FCS 2018: Southern Conference Preview

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Defending champion Wofford has the schedule a Southern Conference team doesn't want this year.

The Terriers have to go on the road to face the other four teams in the top five of the SoCon preseason coaches poll - Samford, Furman, Western Carolina and Chattanooga.

Home cooking is much preferred.

Road games are going to be quite difficult because there are so many talented teams in the SoCon - like Wofford, Samford and Furman, who all qualified for the playoffs last season. Add in Western Carolina, Chattanooga, The Citadel and Mercer, and the balance across the nine-team conference stands out.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2018 SoCon race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Samford

2. Wofford

3. Furman

4. Mercer

5. Chattanooga

6. Western Carolina

7. The Citadel

8. East Tennessee State

9. VMI

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. SAMFORD BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Birmingham, Alabama

STADIUM: Seibert Stadium

HEAD COACH: Chris Hatcher (21-14, three seasons; 142-71 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 8-4, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Devlin Hodges, QB, Sr.; Roland Adams, RB, Sr.; Moise Satine, RB, So.; Kelvin McKnight, WR, Sr.; Chris Shelling, WR, Jr.; Mike Williams, OL, So.; Nick Nixon, OL, Jr.; Antwan Johnson, OL, Sr.; Ahmad Gooden, DE, Sr.; Horace Roberts, DL, Sr.; Christian Stark, LB/S, Sr.; Darius Harvey, DB, Sr.; Sam Pettway, S, Sr.; Tripp Weaver, PK, So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Deion Pierre, LB; Shaheed Salmon, LB; Omari Williams, CB

OUTLOOK: Samford rightfully was picked first in the SoCon's two preseason polls, but the Bulldogs also have a lot to prove this season because they've lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons. They return 10 starters on offense, none bigger than QB Hodges, the two-time SoCon offensive player of the year and the first-team preseason All-American. He enters his senior season with 11,005 yards of total offense and 88 total TDs in his career. He'll keep connecting with WRs McKnight and Shelling, but the offense needs to have a better rushing attack to help finish off wins. The defense gives up yards, but not necessarily points. DE Gooden (15.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks) is coming off the conference's defensive player of the year award. The road schedule is difficult, including trips to Florida State, Kennesaw State, Furman, Chattanooga and The Citadel.

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2. WOFFORD TERRIERS

LOCATION: Spartanburg, South Carolina

STADIUM: Gibbs Stadium

HEAD COACH: Josh Conklin (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 10-3, 7-1 SoCon (1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Joe Newman, QB, Jr.; Blake Morgan, HB, Jr.; Lennox McAfee, HB, Sr.; Andre Stoddard, FB, Sr.; Justus Basinger, OL, Jr.; Miles Brown, DL, Sr.; Mikel Horton, DL, Sr.; Datavious Wilson, LB, Jr.; Jireh Wilson, LB, Jr.; Devin Watson, CB, Sr.; Mason Alstatt, S, Jr.; Luke Carter, PK/P, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Brandon Goodson, QB; Jared Jacon-Duffy, OL; Malik Rivera, FS

OUTLOOK: Coach Mike Ayers retired following 30 seasons, and on the high of being the SoCon champ while also reaching the national quarterfinals for the second straight year. Conklin, 39, coached previously under Ayers and served as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator the last three seasons. There's no doubt the Terriers are keeping the triple option offense, now directed by QB Newman and featuring the trio of backs Stoddard, McAfee and Morgan, who combined for 2,212 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground last year. The O-line, however, is replacing four starters. The Terriers will use a 3-4 defense, and it features stalwart in DL Brown, LB Wilson and CB Watson.

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3. FURMAN PALADINS

LOCATION: Greenville, South Carolina

STADIUM: Paladin Stadium

HEAD COACH: Clay Hendrix (8-5, one season)

2017 RECORDS: 8-5, 6-2 SoCon (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (5 offense/9 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Harris Roberts, QB, R-Sr.; Jamar Lincoln, QB, R-Fr.; Keland Dirks, RB, R-Sr.; Darius Morehead, TB, R-So.; Thomas Gordon, WR/RS, Jr.; Reed Kroeber, OG, So.; Chinedu Okonya, DE, Sr.; Jaylon Reid, NT, R-Sr.; Elijah McKoy, ILB, So.; Chris Washington, OLB, R-Jr.; Bryan Okey, SS, Jr.; Aaquil Annoor, FS, Sr.; Darius Kearse, CB, So.; Grayson Atkins, PK

THREE KEY LOSSES: P.J. Blazejowski, QB; Antonio Wilcox, RB; Matthew Schmidt, C

OUTLOOK: Optimism is high for Hendrix's second season. He led the Paladins to their first playoff appearance since 2013 and they beat Elon in the first round. Leading tackler Reynard Ellis left the program, but there's so much defensive talent back, including a standout on each unit with NT Reid, LB McKoy and FS Anoor. It seems difficult to replace Blazejowski at quarterback, but the "double-wing" attack will keep moving along with RBs Morehead and Dirks, who rushed for a combined 1,308 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Furman will prep for the SoCon with a difficult non-conference schedule (at Clemson and Elon and home against Patriot League favorite Colgate).

