Note: The following was written by Scott Keeler, who worked as a reporter at the Greenville News for more than 25 years. Keeler can be found on Twitter @Scott_Keeler.
Welcome to the first in-season portion of “Keeler’s Corner.” This month, I’ll recap each Southern Conference team’s season thus far - in order of the SoCon standings - and select way-too-early MVP picks for each team.
WOFFORD (3-0, 2-0 SoCon)
Some may say Wofford’s lucky to be 3-0 with its combined margin of victory of five points. But it’s no coincidence how “lucky” teams always seem to be at the top of conference standings. Such is the case for No. 7 Wofford, which is alone atop the SoCon after opening the season with one-point wins over Furman and Mercer.
The Terriers weren’t fooled by a Furman trick play on a two-point conversion to hang on in the opener, 24-23. The next week, Wofford rallied from a 13-point deficit with nine minutes left to win at Mercer, 28-27. Last Saturday, the Terriers held on for a 27-24 win as Gardner-Webb missed a 50-yard field goal with 1:05 left.
“This is a resilient group and we’ve been fortunate to win three games, two of them by one point and now three points,” Mike Ayers said following his 200th win as Wofford coach. “We have to correct the mistakes because if we don’t correct the mistakes now they are going to catch up to us. We still have miles to travel, but we will do the best to make it right.”
MVP: RB Lennox McAfee. The Terriers have won as a team in every sense of the word, as no one stands head and shoulders above the rest statistically. However, McAfee averages 7.0 yards per carry and is second on the team with 197 yards rushing. He also leads the SoCon in punt returns, average 10.6 yards per return.
THE CITADEL (3-0, 1-0)
Like Wofford, The Citadel is unbeaten this season although it hasn’t been particularly easy for the Bulldogs, either. Prior to its bye week this past Saturday, No. 8 Citadel rallied from a 10-point deficit midway through the third quarter at ETSU for a 31-25 win.
“That’s very typical of the way that we’ve won football games - hanging in there defensively and being able to grind it out and control the clock on offense,” Citadel coach Brent Thompson said at his weekly press conference. “That’s exactly what we did in the second half. It ended up being a good win for us.
“I was really proud of the way the guys handled a lot of adversity coming out of the Presbyterian game.”
That Presbyterian game on Sept. 9 was originally scheduled to be a home game for the Bulldogs, but it was moved because of the threat of Hurricane Irma. It’s the second consecutive year that The Citadel has been displaced and had a home game turn into a road game because of weather.
After leading the FCS in rushing last year, the Bulldogs rank No. 1 again with an average of 380 rushing yards per game. The Citadel also leads the country with an insane 61.2 percent conversion rate on third down.
MVP: RB Grant Drakeford. When a team has half of the top 10 rushers in the SoCon, it’s a difficult choice. I went with the one averaging a league-best 9.7 yards per carry. Drakeford’s 80.7 rushing yards per game ranks second in the SoCon.
WESTERN CAROLINA (3-1, 1-0)
After opening the season with a loss at Hawaii, Western Carolina’s gone unbeaten on the mainland and already surpassed its win total from last season. Its latest effort is an early candidate for SoCon game of the year.
The Catamounts outlasted a lightning delay and 516 yards passing by Samford’s Devlin Hodges to hang on for a 38-34 win over the then 17th-ranked Bulldogs. The win was Western Carolina’s first over a ranked team since 2006.
The Catamounts had 602 yards Saturday, while allowing 620. The key was not allowing 621. After Western Carolina took the lead with 1:31 left, Samford’s ensuing drive began at its own 1-yard line. The Bulldogs drove 98 yards in 89 seconds but on fourth-and-goal at the Catamounts’ 1-yard line, Hodges’ pass was broken up by Keion Crossen on the last play of the game.
“It’s great to get any win,” head coach Mark Speir told Catamount Football Weekly. “To get it that way was something that our ball team needed because we’ve been in a lot of tight ball games, and more times than not, found ways to lose them instead of ways to win them.”
Western Carolina will try to keep the momentum going with tough road tests the next two weeks at Chattanooga and Wofford.
MVP: QB Tyrie Adams. With apologies to the leading rusher in the FCS, Detrez Newsome with 557 yards, I’m going with his teammate who ranks sixth in the FCS in total offense. Adams is second in the SoCon with 270 yards passing per game, fourth in rushing at 73.8 yards per game, and has accounted for 11 touchdowns.
CHATTANOOGA (1-3, 1-0)
Chattanooga opened the season by dropping three tough matchups (Jacksonville State, LSU, UT Martin) before taking out some frustration in its SoCon opener last Saturday. The Mocs had their second-highest point total ever in SoCon play with a 63-7 win over VMI.
“That is everything that we have talked about, playing together, playing as a team, as Chattanooga, on offense, defense and special teams, feeding off each other,” Tom Arth said following his first win as Chattanooga coach. “We did that to start that game and it kind of carried us through.”
The Mocs should receive a boost this week as senior starting quarterback Alejandro Bennifield is set to return from a four-game suspension. Bennifield, one of five team captains, threw for 2,682 yards and 26 touchdowns last season and also ran for six touchdowns.
MVP: FS Lucas Webb. A three-time All-SoCon selection, Webb appears to be well on his way to making it 4-for-4. Webb has 22 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown. He’s now tied for third in school history with 12 interceptions and has a SoCon-record four interception/fumble returns for touchdowns.
ETSU (2-2, 1-1)
After restarting the football program in time for the 2015 season, ETSU rejoined the SoCon for the 2016 season and experienced some growing pains. That included a midseason run of five consecutive league losses by at least 30 points. It’s been a nice turnaround for the Buccaneers ever since, though.
