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 final edition of “Keeler’s Corner” for what’s been an exciting 2017 football season in the Southern Conference. This month, I’ll recap the regular season for each SoCon team (in order of finish in the standings) – along with my choice for each team’s MVP, with a little extra focus on teams in the FCS playoffs. After sending a record four teams to the postseason last year, the SoCon has three representatives in the field this season in Wofford, Samford and Furman.
WOFFORD (9-2, 7-1 SoCon)
Wofford bounced back from its first loss of the season on Oct. 21 with a couple more close wins before wrapping up SoCon play with a lopsided win over VMI. That victory clinched at least a share of the SoCon championship, but the Terriers got it all to themselves when Furman fell at Samford last Saturday. It’s the fifth SoCon title for Wofford and the first one solely possessed since the Terriers’ first in 2003.
Wofford wrapped up its terrific regular season by putting a bit of a scare in an FBS opponent. The Terriers trailed South Carolina 14-10 midway through the third quarter last Saturday, but three turnovers and a turnover on downs in their own territory proved costly as Wofford fell 31-10.
There was much rejoicing the next day in Spartanburg, however, as the Terriers got the official word that they received the No. 7 seed and thus a first-round bye for the FCS playoffs. It’s Wofford’s eighth trip to the playoffs. Last season, the Terriers advanced to the quarterfinals before falling at eventual national runner-up Youngstown State.
After the Saturday off this week, Wofford will host the winner of this week’s Elon-Furman game in round two on Dec. 2 at 2 p.m.
"We are excited about having that open date. We have an opportunity to get a lot of guys back up to full speed who have been nursing some injuries,” Wofford coach Mike Ayers said following the selection show. “We are going to get a chance to do some teaching and get sharper at what we are doing.
“We are glad to be where we are with the bye and into the second round. Whether it is Furman or Elon, we know it is going to be a challenge."
If any close games loom this postseason for Wofford, it should be well-prepared. The Terriers went 7-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season, including a 6-1 mark in SoCon play.
MVP: FB Andre Stoddard. Within a rushing offense that ranks seventh in the FCS at 250.6 yards per game, Stoddard has been the lead dog. Stoddard, who earned All-SoCon first-team honors from the league’s media, is second in the SoCon in rushing with 743 yards and shares the league lead in touchdowns with 14. Those 14 rushing scores rank third-most in the country.
SAMFORD (8-3, 6-2)
Samford wrapped up the regular season with an exciting 26-20 win over Furman to secure a second-place tie with the Paladins and back-to-back trips to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1992. This year will mark the Bulldogs’ fifth postseason appearance overall.
Samford will travel to Kennesaw State in the opening round of the playoffs Saturday at 2 p.m. That’s a rematch of this year’s season opener, when the host Bulldogs defeated the Owls, 28-23, in the first-ever meeting between the schools.
"This is exciting for us to make the playoffs two years in a row," Samford coach Chris Hatcher said following the selection show. "This team has played extremely well. We've played a very difficult schedule this season and we finished strong. I'm really proud for the guys, they've earned the right to continue to play."
A Samford win Saturday could set up an intriguing matchup the following week at No. 2 seed Jacksonville State. Despite being just 75 miles apart, the Alabama schools have met just once since Samford left the Ohio Valley Conference 10 years ago. That meeting took place in the 2013 FCS playoffs.
Known for their high-flying passing offense, which was as good as ever this year, the Bulldogs’ defense showed marked improvement as the season went along. Led by SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Ahmad Gooden – who has 15.5 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks this season – Samford allowed a SoCon-best 16.6 points per game in league play. On Saturday, the Bulldogs joined NC State as the only teams to hold Furman – which led the SoCon in scoring – to as little as three points in a half.
Being the only FCS team to knock off Wofford this season, Samford was agonizingly close to a SoCon title of its own. The Bulldogs drove 98 yards on its final drive at Western Carolina but could not get the final yard needed in a 38-34 loss. In its other SoCon loss, Samford suffered seven turnovers in falling to Chattanooga 23-21.
MVP: QB Devlin Hodges. With apologies to dynamic receiver Kelvin McKnight, who ranks eighth in the FCS with 1,130 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns on 79 catches, I’m going with his quarterback. Hodges, who earned SoCon Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season Tuesday, is fourth in the country in passing yards (3,587), second in touchdown passes (30) and seventh in completion percentage (66.7 percent).
