2017 Southern Conference Season Preview

(AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - The Citadel has won two straight Southern Conference titles and led the FCS in rushing yards per game last season, but second-year coach Brent Thompson says his team won't overwhelm opponents with talent.

He says the Bulldogs need to win with work ethic.

The Citadel isn't the conference favorite this season - that's nothing new - and some potential returning starters were lost in the offseason, but the rejuvenated program doesn't intend to take a step backward.

Besides, the Bulldogs are too busy moving forward running the triple-option offense.

"With our older guys, they've been through a lot," said Thompson, who won his first 10 games in a 10-2 rookie season. "One thing that I always comment to these guys about is these guys remember when we were 5-7 (in prior seasons) and we were struggling to win any game at that point. We were trying to find a way to get to six wins. We felt that six wins were the benchmark of our program.

"Well, it speaks highly to where these guys are at right now. Now we're sitting here talking about going to the playoffs and making two great runs and beating an SEC football team (South Carolina in 2015). They know how it's done. The only thing that I've got to do is make sure that they remember and that they teach the younger guys that it didn't just all of a sudden happen."

The Bulldogs hope to have another SoCon title and an FCS playoff bid locked down by the time they face 2016 FBS national champion Clemson on Nov. 18. They were one of a SoCon-record four playoff teams last season, joining Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford, which advanced the furthest in reaching the national quarterfinals.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 Southern Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Wofford

2. Chattanooga

3. The Citadel

4. Samford

5. Mercer

6. Western Carolina

7. Furman

8. East Tennessee State

9. VMI

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. WOFFORD TERRIERS

LOCATION: Spartanburg, South Carolina

STADIUM: Gibbs Stadium

COACH: Mike Ayers (197-136-1, 29 seasons; 208-157-2 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 10-4, 6-2 Southern (Tie/2nd); No. 9 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lorenzo Long, FB; Anton Wahrby, OL; Jaleel Green, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Brandon Goodson, QB, Sr. (77 carries, 361 yards, 2 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Miles Brown, DE, Jr. (48 TT, 12.5 TFL, 2 Sacks, 2 PBU, 3 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Joe Newman, QB, So.; Blake Morgan, HB, So.; Andre Stoddard, FB, Jr.; Jason Hill, WR, So.; Chandler Gouger, TE, Sr.; Rob Daniels, OL, Sr.; Ross Demmel, OL, Jr.; Tyler Vaughn, DE, Sr.; Mikel Horton, DT, So.; Datavious Wilson, LB, So.; Terrance Morris, LB, Sr.; Devin Watson, S, So.; Malik Rivera, S, Sr.

OUTLOOK: This year's nucleus solidified at midseason last year as the Terriers rattled off six straight wins after a 4-3 start, advancing past Charleston Southern and The Citadel in the FCS playoffs on the way to the quarterfinals. The defense is particularly stout against the run, led by Brown and Vaughn up front, and Wilson led the team in tackles as a freshman. Goodson is excellent at running the triple-option offense, but a late-season injury opened up playing time for Newman, who's even more dangerous as a rusher. The big loss is Long, the 2016 SoCon rushing champ. Ayers' 30th season in Spartanburg should be memorable, and he will pass 200 wins with the Terriers.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Furman*

Sept. 9, at Mercer*

Sept. 23, Gardner-Webb

Sept. 30, at Presbyterian

Oct. 7, Western Carolina*

Oct. 14, at The Citadel*

Oct. 21, Samford*

Oct. 28, at East Tennessee State*

Nov. 4, Chattanooga*

Nov. 11, at VMI*

Nov. 18, at South Carolina

* - Southern Conference game

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2. CHATTANOOGA MOCS

LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tennessee

STADIUM: Finley Stadium

COACH: Tom Arth (first season; 40-8 overall)

