By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — For all of the talk about who has the best league in the Football Championship Subdivision and for every measuring devices that people come up with to build their cases, the ultimate goal of teams competing in FCS is to win national championships.
And while the Southern Conference may not have the top-to-bottom depth of other larger leagues like the Colonial Athletic Association, the Missouri Valley Football Conference, or the Big Sky Conference — the other three members of the Big Four of FCS — there is an old adage that still rings true.
To win a national title, you probably are going to have to beat a SoCon team along the way to your crown.
North Dakota State was the latest champion to prove that saying true, as the Bison stopped Georgia Southern in the semifinals on the way to a national championship victory against Sam Houston State last January.
The year before, Delaware came within a point of proving the statement, losing a heartbreaking 20-19 decision to Eastern Washington after defeating Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
Current or former members of the Southern Conference have won 12 of the previous 34 FCS titles, all of those coming within a 23-year span between 1985 and 2007. Nine other current or former SoCon clubs reached championship games from 1983-2001.
And while the league hasn't had a champion in four years, since 1983 it has been a rare season when a Southern Conference team hasn't reached at least the semifinals.
That last happened in 2008, after the only previous occurrences taking place in 1997 and 2004. Some people might count 1990 as well, since Georgia Southern's title team did not join the SoCon officially until the 1993 season, but even with that year thrown in, you can see what a rare feat is indeed.
Two, or even three Southern Conference teams (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford) should be in the thick of the national title race again in 2012, with several other squads lurking in the vicinity of what looks to be a competitive league.
Even rarer than a SoCon team not being in the thick of an FCS championship chase is having one of these schools win the conference title without an experienced quarterback.
Georgia Southern lost Georgia Tech transfer Jaybo Shaw and Wofford said goodbye to Mitch Allen, due to graduation, leaving big question marks for these two triple-option-based teams.
The athletic Ezayi Youyoute and versatile Jerick McKinnon have been battling it out for the starting job at Georgia Southern, while Brian Kass is stepping into the No. 1 job at Wofford.
Chattanooga, Furman, Samford and Western Carolina are also bringing in new starters.
The team with the best combination of experience and talent at quarterback is Appalachian State.
Junior Jamal Jackson beat out 2010 All-American and Payton Award finalist DeAndre Presley for the starting job in the middle of last season and threw for 2,001 yards and 15 TDs, while rushing for 296 yards and seven scores in the Mountaineers' spread attack.
If experience at quarterback is a prerequisite for success, then Elon could be a darkhorse, with strong-armed senior Thomas Wilson firing passes to the top talent in FCS, receiver Aaron Mellette (113 catches for 1,639 yards and 12 TDs).
If Wilson can cut down on the 21 interceptions he threw to go with 23 TDs and 3,057 yards passing last season, the Phoenix could stay in the thick of the race.
The Citadel could also be a surprise team with fullback Darien Robinson back for his junior year and quarterback Ben Dupree returning as a sophomore in the Bulldogs' third year of running a triple-option attack.
But don't be surprised if there are upsets galore in a league where eight of the nine teams can knock anyone off in a given week.
Predicted Order Of Finish
1. Appalachian State
2. Georgia Southern
4. The Citadel
9. Western Carolina
Appalachian State (8-4, 6-2) had its record-tying string of six consecutive SoCon titles snapped last year by Georgia Southern — the other school who shared that mark — but the Jerry Moore-coached squad could start another streak this year with a combination of young talent and just enough experience.
The biggest edition is the return of former quarterback and assistant coach Scott Satterfield as the offensive coordinator.
Satterfield, who led ASU to a 12-0 start in 1995 as a player, was a major part in the development of the Mountaineer spread offense that won a record three consecutive national titles from 2005-2007 and is the first coach to hold the offensive coordinator's title since Rob Best left before the 2003 season.
Another addition is speedy, redshirt wide receiver Tacoi Sumier, who transferred in from Oregon. Sumier could help relieve some of the pressure left by the loss of Brian Quick to the NFL. Quick was the 33rd pick overall by the St. Louis Rams.
Satterfield has other talent to build around besides Jackson at QB and Sumier.
Andrew Peacock, Tony Washington and Sean Price are among the other receivers expected to produce, while the bread-and-butter running game should improve behind freshman Tysean Holloway, Stephen Miller and Rod Chisholm.
The Mountaineers lost a top-flight tight end in Ben Jorden, but Drew Bailey will be a solid replacement.
