Note: The following was written by Scott Keeler, who worked as a reporter at the Greenville News for more than 25 years. “Keeler’s Corner” will also appear throughout the season. Keeler can be found on Twitter @Scott_Keeler
Welcome to the final edition for 2019 of “Keeler’s Corner,” a monthly recap of each Southern Conference team – in order of the SoCon standings. The 2019 season featured significant individual achievements and saw Wofford rebound from an 0-2 start to win eight consecutive FCS games and capture the outright SoCon title. It was a disappointing finish, though, as the Terriers and Furman each lost in the first round of the FCS playoffs, marking the first time since 1986 that no league team won a postseason game.
WOFFORD (8-4, 7-1 SoCon)
Following an 0-2 start to the season, Wofford got things turned around in late September, gained steam in October and were red hot in November. The Terriers closed out the regular season with SoCon showdown wins over state rivals Furman and The Citadel to capture the league championship for the third year in a row and seventh time overall. This year marked Wofford’s third outright SoCon title.
The Terriers, No. 11 (STATS) and 15 (AFCA) in the FCS polls, ended the regular season with an eight-game winning streak in FCS play. Those wins came by an average of 24.5 points per game. The lone loss in that stretch was at undefeated Clemson. Wofford’s 14-point effort tied for the second-most allowed by the Tigers all season. With 256 total yards of offense that day, the Terriers outgained six other Clemson opponents this year.
That FCS run helped earn Josh Conklin SoCon Coach of the Year honors by the league’s media, but it wasn’t enough to secure Wofford one of the eight seeds for the playoffs. Instead, the Terriers drew a rematch with a No. 9-ranked Kennesaw State team that ended Wofford’s season in round two of the 2018 playoffs. It was also a battle of the two leading rushing teams in the FCS (Kennesaw State - 350 yards per game; Wofford - 323.5).
After being held to 74 yards rushing in last year’s 13-10 loss at Kennesaw, the Terriers were limited to 111 Saturday as they fell, 28-21.
In addition to finishing the regular season second in the FCS in rushing, Wofford was second nationally in fourth-down conversion (85.7 percent) and punt returns (18.92 yards per return), fourth in average time of possession (34:18) and fifth in red-zone scoring (93.2 percent).
Junior center Blake Jeresaty became Wofford’s fourth winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which is annually presented to the league’s top offensive lineman as voted on by the SoCon coaches.
On the other side of the line, freshman Michael Mason tied for the league lead in sacks with seven.
MVP: Quarterback Joe Newman. Newman became the first Wofford quarterback to ever make an All-SoCon team and also earned the league’s Offensive Player of the Year honor from both the league’s media and coaches. He led the team in rushing with 889 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 1,150 yards and seven scores. Newman’s 7.0 yards per carry average ranked sixth nationally – and he was the only quarterback in the top 23 of that stat. After three interceptions in the season-opening loss at South Carolina State, Newman threw only two the rest of the season.
FURMAN (8-5, 6-2)
Furman wrapped up Clay Hendrix’s third season as head coach with its third consecutive finish of at least second place in the SoCon standings and its third straight winning record. The last time the Paladins had as many consecutive winning seasons came as part of 11 consecutive from 1999-2009.
It was an all-or-nothing kind of season for Furman. After starting 4-2 with the two losses coming by a touchdown apiece at FBS opponents, the Paladins went 4-2 in the second half of the regular season, but those losses were much different from the first two. Furman suffered 17-point defeats to both The Citadel and Wofford, the latter in a game in which the Paladins could’ve wrapped up the SoCon championship with a win.
Furman, ranked 16th in both polls, led the league in scoring offense (33.5 points per game) and scoring defense (20.5). The Paladins scored at least 42 points in six games this year, but in their three FCS losses, they scored 10, seven and six points, respectively. The last one came in a 42-6 loss at No. 17 Austin Peay in the playoffs last Saturday.
Devin Wynn led a rushing attack that ranked fifth in the FCS at 275.8 yards per game. Wynn earned All-SoCon honors after rushing for 1,182 yards and 14 touchdowns. Wynn, who ranked ninth nationally at 6.6 yards per carry, posted Furman’s seventh-highest single-season rushing total and the most by a Paladin since Louis Ivory (1,492) in 2001.