2016 Records: 9-4, 6-2 Southern (Tie/2nd); No. 13 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Corey Levin, OG; Keionta Davis, DE; Nakevion Leslie, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Alejandro Bennifield, QB, Sr. (213 of 331, 2,622 yards, 26 TD, 7 INT; 114 carries, 377 yards, 6 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dale Warren, LB, Sr. (91 TT, 19 TFL, 6 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Richardre Bagley, RB, Sr.; Darrell Bridges, RB, Sr. (Presbyterian grad transfer); James Stovall, WR, Sr.; Alphonso Stewart, WR, Sr.; Bingo Morton, WR, Jr.; Josh Cardiello, OL, Sr.; Malcolm White. OL. So.; Isaiah Mack, DL, Jr.; Taylor Reynolds, DL, Sr.; Tae Davis, LB, Sr.; Lucas Webb, DB, Sr.; C.J. Fritz, DB, Jr.; Kareem Orr, DB, Jr. (Arizona State transfer); Trevor Wright, DB, Sr.; Colin Brewer, P, So.;

OUTLOOK: Arth has made the move from Division III John Carroll to take over the SoCon's winningest program in recent years. His team lost plenty of key seniors, but talent still abounds. Bennifield returns off a breakout season and the combo of Bagley and Bridges will help overcome the loss of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Craine. On defense, the secondary is outstanding with Orr joining a nucleus of Webb, Fritz and Wright. They're retooling up front following the loss of Davis. Warren fills the box score at linebacker. A strong non-conference precedes a softer start to the conference schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 26, Jacksonville State (at Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama)

Sept. 9, at LSU

Sept. 16, UT Martin

Sept. 23, at VMI*

Sept. 30, Western Carolina*

Oct. 7, Furman*

Oct. 14, at Mercer*

Oct. 21, The Citadel*

Oct. 28, at Samford*

Nov. 4, at Wofford*

Nov. 18, East Tennessee State*

* - Southern Conference game

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3. THE CITADEL BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina

STADIUM: Johnson Hagood Stadium

COACH: Brent Thompson (10-2, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 10-2, 8-0 Southern (1st); No. 10 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (3 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Tyler Renew, FB; Tevin Floyd, LB; Dee Delaney, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Cam Jackson, RB, Sr. (95 carries, 692 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kailik Williams, S, Sr. (103 TT, 10 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dominique Allen, QB, Sr.; Brandon Rainey, FB, R-Fr.; Raleigh Webb, WR, R-Fr.; Josh LeBlanc, WR, So.; Drew McEntyre, OL, So.; Tyler Davis, OL, Jr.; Ken Allen, DL, Jr.; Jonathan King, DL, Sr.; Myles Pierce, LB, Sr.; Jalen Stevens, LB, Sr. (UConn transfer); Quinlan Washington, LB/KR, Jr.; Ben Roberts, DB, Sr.; Jacob Godek, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: The two-time defending SoCon champs remain in the mix for another title, but the Bulldogs lost significant talent this offseason, including Delaney to a graduate transfer (Miami) and left tackle Isaiah Pinson to an early pursuit of a pro career. The Bulldogs led the FCS in rushing offense, but while Allen again leads the triple option, he's one of only three returning offensive starters. Jackson averaged over seven yards per carry and the Bulldogs always spread out the handoffs. While the Bulldogs struggled to defend the pass, Williams returns as the SoCon's preseason defensive player of the year. The Bulldogs cap the regular season against FBS national champion Clemson.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Newberry

Sept. 9, Presbyterian

Sept. 16, at East Tennessee State*

Sept. 30, at Samford*

Oct. 7, Mercer*

Oct. 14, Wofford*

Oct. 21, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 28, VMI*

Nov. 4, Western Carolina*

Nov. 11, at Furman*

Nov. 18, at Clemson

* - Southern Conference game

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4. SAMFORD BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Birmingham, Alabama

STADIUM: Seibert Stadium

COACH: Chris Hatcher (13-10, two seasons; 134-67 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 7-5, 5-3 Southern (4th); No. 23 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Karel Hamilton, WR; Emmanuel Obajimi, WR; Jamerson Blount, FS