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4. MERCER BEARS

LOCATION: Macon, Georgia

STADIUM: Moye Complex

HEAD COACH: Bobby Lamb (32-25, five seasons; 99-65 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 4-4 SoCon (5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Kaelan Riley, QB, R-So.; Tee Mitchell, RB, Sr.; Tyray Devezin, RB, So.; Rashad Haynes, RB, So.; Marquise Irvin, WR, Sr.; Stephen Houzah, WR, Sr.; Sam Walker, TE, R-Sr.; Austin Sanders, OL, R-Jr.; Isaiah Buehler, DE, R-Sr.; Dorian Kithcart, DT, R-Jr.; LeMarkus Bailey, LB, R-Sr.; Will Coneway, LB, R-Jr.; Malique Fleming, DB, R-So.; Eric Jackson, SS, R-Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chandler Curtis, WR/RS; Thomas Marchman, OL; Lee Bennett, LB

OUTLOOK: The Bears should be competitive in most games, and a SoCon breakthrough almost feels overdue because they've been so dangerous in recent seasons. The Bears' eight selections on the SoCon coaches preseason team were the second-most to defending champ Wofford's 10. QB Riley is coming off a big freshman campaign and the Bears are always deep in the skills positions, including WR Irvin. While Bennett is a big loss on defense, the Bears are ready for another level of play with the return of eight starters. DE Buehler (5½ sacks), LB Bailey and SS Jackson are the standouts. Lamb is one win shy of 100 in his career.

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5. CHATTANOOGA MOCS

LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tennessee

STADIUM: Finley Stadium

HEAD COACH: Tom Arth (3-8, one season; 43-16 overall)

2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-5 SoCon (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Cole Copeland, QB, So.; Nick Tiano, QB, Jr.; Alex Trotter, RB, Sr.; Bingo Morton, WR, Sr.; Joseph Parker, WR, Sr.; Cole Strange, OL, So.; Harrison Moon, OL, Jr. (Mississippi State transfer); Isaiah Mack, DL, Sr.; Derek Mahaffey, DL, Sr.; Tavon Lawson, LB, Sr.; Hawk Schrider, LB, Jr.; Jerrell Lawson, DB, So.; C.J. Fritz, DB, Sr.; Victor Ulmo, PK, So.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Cardiello, OL; Tae Davis, LB; Lucas Webb, DB

OUTLOOK: Chattanooga was a part of three straight SoCon titles from 2013-15 and made the FCS playoffs in '16, but Arth had a surprisingly poor debut a year ago. The good news is the Mocs played well in November. The offense must improve behind QB Copeland's lead after it dropped 84 spots to 100th in the FCS in scoring, averaging just 17.7 points per game. There will be a number of new contributors in the skills positions. On defense, the line, led by Mahaffey and Mack, is one of the team's strengths. A return to a winning record is quite possible.

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6. WESTERN CAROLINA CATAMOUNTS

LOCATION: Cullowhee, North Carolina

STADIUM: E.J. Whitmire Stadium

HEAD COACH: Mark Speir (26-43, six seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 7-5, 5-3 SoCon (4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Tyrie Adams, QB, R-Jr.; Connell Young, RB, Jr.; Donnavan Spencer, RB, R-So.; Corey Holloway, RB, R-Sr.; Jordan Mathis, WR, R-Sr.; Owen Cosenke, TE, So.; Zach Weeks, OL, R-Sr.; Andrew Miles, OL, R-Sr.; Nate Link, DL, R-Jr.; Jake Helms, DL, Jr.; Marvin Tillman, DB, Sr.; JerMichael White, DB, Sr.; John Brannon III, DB, Jr.; Ian Berryman, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Detrez Newsome, RB; Terryon Robinson; Keion Crossen, DB

OUTLOOK: With three seven-win seasons in the last four years, the Catamounts are desperate to reel in a playoff bid. This year, they have to overcome plenty of key seniors losses, and the Division II (Newberry) and FBS (North Carolina) games that open and close the schedule may not help their playoff resume. QB Adams (3,040 total offensive yards) enters his third season as the starting quarterback and will be protected by four returning starters on the offensive line. With only four returning starters on defense, Speir addressed some needs by signing junior-college transfers. Berryman (44.4-yard average) is one of the nation's best punters.

