Saturday, July 9, 2016

Southern Conference 2016 Preview

The SoCon is no longer the power conference that it once was in FCS football. Defections of such power programs such as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, and even Marshall if you want to go back that far, have decimated the ranks, making the conference a watered down shell of its former self. With that in mind, league births in the playoffs will be down once again, but there are still a couple of teams that may be able to do some damage. Overall, this is one of the most difficult leagues to project, because national projections are completely all over the place and scattered after league favorite Chattanooga.

Projected Order of Finish
1. Chattanooga
2. The Citadel
3. Western Carolina
4. Mercer
5. Wofford
6. Samford
7. Furman
8. VMI
9. East Tennessee State

Chattanooga Mocs
The biggest concern on offense will come down to who replaces Jacob Huesman at QB in 2016. It looks like there will be a pair of juniors battling into fall camp in Alejandro Bennifield and Alphonso Stewart. They combined to attempt just nine passes in 2015.
Derrick Craine set a school record last season with 1251 rushing yards, and may become a focal point of the offense early on as the passing game gels without Huesman. Craine carried the ball 230 times last season, and scored 13 TDs, so he can handle a heavy workload. Huesman was also a load in the rushing game, running for 1244 yards last season, so look for backup RB Richardre Bagley to get more work this fall. Of the two battling for QB, Bennifield has the more extensive rushing resume from the QB position. Sophomore Alex Trotter carried just 20 times last fall, but could also see increased playing time.
The good news for the new QBs is that the entire receiving corps returns intact in 2016, led by CJ Board, Xavier Borishade, James Stovall, and Wil Young.
Corey Levin, the nations best OL in FCS football, returns to lead what could be a very solid rushing attack.
The Mocs also took a huge loss on defense, as the heart of the middle departs in LB AJ Hampton. Keionta Davis will take a leadership role on the line, and recorded 13.5 sacks last fall. Nakevion Leslie is back at LB, and recorded 86 tackles last season, so there should be little drop off. Lucas Webb returned two picks for scores last season, giving the secondary a solid anchor.
Projected Win Total: 9

The Citadel Bulldogs
Citadel may have taken the biggest hit in the conference as Mike Houston departed as head coach to take over at James Madison. Citadel had their best season since 1992, and OC Brent Thompson stayed behind to take over. This may create a seamless transition process, but that will remain to be seen.
QB Dominique Allen returns at QB, but like Citadel QBs of the past, he is more a runner than a passer in the Bulldog triple option scheme. He did pass for 871 yards last fall, but his 4/6 TD to INT ratio needs improvement. He also only completed 51.5% of his passes a year ago. He did, however, lead the team in rushing with 953 yards and 13 TDs on the year.
The top three rushers behind Allen all return this fall, so the run game should see no drop off at all. Tyler Renew rushed for 839 yards, Cam Jackson added 751, and Isaiah Smith went for 563. Vinny Miller is gone after a productive senior season, but depth is plentiful with Evan McField and Reggie Williams both slated to return as well.
Jorian Jordan is the only receiver in the top four from last season returning, and he caught just 11 passes on the year.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are in very good shape with seven starters returning, led by DB Dee Delaney, who recorded 46 tackles, and added five picks.
Projected Win Total: 7

Western Carolina Catamounts
The Cats also have an issue at QB, much like Chattanooga, as replacing Troy Mitchell will be conern number one. Wes Holcombe is the odds on favorite to win the job, with sophomore JOrdan Mathis pushing him as the backup.
RB Detrez Newsome will be an important piece of the offense with a new passing game being put into place early on. He rushed for 1109 yards with 9 TDs last season, averaging 100.8 yards per game. Corey Holloway is back as the backup, but the Catamounts lose some depth with the loss of Darius Ramsey, and Mitchell was the second leading rusher as well.
Leading receiver Karnorris Benson has moved on after a 43 catch campaign, but Steffon Hill returns, as does TE Tyler Sexton. Spearman Robinson is a huge component to the offense, but must stay healthy after his season was cut short at just 8 games last fall.
The defense was sharp in some games last fall, but fell apart in others. If the Cats are to finish this high, consistency on defense must become a center point.
There are many questions for WCU in 2016, but there is also a good deal of talent returning. If all pieces come together, they finish in the top three of the league. Of not, a drop could hit. This squad is loaded with questions.
Projected Win Total: 6

Mercer Bears
For still being a relatively new program in FCS football, the Bears have become a threat on any given Saturday, and could be a year away from making a bigger push towards a SoCon title.
It all starts with QB John Russ, a senior. Russ passed for 2141 yards last fall with 18 TDs to just three picks. An area of improvement will need to come in accuracy, where Russ completed just over 58% of his passes last fall.
The run game returns as healthy as ever, as the top four rushers, not including Russ, all return. Tee Mitchell heads the group after rushing for 949 yards and five TDs last season. Alex Lakes, Payton Usher, and Tanner Brumby all return as well.
The receiving corps is loaded, as the unit returns intact. Avery Ward led the team with 40 receptions last fall and he scored six times. Sam Walker, Robert Brown, Jimmie Robinson, Marquise Irvin, Chandler Curtis, and Josh Jones all caught 10 or more passes last season, and they all return to the fold.
The entire defense returns minus CB Alex Avant, and the Bears led the league in scoring defense last fall. All of that together means that the Bears could likely push both The Citadel and Western Carolina, and could even push league favorite Chattanooga, The only issue is whether or not the Bears can win the close games, which was a real issue last season.
Projected Win Total: 6