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Devlin Hodges, QB, R-Jr. (375 of 530, 4,088 yards, 36 TD, 8 INT; 111 carries, 222 yards, 4 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Shaheed Salmon, LB, Sr. (93 TT, 13 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FF, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: K'rondis Larry, RB, Sr.; Justin Curry, RB, R-So.; Roland Adams, RB, Jr.; Treyvon Paulk, RB, Jr. (Hutchinson CC transfer); Kelvin McKnight, WR, Jr.; Andrew Harris, WR, Jr.; Antwan Johnson, OL, R-Jr.; Nick Nixon, OL, So.; Ahmad Gooden, DL, R-Jr.; Xavier Forrest, DL, Sr.; Deion Pierre, LB, Sr.; Omari Williams, CB, Sr.; Marquis McCullum, CB, R-Sr.; Sam Pettway, SS, R-Sr.; Austin Barnard, PK, R-Sr.

OUTLOOK: Despite a late-season slump, the Bulldogs were pleased with their playoff season a year ago. In Hodges, they feature the 2016 SoCon offensive player of the year, but only one of his top three wide receivers, McKnight (70 receptions), returns from the No. 1-ranked offense in the conference. As a result, the Bulldogs seek to jump-start a sagging run game, and Larry should be better. The defensive line will be strong, and there's All-America candidates behind it in Salmon and Williams.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Kennesaw State

Sept. 7, West Alabama

Sept. 16, at Georgia

Sept. 23, at Western Carolina*

Sept. 30, The Citadel*

Oct. 7, at VMI*

Oct. 21, at Wofford*

Oct. 28, Chattanooga*

Nov. 4, at Mercer*

Nov. 11, East Tennessee State*

Nov. 18, Furman*

* - Southern Conference game

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5. MERCER BEARS

LOCATION: Macon, Georgia

STADIUM: Moye Complex

COACH: Bobby Lamb (27-19, four seasons; 94-59 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 Southern (5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: John Russ, QB; Bret Niederreither, OL; Tosin Aguebor, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Marquise Irvin, WR/PR, Jr. (65 receptions, 766 yards, 11 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Isaiah Buehler, DE, R-Jr. (31 TT, 7 TFL, 3 Sack, 2 PBU, 2 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kaelan Riley, QB, R-Fr.; Tanner Brumby, QB, R-Jr.; C.J. Leggett, RB, R-Jr. (Georgia Tech transfer); Chandler Curtis, WR/RS, Sr.; Avery Ward, WR, Sr.; Sam Walker, TE, R-Jr.; Thomas Marchman, OL, Sr.; Caleb Yates, OL, Sr.; Austin Barrett, DL, Sr.; Dorian Kithcart, DL, R-So.; Lee Bennett, LB, Sr.; LeMarkus Bailey, LB, Sr.; Will Coneway, LB, R-So.; Kyle Trammell, LB, Sr.; Cole Fisher, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Having reached .500 in the SoCon last season, the next step is for Mercer's young program is to consistently beat the top-tier programs and move into the last-season title race. An early game against Wofford impacts that prospect greatly. Russ, who was the starting quarterback in all four seasons after the Bears returned to football, is gone, leaving Brumby or Riley to take over. There's strength in the skill positions, especially with Irvin. The defense, featuring Buehler and the linebackers, has room for improvement. Oh yes - the Bears are playing Auburn and Alabama out of conference.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Jacksonville

Sept. 9, Wofford*

Sept. 16, at Auburn

Sept. 23, at East Tennessee State*

Sept. 30, VMI*

Oct. 7, at The Citadel*

Oct. 14, Chattanooga*

Oct. 21, at Furman*

Nov. 4, Samford*

Nov. 11, at Western Carolina*

Nov. 18, at Alabama

* - Southern Conference game

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6. WESTERN CAROLINA CATAMOUNTS

