The Southern Conference had a bit of a renaissance last year, and it didn't need former SoCon powerhouses Georgia Southern or Appalachian State to do it. The conference featured four FCS playoff teams in league champion The Citadel, Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford and Mercer finished 6-5 and gave several top teams fits. It looks like that group could all be strong once again, but East Tennessee State and Western Carolina would love to move into the top half, while Furman and VMI will rebuild some this fall. Overall this is a tough league.
The road trips won't be vacations in the Southern Conference.
Western Carolina's Detrez Newsome has been a mainstay for the Catamounts for three years (WCU Athletics)
NAMES TO KNOW
THE NFL PROSPECT: Detrez Newsome, Western Carolina
Two-time 1,000-yard rusher with 750 career receiving yards and 7 TDs — and he's an outstanding kick returner. NFL scouts love the versatility.
THE VETERAN COACH: Mike Ayers, Wofford
Ayres has been the head coach at Wofford since 1988, and before that he was the head coach at ETSU and an assistant at ETSU, Wofford and Richmond.
TOP PASSER: Devlin Hodges, Samford
One of the nation's elite passers, he tossed for 4,088 yards an 36 TDs — third in the FCS last year.
TOP RUSHER: Detrez Newsome, Western Carolina
Only 1,000-yard back coming back in the SoCon this year — 1,031 yards and 10 TDs.
TOP RECEIVER: Kelvin McKnight, Samford
The rising junior caught 70 balls for 896 yards and 9 TDs in 2016.
TOP TACKLER: Allan Cratsenberg, VMI
A top five tackler nationally last year, he posted 126 — good for 11.5 per game for the Keydets.
TOP SACK MAN: Ahmad Gooden, Samford
As a sophomore he posted 8 sacks, and don't be surprised if he's into the double-digits this fall.
TOP INT ARTIST: Omari Williams, Samford
With Dee Delaney transferring from The Citadel to Miami (Fla.), Williams steps into this spot with 4 INTs last year.
BOUNCE BACK ARTIST: John Patterson, LB, Wofford
Missed the second half of the season with an injury, but ready to reproduce what he did for the Terriers in 2015.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Dylan Weigel, LB, East Tennessee State
In his first two years of college ball, Weigel has quietly posted some of the nation's top tackling numbers. ETSU is on the rise, as is Weigel.
The Citadel – With nearly 12,000 per game showing up, the Bulldogs have proven they have a loyal alumni base that loved last year's 10-2 finish.
DID YOU KNOW?
Along with having last year's top attendance figure, The Citadel also has some history to brag about. The Bulldogs have beaten the in-state South Carolina Gamecocks 7 times and Clemson 5 times, along with Arkansas, Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Wake Forest. It also owns ties with Georgia and Florida State during its football history. Not too shabby.
Wofford played five quarterbacks last year, thanks to several different factors, and was ranked sixth in the preseason in both the media and coaches polls. The Terriers also didn't achieve a national ranking until the very final week of the regular season — but it hardly mattered at it plowed through Charleston Southern and avenged its regular season loss to The Citadel to reach the FCS quarterfinals and lose in double overtime to another FCS upstart, Youngstown State. Wofford was a boa constrictor on defense and sported the nation's best special teams unit as a whole, and rode that all the way to the final eight.
Mercer. Everybody knows about the four SoCon playoff teams of a year ago, and they should all be rather strong once again. The one team with a winning record that didn't make the playoffs was Mercer. The Bears gave league champ The Citadel fits, along with Samford and Wofford. Yes, ultimately they did lose those three critical games, but they were very close. Also, keep in mind that Bobby Lamb — the former Furman head coach who had so much success with the Paladins — is the boss here. With this young program, it is only a matter of time before it is an upper tier SoCon program. It might even start this year.[divider]
Wofford was the talk of the playoffs last year. With the strangulating offense, the strangulating defense and brutally effective special teams play, the Terriers found their own way to make it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals — and missed the semifinals only because of an overtime loss. They are well coached with one of Division I football's top mentors in Mike Ayres. They return a boatload of talent, especially on defense. The Citadel will have to find a lot of new names to reignite its incredible offense, Chattanooga's lost key people, as has Samford … but all three of the aforementioned have what it takes to roll with Wofford on a good day. All four playoff teams from a year ago could be rankable.
The Citadel's Kailik Williams was named preseason defensive player of the year in the SoCon (The Citadel Athletics)
FCS PREVIEWS CONFERENCE BY CONFERENCE
Aug. 15 – The Northeast Conference and The Patriot League
Aug. 16 – Big South and Southern Conference
Aug. 17 – Southland and Ohio Valley
Aug. 18 – Ivy League and Pioneer League
Aug. 21 – CAA
Aug. 22 – SWAC and MEAC
Aug. 23 – Missouri Valley and Big Sky