2016 Southern Conference Preview

(STATS) – The Citadel had one of the best, and most surprising seasons in program history last year.

Count star linebacker Tevin Floyd among those who say it's time to move on.

“It definitely was a great time, it definitely was something great to build off of,” the all-Southern Conference preseason selection said. “But you've got to kind of put it to rest with the new season coming up. You have to take things from what you did great last year and bring it on board this year. With all great things that you do, there's always room for improvement, and that's been our main goal this offseason.”

The offseason has been both different and similar to last year, when The Citadel improved from 5-7 to 9-4, earned a share of its first conference title, secured its first FCS playoff berth since 1992, achieved its second-highest single-season win total and upset SEC member South Carolina.

All of that led to coach Mike Houston earning the head coaching position at James Madison. But The Citadel kept continuity within its program by elevating Brent Thompson from offensive coordinator to the top spot.

“It's a tough act to follow right now,” Thompson said. “But we believe that the plan that we've had in place, the plan that we do have in place moving forward, our players are starting to believe in what we're doing. Really it's all about execution at this point.”

It's a deep season in the SoCon title race, with the other defending co-champion, Chattanooga, favored to win a fourth straight title. The Citadel won't sneak up on anybody this time, putting a lot of pressure on the Bulldogs to stay on such a high level.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Southern Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Chattanooga

2. The Citadel

3. Wofford

4. Western Carolina

5. Samford

6. Mercer

7. Furman

8. VMI

9. East Tennessee State




LOCATION: Chattanooga, Tennessee

STADIUM: Finley Stadium

COACH: Russ Huesman (50-33 in seven seasons at Chattanooga)

LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-1 Southern (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jacob Huesman, QB; Synjen Herren, RG; A.J. Hampton, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Derrick Craine, RB, Sr. (230 carries, 1,251 yards, 13 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Keionta Davis, DE, Sr. (39 TT, 17 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 6 PBU, 7 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Alejandro Bennifield, QB, Jr.; Richardre Bagley, RB, Jr.; C.J. Board, WR/PR, Sr.; James Stovall, WR, Jr.; Xavier Borishade, WR, Sr.; Corey Levin, OL, Sr.; Josh Cardiello, OL, Jr.; Isaiah Mack, DL, So.; Vantrel McMillan, DL, Sr.; Nakevion Leslie, LB, Sr.; Cedric Nettles, DB, Sr.; Lucas Webb, DB, Jr.; Henrique Ribeiro, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The preseason favorites seek their fourth straight SoCon title and third consecutive appearance in the FCS playoffs. Russ Huesman no longer has his son, Jacob, running the offense after the four-year starting quarterback captured three straight SoCon offensive player of the year awards. But the Mocs love the strong arm and running ability of Bennifield. They supply him with a strong offensive line and last year's conference leader in rushing yards, Craine. The defense will stay fierce with Davis among the best pass rushers in the FCS and excellent athletes filling the units. They will even be strong on special teams, with PK Ribeiro coming off All-SoCon first-team honors. This season will be different without Jacob Huesman, but the Mocs have reloaded well for another title run. They wrap up the regular season with a visit to FBS champion Alabama.


Sept. 1, Shorter

Sept. 10, Presbyterian

Sept. 17, at Furman*

Sept. 24, Samford*

Oct. 1, at East Tennessee State*

Oct. 8, Mercer*

Oct. 15, at The Citadel*

Oct. 22, VMI*

Oct. 29, at Western Carolina*

Nov. 12, Wofford*

Nov. 19, at Alabama

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina

STADIUM: Johnson Hagood Stadium

COACH: Brent Thompson (first season at The Citadel)

LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-1 Southern (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Mitchell Jeter, DL; James Riley, LB; Eric Goins, PK

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Tyler Renew, B-Back, Sr. (162 carries, 839 yards, 5 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dee Delaney, CB, Jr. (46 TT, 1 TFL, 5 INTs, 8 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dominique Allen, QB, Jr.; Cam Jackson, A-Back, Jr.; Isiaha Smith, B-Back, Jr.; Isaiah Pinson, OL, Jr.; Kyle Weaver, OL, Sr.; Ryan Bednar, OL, Sr.; Kevin Graham, DL, So.; Dondray Copeland, LB, Sr.; Joe Crochet, DE/OLB, Sr.; Tevin Floyd, LB, Sr.; Quinlan Washington, LB, So.; Malik Diggs, DB, Sr.; Kailik Williams, DB, Jr.; Cody Clark, PK, Sr., (Middle Tennessee State transfer)

OUTLOOK: Coming off a surprising share of their first SoCon title since 1992, the Bulldogs face the pressure of higher expectations. Thompson was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after Mike Houston departed for James Madison. Despite the change, the feeling in Charleston is that this is simply the third year of the Bulldogs' initial plan. But the Bulldogs must try to win their SoCon (and season) opener at Mercer without QB Allen, who was suspended for the game because of a violation of team rules. With Allen (958 yards), Renew and Jackson (751) back in the triple option offense, they have three players who went over 750 rushing yards last season, and Smith went for another 563 yards. The defense suffered bigger losses, including Jeter, who was the SoCon co-defensive player of the year. But there is a standout in each line of defense with Crochet, Floyd and Delaney. The unit forced 22 interceptions and 31 turnovers last season.