LOCATION: Cullowhee, North Carolina

STADIUM: E.J. Whitmire Stadium

COACH: Mark Speir (19-38, five seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-7 Southern (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Spearman Robinson, WR; Tyson Dickson, LB; Fred Payne, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Detrez Newsome, RB/KR, Sr. (156 carries, 1,031 yards, 10 TD; 31 receptions, 342 yards, 4 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Keion Crossen, DB, Sr. (61 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tyrie Adams, QB, R-So.; Terryon Robinson, WR, R-Sr.; Steffon Hill, WR, R-Sr.; Aubry Payne, TE, So.; Tyler Sexton, TE, R-Sr.; Nathan Dalton, OL, R-Jr.; Ezavian Dunn, DT, Sr.; Tyler Junius, DT, Sr.; Daniel Riddle, LB, Sr.; A.J. Newman, LB, Sr.; Kendall White, LB, Sr.; Tahjai Watt, OLB, R-Sr.; Marvin Tillman, DB, Jr.; Ian Berryman, P, R-R-So.

OUTLOOK: Last season was an eye-opening drop-off from the seven-win seasons in 2014 and '15, but the Catamounts return with a veteran team and an excellent young quarterback in Adams (266 total yards per game). Newsome led the FCS with 213 all-purpose yards per game and he hasn't been overused at running back during his career. The defense was the worst in the SoCon last season and has switched to a 3-4 base alignment under new coordinator John Wiley. The unit needs Riddle to return to a high level after he struggled last season. The Catamounts will play a season-opening game at Hawaii as part of a 12-game schedule - one more than most FCS teams.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Hawaii

Sept. 9, Davidson

Sept. 16, at Gardner-Webb

Sept. 23, Samford*

Sept. 30, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 7, at Wofford*

Oct. 14, East Tennessee State*

Oct. 21, at VMI*

Oct. 28, Furman*

Nov. 4, at The Citadel*

Nov. 11, Mercer*

Nov. 18, at North Carolina*

* - Southern Conference game

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7. FURMAN PALADINS

LOCATION: Greenville, South Carolina

STADIUM: Paladin Stadium

COACH: Clay Hendrix (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-5 Southern (6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 8 (4 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Reese Hannon, QB; Carl Rider, LB; Trey Robinson, S ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Antonio Wilcox, FB, Sr. (88 carries, 398 yards, 6 TD; 19 receptions, 111 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Aaquil Annoor, S, Jr. (62 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: P.J. Blazejowski, QB, Sr.; Darius Morehead, RB, R-So.; Thomas Gordon, WR, So.; Logan McCarter, WR, R-Sr.; Matthew Schmidt, C, Sr.; Terrell Bush, OG, Sr.; Bo Layton, OT, R-Fr.; Jaylan Reid, NG, R-Jr.; Jonah Tibbs, DT, So.; Chinedu Okonya, DE, R-Jr.; Joe Farrar, OLB, R-Jr.; Jacque Evangelister, CB, Jr.; Jordan Willis, S, So.; Jon Croft Hollingsworth, PK/P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Hendrix was an offensive lineman for Furman and then an assistant coach in the program for 19 years before spending the last 10 seasons on the Air Force staff. Inheriting a team with only eight returning starters, Hendrix will look to lift the running game, which was a strength for many years, and his defense will have a 3-4 base. Blazejowski has made 13 starts over his first three seasons and hopes for a banner senior season, while Wilcox brings toughness to the offense. The Paladins have to cut down on turnovers, however. Reid hopes to generate the pass rush to make the work easier on Farrar, Annoor and the rest of the defense.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Wofford*

Sept. 9, Elon

Sept. 16, at North Carolina State

Sept. 23, at Colgate

Sept. 30, East Tennessee State*

Oct. 7, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 14, VMI*

Oct. 21, Mercer*

Oct. 28, at Western Carolina*

Nov. 11, The Citadel*

Nov. 18, at Samford*

* - Southern Conference game

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8. EAST TENNESSEE STATE BUCCANEERS