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7. THE CITADEL BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina

STADIUM: Johnson Hagood Stadium

HEAD COACH: Brent Thompson (15-8, two seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-5 SoCon (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (9 offense/4 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jordan Black, QB, Jr.; Rod Johnson, RB, Jr.; Grant Drakeford, RB, Sr.; Brandon Rainey, RB, So.; Raleigh Webb, WR, So.; Tyler Davis, C, Sr.; Prince Howard-Whitaker, OT, So.; Drew McEntyre, OL, Jr.; Ken Allen, DL, Sr.; Ja'lon Williams, DL, Jr.; Aaron Brawley, LB, So.; Noah Dawkins, LB, Sr.; Aaron Spann III, DB, Sr.; Jacob Gobek, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dominique Allen, QB; Cam Jackson, RB; Kalilik Williams, DB

OUTLOOK: After a smashing first season under Thompson, the Bulldogs fell backward last season. He says his players need to get their edge back this season. Their triple option offense ranked second in the FCS in rushing yards at 294.6 per game, but that was off by nearly 54 yards from 2016, when they won a second straight SoCon title. The O-line is experienced, QB Black is at the controls and A-back Drakeford is back after leading the team in rushing. Defense is more of a concern because it returns only four starters, and just one, Spann (five interceptions), in the secondary. The Citadel jumps right into the SoCon season with opening games at Wofford (Sept. 1) and against Chattanooga (Sept. 8).

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8. EAST TENNESSEE STATE BUCCANEERS

LOCATION: Johnson City, Tennessee

STADIUM: ETSU Football Stadium

HEAD COACH: Randy Sanders (first season)

2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 SoCon (8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Austin Herink, QB, R-Sr.; Logan Marchi, QB, R-Jr. (Temple transfer); Quan Harrison, WR, R-Jr.; Matt Pyke, OL, R-Sr.; Chris Bouyer, DL, Sr.; Tremond Ferrell, DL, Sr.; Nasir Player, DL, R-Jr.; Dylan Weigel, LB, R-Sr.; Blake Bockrath, LB, R-So.; Jared Folks (Temple transfer), LB, Sr.; Jeremy Lewis, DB, Jr.; Karon Delince, DB, So.; J.J. Jerman, PK/P, R-Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Drake Powell, WR; Alex Rios, OL; River Boruff, LB

OUTLOOK: There's been a handful of impressive wins since the ETSU program restarted under Carl Torbush in 2015, so Sanders, the offensive coordinator at Florida State last year, steps into a good situation. There was offseason controversy when Sanders was briefly placed on paid administrative leave and reprimanded after hitting a player in the helmet during spring practice. His Buccaneers will have a full senior class for the first time, and QB Herink (2,213 passing yards, 14 TDs) enters his fourth season as the starter. The Bucs have to lift the lowest-ranked rushing offense in the SoCon. The defensive leader is LB Weigel, who has led the teams in tackles in each of his first three season. ETSU's Sept. 8 game at Tennessee is its first FBS matchup since returning to football.

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9. VMI KEYDETS

LOCATION: Lexington, Virginia

STADIUM: Alumni Memorial Field

HEAD COACH: Scott Wachenheim (5-28, three seasons)

2017 RECORDS: 0-11, 0-8 SoCon (9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Reece Udinski, QB, So.; Quan Myers, RB, R-Jr.; Javeon Lara, WR, Jr.; Rohan Martin, WR, Jr.; Kris Thornton, WR, So.; Cole Brummit, OL, R-So.; Brad Davis, OL, So.; Noah Delaney-Manuel, DL, So.; Ryan Clark, DL, Jr.; Elliott Brewster, LB, R-So.; A.J. Smith, DB, So.; Tyain Smith, DB, Jr.; Kaleb Tucker, DB, Jr.; Riuq Trotman, DB, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Daz Palmer, RB; Brian Lipscomb, OLB; Greg Sanders, DB

OUTLOOK: Wachenheim has five new assistant coaches to help try to get the Keydets off the mat in the SoCon. Their last .500 record was in 2003 and they haven't had a winning season since 1981. Offensive improvement is imperative because the Keydets ranked last in the FCS in both points (8.0) and offensive yards (218.5) per game a year ago. They also were minus-22 in turnover margin. Fortunately, the sophomore class is influential, with Udinski taking over at quarterback after promising Duncan Hodges transferred to North Alabama, WR Thornton (33 receptions), OL Davis and DB Smith leading the way. After a winless campaign, there are a couple potential wins on the schedule.

Updated August 17, 2018

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