Sept. 3, at Mercer*

Sept. 10, Furman*

Sept. 17, at Gardner-Webb

Oct. 1, at Western Carolina*

Oct. 8, North Greenville

Oct. 15, Chattanooga*

Oct. 22, at Wofford*

Oct. 29, East Tennessee State*

Nov. 5, Samford*

Nov. 12, at VMI*

Nov. 19, at North Carolina

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Spartanburg, South Carolina

STADIUM: Gibbs Stadium

COACH: Mike Ayers (187-132-1 in 28 seasons at Wofford; 198-153-2 overall)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-4 Southern (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ray Smith, HB; Drake Michaelson, LB; Brion Anderson, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Anton Wahrby, RT, Sr. (SoCon preseason first team)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: John Patterson, LB, Jr. (78 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Evan Jacks, QB, Sr.; Lorenzo Long, FB, Sr.; Will Gay, HB, Sr.; R.J. Taylor, WR, Jr.; Dequan Miller, OL, Sr.; Bradley Way, OL, Sr.; Steven Cornellier, DL, Sr.; Boston Bryant, DL, Sr.; Miles Brown, DL, So.; Daryl Vining, LB, Jr.; Terrance Morris, LB, Jr.; Michael Roach, LB, Jr.; Jaleel Green, SS, Sr.; David Marvin, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Ayers, the dean of SoCon coaches, feels the Terriers are ready to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence. His veteran team comes back healthier after being ravaged by injuries. The Terriers' triple option offense ranked fourth in the FCS in rushing yards per game (300.2). QB Jacks has made at least five starts in each of his first three seasons and is a threat when he's not getting the ball to Long (962 yards, 8 TDs) and Gay, who was among the injured last season. The offensive line, anchored by Wahrby, will be one of the best in the SoCon. In a conference of terrific rushers, the defense ranked first in rushing defense, but it will again have to get the job done by committee because it's not full of stars. Graduation will make the secondary look different, so safeties JoJo Tillery and Nick Ward have to take big steps this season. The Terriers will want to cut down on the 27.7 points they surrendered each game. Schedule-wise, they have to overcome some difficult road tests in the SoCon.


Sept. 1, at Tennessee Tech

Sept. 10, at Ole Miss

Sept. 17, Johnson C. Smith

Sept. 24, East Tennessee State*

Oct. 1, at Samford*

Oct. 8, at Western Carolina*

Oct. 22, The Citadel*

Oct. 29, Mercer*

Nov. 5, at Furman*

Nov. 12, at Chattanooga*

Nov. 19, VMI*

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Cullowhee, North Carolina

STADIUM: E.J. Whitmire Stadium

COACH: Mark Speir (17-29 in four seasons at Western Carolina)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-2 Southern (3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Troy Mitchell, QB; Karnorris Benson, WR; Sertonuse Harris, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Detrez Newsome, RB/KR, Jr. (190 carries, 1,109 yards, 9 TDs; 37 receptions, 281 yards, 3 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Daniel Riddle, LB, R-Jr. (129 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Wes Holcombe, QB, Jr.; Spearman Robinson, WR, R-Sr.; Terryon Robinson, WR, R-Jr.; Tyler Sexton, TE, Jr.; Zach Weeks, OL, R-So.; Nathan Dalton, OL, R-So.; Tanner Poindexter, OL, R-Jr.; Ezavian Dunn, DT, Jr.; Tyler Junius, DT, Jr.; Tyson Dickson, LB, Sr.; Fred Payne, DB, Sr.; Trey Morgan, DB, Sr.; Marvin Tillman, DB, So.; Al Newman Jr., DB, Jr.; Logan Howard, PK, So.; Ian Berryman, P, R-So.

OUTLOOK: Speir has revitalized the Catamounts' program to the point that it will remain strong even with the big loss of QB Mitchell, the program's all-time leader in total offense. Holcombe emerged from spring practices at No. 1, but there's competition at the position. While hurt by the loss of three starters on the offensive line, the new QB will have excellent weapons around him in RB Newsome, who was the Catamounts' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, and WRs Spearman Robinson and Terryon Robinson, who missed last season with a wrist injury. The defense, under new coordinator Dustin Landry, returns its top four tacklers, led by LBs Riddle and Dickson. It helps to have The Citadel, Wofford and Chattanooga visiting E.J. Whitmire Stadium.