Meanwhile, senior Thomas Gordon became the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards with 2,552.
In addition to the top-five national ranking in rushing, Furman was second nationally in net punting (41.62 yards per punt), third in pass defense (159.3 yards allowed per game), fourth in penalties (3.83 per game) and fifth in penalty yards (36.5 per game).
MVP: Kicker/punter Grayson Atkins. Atkins earned SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week honors five times this season and earned first-team All-SoCon honors at kicker and second-team honors at punter. Atkins made 13-of-15 field goals this year with one of the misses coming Saturday on a 59-yard attempt that barely sailed wide left. On the same day his string of 18 consecutive made field goals came to an end at Western Carolina, he made a school-record-tying 55-yarder, which was the fourth-longest in the FCS this year. In addition to ranking second nationally in net punting, Atkins led the SoCon with 39 touchbacks on kickoffs.
CHATTANOOGA (6-6, 5-3)
After a sixth-place finish in the SoCon in 2017 and a fifth-place finish last season, Chattanooga continued to move up with a third-place finish in Rusty Wright’s first season as head coach.
The Mocs were poised as a dark horse candidate to possibly make a run at the league championship but suffered a heartbreaking one-point loss in overtime at Wofford to end October and a home loss to Furman to open November. Still in contention for a share of the SoCon title entering play on the final day of the regular season, Chattanooga still may have had a longshot at an FCS playoff bid but dropped its season finale at VMI.
Of the Mocs’ last six games of the season, five were decided by eight points or less.
Despite only playing for two-and-a-half seasons at Chattanooga, Nick Tiano wrapped up his career as the seventh-leading passer in school history. The Mississippi State transfer finished sixth in Mocs history with 6,569 yards of total offense and tied for sixth with 35 touchdown passes, including 14 this season. He also ran for nine touchdowns this year.
Linebackers Marshall Cooper (105) and Ty Boeck (101) finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the league in tackles, while sophomore lineman Devonnsha Maxwell tied for the SoCon lead in sacks with seven.
MVP: Running back Ailym Ford. Ford was named SoCon Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches and media and earned All-SoCon first- (coaches) and second- (media) team honors. Ford was the leading freshman running back in the country, as he averaged 108.1 rushing yards per game and scored nine touchdowns. With 1,081 yards for the season, Ford was just nine away from the Mocs’ freshman record when he suffered a season-ending injury on the fifth play of the game at Samford on Nov. 9. Therefore, he put up those lofty totals while essentially missing the last three games of the season.
THE CITADEL (6-6, 4-4)
Entering this offseason, no SoCon team might be wondering “what if” more than The Citadel. While the Bulldogs posted the FCS’ lone win over a Power 5 school this year when they won 27-24 in overtime at Georgia Tech on Sept. 14, they still got off to a 2-4 start.
That included a heartbreaking four-overtime loss at Samford in a game The Citadel led 38-24 with less than six minutes left in regulation. A week later, the Bulldogs lost the coveted Silver Shako for the first time since 2002 with a home loss to rival VMI.
The Citadel got up off the deck after that, though, and won four consecutive games, including a huge 27-10 win at archrival Furman. The winning streak – and a tiebreaker over Furman – provided an opportunity for the Bulldogs to make a late run to the SoCon title, while the victory over an ACC school help buoy some thought of them sneaking into the FCS playoff field.
All those hopes faded when The Citadel dropped its final two games of the year to Chattanooga and Wofford. The loss at the Mocs was particularly painful as the Bulldogs led 33-20 with less than eight minutes to play. Chattanooga got the game-winning score with 28 seconds left.
Junior quarterback Brandon Rainey overcame injuries throughout the year to account for a school-record 30 touchdowns. Rainey threw for 1,124 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions for a SoCon-best 156.1 efficiency rating. He ran for 900 yards and 17 touchdowns to lead an offense that ranked No. 1 in the FCS in time-of-possession average (35:31 per game).
Playing on a team that had the most rushing attempts in the country (738), Raleigh Webb managed to lead the SoCon with 10 touchdown receptions – out of just 30 catches overall. Webb averaged 20.6 yards per catch.