But the biggest concern for the Mountaineers is the need for improvement on the offensive line, which had suffered from poor recruiting in previous years. Sophomore Alex Acey, who walked on at ASU, could be the best of this young group that also includes tackle Kendall Lamm.
Defensively, Appalachian State could have one of the top units in the country. Senior linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough and cornerback Demetrius McCray are preseason All-Americans, while linebacker Brandon Grier, safeties Troy Sanders and Doug Middleton and defensive lineman Ronald Blair are other standouts in a 3-4 system that should be better now that it has been in place for a year.
The kicking game is in solid hands with senior Sam Martin, an All-American candidate at punter. Martin can also handle placements, is a strong-legged kickoff man and will battle Drew Stewart for field goal and PAT duties.
Georgia Southern (11-3, 7-1) still hasn't decided who will start at quarterback, though Youyoute seems to have been getting more of the reps in practice. Coach Jeff Monken said both Youyoute and McKinnon will play, however.
There is plenty of offensive talent around whoever plays at QB, led by fullback Dominique Swope, who had 1,023 yards rushing and seven TDs — most of the production in the final five games.
Tackle Dorian Byrd and center Blake DeBartola are the top returning offensive linemen on a unit that has to replace some talent.
On defense, Brent Russell is arguably the top tackle in the subdivision and easily the best defender in the SoCon. He will get help from ends Dion Dubose and Josh Gebhardt, linebacker Darius Eubanks and free safety Deion Stanley.
To shore up a weak pass defense, Georgia Southern switched speedster J.J. Wilcox to strong safety.
The Eagles have relished one of the top kicking games in the country in the past two years, but must replace All-Americans Adrian Mora on placements and Charlie Edwards at punter.
Wofford (8-4, 6-2) has a lot of pieces in place to make another run at SoCon and national honors, but the Terriers are less experienced at quarterback than they have been in years.
Coach Mike Ayers usually likes to groom younger quarterbacks by allowing them to take significant snaps each game, but he didn't do that as much last year with senior Mitch Allen running the show.
As a result, Kass didn't get as much playing time as the normal sophomore quarterback does. The development of Kass will go a long way to determine if the Terriers are just good, or potentially great.
There are no worries at fullback with the best at his position in FCS returning, senior Eric Breitenstein. Breitenstein, whose grandfather used to be the head coach at rival Appalachian State, had 1,474 yards and 19 TDs last season and has 3,695 yards for his career.
Speedy Donovan Johnson complemented Breitenstein from the halfback slot with 967 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago.
Christian Reed is solid in the kicking game.
Wofford always seems to be solid up front and the offensive line is anchored by Jared Singleton, Jake Miles and Calvin Cantrell.
The Terriers have been getting better every year on defense it seems and All-American Alvin Scioneaux leads this stalwart force this season. He will be helped by fellow linebacker Mike Niam.
The Citadel (4-7, 2-6) has been slowly building a solid team under former Lehigh coaching architect Kevin Higgins and could turn the corner this season in a tough, competitive conference.
Dupree (645 yards rushing, eight TDs) is getting more accustom to the intricacies of the option. He led an offense that was third behind Wofford and Georgia Southern last year nationally in rushing.
Robinson (862 yards, nine TDs) should crack the 1,000-yard barrier this season and maybe have even more of a breakout season.
Probably the favorite to win the prestigious Jacobs Blocking Award this year in the SoCon is center Mike Sellers, who heads up a solid offensive line.
On defense, the Bulldogs will rely heavily on Chris Billingslea and Derek Douglas on the defensive line. Cass Couey is one of the top punters in the country, giving The Citadel another defensive weapon.
Furman (6-5, 5-3) made a radical change by bringing in Bruce Fowler last year to replace veteran Bobby Lamb at coach. Fowler has made recruiting strides, but must rebuild a team that lost most of its starters.
Senior Dakota Derrick takes over for Chris Forcier, who led FCS in passing efficiency as a senior in 2011. But Derrick has only 58 passes for 300 yards in his college career thus far.
Jerodis Williams has established himself as one of the top running backs in the league and Dakota Dozier is one of the linemen who will be open holes for Williams.
The Paladins have the top tight end in FCS, senior Colin Anderson, who caught 40 passes for 697 yards and seven TDs last fall.
On defense, Mitch McGrath, Nathan Wade and Derrick Murray will be the keys in a secondary that lost All-American cornerback Ryan Steed.
The Paladins must also replace All-American linebacker Kadarron Anderson, but Mitch McGrath (87 tackles, four sacks, 14.5 TFL) returns and senior Matt Solomon is making strides replacing Anderson in the middle of the defense.
