By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — I’ve always been a sucker for the old, slapstick comedy of the early years of motion pictures, whether it be stuff like the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, or Laurel and Hardy.
I’m more in the mood for Laurel and Hardy today as I consider the complications of the Southern Conference as we move into the final two weeks of the season.
After seeing what Furman had done to Wofford and Appalachian State in recent weeks, I can hear Oliver Hardy saying to Stan Laurel “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
After Furman dispatched Appalachian State 20-10 last Saturday, you might think that the SoCon is going to be easy to figure out.
Georgia Southern and Wofford, each with one conference loss, meet on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, S.C. with first place on the line.
If Georgia Southern (8-1, 6-1) wins, it clinches its first Southern Conference title since 2004.
If Wofford (7-2, 5-1) wins on Saturday and is victorious again the following week at Chattanooga, the Terriers win the crown and break a record-tying six consecutive titles for Appalachian State.
The Terriers shared the title with the Mountaineers in 2007 and 2010 and also took the crown outright for the only time in 2003.
But this being the SoCon makes me think it won’t turn out so easy.
The thought of Laurel and Hardy makes me think back to the 2002 season.
For those rookies in the world of the Football Championship Subdivision, it was a time where only eight at-large teams joined eight automatic bid winners in the 16-team NCAA Division I Football Championship.
It was also a time (starting to sound like we were in the Dark Ages here, with appropriate, Celtic-sounding theme music in the background) where no conference had ever earned more than three berths in anyone one season.
Just the year before, the Atlantic 10 had found itself in a goofy four-way tie for a league championship and the Division I Football Committee found a way to separate three of the teams and leave Villanova at home by virtue of the Wildcats’ loss to Division II Lock Haven early in the season.
Hoftra (yes Virginia, Hofstra used to sponsor FCS football), Maine and William & Mary received invites, while Villanova was left without a ticket to the dance, despite a team that finished the season 8-3 overall, 7-2 in conference and had Brian Westbrook in its lineup.
A year later, four SoCon teams were worthy of playoff exclusion, but the committee took long-time powers Georgia Southern (the automatic bid winner after tying Furman for the conference title), Furman and Appalachian State, while leaving upstart Wofford at the altar with a 9-3 record.
It was a Wofford squad that came within a few yards of a automatic bid in its final-seconds loss at home to Furman in a regular-season-ending quagmire.
The I-AA community was so outraged with the committee that year that one of its members, ASU athletic director Roachel Laney (who Terriers fans blamed for their ouster), was hung in effigy on the Wofford campus and this writer coined a term that still lives in the lexicon of FCS.
When a deserving team is left out of the playoffs, it is said to have been “Woofed” by the committee.
Fortunately, we are now in the second year of a 20-team playoff field, with 10 conferences now receiving auto bids. Chances are that, whoever wins the Southern Conference, all four of those teams will be in the field when the brackets are announced in nine more days.
Georgia Southern, Wofford, Appalachian State and Furman all have playoff-worthy resumes, even if Georgia Southern loses to Alabama, Furman falls at Florida, or Wofford stumbles in one of its last two games.
It would be hard to see Appalachian State (6-3 overall, 5-2 in the SoCon) losing to either Western Carolina, at Kidd Brewer Stadium — a place where the Mountaineers have lost just four of their past 64 games (to Georgia Southern to end a 31-game home winning streak, Richmond on the way to the 2008 national championship, McNeese State, and defending 2009 national titlist Villanova), and at on the road at Elon to finish the regular season.
But what happens if Wofford beats Georgia Southern this Saturday and loses to a talented and capable Chattanooga squad the following weekend on the road?
If ASU wins its two remaining SoCon games and Furman (6-3, 5-2) dispatches Elon this Saturday as expected at home, you could have the first-ever four-way tie for the title in Southern Conference history, with Georgia Southern, Wofford, ASU and Furman all ending up at 6-2.
We nearly experienced this type of mess in 2007 when ASU and Wofford became just the second and third teams ever to win the crown with two losses, while Georgia Southern, Elon and Furman were also knocking on the door.
The only other time a Southern Conference champion was crowned with two losses was the 1981 Furman squad that went 5-2 to win the title outright.
It has been a wacky year already.
Wofford nearly beat Clemson, losing 35-27 in an early-season encounter after leading nearly the entire first half.
The Terriers, behind All-American fullback Eric Breitenstien and that quirky triple option wingbone attack, dominated Appalachian State at home, 28-14. But then, three weeks later, Wofford was stunned by Furman, 26-21 on the road.
Furman dropped three of its first six games, losing its opener at Coastal Carolina, 30-23, and then falling in consecutive conference games at home to Samford, 26-21, and on the road at Georgia Southern, 50-20.
Many thoughts the Paladins were finished after the loss to one of its two top rivals, Georgia Southern, but Furman has rebounded behind the second-half play of UCLA transfer quarterback Chris Forcier.
Appalachian State looked like it was preparing for another deep playoff run when it beat Georgia Southern, 24-17, holding the Eagles’ triple-option offense to just 201 yards.
But the Mountaineers were no match for a Furman team that built a 20-0 lead last week and stopped ASU quarterback Jamal Jackson on a fourth-and-one leap near the goal line in the second half that could have gotten Appalachian State back into the game.
Forcier ended up 9-of-16 passing for 224 yards and two TDs and ran 11 times for 64 yards. The NCAA passing-efficiency leader’s biggest moment came when he completed a 79-yard strike to Sederrick Cunningham for a touchdown to make it 20-0, right after ASU had missed a field goal.
Jackson was spectacular at times, hitting 29-of-44 passes for 312 yards, but he was sacked three times, picked off twice and fumbled once on a day when the Mountaineers were done in by four turnovers.
Georgia Southern, missing national defensive player of the year candidate Brent Russell at defensive tackle, due to a one-game suspension for violating team rules, struggled all day at Paulson Stadium to subdue The Citadel.
The biggest difference in this defensive-dominated game that was scoreless in the second half was The Citadel’s inability to kick a ball through the goal posts. The Bulldogs missed both of their extra point tries and also failed on a 37-yard field goal that could have won the game at the end.
Wofford raced to a 35-10 halftime lead over hapless Western Carolina and eventually won 42-24 behind 136 yards from Donovan Johnson and 112 more from Breitenstein.
The Terriers had that loss in the middle of the season to a Furman team that Georgia Southern dominated, but otherwise these Pups have been playing pretty well all season.
Georgia Southern, meanwhile, seems to be struggling right now against a backloaded schedule.
Statistically, Georgia Southern and Wofford are almost as even as two teams can be. The Eagles lost last year at home against the Terriers, but turned that around by winning in Spartanburg during the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
The all-time series is led by Georgia Southern, 10-7, but with the recent performances of the two teams, Wofford might have an edge in what should be a tightly-contested, low-scoring game.
At this point, it is pretty clear that all four of these SoCon teams are squads to watch as we near the playoffs, but it is too early to figure out if we will have a simple, or complicated end to the regular season.