr.

C Manrey Saint-Amour, Jr.

RG Logan Daves, Jr.

RT Raymond Klugey, Jr.

DT Blake Riley, Sr. (45 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU)

DE Josh Gebhardt, Sr.

DE Javon Mention, Sr.

OLB Kyle Oehlbeck, Sr. (51 TT, 5 TFL)

OLB/S Antwione Williams, Jr.

OLB Patrick Flowe, So.

CB Valdon Cooper, Jr. (33 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU)

CB Deion Stanley, Jr.

CB Nick Wright, Jr.

SS Deshawntee Gallon, So.

P Luke Cherry, Sr.

BIG LOSSES: NG Brent Russell (44 TT, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 BLK) and SS/KR J.J. Wilcox (88 TT, 2 INT, 3 PBU; 25.2-yard KO return average)

2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 399.36 (1 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Passing Offense, 67.50 (120 in FCS, 8 in SoCon); Total Offense, 466.86 (8 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Scoring Offense, 34.50 (12 in FCS, 1 in SoCon); Rushing Defense, 135.07 (36 in FCS, 2 in SoCon); Passing Defense, 209 (53 in FCS, 7 in SoCon); Total Defense, 344.07 (38 in FCS, 4 in SoCon); Scoring Defense, 22 (35 in FCS, 4 in SoCon)

OUTLOOK: Monken says there's still plenty to play for this season, including winning every game. Are you listening, Florida Gators? The Eagles are coming off three straight appearances in the FCS semifinals and would have been a national championship contender if they were eligible for the playoffs. Their triple option will trouble any team, and it led the FCS in rushing yards per game (399.4) last season. With four starters returning on the offensive line, the triple option could be even better - as incredible as that sounds. McKinnon, a Walter Payton Award nominee, gained 1,817 rushing yards last season - the third-highest total in school history behind former Payton winners Adrian Peterson and Jayson Foster. Swope's 1,246 rushing yards weren't too shabby, either. The Eagles don't pass often, but they pick up big chunks of yards when they do. It's a different story on defense as the graduation losses were significant. Overshadowed players like DE Mention and CB Westbrooks will have their shot at the spotlight. As the FBS-bound Eagles try to win the unofficial SoCon title, they will make visits to fellow defending champions Wofford and Appalachian State.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31 - vs. Savannah State

Sept. 7 - vs. St. Francis (Pa.)

Sept. 14 - at Wofford

Sept. 28 - vs. Chattanooga

Oct. 5 - at Samford

Oct. 12 - vs. The Citadel

Oct. 26 - at Appalachian State

Nov. 2 - vs. Furman

Nov. 9 - vs. Western Carolina

Nov. 16 - at Elon

Nov. 23 - at Florida

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