John Hooper is one of HERO Sports' FCS Campus Correspondents, and he resides in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina. He's a longtime Southern Conference "expert" and tracks the league for HERO Sports. You can follow John on Twitter @SoConJohn. Read John's SoCon picks every week.
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SOCON WEEK NINE PICKS
It was another tough weekend for me picking games in the SoCon, as I went 2-2 on the weekend, getting both Chattanooga and Wofford right in my picks, while missing on both the victories by both The Citadel and Mercer. My apologies go out to both of those programs for missing on their picks this past weekend. The team of the weekend was The Citadel, who executed its game plan to perfection in its 27-10 road win over No. 8 Furman in a driving, cold rain this past weekend. Now let’s get to this weekend’s picks and see if I can rebound a bit..
REPORT CARD: SoCon's Midseason Look
Here’s a look at how Week 9 might pan out:
Furman (4-3, 3-1 SoCon) at Western Carolina (1-6, 0-4 SoCon), 3:30 p.m. EST
Furman will look to rebound on the road Saturday from its first FCS loss of the season, facing a struggling Western Carolina team that has lost 13-straight games to Division I competition and 11-straight to SoCon opponents coming into the Battle for Purple Supremacy. Over the past two seasons combined, the Catamounts are a combined 4-14, while Furman is 10-7 since the start of 2018, having won eight of their last nine against FCS foes.
The Citadel’s win in Greenville this past Saturday snapped a streak of eight-straight wins by the Paladins against FCS competition. With the way things went for Furman against the Bulldogs last week, and with the way they have gone for Western Carolina the entire season, the matchup might be better referenced the Battle of Purple Adversity. The game will mark Furman’s 500th game in SoCon history, having compiled an all-time league mark of 274-214-11, and the 500 games ranks third-most in league history behind only VMI (519) and The Citadel (516).
The Catamounts were in Furman’s neck of the woods last weekend, battling Wofford in rainy conditions on homecoming at Wofford’s at Gibbs Stadium, and after a well-executed, double-reverse pass from Tyrie Adams (73-of-107 passing, 789 yds, 6 TDs, 5 INTs)-to-Jaylin Young (67 rush att, 282 yds, 4 TDs, 4.2 YPC) for a 69-yard touchdown for the Catamounts on the game’s opening play. The Catamount offense would struggle from there, losing Adams to an injury on just his fifth snap of the afternoon. It’s still unclear whether it will be Adams or Will Jones (54-of-88 passing, 364 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT/34 rush att, 46 yds, 2 TDs) under center for the Catamounts Saturday.
Third-stringer Malik Richardson also some time at quarterback Saturday. However, it would turn out to be Western Carolina’s lone highlight of the day, as the Terriers limited the Catamount offense to just 100 yards the rest of the game en route to the 59-7 thrashing of the Terriers. Furman looked equally as bad last Saturday, although the score would not have indicated such.
The Paladins put up just 216 yards of total offense, and Darren Grainger (64-of-124 passing, 1,019 yds, 11 TDs, 2 INTs/64 rush att, 220 yds, 4 TDs, 3.4 YPC), who was among the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency and one of the front-runners for the Jerry Rice award given to the nation’s top freshman player, finished just 5-of-25 passing for 44 yards, while rushing for 19 yards in the 27-10 homecoming loss to The Citadel at Paladin Stadium this past Saturday. He and the rest of the Furman offense look to get well against a Catamount defense, who is struggling once again this season.
The Catamounts rank 104th nationally in total defense (452.7 YPG) coming into Saturday’s game, and rank second-to-last in the FCS in rushing yards surrendered (286.9 YPG) this season. Furman has won the last three games between the two schools, rolling up a combined 1,089 yards of rushing yards in those games for an average of 363 YPG on the ground in those past three games. Furman, which was averaging close to 300 YPG and ranked fourth nationally going into last week’s game, saw those averages take a bit of a dip last week, however, still ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards per game, averaging 280.0 YPG on the ground. Paladin running back Devin Wynn (91 rush att, 720 yds, 6 TDs, 7.9 YPC) leads that Paladin ground attack and he is on pace to become the first Furman running back since Hank McCloud in 2013 to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single-season. If things go as planned, the Paladins win big and Wynn goes for over 1,000 yards on the season.