LOCATION: Johnson City, Tennessee

STADIUM: ETSU Football Stadium

COACH: Carl Torbush (7-15, two seasons; 27-42 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 2-6 Southern (7th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chad Pritchard, WR; Ryan Powers, DB; Tavian Lott, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jajuan Stinson, RB, Jr. (128 carries, 593 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dylan Weigel, LB, Jr. (106 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Austin Herink, QB, Jr.; Falon Lee, RB, Sr.; Drake Powell, WR, Jr.; Ben Blackmon, OL, R-So.; Alex Rios, OL, Sr.; Chris Bouyer, DL, Jr.; Nasir Player, DL, So.; Jason Maduafokwa, DL, So.; Austin Gatewood, LB, Jr.; River Boruff, LB, Jr.; Trey Quillin, LB, Jr.; Daren Ardis, DB, Sr.; Paul Hunter, DB, Sr.; J.J. Jerman, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: ETSU isn't ready for title contention, but the young Bucs are making strides under Torbush, including last year's surprising season-ending upset of Samford. That team only had four seniors, so the Bucs should continue to take positive steps as a program. Herink is a third-year starter at quarterback and Stinson is a steady running back. On defense, Weigel has led the team in tackles for two straight seasons. Plus, the Bucs are seeing a difference on the offensive and defensive lines - one of Torbush's big goals when his team returned to football in 2015. The Bucs will make a visit to FCS national champion James Madison on Sept. 9.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Limestone

Sept. 9, at James Madison

Sept. 16, The Citadel*

Sept. 23, Mercer*

Sept. 30, at Furman*

Oct. 7, Robert Morris

Oct. 14, at Western Carolina*

Oct. 28, Wofford*

Nov. 4, VMI*

Nov. 11, at Samford*

Nov. 18, at Chattanooga*

* - Southern Conference game

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9. VMI KEYDETS

LOCATION: Lexington, Virginia

STADIUM: Alumni Memorial Field

COACH: Scott Wachenheim (5-17, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 1-7 Southern (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (4 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Al Cobb, QB; Aaron Sanders, WR; Andrew Lewis, OL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Daz Palmer, RB, So. (125 carries, 491 yards, 3 TD; 15 receptions, 100 yards)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Allan Cratsenberg, LB, Sr. (126 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Austin Coulling, QB, R-So.; Tyain Smith, RB, So.; Rohan Martin, WR, So.; Javeon Lara, WR, So.; Pat Doucette, OL, R-Sr.; Stephen Miller, OL, R-Sr.; Zach Baker, DL, R-Jr.; Seth Mallory, DL, R-Sr.; Tony Richardson, OLB, Sr.; Ryan Francis, LB, R-Sr.; Elliott Brewster, LB, R-Fr.; Greg Sanders, DB, Sr.; Riuq Trotman, DB, Jr.; Mason Dermott, RS, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Wachenheim wants his team to run the ball better, which became even more important after Cobb decided not to return for his final year of eligibility. It was a crushing blow to an offense that returns only four starters. Couling, who started two games last season, hopes to steady the position. The Keydets surrendered 27.7 points per game last season, more than seven points fewer than in 2015 and the second-lowest average since 1988. Cratsenberg, the SoCon tackle leader, and Francis make linebacker the strongest position on the team. Improvement on special teams is a focal point. Last season, the Keydets missed 14 field-goal and five extra-point attempts, while nine kicks and punts were blocked.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Air Force

Sept. 9, Catawba

Sept. 16, at Robert Morris

Sept. 23, Chattanooga*

Sept. 30, at Mercer*

Oct. 7, Samford*

Oct. 14, at Furman*

Oct. 21, Western Carolina*

Oct. 28, at The Citadel*

Nov. 4, at East Tennessee State*

Nov. 11, Wofford*

* - Southern Conference game

Updated August 11, 2017

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