But Furman needs to make major improvement on the defense line, which struggled to put pressure on the passer last season. Josh Lynn gives the Paladins hope for improvement.
Will King should be a threat returning punts for the Paladins.
Chattanooga (5-6, 3-6) has long been thought of as a team that has talent, but finds ways to lose too many close games. If coach Russ Huesman wants to change that perception, the Mocs need to learn to finish games.
Defense will be the Mocs calling card again this season, with end Josh Williams, linebacker Wes Dothard and cornerback Kadeem Wise making various All-American teams.
Davis Tull will help Williams on the other side of the defensive line, while D.J. Key is a top-notch free safety for a unit that ranked 13th nationally in 2011.
Sophomore Terrell Robinson showed flashes of brilliance at quarterback in place of an injured B.J. Coleman last season and will be one of the most athletic signal-callers in the country.
But the Mocs need to develop more playmakers to help Robinson, which also needs to replace receiver Joel Bradford. Marlon Anthony is the best returning pass-catcher, while Faysal Shafaat is a quality tight end.
Marquis Green rushed for 530 yards as a freshman, with fullback Taharin Tyson, tackle Adam Miller and guard Kevin Revis blocking for him.
Special teams will be a strength with Nick Pollard kicking the ball. Chaz Moore is a talented kick returner.
Samford (6-5, 4-4) earned a new contract for former Heisman Trophy winner and coach Pat Sullivan last season and the Bulldogs may have the experience to compete with the top of the league, if they can get good quarterback play.
With four-year starter Dustin Taliaferro graduating, Memphis senior transfer Andy Summerlin and junior Ben Neill are sharing snaps at QB, with talented freshman Carson Barnett waiting in the wings.
Fabian Truss is the go-to guy in the Bulldog attack. The All-American ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage (1,744) last season as as sophomore and can hurt teams in the backfield, catching passes and on kickoff returns (29.3 average).
Jeremiaha Gates had a career-high 119 yards rushing when Samford almost beat Auburn in the season finale. That shows the depth that the Bulldogs are starting to build under Sullivan.
Kelsey Pope is a big threat for the Bulldogs at wide receiver, while Kelvin Clay and Zeke Walters are other targets. Ryan Dudchock and Charlie Sanford are the key players on the offensive line.
Linebacker Darion Sutton, end Nicolas Williams and defensive back Alvin Hines are three of the key players on defense. South Florida transfer Brandon Wilkinson is expected to make an impact at linebacker, but the Bulldogs must shore up their defensive line.
All-American kicker Cameron Yaw is a huge threat on field goal, giving the Bulldogs a chance to score not long after they enter enemy territory. Greg Peranich is a quality punter.
Elon (5-6, 3-5) took a step backwards last season under first-year coach Jason Swepson, after Pete Lembo had built the program into a top-25 caliber team and challenged for Southern Conference honors.
The Phoenix still have offensive firepower with Wilson throwing to Mellette and a group of other fine receivers, including Jeremy Peterson. But Elon will have to recharge its rushing attack to bring balance to the wide-open attack.
Austin Sowell is one of the top offensive linemen in the league and Adam Shreiner handles the kicking.
But the Phoenix needs to shore up its rushing defense. Tony Thompson is one of the strengths at tackle, while Jonathan Spain and Blake Thompson are standouts at linebacker.
David Wood is one of the top punt returners in the league.
Western Carolina (1-10, 0-8) has seen its program erode to the bottom of FCS, but there is hope with new coach Mark Speir. The positive, upbeat Speir was the recruiting coordinator at Appalachian State and has been an assistant at both ASU and WCU.
Speir brought several key staffers from Appalachian State with him, but it will take time to restock athletes onto the Catamount roster.
WCU's first order of business is rebuilding a defense that ranked 119th in FCS last season. Only winless Valparaiso was worst statistically.
Senior linebacker Rock Williams is the top returning defender for the Catamounts, while Elijer Martinez and Ace Clark brings help to the secondary at cornerback and strong safety.
Redshirt sophomore Eddie Sullivan has won the quarterback job to start the season over a pair of freshmen, Troy Mitchell and Jonah Duggan. Freshman Darius Ramsey and sophomores Michaeal Vaughn and Shaun Warren will see action at running back,
Jacoby Mitchell is the best returning receiver, while George Richardson doubles at wide out and as a dangerous kick returner. Clark Sechrest will handle the place kicking.