ETSU’s last four league games (dating back to last season) have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Bucs have won two of those, including last Saturday’s 26-23 win over Mercer in overtime. A week after seeing a 10-point, third-quarter lead over The Citadel evaporate, ETSU rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to earn the win.
“I think our players still would have been confident if we didn’t win, but this game showed our players that we could come back and win a football game,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said afterwards. “This will help us grow up more and prepare us for the battle we will continue to face in the SoCon. I think we are gelling more as a football team. Once we have everything going in the same direction, I believe we will be an even better football team.”
MVP: QB Austin Herink. ETSU’s junior quarterback has started every game since the Bucs resumed football in 2015. Herink is currently third in the SoCon in passing at 205.8 yards per game. He’s completed 64.3 percent of his passes and has thrown six touchdowns and two interceptions.
SAMFORD (2-2, 0-1)
Samford began the season with a couple of close wins but has dropped its last two, including a heartbreaker at Western Carolina last Saturday. The Bulldogs drove 98 yards on their final drive but couldn’t reach the end zone in the 38-34 loss.
After starting 0-1 in the SoCon last season, Samford rallied to become one of four SoCon teams to receive an FCS playoff bid. Now the 25th-ranked Bulldogs will try to do it again. It doesn’t get any easier this week, though, as Samford hosts No. 8 The Citadel. It’s a rematch of a thriller in 2016, when The Citadel pulled out an overtime win in Charleston.
Samford coach Chris Hatcher hopes facing Kennesaw State’s triple-option attack in the season opener will help against The Citadel’s potent ground game.
“Any time you get reps at something you don’t see very often, it’s going to do nothing but benefit you,” Hatcher told SamfordSports.com after Monday’s practice. “So, that game was a good measuring stick for us, but we’ll have to get ready because The Citadel runs it as well as anybody.”
MVP: QB Devlin Hodges. The reigning SoCon Offensive Player of the Year has shown no signs of slowing down this year. He’s fourth in the FCS with 1,301 yards passing after putting up a school-record 516 Saturday at Western Carolina. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns and two interceptions and has Samford’s lone rushing touchdown this season.
FURMAN (1-3, 0-1)
After an 0-3 start to the season, which included a one-point loss at Wofford and three-point loss to Elon, Furman secured Clay Hendrix’s first win as a head coach with a 45-14 victory at Colgate last Saturday.
The Paladins’ defense led Saturday’s turnaround by forcing three first-half turnovers and collecting five sacks. After 20 sacks combined the past two seasons, Furman has 11 this year.
“It feels great to get that first victory,” said Hendrix, who was a Furman assistant from 1988-2006, after the game. “I could not be prouder of our kids. Defensively, I don’t know if we could have played much better against a productive, hard-to-defend offense.”
A total of 24 freshmen have seen game action for the Paladins this season, including kicker Grayson Atkins, who leads the SoCon in field goals (6-of-7) and kick scoring (31 points).
MVP: QB P.J. Blazejowski. The senior quarterback has been solid and steady in running Furman’s new option-based, but multiple offense. Blazejowski has thrown for 198.2 yards per game and three of his five touchdown passes have been 77-, 71- and 61-yard bombs. Blazejowski leads the FCS in yards per attempt (10.72).
VMI (0-4, 0-1)
Entering Scott Wachenheim’s third season as head coach, VMI was looking to build off the improvements it had made last season. Adjusting to life without all-time leading passer Al Cobb and VMI’s top three receivers from 2016 has been tough thus far, though.
In the lone game decided by single digits, the Keydets saw a 10-0 halftime lead disappear as Division II Catawba used three fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for a 27-20 win.
With the losses from graduation last year, VMI has played 17 true freshmen this season.
“You have to learn how to handle adversity. You have to do it on the field and you have to do it in life,” Wachenheim said following VMI’s loss to Chattanooga last Saturday. “It’s not so much the turnovers that affect your game plan. It’s getting down by 2-3 scores and then struggling offensively to find any kind of rhythm and consistency.
“We’re a young team that’s going to continue to improve as the season goes on.”
MVP: LB Allan Cratsenberg. After registering a SoCon-best 126 tackles last season, Cratsenberg has a team-high 32 stops this year. The senior has 333 career tackles, which is currently 12th-most in school history.
MERCER (1-3, 0-2)
Four games into the 2017 season and it’s already been an up-and-down year for Mercer.
The Bears opened the season with a blowout win over Jacksonville and appeared to be on their way to a 2-0 start. However, Wofford rallied from a 13-point deficit with nine minutes to play to deal Mercer a 28-27 loss. Mercer came back with a respectable showing the next week in a 24-10 loss at Auburn. The Bears followed that up be seeing another fourth-quarter lead (20-10) evaporate in a 26-23 overtime loss at ETSU last Saturday.
“We had several chances in the fourth quarter to put it away and win the game, but we gave ETSU the opportunity to win on its own turf,” Mercer coach Bobby Lamb said afterwards. “It’s a crazy game when you commit only two penalties in front of a crowd of 90,000 (at Auburn) and then commit 10 today in front of 8,000.”
Mercer’s last six SoCon games, dating back to last season, have been decided by 10 points or fewer. The Bears will try to get back on track against VMI this week, before traveling to The Citadel the following week.
MVP: LB LeMarkus Bailey. The junior is tied for second on the team with 32 tackles, including a team-high 20 solo stops. Bailey also leads the team in tackles for loss (4.5) and has an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season.