SOCON: Week 1 Preview

The opening of the 2017 season is cause for much rejoicing for those of us who have been in FCS football withdrawal since last fall. But it’s here! Week 1! The slate for the opening week in the Southern Conference has everything: a conference game, an OOC game, lower Division games, and FBS foes. There are lots of questions about the conference teams this year. There are new coaches and new starters. How they will pan out is yet to be seen. Some of these questions may be answered this week, some may not.

(As always, hyperlinks in blue and all times eastern.  I usually put links to the game notes, but they are not out yet and I need to publish early.  However, I do have the links to the various schools football pages though.  I hope it is convenient for your use.)

Jacksonville at Mercer   Thursday 7PM (Mercer Site) (ESPN3)

Mercer begins its season against Pioneer league Jacksonville U. The big questions for the Bears will be can they replace their QB? Can they replace all the leadership lost to its first graduating class? In its three years in the SOCON Mercer has gone 7-11, but it was 4-4 last year. Not bad for a team beginning its 5th year of football this season. However, its transition is now over. It needs to start winning more of the close ones if it wants to be a force in the SOCON. It starts out the season with the Dolphins of Jacksonville University who went 5-5 last year. These teams have met only once before in 2013 during Mercers start up year when they played in the Pioneer League. Mercer won that match up 45-42.

Mercer will obviously be warming up its new QB in this game. It does get back junior running back Alex Lakes who was second in rushing for the Bears behind departed QB John Russ. Also returning are 4 of their top 5 receivers from last year including Sophomore TE Sam Walker and Junior WR Marquise Irvin, both of whom made all SOCON teams. They do have some holes to fill on the offensive line though.

The Bears defense also has some holes to fill from graduation. They return 5 starters from a squad that allowed 404 yards a game and 5.8 yards per play. They allowed opponents to convert on 3rd downs about 41% of the time. They logged 23 sacks last year and snagged 8 interceptions.

Mercer was second in the SOCON in turnover margin at +8 and held the ball 29:40 average per game. One area for improvement will be in penalties. They averaged a conference high 68 penalty yards a game with an average of about 7 penalties per game. A few of their drives in close games were sabotaged by those penalties last year.

Jacksonville has a fairly balanced offense with a tendency to run a little more often than pass. They averaged 425 yards a game last year and scored about 33 points a game. On Defense the Dolphins gave up 414 yards each game and 33.3 points. There is no doubt that the Dolphins will be outmatched by Mercer, but Jacksonville brings a ton of players back and could make a game of it if Mercer doesn’t have it game face on. Still, with lots of new faces starting, the Bears will want to make an impression and they should take this one on a hot Thursday night in Macon 38-10.

Kennesaw State at #17 Samford   Thursday 7PM EDT (Samford site) (ESPN3)

Samford was a passing machine last year. Devlin Hodges, now a Jr, racked up 4088 passing yards with nearly a 71% completion rate. He was the third leading passer in all of FCS last year. He also tossed just 8 interceptions in 12 games. Had Samford had any sort of running game they might have won 2-3 more games and gone further in the playoffs rather than losing in the first round. They totaled just 1161 yards on the ground for the year and had 7 games with under 100 yards rushing (with 4 games under 50 yards!). Their time of possession was under 25 minutes a game on average. Yup, their defense was on the field a lot last year.

On average they allowed opponents to rack up 421 yards a game last year. Those stats were a bit skewed by Miss State’s 669 yards, but Central Arkansas, UTC, and The Citadel all gained over 500 on them. They only held opponents to about a 40% third down conversion rate. They did record 24 sacks and 11 interceptions though. They get back most of their defense so if they can stay rested or have better depth, they might hold down opposing offensives a bit better this year.

On the flip side, they scored early and often. Their scoring drives usually took only 1-2 minutes. Hodges is dangerous on the short passes as well as throwing the deep ball. The Dogs lost a bit of their receiver corps, but they are still stacked. As mentioned, they had an atrocious time of possession which was the consequence of a mediocre 35% third down conversion rate. If they can get their running game in gear, and if Hodges continues to put up impressive numbers, they will get something special going this year.

Last year Kennesaw State’s low point came with an opening game loss to ETSU. Its high point was probably its victory over a downtrodden Furman team. The Owls went 8-3, although three victories came against sub-Div I opponents. It was a descent season for a second year program. Their spread option offense averaged 321 yards rushing and 159 yards through the air per game. They converted on third downs 49% of the time. Again, these numbers are probably padded a bit due to their opponents, but they definitely have something going on down in Georgia. On defense they allowed only about 321 yards a game, but they gave up well over 400+ yards per game against better competition in Furman, Gardner-Webb and Liberty. One thing the Owls obviously have going for them in their third year, is they did not lose very much talent from last year. Ball control will key for them in this game. They will need to keep chunking out first downs and keep the ball away from Hodges hot arm, and wear down the Samford defense in the process. If they can do that they might have a chance.