Wofford Terriers
Wofford is yet another team in this muddled top half of the SoCon that could make some noise, or float out of a playoff scenario. Either thing can totally happen in 2016.
Evan Jacks is back as the trigger man for the triple option offense after rushing for 675 yards last season, and adding 524 yards passing as an afterthought. He would love to increase his total one passing TD from last season, and would like to push into double didgits on his rushing TDs from his seven of last season.
Lorenzo Long leads the rushing attack from his FB position. Long rushed for 969 yards last fall, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Ray Smith is gone after averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and that could effect depth. Look for Nick Colvin, Chase Nelson, and Hunter Windham to pick up the pace.
RJ Nelson is the only receiver to pass into double digit receptions last season (14) and he will return.
The biggest issue with Wofford, and why I have them here in the standings is a lack of a dependable defense. The Terriers got roughed up to a tune of 27.7 points per game last fall, and with an option offense that does not pass well, that cannot happen again for Woffrd to have any success in pushing up the standings. Miles Brown returns to the middle of the D line, and it all starts at point of attack.
Projected Win Total: 5

Samford Bulldogs
Devlin Hodges replaced Michael Eubank at QB last fall, and he returns as the starter as Eubank has graduated after being available for just six games last season. Hodges played in eight games, and looks like one of the better starting QBs in the league in 2016. He passed for 2230 yards last fall, completed 69.4% of his passes, and tossed 12 TDs to six picks. He will likely work on the 2/1 TD to pick ratio this season, and that improvement could push the Bulldogs quite a way this season.
Every back that saw double digit carries last fall returns, giving the Bulldogs a solid and deep group at RB, even if it lacks a single star. Denzell Williams leads the way after running up 518 yards and eight TDs last fall. K'Rondis Larry, Jake Wilks, Kelvin McKnight, and Roland Williams all return.
The receiving corps is in solid shape as well, as the top five receivers return from last season. Karel Hamilton led the group with 75 receptions, and he was followed by Emmanuel Obajimi (54-826) and McKnight (57-616). Devon Schmitt and Andrew Harris add depth.
Where Samford falls short, just like Wofford, is on defense. THe Bulldogs were ravaged by the run last fall, giving up over 220 yards per game. FS Jeremy Blount is the leader on defense, but he will need help from his front seven.
Projected Win Total: 5

Furman Paladins
Furman was victimized as far as being able to run the ball last season, and finished as the worst rushing team in the SoCon in 2015. Making mattrs worse is a thin offensive line, and no clear answer at QB.
Reese Hannon returns as the favorite to hold onto the QB job, but played in just nine games last fall. He tossed just six TDs and also added 6 picks, and completed just 55.3% of his passing attempts. PJ Blazejowski played in six games, but fared no better. In short, the passing game could be a mess.
The run game produced not one runner who went for more than 375 yards, and that was Antonio Wilcox. Tristin Luke ran for 371, but there is little experience or depth after that. The RB corps was young last fall, but they look no better coming into camp this season than last. Ernie Cane, who led the team with six rushing TDs last season, is gone.
Andrej Suttles returns as the leading receiver from last season, which is good news for the developing situation at QB. He caught 43 passes for 621 yards last fall. Jordan Snellings, the number two last fall, is gone. Logan McCarter, who caught just 20 passes last fall, will have to step up, as will Dincan Fletcher and Chad Scott.
As bad as Samford was against the run last fall, Furman was worse. The Paladins gave up 222.3 yards rushing per game last season, and that is a huge area of concern once again.
Projected Win Total: 3

VMI Keydets
Scott Wachenheim enters year two at the head of one of the traditionally worst programs in FCS football. Some small gains were made last season, so it's all about continued development in year two.
Al Cobb showed huge flashes at times at QB, but still has got to learn how not to turn the football over through the air after passing for 14 TDs to a whopping 18 picks. He did pass for 2736 yards last season, and he also managed to complete 61.2% of his passes. With some work, he could be a star in the making, but the turnovers have to reduce greatly.
The run game was rather anemic last fall, but it could be hurt worse after the loss of leading rusher Derrick Zigler (476 yards). Dane Forlines, Dontae Mauck, Matthew Nicholson, and Brice Tucker have to come together to form a solid unit to assist the passing game.
Aaron Sanders is back as the leading receiver from last year after catching 84 passes for 892 yards.He would definitely like to see more than two TD receptions, however. Rushers Forlines and Mauck were the next two in line in catching balls last fall, so another front line receiver must step up.
Defensively, VMI still liked to give up chunks of points last season, so again, it is all about development this fall.
Projected Win Total: 2

East Tennessee State Buccaneers
ETSU is back in the SoCon after a long layoff in which the Bucs didn't field a program from 2003-2014. They won two games as an independent last fall, and now through themselves back into the fire of their old conference home.
Austin Herink is back as a sophomore at QB, and is still learning. He passed for just 1261 yards last season, with six TDs and five picks. Nick Sexton is back as the primary backup after playing in eight games. He passed for just one TD to seven picks.
JaJuan Stinson is looking for improvement as well at RB. He rushed for a team leading 586 yards and five TDs last season. With some help, he could break out this fall. Fallon Lee, Cory Colder and Tony Drew all return behind him.
The good news about a new program, is that you have all young players, and all of that depth develops together. Dalton Ponchillia, Hunter Wike, Demetrius Anthony, Chad Pritchard, and Drake Powell all caught at least 10 or more passes, capped by Ponchillia's 31 last fall.
Dylan Weigel, a LB, is a star in the making after racking up 127 total tackles last fall. The main issue is that the Bucs gave up points by the bucket last fall, a trait of a young program.
Projected Win Total: 2

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