FURMAN (7-4, 6-2)
Furman saw its longest winning streak this century snapped Saturday with a 26-20 loss at Samford, which had the Paladins nervously awaiting the FCS playoffs selection show the following day. As it turns out, the seven-game winning streak – its longest since 1999 – was enough to earn Furman a spot in the field.
It could be the beginning of a redemption tour for the Paladins this week when they travel to Elon for a first round game beginning at 1 p.m. Elon defeated Furman, 34-31, earlier this season. Saturday’s winner will travel to Wofford in round two. That’s where the Paladins opened this season with a 24-23 loss.
“I’ve been doing this a long time – playing and coaching – and if you’re practicing on Thanksgiving Day, that’s usually a good thing, and we’ll be practicing Thanksgiving morning,” Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. “We were in the last bracket to be announced, and when our name popped up, we were all excited.”
This year’s playoff appearance will be Furman’s SoCon-best 17th and first since 2013. The Paladins had not had a winning season since that year, including a 3-8 mark last season. After the turnaround that Furman has gone through this season, Hendrix earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors Tuesday.
After 10 seasons coaching the offensive line at Air Force, Hendrix returned to his alma mater prior to this season. Not coincidentally, Furman senior center Matthew Schmidt earned Furman’s league-best 15th Jacobs Blocking Award, presented annually to the SoCon’s top offensive lineman.
Schmidt and fellow All-SoCon first-team lineman Terrell Bush, along with All-SoCon first-team tight end Andy Schumpert, lead an offensive front that’s allowed the second-fewest sacks in the FCS with six. Furman, which averaged a SoCon-best 36.8 points per game in league play, also ranks 10th nationally in rushing offense (241.1 yards per game).
Furman’s young defense has improved week-by-week. It allowed just 19.9 points per game in SoCon play and has 31 sacks this season. It’s been truly a team effort on defense as 16 different players have contributed to that league-leading sack total.
The Paladins have also committed the fewest penalties in the country with 36.
MVP: QB P.J. Blazejowski. The Paladins’ new offense has led to big plays in the passing game and Blazejowski has delivered 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Blazejowski leads the FCS in passing yards per attempt (11.20) and ranks second in passing yards per completion (18.11) and passing efficiency (180.7).
WESTERN CAROLINA (7-5, 5-3)
Western Carolina rebounded from a 2-9 mark in 2016 with its third seven-win season in the past four years. While it was a great turnaround from last season, it ended on a down note as the Catamounts lost three of their final four games.
This included home losses in league play to Furman and Mercer, the latter of which likely eliminated Western Carolina from postseason consideration. Prior to that stretch, the Catamounts seemed to be destined for its first playoff appearance since 1983.
Despite missing standout running back Detrez Newsome for three games, Western Carolina led the SoCon in total offense, averaging 440.6 yards per game. Dual-threat quarterback Tyrie Adams led a balanced offense that posted 2,772 yards rushing and 2,515 yards passing this season.
MVP: RB Detrez Newsome. While missing those three games and being limited in another, Newsome still finished 10th in the FCS with 1,100 yards rushing. He was third in the nation with an average of 122.2 yards rushing per game. He led the FCS in all-purpose yards per game with an average of 170.1. The senior finished second in school history with 3,728 career yards. His 46 combined touchdowns – 37 rushing, seven receiving and two on kickoff returns – are a school record.
MERCER (5-6, 4-4)
In year four of its membership in the SoCon, Mercer had another up-and-down year in league play, replicating its .500 conference record from 2016. The Bears did end league play on a high note, however, with a 35-33 win at Western Carolina. While three of Mercer’s four league losses were by seven points or fewer, the two-point win over the Catamounts was its only victory by less than 10 points.
Quarterback Kaelan Riley was honored as the SoCon Freshman of the Year by both the coaches and media. Riley set the school record for completion percentage (59.4) and set Mercer freshman records for attempts (288), completions (171) and passing yards (2,030). He had 17 touchdowns (13 passing), averaged 202.1 yards of total offense per game and helped the Bears lead the SoCon in red zone offense (91.4 percent).