Senior defensive lineman Joseph Randolph II led the SoCon in tackles for loss (14.5), while sophomore Matt Campbell led the league in punting (44.1 yards per punt).
MVP: Linebacker Willie Eubanks III. Eubanks was named SoCon Defensive Player of the Year by the league’s media and coaches after finishing second in the league with 112 tackles – the most by a Bulldog in 19 years. Eubanks had a SoCon-best 63 solo tackles, as well as 11.5 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hurries, four sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
VMI (5-7, 4-4)
The only SoCon team that didn’t lose its final game in 2019 was the same one that didn’t win any Division I games in 2017 or 2018. VMI had plenty of standout performances to put up its highest win total in 16 years and its most SoCon wins in 40 years.
The last time the Keydets won five games in a season was when they went 6-6 in 2003, which was their first season of an 11-year hiatus from the SoCon. VMI last won four SoCon games in 1979 when it finished second in the league at 4-1 and went 6-4-1 overall. The Keydets had more league wins this season than they did in the previous five combined since rejoining the SoCon in 2014. The turnaround led to Scott Wachenheim earning SoCon Coach of the Year honors in voting by his fellow league coaches.
VMI had a shot at even more victories before enduring a four-game losing streak in the second half of the season. That included losses to Mercer and Western Carolina, both of whom finished behind the Keydets in the standings. VMI snapped its skid with a 31-24 win over Chattanooga in the season finale.
Junior quarterback Reece Udinski was far and away the leader in the SoCon in passing. He completed 63.9 percent of his throws for a school-record 3,276 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. None of those interceptions occurred in the first two months of the season as Udinski broke the FCS record for passes without an interception. His record total stopped at 368 when he was picked off in the fourth quarter against Western Carolina on Nov. 2.
VMI had five of the top seven SoCon players in receptions per game, led by sophomore Jakob Herres, who had 72 receptions for 1,091 yards (15.2 per catch) and eight touchdowns.
MVP: Running back Alex Ramsey. Even though VMI threw more than 500 passes this season, Ramsey managed to lead the country in touchdown runs with a school-record 22. He led the SoCon and finished seventh nationally in rushing with 1,326 yards. The junior also caught 50 passes for 323 yards.
SAMFORD (5-7, 4-4)
Wins over then-No. 21 Wofford and then-No. 25 The Citadel had Samford sitting pretty at 2-0 in the league at the end of September. But a blowout home loss to then-No. 14 Furman to open October started a slide that saw the Bulldogs go 2-4 in the league the rest of the way.
Outside of the lopsided loss to the Paladins, Samford certainly had its chances to be in the running near the top of the league but couldn’t cash in. The other three league losses were each decided by eight points or fewer, including an overtime loss at VMI and a triple-overtime loss at Mercer.
The loss at VMI saw Samford blow a 38-28 lead in the fourth quarter before taking a 41-38 lead on a 45-yard field goal with 41 seconds left, only to have VMI force overtime with a 56-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. The loss at Mercer left Samford with a record of 1-3 in overtime games this season.
Samford was left at 4-4 in the league when it lost its sixth consecutive game in the series with Chattanooga the following week. That marks just the second time in the last eight seasons that the Bulldogs did not post a winning record in league play. This was Samford’s first losing season overall since 2010.
Junior linebacker John Staton led the SoCon with 116 tackles. Freshman Jay Stanton rushed for seven touchdowns and 690 yards – the highest season rushing total by a Bulldog in five years.
MVP: Quarterback Chris Oladokun. Replacing the FCS’ all-time leading passer in Devlin Hodges would be a tall task for anyone, but Oladokun had solid numbers in his first year at Samford. Despite playing sparingly over the final month of the season, Oladokun completed 62.1 percent of his passes and threw for 2,061 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The South Florida transfer also rushed for 493 yards and eight touchdowns.
MERCER (4-8, 3-5)
After a thrilling 36-33, three-overtime win over Samford to open November, Mercer dropped its final three games to finish with its fewest wins in a season since the school resurrected the program for the 2013 season. It’s also the Bears’ first losing season in league play since 2015.
