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 back to the 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 MVP picks for each team. Also this month, I’ll look at the remaining schedule for each team as we enter the final third of the season.
WOFFORD (6-1, 4-1 SoCon)
Wofford saw its hopes of a perfect run through the Southern Conference dashed last Saturday when Samford held on for a 24-21 win. After the Bulldogs kicked a field goal to take the lead with 1:11 left, it appeared the Terriers may have them right where they wanted them, considering how the season has gone.
Wofford, which has five wins by seven points or fewer, had already scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game Saturday. On their final drive, the Terriers marched to Samford’s 19-yard line with 12 seconds left. But on third-and-1, the Bulldogs’ Omari Williams came up with an interception in the end zone to deny Wofford’s comeback bid.
Remaining schedule - at ETSU, vs. Chattanooga, at VMI, at South Carolina: Despite its first setback Saturday, Wofford still is one of four SoCon teams with one loss. The best news for the Terriers is they’re in that position having already played the other five teams that occupy the top six spots in the league standings.
MVP: FB Andre Stoddard. Stoddard leads Wofford’s well-balanced, powerful rushing attack with team highs in carries (87) and yards (477). He’s also tied for the SoCon lead in rushing touchdowns (9). Stoddard’s fellow running backs Lennox McAfee (448) and Blake Morgan (402) have also rushed for more than 400 yards.
WESTERN CAROLINA (6-2, 4-1)
After back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, Western Carolina continues to make its 2-9 record in 2016 look like an anomaly. Since a season-opening loss at Hawaii, the Catamounts haven’t lost a game in regulation as their only other defeat came in overtime at Wofford, 35-28.
Despite standout running back Detrez Newsome missing three games this season and being limited in a fourth, Western Carolina still leads the SoCon in scoring offense (38.6 points per game), total offense (467.8 yards per game) and first downs (22.5 per game). Newsome still has more yards rushing than anyone in the SoCon - and ranks 15th in the FCS - with 626.
Remaining schedule - vs. Furman, at The Citadel, vs. Mercer, at North Carolina: Who would’ve thunk it? The SoCon’s top game this week is the Catamounts hosting Furman as the winner will remain atop the league standings. Furman and Western Carolina were predicted to finish sixth and seventh, respectively, in the preseason media poll.
MVP: QB Tyrie Adams. Newsome’s absence hasn’t slowed down Western Carolina’s dynamic sophomore signal caller. Adams has the second-most rushing yards in the SoCon (575) and the third-most passing yards (1,678). He’s also second in the league in touchdown passes with 15.
FURMAN (5-3, 4-1)
After an 0-3 start to the season, Furman has become the SoCon’s hottest team since as it carries a five-game winning streak into its showdown Saturday at Western Carolina.
Under first-year head coach Clay Hendrix, it’s been a total team effort for the Furman’s turnaround from a 3-8 record last year. While Antonio Wilcox shares the SoCon lead for rushing touchdowns, six other Paladins have run for touchdowns. Six different Paladins have caught touchdowns, led by converted tight end Andy Schumpert’s six.
Meanwhile, 14 different Furman defenders have combined for a SoCon-best 23 sacks. Over the past two seasons combined, Furman had just 20 sacks.
Remaining schedule - at Western Carolina, vs. The Citadel, at Samford: Despite having a one-point loss at FCS’ No. 8 Wofford, a three-point loss to No. 10-ranked Elon and a loss to FBS’ No. 14 NC State, Furman is far back among “others receiving votes” in the FCS polls. The Paladins should have a chance to change that if they can come up with wins against a tough schedule down the stretch.
MVP: QB P.J. Blazejowski. The Paladins’ resurgent running game has helped open big-play opportunities in the passing game and Blazejowski has capitalized on them. He’s had a stretch of six consecutive games with a touchdown throw of at least 57 yards. Blazejowski leads the FCS in passing yards per attempt (10.73) and ranks second in passing yards per completion (17.44) and passing efficiency (178.91).
SAMFORD (5-2, 3-1)
Since losing a 38-34 heartbreaker at Western Carolina, when Samford drove from its own 1-yard line to the Catamounts’ 1-yard line but couldn’t score on its final drive, the Bulldogs have reeled off three straight wins. That win streak was capped by an impressive 24-21 win at Wofford this past Saturday to leave four teams in the SoCon with one league loss.
The victory vaulted Samford into the top 10 in both FCS polls (No. 8 Coaches; No. 9 STATS) for the first time since 1993.
Typically noted for its high-powered offense, the Bulldogs’ defense has come up big the last three weeks. Samford held The Citadel’s potent rushing attack to 194 yards in a 35-14 win before a 26-7 win at VMI the next week. The Bulldogs forced three turnovers against Wofford, including Omari Williams’ game-sealing interception with six seconds left.
Remaining schedule - vs. Chattanooga, at Mercer, vs. ETSU, vs. Furman: Nothing but SoCon games remain for Samford, which has the luxury of hosting three of those four. The regular-season finale against Furman could have major implications on the FCS playoff field.
MVP: QB Devlin Hodges. The reigning SoCon Offensive Player of the Year is making his case to repeat this year. Highlighted by a school-record 516-yard passing day at Western Carolina, Hodges ranks fifth in the FCS in passing yards (2,326), sixth in touchdown passes (20) and ninth in completion percentage (66.9 percent). Nobody ahead of Hodges in completion percentage has more completions, attempts or yards passing.