Final Score Prediction: Furman 52, Western Carolina 3
Chattanooga (4-3, 3-0 SoCon) at Wofford (4-2, 3-1 SoCon), 1:30 p.m. EST
The game of the week in the Southern Conference will be taking place in Spartanburg, S.C., when the Mocs and Terriers square off in a key late-October SoCon battle. Chattanooga is now benefiting from having one of the toughest schedules in FCS football, and in late October, the Mocs, who were predicted by the coaches and media to finish fourth and fifth in the leagues in the two preseason polls, respectively, suddenly find themselves atop the league standings as we head into the final weekend of October.
The Mocs have done it as of late with the ground attack, which has been led by freshman impact performer Ailym Ford (153 rush att, 757 yds, 7 TDs, 4.9 YPC/3 rec 16 yds, 5.3 YPR), who is the reigning STATS FCS National Player of the Week. Ford’s 108.1 YPG currently ranks him ninth nationally in the FCS in yards per game, and has gained 511 of his 757 yards this season against Southern Conference competition. Wofford counters reigning SoCon Player of the Week Joe Newman (28-of-53 passing, 540 yds, 5 TDs, 4 INTs/78 rush att, 694 yds, 8 TDs, 8.9 YPC) under center on offense, and like Ford, is on pace to rush for 1,000 yards this season.
He powers a Terrier ground attack gaining steam after starting the season a bit sluggish. Newman comes off a game which saw him rush for 104 yards and a pair of scores, while passing for 162 yards and a pair of scores in Wofford’s 59-7 win over Western Carolina last week. The Wofford defense sits atop the SoCon (303.3 YPG), and Chattanooga’s offense will need to rely on more than just Ford to get the job done on the road Saturday at Gibbs Stadium. It might require strong afternoons from both quarterback Nick Tiano (94-of-174 passing, 1,139 yds, 5 TDs, 7 INTs/37 rush att, 166 yds, 4 TDs, 4.5 YPC) and wideout Bryce Nunnelly (30 rec, 387 yds, 3 TDs, 12.9 YPR). That being said, I like the Terriers to take a close one in Spartanburg to move into a tie atop the SoCon rankings, and possibly into at least one if not both of the national Top 25 polls
Final Score Prediction: Wofford 28, Chattanooga 20
East Tennessee State (2-5, 0-4 SoCon) at Samford (3-4, 2-2 SoCon), 1 p.m. EST
Reigning SoCon tri-champion East Tennessee State is already out of the SoCon race in 2019 and we haven’t entered the final month of the season in SoCon play. That shocks me. While quarterback issues were solved by Austin Herink last season, he can’t solve them this year because he has exercised eligibility.
The Bucs have played three different quarterbacks under center this season, and four if you count Malik McGue (29 rush yds, 1 TD) in the ‘wild Buc’ formation. Trey Mitchell (106-of-184 passing, 1,150 yds, 7 TDs, 4 INTs/21 rush att, 24 yds, 1.1 YPC) will likely be back under center Saturday, and he presides over a ground game that features two of the league’s best running backs, in Quay Holmes (98 rush att, 497 yds, 2 TDs, 5.1 YPC/9 rec, 76 yds, 1 TD, 8.4 YPR) and Jacob Saylors (68 rush att, 416 yds, 3 TDs, 6.1 YPC/13 rec, 96 yds, 7.4 YPR), who have been asked to carry the ETSU offense this season.
The Bucs are averaging a meager 19.9 PPG, ranking tied for 97th in all of FCS football. There is good news for the Bucs offense. It will face a Samford rush defense that has consistently ranked one of the worst in the country coming into Saturday’s clash ranking 120th out of 125 teams ranked against the run, yielding 275.4 YPG on the ground. The Bucs, who ranked in the top 30 last season and returned a wealth of talent on the defensive side of the ball coming into the season, have certainly not been able to overcome off the offensive struggles for ETSU, and despite having the likes of All-Americans Nasir Player (30 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 6 QBHs, 1 FR), Artevius Smith (48 tackles, 3 INTs, 5 PBUs, 1 FF) and Tyree Robinson (38 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 8 PBUs, 1 FF), haven’t been able to keep the dam from breaking at times this season in key points in some games from having been on the field so long.