Samford needs to make a statement early. They pulled off a nice road victory early last year at Central Arkansas after destroying Mars Hill in week one. If they can record a convincing victory here, it will look much nicer come November, especially if they are on the bubble. Bulldogs win 37-24.

VMI at Air Force 2PM EDT  (VMI game notes) (ESPN3)

With only 4 offensive starters returning from last year’s 3-8 team, VMI will have a tough road to hoe. And that includes losing their standout QB AL Cobb. Luckily they have a descent RB returning in Sophomore Daz Palmer. They also have a fairly capable line backer corps coming back.

It looks like RSo Austin Coulling, who had some moderate playing time last year, will take over at QB. He has big shoes to fill even if the Keydets didn’t put up big numbers. The Keydets averaged just under 350 yards a game last year with about a 2-1 pass to rush yards. They were dead last in the SOCON in third down conversions at 33%. Worse yet, they were at minus 3 in turnover margin. One bright spot for the Keydets was their league leading low in penalties per game and penalty yards per game. They are disciplined.

Last year on defense, VMI held opponent to a decent 37% third down conversion rate. They did give up some big plays though. They gave up 430 yards a game on average including 186 on the ground and 244 through the air. They registered 14 sacks and 7 interceptions on the year. But they get back 7 starters including standout linebackers Alan Cratsenberg and Ryan Francis, and it should only get better for them with that experience returning.

Starting out with a road game at AF will be a tall task for this VMI team. The Falcons went 10-3 including a bowl victory last year. But opening games against FCS teams can sometime breed complacency for FBS teams. AF will win, but VMI will make them earn it. Look for AF to win 37-10.

Newberry at #14 The Citadel 6PM (The Citadel site) (ESPN3)

Normally I hate games against Div II opponents. There is everything to lose and not much to be gained. But this year, with the Bulldogs doing some reloading, this is a good time for a DIV II opponent.

Newberry was pretty good last year. They went 10-2 and lost in the first round of the Div II playoffs. They had a really high powered offense that scored 60 TDs. But they are even worse off than the Bulldogs in regard to graduation loses. The Bulldogs return only 3 offensive starters. But those three are pretty impressive including QB Dominique Allen and A-Back Cam Jackson. With The Citadel rotating players in and out all the time, many of the expected starters this year have had lots of previous playing time as well. There may be a few true freshmen that may also play a part. Time will tell. The OL will be the biggest question mark for the Dogs.

The Bulldogs defense was not hurt as bad as the offensive due to graduation, but they did lose a couple All Americans. They will still have Sr DB Kalik Williams, SOCON preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and 5 other starters returning from last year’s squad that held opponents to just 303 yards and 20.5 points a game. The Bulldog defense won quite a few games last year.

Another area of concern for The Citadel is the kicking game as it returns a sophomore for place kicking and will have a true freshman doing the punting. Kicking won a couple games last year as well.

As mentioned, this game comes at the right time. The Bulldogs will need to shake the kinks out of many aspects of the game. It is best that they get it done here, rather than against Samford or Wofford.   The Dogs may take a few series to get the rhythm down so execution may be a bit sloppy to start with, but they should take care of business in any event due to their depth and the constant grind of the option on Newberry’s defense. Expect the Dogs to roll 42-14.

Furman at #8 Wofford   7PM (Furman site) (Wofford site) (ESPN3)

Last year, The Citadel got off to any early start in the conference race by beating both Mercer and then Furman to start the season. This year Wofford plays Furman and then Mercer and hopes it can also get an early lead in the conference race. With Furman sporting a new coach and Wofford’s success in the playoffs last year, the Terriers clearly have high hopes for this game. The Terriers have beaten Furman twice in a row and have not allowed a Paladin victory in Spartanburg since 2006.

Wofford returns a bunch of folks on both sides of the ball. The offense will have some holes to fill in the backfield and offensive line, but they return Sr Brandon Goodson at QB.  They faced just a few QB issues last year, but it didn’t seem to hurt them too bad. Wofford averaged a respectable 280 yards a game on the ground last year and 63 through the air. They were more than good at converting third downs at 44% on the season. They also benefited from a turnover margin of +8. And as is to be expected for an option team, they held on to the ball quite a bit; over 34 minutes a game.

But what won them many games was their defense. They return 7 starters from last year’s squad that held opponents to just 287 yards a game. That was good enough to lead the SOCON and place them at #5 in all of FCS. They also held opponents to 17.1 points a game (SOCON #1, FCS #6). On average they held teams to 102 on the ground per game. They chalked up 18 interceptions and 30 sacks as well. There is no doubt that they will be a defensive powerhouse again this year.

Furman has nowhere to go this year but up. Suffering one of their worse seasons in a while, the Paladins get a new coach this year in Clay Hendrix. Hendrix, a 1986 Furman grad, finished up ten years at AF and was a former position and assistant coach at Furman for 19 years. He is coming home and the excitement in Greenville must be as high as it has been in years.

Furman started out last season with a meat grinder schedule and they must have hit a low point after starting 0-6 for the first time ever. They were not a bad team as far as talent goes. They just never seemed to gel very well. They return only 4 on each side of the ball, but they get all their special team players back.

Last year the Paladins lost their starting QB PJ Blazejowski in the third game against UTC. As the most experienced and capable QB available, It looks he will start for the Paladins this year. Furman averaged nearly 400 yards a game with the bulk coming through the air. How fast Blazejowski can get back in the groove may well determine how Furman’s season goes. Whether they can establish a credible rushing game also remains to be seen. They do return their leading rusher, Sr Antonio Wilcox who ran for 398 yards last year.

Last year on defense Furman allowed a respectable 373 yards and 27 points a game. They had 12 sacks and grabbed 7 interceptions. They were not bad and many of their games were close. Against the run, the Paladins allowed 192 yards a game. They allowed Wofford to rush for over 300 last year, but held The Citadel to just under 200 so they know how to defend the option. As always against the option, disciplined assignment play will be key for their defense. In this opening game, that may be a tall order.

Can the Paladins win this? Season openers can produce some crazy games, so yes they can. Anything can happen in this battle of the upstate, but Wofford is positioned nicely to win this game in their quest for the title. Look for a close game, but Wofford takes it 27-20.

Limestone at ETSU  7PM (ETSU site) (ESPN3)

The Bucs of ETSU are starting their third year back playing football. They had a couple nice victories last year against Kennesaw State and especially Samford. Those victories were due to extremely good ball control. With most of their team coming back ETSU will obviously benefit from that experience. They return 18 starters. But they are obviously still trying to find their way. Opening against Div II Limestone, in just their fourth year of football, may be just what they need to start the season.

Last year the Bucs were last in the SOCON in points per game and yards per game. But they were not last in most statistical categories. They are making progress and could very well make some waves. They had a good 39% third down conversion rate. They can also move the ball and hold onto it. They had a 31+ minute average for time of possession per game. They were +3 in turnovers. They had the highest red-zone scoring rate in the SOCON at 90%. But it should be pointed out that they did not have a huge number of trips into the red zone so that is a bit skewed. But they are obviously doing some things right.

Their offense will be led by Jr Austin Herink who went 161-270 last year with 8 interceptions and 1695 yards. Running back Jajuan Stinson, Jr, was ninth in the SOCON averaging 54 yards a game. They also have a kicker who went 12/16 in FGs with long of 43.

On Defense they have a couple standout folks like linebacker Dylan Weigel and Defensive lineman Jason Maduafokwa. Last year the Bucs allowed 380 yards a game and 28 points a game. They had 14 sacks and only 2 interceptions.

They should have no issues with Limestone. If they do, then their next game, against JMU, may be even more painful. Look for ETSU to roll in the first game in their new stadium, 41-3.

Western Carolina at Hawaii   11:59PM EDT (WCU site) (Hawaii Radio)

The Catamounts had a pretty disappointing season last year. That was unfortunate considering they have some good talent. Their biggest problem was defense. To be specific, they had none. That is a little harsh, but when you look at the numbers it becomes painfully obvious that something was wrong. They ditched their defense coach mid season, but the damage was probably done. Hopefully they can build one this year with their new defensive coordinator.

Last year WCU gave up 522 yards a game. That was last in the SOCON and next to last in FCS. Against the run, they gave up 309 yards a game, which was again last in the SOCON and last in FCS. They were better against the pass but not by much. They gave up 213 yards a game with just 9 sacks and 6 interceptions all year.  Their defense returns 7 starters so they should be better.

On the flip side, their offense was not bad last year. They will again be led by Tyrie Adams at QB. As a freshman last year he went 217/342 for 2568 yards (FCS #28) with 9 interceptions and 15 TDS. Not bad for a freshman. He is only going to get better and will be one of the premier QBs in the SOCON in short order. They also return Sr Detrez Newsome at running back. He piled up 1031 rushing yards (SOCON #2, FCS #23). The Cats averaged 387 yards a game with 234 through the air on average. Their offense remains fairly intact with 8 starters returning so they may have an impact on the SOCON race.

As with all teams making the trip to paradise, the time change and distractions may take its toll on them. Their time zone has always been Hawaii’s 12th man. The Rainbow Warriors went 7-7 last year including a bowl victory (the Hawaii Bowl…go figure). As a comparison for those who don’t follow them too closely, Hawaii beat Tenn-Martin last year 41-36 in week 3. If the WCU coaches can keep the Cats focused and acclimate them to the time change, WCU could give Hawaii some fits. It may still be tough for the Catamounts. Expect Hawaii to win 41-27.

Written by 

Born and raised in New Jersey, but gravitated south to graduate from The Citadel in 1985. Served 23+ years in the USAF retiring in 2008 as a Field Grade Officer. Logged 4600+ flying hours as an Aircraft Commander and Instructor Pilot in the KC135. After retiring from active duty, worked as a Program Manager on various Air Force weapon systems. Retired completely as of May 2016. I have followed SOCON football since my days as a cadet. I like statistics, but also find value in looking at the intangibles as well, such as a team's emotions and motivation.

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