MVP: LB Lee Bennett. Bennett set a program record and was second in the SoCon with 110 tackles. The senior led the SoCon with three fumble recoveries and added 5.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles and three quarterback hurries. Bennett helped Mercer’s defense force a league-best 25 turnovers.
THE CITADEL (5-6, 3-5)
After a perfect run through the SoCon last year, The Citadel opened this season 3-0 before the wheels fell off offensively. After scoring 110 points over those first three games, the Bulldogs scored just 127 the rest of the way – never eclipsing 21 points against any of their final eight opponents.
Two statistics illustrate just how puzzling the Citadel’s offense was this year. The Bulldogs ranked No. 2 in the FCS in rushing the ball at 294.1 yards per game but ranked No. 118 (out of 123 teams) in red zone offense (61 percent). Citadel also ranked 109th in red zone defense (87.1 percent).
Grant Drakeford led the Bulldogs’ offensively with 603 yards rushing and averaged a league-best 9.6 yards per carry. That average would’ve been No. 1 nationally, but he didn’t have enough carries to qualify.
MVP: S Aron Spann III. Spann finished second in the SoCon and eighth in the FCS with five interceptions this season. The junior was third on the team with 57 tackles, including three for loss. He also had a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
CHATTANOOGA (3-8, 3-5)
A year after seeing its run of three consecutive SoCon championships come to an end last year, Chattanooga’s string of five consecutive winning seasons came to an end this year. The season marked the Mocs’ lowest win total since a 1-11 season in 2008.
Suspensions and injuries took a toll on Chattanooga for much of the season, but first-year coach Tom Arth’s team showed a lot of fight down the stretch. The Mocs won two of their three final games and took Wofford to double overtime in the loss. After losing 13 turnovers and forcing none during a four-game losing streak, UTC forced seven in a 23-21 upset win at Samford. That victory ultimately ended up costing Samford part of the SoCon title and an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
Senior Lucas Webb became the first player in school history to be selected first team All-SoCon all four years of his career. He had three interceptions this year to tie the school record with 13. Webb set a SoCon career record with four interception returns for touchdowns and tied the league mark with five defensive scores overall.
MVP: LB Tae Davis. In just nine games, Davis led UTC with 74 tackles, including five tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He had 14 tackles (including 11 solo stops) in the win over Samford.
ETSU (4-7, 2-6)
In the second year of its return to the SoCon, ETSU matched its 2-6 mark from 2016. Included this year was a six-point loss to The Citadel, a seven-point loss to league-champion Wofford and a seven-point loss to Chattanooga.
After playing even with many teams in the first half throughout the year, the Buccaneers’ biggest struggles came right after halftime. ETSU was outscored 100-33 in the third quarter for the season. The Bucs also struggled running the ball all season, averaging just 71 yards per game and 2.1 yards per carry.
Despite the offensive woes, quarterback Austin Herink had a solid season. He finished second in the SoCon in passing at 201.2 yards per game. The junior passed for 2,213 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Kicker JJ Jerman led the SoCon by connecting on 14-of-18 field goals, including a pair of career-long 51-yard kicks.
MVP: DE Nasir Player. Player tallied 67 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, an interception – which he returned for a touchdown – and a forced fumble. The sophomore first-team All-SoCon selection (media) tied for second in the SoCon with seven sacks.
VMI (0-11, 0-8)
VMI suffered its first winless season since 2004, struggling mightily on both sides of the ball. The Keydets scored just 88 points this season to rank last in the FCS with an average of 8 points per game. VMI never scored more than 10 points in any half.
The Keydets also ranked last in the country in turnover margin, losing 28 while forcing only six.
While there were struggles on a defense that allowed 37.1 points per game, some individuals stood out. Senior linebacker Ryan Francis had 103 tackles – including 10 tackles for loss, while senior safety Greg Sanders had 92. Junior linebacker Brian Lipscomb had 70 tackles and led the SoCon in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (18.5).
MVP: LB Allan Cratsenberg. For the second year in a row, Cratsenberg led the SoCon in tackles, this time with 118. The senior finished his career ranked third in school history in tackles with 419. The first-team All-SoCon pick (media) also led VMI in interceptions with three, including a 60-yard return for a touchdown.