Yet the Bucs, rank just outside the top 30 at No. 38 nationally in total defense (362.1 YPG). That’s astounding given how anemic the ETSU offense has been this season. That’s why facing the Samford offense makes this a scary proposition for the Bucs. The Bucs had a chance at an outright SoCon title when these two played last November, now they’ll be looking to hold quarterback Chris Oladokun (112-of-175 passing, 1,585 yds, 15 TDs, 5 INTs/72 rush att, 350 yds, 6 TDs, 4.9 YPC) in check on the road and get their first win away from Johnson City this season. I don’t think that happens, as the Bucs drop their fifth-straight SoCon game.
Final Score Prediction: Samford 37, East Tennessee State 24
Mercer (3-4, 2-2 SoCon) at The Citadel (4-4, 2-2 SoCon), 2 p.m. EST
Fresh off its big win over Furman, The Citadel returns to Johnson-Hagood Stadium right back in the thick of the Southern Conference and FCS playoff race, and will face a Mercer team led by head coach Bobby Lamb coming off a huge, 34-27, win over VMI last Saturday at Five Star Stadium in Macon. Since joining the SoCon in 2014, the Bulldogs have won four of the five clashes between the two, but the game’s have been extremely close, with the margin of victory only 4.4 PPG. The Citadel holds a 10-5-1 all-time series edge. Last season, this one was a thriller with the Bulldogs taking a 38-31 win in Macon, and changed the momentum of the season for Lamb’s Bears.
The Bears not only lost the game, but also lost Riddle for the season to a broken collarbone. Mercer had been riding high coming into that particular clash last season following one of the biggest wins in since the start of the program, with the Bears taking down No. 9 Samford, 30-24, in Homewood. However, following the loss to the Bulldogs last season, the Bears lost four of their final seven games to finish 5-6. It was not a good day for quarterbacks around the SoCon injury-wise, and like Western Carolina’s Adams, Mercer lost quarterback Robert Riddle to injury for a second-straight season, with the injury to Riddle looking much more severe. Enter Kaelyn Riley (13-of-26 passing, 180 yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT), who came into help hold off a huge rally by the Keydets, and led Mercer to the 34-27 win.
Riley will present a similar challenge to the Bulldog defense as Furman’s Grainger did last week, with his ability to run and throw. The Bulldogs handled that challenge well, holding Grainger to just 5-for-25 passing for 44 yards, while holding him to just 18 yards on the ground. The 2017 SoCon Rookie of the Year Riley was the same quarterback that came off the bench last season for the injured Riddle against the Bulldogs, but couldn’t quite rescue the Bears. Running back Tyray Devezin (86 rush att, 495 yds, 3 TDs, 5.8 YPC) put together the best game of his career in last week’s win, carrying it 25 times for 193 yards and a TD in the win over the Keydets.
The Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey (40-of-68 passing, 657 yds, 8 TDs, 3 INTs/157 rush att, 598 yds, 13 TDs, 3.8 YPC) showed us what he could when he is fully healthy, and he did it against a pretty good Furman defense coming into last week’s showdown in Greenville, rushing for 165 yards on 26 carries, while completing 4-of-6 passes for 32 yards. He helped the Bulldogs to another impressive rushing output, as the Bulldogs out-gained the Paladins on the ground, 360-172. The story of the day, however, was The Citadel defense, which held the potent Paladin offense to a season-low 216 yards of total offense, and just 172 on the ground–116 yards under its FCS fourth-ranked ground offense coming into the clash. For the second-straight week, Citadel linebacker Marquise Blount (42 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 FF), forcing a key third-quarter fumble in the third quarter, which led to a crucial Citadel TD in last Saturday’s win over the eighth-ranked Paladins.
The difference this week for the Bears will be they haven’t been able to stop the run for much of the season, giving up just over 200 YPG this season, and despite holding the nation’s leading rusher to just 125 yards last week, it will be a tough ask for the Bears to do that in back-to-back weeks.
Final Score Prediction: The Citadel 31, Mercer 20
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