MERCER (4-4, 3-3)
In its fourth year in the Southern Conference, Mercer football continues to make strides but it’s been agonizingly close to making bigger ones. The past Saturday’s 28-21 loss marked the Bears’ largest margin of defeat in SoCon play this season. Those three losses have been by a combined 11 points, while Mercer’s three SoCon wins have been by a combined 65 points.
Freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley has shown steady improvement throughout the season and ranks third in the SoCon in passing at 215.8 yards per game. He’s helped the Bears score on 28 of 30 trips to the red zone this season, which ranks fifth-best in the FCS at 93.3 percent.
Defensively, Mercer leads the SoCon in scoring (18.9 points allowed per game) and forced turnovers (17).
Remaining schedule - vs. Samford, at Western Carolina, at Alabama: After this week off, Mercer faces nothing but ranked teams the rest of the way. The Bears will be challenged to match last year’s 4-4 SoCon mark and it will likely require getting over the hump of winning a close game.
MVP: LB Lee Bennett. The senior is second in the Southern Conference with 78 tackles, including 40 over the last three weeks. Bennett also has two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three quarterback hurries and 3.5 tackles for loss.
THE CITADEL (4-3, 2-3)
After starting the season 3-0, The Citadel hit an offensive slump and lost its next three games. The Bulldogs snapped that skid by holding on for a 20-14 win at Chattanooga this past Saturday.
The Citadel has scored just 64 points over the last four games after 110 combined points in the first three games. Despite the offensive slide, the Bulldogs still lead the SoCon and rank third in the FCS with 309.4 yards rushing per game.
The Bulldogs continue to hold their own defensively. They lead the SoCon in total defense (298.6 yards per game), rushing defense (111.9), interceptions (10), first downs allowed (14.5 per game) and opponents’ third-down conversions (32.9 percent).
Remaining schedule - vs. VMI, vs. Western Carolina, at Furman, at Clemson: So if The Citadel is to leave the Palmetto State again this season, it would come through earning a third consecutive FCS playoff bid. For the Bulldogs to pull that off, winning out in the SoCon is likely required.
MVP: FS Kailik Williams. The reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year is putting together another great season. The senior is second on the team with 49 tackles, including a team-high 34 solo stops. He has 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass break-ups, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
ETSU (3-4, 1-3)
In year three of resuming the football program and year two of its SoCon return, it appeared ETSU was set to build off a stunning upset of Samford in last year’s regular-season finale. After a hard-fought 31-25 loss to The Citadel, the Buccaneers rallied for a 26-23 overtime win over Mercer.
Ever since though, ETSU has a 56-35 loss to Furman and a 49-10 loss to Western Carolina sandwiched around a nonconference win over Robert Morris. The especially frustrating thing about the lopsided loss to a Western Carolina team it defeated last year had to be the fact that the Bucs only trailed 7-3 at the half.
ETSU has had particular struggles coming out of the halftime break. Opponents have outscored the Bucs 80-19 in the third quarter this season.
Remaining schedule - vs. Wofford, vs. VMI, at Samford, at Chattanooga: After a week off this past Saturday, ETSU will try to get back on track this week. The Bucs have a tall order though in hosting a Wofford team coming off its first loss of the season.
MVP: QB Austin Herink. ETSU’s junior quarterback ranks second in the SoCon in passing at 227.6 yards per game. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Herink, who’s started every game since the Bucs resumed football in 2015, threw for a school-record 434 yards at Furman.
CHATTANOOGA (1-7, 1-4)
Chattanooga’s challenging early schedule was made more difficult by an NCAA suspension of All-SoCon quarterback Alejandro Bennifield for the first four games. Things have only gone from bad to worse for the Mocs ever since, though, as they’ve lost four consecutive games since opening SoCon play with a 63-7 win at VMI.
Bennifield returned to action against Western Carolina but was knocked out on a vicious hit in the first quarter. Mississippi State transfer Nick Tiano came out but left with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Western Carolina snapped its eight-game losing streak in the series with a 45-7 win. That marked Chattanooga’s worst loss at home and worst loss in the SoCon since falling to Appalachian State 49-7 in 2008.
Freshman Cole Copeland, who UTC was hoping to redshirt, started the next week against Furman. Despite Copeland setting freshman records for passing yards (317), completions (30) and attempts (42) in a game, the Mocs lost 41-17.
UTC has lost 13 turnovers and forced none over its current four-game losing streak.
Remaining schedule - at Samford, at Wofford, vs. ETSU: With road trips to FCS top-10 ranked teams each of the next two Saturdays, things don’t get any easier in head coach Tom Arth’s first season. This is the Mocs’ first losing season since 2011.
MVP: LB Tavon Lawson. Lawson leads UTC in tackles with 50, including a team-high 26 solo stops. The junior has 5.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks.
VMI (0-8, 0-5)
VMI has struggled in head coach Scott Wachenheim’s third season as the school. The Keydets’ problems are especially evident on offense, as they average just 8.1 points per game. VMI has not scored more than 10 points in any half this season.
While the Keydets have also struggled defensively, allowing 39.8 points per game, that unit has shown improvement of late. In two of the last three games, VMI allowed 26 points apiece to the dynamic offenses of Samford and Western Carolina. Samford averages 30 points a game, while Western Carolina averages 38.6 points per game.
Remaining schedule - at The Citadel, at ETSU, vs. Wofford: VMI has three more shots at avoiding its first winless season since 2004.
MVP: LB Allan Cratsenberg. After an 18-tackle effort against Western Carolina this past Saturday, Cratsenberg has a SoCon-best 88 tackles. The senior, who led the SoCon in tackles last season with 126, also has three of VMI’s four interceptions this season. Cratsenberg has 389 career tackles, the fourth-most in school history.