The day after Mercer’s loss at North Carolina in the season finale, it was announced that the school and Bobby Lamb had parted ways. Lamb, a SoCon legend from his playing days at Furman who went on to coach the Paladins, had been the Bears’ head coach since 2011. Two years later, Mercer set a Division I record for wins by a first-year program as it went 10-2 in its only season outside the SoCon.
Mercer starting quarterback Robert Riddle suffered a season-ending injury for the second year in a row. He’d thrown for 1,453 yards and 15 touchdowns over the first six-and-a-half games before the leg injury. Kaelan Riley, the 2017 SoCon Freshman of the Year, threw for 969 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions over the last five-and-a-half games.
Sophomore David Durden, who played in only nine games because of injury, finished with 750 yards in kickoff returns to average a SoCon-best 25.9 yards per return. He also led the team in receiving with 45 catches for 647 yards and four touchdowns.
MVP: Running back Tyray Devezin. After bursting on the scene late in 2018, Devezin was hampered by nagging injuries early this season before turning it on to finish with 1,002 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. The junior had at least 104 yards rushing in four of his final five games against FCS competition, highlighted by a 193-yard performance against VMI and scoring four touchdowns apiece against Samford and ETSU.
WESTERN CAROLINA (3-9, 2-6)
Western Carolina suffered through a rough final two months of the 2018 campaign before the rough times continued the first two months of this season. However, the Catamounts opened November with a 43-35 win at VMI to snap a 15-game losing streak against Division I opponents. The win, WCU’s first against a Div. I team since a 52-50 win over VMI on Sept. 22, 2018, also snapped a nine-game road losing skid.
The Catamounts made it back-to-back wins the following week when they pulled out an exciting 23-20 overtime win against ETSU to capture the “Blue Ridge Border Battle” trophy. WCU jumped out on top of Samford 10-0 the next week before the Bulldogs stormed back for a 31-13 win. The Catamounts dropped the season finale at Alabama to finish with three or fewer wins for the third time in the last four seasons.
While it was a disappointing season by his standards, senior quarterback Tyrie Adams still completed 64.4 passes for 1,699 yards with 11 touchdowns in 10 games this season. He also rushed for 437 yards and five touchdowns. He finished his brilliant career with a school-record 11,525 yards of total offense – the fifth-highest total in SoCon history. Adams’ 8,978 passing yards are the most in school history, while his 2,547 rushing yards rank fifth in school history.
MVP: Linebacker Jayden Pauling. Making just seven starts this season, Pauling had 51 tackles but did so much more for the Catamounts’ defense. He led the SoCon with five forced fumbles, ranked third in the league with 6.5 sacks and tied for fourth with 11 tackles for loss. Pauling also blocked a field goal in the overtime win against ETSU.
ETSU (3-9, 1-7)
The thing about turnaround seasons is that if you have them in consecutive years, one isn’t going to be good. Such was the case for ETSU, which went from eighth-place in the SoCon in 2017 to first place in 2018 to ninth place this year.
Last season, the Bucs won six league games – all by three points or fewer – to capture a share of their first conference championship. This year, they fell on the wrong side of close scores. Of ETSU’s seven losses to FCS opponents, six were decided by seven points or fewer.
Oddly enough, one of the Bucs’ two wins against Division I competition was a 20-14 victory over an Austin Peay team that’s currently 10-3 and preparing for round two of the FCS playoffs. ETSU’s other victory came Nov. 16 when it held on for a 38-33 win over Mercer to avoid a winless season in league play.
While the Bucs struggled overall offensively this season, sophomore running back Quay Holmes didn’t. Holmes rushed for 1,143 yards and seven touchdowns, including a school-record 255 yards rushing and three scores in the win over Mercer. He led the SoCon in all-purpose yards with 1,905 (158.8 per game).
MVP: Strong safety Artevius Smith. While ETSU finished last in the SoCon standings, its total defense (373.3 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (26.2) each ranked third in the league and Smith was a big reason why. The senior, who started his career at wide receiver, led the Bucs with 89 tackles and led the SoCon with five interceptions. Smith had 10 passes defended, five pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles.