Southern FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

George Hammond

Southern FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Southern FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

SoCon FCS Football 2015 Preseason All-Conference Teams


One year after the departure of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, Chattanooga has become the dominant player in the Southern Conference. The Mocs (10-4, 7-0), who lost to New Hampshire, 35-30, in the FCS playoff quarterfinals last year, are a heavy favorite to win their third consecutive league title. While the SoCon has lost some of its luster with Georgia Southern and App State gone, that contest at frigid New Hampshire showed Chattanooga can play with the big boys – if there was any doubt. And with quarterback Jacob Huesman, also the coach’s son, returning for his final season, the Mocs figure to be a prominent player again on the national scene.


1. Chattanooga

Coach Russ Huesman begins his seventh season (41-29 at Chattanooga) with a veteran team. Prior to Huesman’s arrival, Chattanooga had only four winning seasons in the previous 23 seasons, but the Mocs have had five winning campaigns in the last six years and with 12 Mocs receiving some type of preseason all-SoCon mention, they figure to be the team to beat. Start with quarterback Jacob Huesman, who is the only Moc in history to record 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his career. He has won back-to-back SoCon Offensive Player of the Year honors and is this year’s preseason pick for that honor. In addition to Huesman, there are six other returning starters on offense, seven on defense and two special teams players. Also receiving preseason all-SoCon recognition were: offensive linemen Corey Levin, defensive linemen Josh Freeman and Keionta Davis, linebacker Nakevion Leslie, defensive backs Dee Virgin and Lucas Webb and placekicker Henrique Ribeiro. Second-team honors went to safety Cedric Nettles offensive lineman Synjen Herron, wide receiver C.J. Board and center Jacob Revis. The Mocs must replace standout Davis Tull on the defensive line, but it appears Chattanooga has the depth to cover the loss. The Mocs have a tough opener when they host Ohio Valley Conference champion and FCS national power Jacksonville State on September 5.


2. Samford

If anyone can challenge the Mocs, it appears Samford might be the team. The Bulldogs were picked second in the preseason SoCon coaches/media poll and have a new coach in Chris Hatcher who succeeds Pat Sullivan. The former head coach at Murray State will have lofty standards to uphold. Samford has posted four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1999 and has had three straight seasons of at least seven wins since 1962. The Bulldogs have a veteran club, too, with seven starters returning on offense and seven on defense. Senior defensive lineman Michael Pierce, who led the defensive line with 35 tackles in 2014, will key the unit. Pierce, a transfer from Tulane, is the preseason SoCon Defensive Player of the Year recipient. Samford will miss the talents of safety Jaquiski Tartt, who was a second-round draft choice by the San Francisco 49ers, but the Bulldogs have all-SoCon picks in cornerbacks James Bradberry and Jamerson Blount to fill the void. Linebacker Justin Cooper also returns. On offense, quarterback Michael Eubank (6-5, 250) returns. Last year, the Arizona State transfer threw for 2,136 yards and 12 touchdowns. Denzel Williams returns at running back and Karel Hamilton, who led the team with 55 receptions, also returns.


3. Wofford

The Terriers (6-5, 4-3) have compiled an uncharacteristic 11-11 overall record in the last two years and haven’t made the FCS playoffs since 2012. It might be difficult to make the playoffs again this year with Chattanooga definitely the team to beat in the SoCon, but with 19 returning starters, veteran coach Mike Ayers has the makings of a contender. The running game, which usually is a Wofford staple, should be good again with fullback Lorenzo Long, halfback Ray Smith and quarterback Evan Jacks, who started the first six games last year before suffering a season-ending injury. Wofford averaged 296.7 yards rushing in 2014, good enough for third nationally and second in the SoCon behind fellow run-oriented team The Citadel.  The defensive front seven had three preseason All-SoCon picks: nose tackle E.J. Speller and linebackers Terrance Morris and Drake Michaelson. The pass defense must improve if the Terriers are to contend. Last year, Wofford was 74th nationally in passing yards allowed.


4. Western Carolina

In some places, a 7-5 record  (5-2 in the SoCon) isn’t much to get excited about. In Cullowhee, N.C., it was a big deal. That 7-5 mark last year gave WCU its first winning regular season since 2005 and just its second winning mark since 2001. The five league wins matched a school best and the second-place finish in the Southern Conference was the school’s highest since 1986. And with most of the starters returning on both sides of the ball, excitement is building for another season – and that’s not been the case for several years in western North Carolina. The turnaround has been directed by Mark Speir, who will enter his fourth season. Offensively, quarterback Troy Mitchell, a second-team All SoCon selection, leads the attack. Mitchell set a school record for total yards last year and became the first WCU player to pass the 3,000-yard mark in total yards. WCU has its top receivers returning in Terryon Robinson, Spearman Robinson and Karnorris Benson. In addition, running back Darius Ramsey, who had 763 yards rushing in 2014, leads the ground attack. Defensively, WCU is counting on a healthy linebacker Tyson Dickson, who had 44 tackles in the first half of last season before getting injured.



The Paladins (3-9, 2-5) won their first two games last year then lost eight straight to struggle through a frustrating season filled with injury woes. But with eight starters returning on both sides of the ball, fifth-year coach Bruce Fowler hopes the dark days are behind his team. Leading the way will be redshirt junior quarterback Reese Hannon, who suffered a fractured ankle in the season opener last year. Hannon, who is eighth on the school’s all-time passing yards list, has three receivers back in tight end Duncan Fletcher and wideouts Jordan Snellings and Andrej Suttles. The offense, however, must find a replacement for running back Hank McCloud. Defensively, linebacker Cory Magwood (the leading tackler in the SoCon last year) and cornerback Reggie Thomas lead the unit. The Paladins also are counting on the return of linebacker Carl Rider, who was lost for the season in the opener last year. But if Furman has success this season, it will have earned it with arguably the toughest opening six games of any team in the FCS: Coastal Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Central Florida, VMI, South Carolina State and at Chattanooga.


6. The Citadel

The Bulldogs (5-7, 3-4) were painfully close to going 5-2 in the league when they lost heartbreakers to Samford and Wofford. Although they lose starting quarterback and leading rusher Aaron Miller, running back Vinny Miller returns as does wide receiver Alex Glover, plus all five offensive line positions. Cam Jackson and Dominique Allen, a pair of sophomores, are competing at quarterback, but Jackson will start at slotback if he isn’t the quarterback. Last year in that position, he rushed for 505 yards (8.9 yards per carry). Senior Sam Frye, a preseason all-SoCon pick, heads up the offensive line. Last year, The Citadel led the SoCon in rushing and was second nationally with an average of 347.2 yards per game.


7. Mercer

Veteran coach Bobby Lamb welcomes back 10 starters on offense and all 11 starters on defense for the Bears (6-6, 1-6). Mercer, which was in its first SoCon season last year, saw four losses come by a touchdown or less. The Bears lost to Samford, 21-18, and league champ Chattanooga, 38-31. The offensive leaders will be quarterback John Russ, who threw for 2,167 yards last year, all-SoCon running back Alex Lakes (1,107 yards rushing) and top receiver JT Palmer (39 receptions, 460 yards). Defensively, cornerback Alex Avant and linebacker Tyler Ward will lead the unit that had a SoCon-leading 13 interceptions. In addition, Chandler Curtis, who had four total return touchdowns (three punt and one kickoff) in 2014 is back.


8. VMI

Scott Wachenheim takes over as head coach in Lexington, Va., where the Keydets (2-10, 1-6) have nine starters returning on offense and seven on defense. He will install a spread offense and change the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme in hopes of bettering a unit that was ranked 117th nationally in yards allowed (496.4 ypg) and 115th in points allowed (41.4). Wachenheim also hired Tom Clark, a former defensive coordinator at Liberty, to run the defense. Al Cobb, last year’s SoCon Freshman of the Year, is back at quarterback. In 2014, Cobb had 2,971 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns. Wide receivers Aaron Sanders and Dane Forlines, who combined for 96 receptions, will be back as will running backs Brice Tucker and Derrick Ziglar, who was hampered by injuries last year. Linebacker Ryan Francis, VMI’s top tackler last season, also returns.


Conference Game To Watch:

Chattanooga at Samford, September 19 – If all goes according to script, these two SoCon heavyweights’ early season meeting will have a huge say in the league outcome. They were the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 pick, respectively, in the league’s preseason media day. Last year, the Mocs prevailed 38-24 after leading 24-3.


Another Conference Game To Watch:

Chattanooga at Wofford, October 24 – Any game involving the Mocs this season will be big, but this contest later in the season could prove pivotal in the league standings. Last year, Chattanooga prevailed 31-13 to clinch an FCS playoff berth for the first time since 1984, but the contest was 4-13 at intermission.


Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Jacksonville State at Chattanooga, September 5 – Are you getting the picture? Not only is this a big game for the Mocs, it’s a big one nationally as this is the only contest this season that pits respective FCS conference champions against each other. Jax State won the OVC crown in 2014.


Another Non-Conference Game To Watch:

South Carolina State at Furman, October 3 – This is an interesting in-state rivalry game with the Bulldogs of the MEAC visiting the Paladins. Last year, the two met for the first time since 1998 with South Carolina State winning, 17-7. Furman leads the series 10-5.


FBS Upset Watch:

Wofford at Idaho, September 19 – This is the first meeting between Wofford and the Vandals, a member of the Sun Belt Conference. It also might be a good time to catch the Vandals as they visit USC the week before. Plus, Idaho was 1-10 last season and just 1-7 in the Sun Belt. This is a winnable game for Wofford.


Another FBS Upset Watch:

Western Carolina at Tennessee, September 19 – The Catamounts, who also face Texas A&M this season, went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and gave a respectable performance against the Crimson Tide before losing, 48-14. They’re catching the Vols the week after they host Oklahoma, too, so Tennessee should be in letdown mode.


Top NFL Prospect:

Cory Magwood, LB, Furman – The 6-2, 228-pounder led the SoCon in tackles and solo tackles last year and had a career-high 18 tackles against Gardner-Webb. A good pass defender, which might be his ticket to the next level.


Coach on the Hot Seat:

It’s his first season, but fans in Birmingham, Ala., will expect Chris Hatcher’s veteran Samford team to battle Chattanooga for the SoCon title. He’s also replacing a legendary figure in former Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan, so, yea, fans will be expecting a lot.


Freshman To Watch: (Complete FCS Recruit Rankings)

The Citadel’s running back Rod Johnson has 4.5 speed and had 1,621 yards and 24 touchdowns in his last year at high school. The Bulldogs think he can make an impact somewhere.  


Most Overrated:

If Samford is to challenge Chattanooga, quarterback Michael Eubank will need to be outstanding. He has played well, but the Bulldogs would love to see his touchdown-to-interception ratio (12 TDs and 8 interceptions) be a little better this season.


Most Underrated:

Chattanooga was able to redshirt Toyvian Brand last year because it had Davis Tull. Now that Tull is gone, Brand figures to be someone to reckon with on the Mocs’ defensive front.


FCS All-Conference Teams

FCS Conference Previews