Sept. 3, at East Carolina

Sept. 10, Gardner-Webb

Sept. 17, at East Tennessee State* (Bristol, Tennessee)

Oct. 1, The Citadel*

Oct. 8, Wofford*

Oct. 15, at Mercer*

Oct. 22, at Samford*

Oct. 29, Chattanooga*

Nov. 5, VMI*

Nov. 12, at Furman*

Nov. 19, at South Carolina

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Birmingham, Alabama

STADIUM: Seibert Stadium

COACH: Chris Hatcher (6-5 in one season at Samford; 127-62 overall)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 3-4 Southern (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Denzel Williams, RB; Michael Pierce, DL; James Bradberry, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Devlin Hodges, QB, So. (200-for-288, 2,230 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs; 74 carries, 327 yards, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jamerson Blount, FS, Sr. (75 TT, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 8 PBU, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: K'rondi Larry, RB/KR, Jr.; Karel Hamilton, WR, Sr.; Kelvin McKnight, WR/PR, So.; Emmanuel Obajimi, WR, Sr.; Armando Bonheur, OL, Sr.; Gordon Crozier, C, Sr.; Antwan Johnson, OL, So.; Horace Roberts, DL, So.; Ahmad Gooden, DL, So.; Xavier Forrest, DL, Jr.; Roosevelt Donaldson, DL, Sr.; Shaheed Salmon, LB, Jr.; Tonne Osaigbovo, LB, Sr.; Omari Williams, CB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: While the Bulldogs lost some big-time individual talent, they believe they can be better collectively. After unleashing QB Hodges on the SoCon in the second half of last season, the future arrived for the Bulldogs. As a dual-threat, he is developing into a top talent. The offense, which led the SoCon with 479.7 yards per game, has to overcome the loss of RB Williams, but it returns three wide receivers, Hamilton (75 receptions, 880 yards, 4 TDs), McKnight and Obajimi, who each surpassed 50 receptions last season. The defensive losses were a little bigger, but FS Blount is the latest in a run of outstanding defensive backs. While the Bulldogs have Top 25 and playoff aspirations, they might fall just short in a strong season for the SoCon.


Sept. 1, Mars Hill

Sept. 10, at Central Arkansas

Sept. 24, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 1, Wofford*

Oct. 8, at Furman*

Oct. 15, VMI*

Oct. 22, Western Carolina*

Oct. 29, at Mississippi State

Nov. 5, at The Citadel*

Nov. 12, Mercer*

Nov. 19, at East Tennessee State*

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Macon, Georgia

STADIUM: Moye Complex

COACH: Bobby Lamb (21-14 in three seasons at Mercer; 88-54 overall)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 2-5 Southern (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (10 offense/10 defense)


ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: John Russ, QB, Sr. (170-292, 2,141 yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs; 110 carries, 382 yards, 7 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tosin Aquebor, DE/OLB, Sr. (39 TT, 10.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Alex Lakes, RB, Jr.; Tee Mitchell, RB, Jr.; Chandler Curtis, WR/RS, Jr.; Jimmie Robinson, WR/KR, So.; Marquise Irvin, WR, So.; Avery Ward, WR, Jr.; Sam Walker, TE, So.; Robert Brown, TE, Sr.; Bret Niederreither, OL, Sr.; Isaiah Buehler, DE, So.; LeMarkus Bailey, LB, So.; Tyler Ward, LB, Sr.; Tripp Patterson, LB, Sr.; Lee Bennett, LB, Jr.; Mike Gray, DB, Sr.; Lendell Arnold, DB, Sr.; Zach Jackson, DB, Sr.; Jeremy James, DB, Jr.; Jagger Lieb, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: A win over Chattanooga last season emphasized the growth of Mercer's program, and year four of the return to football brings a highly experienced squad. The Bears lost only one starter on each side of the ball and many of the key returnees are seniors and juniors. Efficient QB Russ is in his fourth season as the starter and the offense boasts a lot in the skill positions, including RBs Mitchell (946 yards, 6 TDs) and Lakes (699 yards, 7 TDs). Understandably, the offensive line has had to mature over time, but there's a noticeable anchor in SoCon preseason pick Niederreither. Injuries hurt the Bears last season, but one of the key players back is LB Bailey, who was off to a great start before he was lost in the third game. DEs Aquebor and Buehler should keep offenses busy when they come from the edge. The Bears have been scheduling future FBS matchups, with the Sept. 10 visit to Georgia Tech their first one.


Sept. 3, The Citadel*

Sept. 10, at Georgia Tech

Sept. 17, Tennessee Tech

Oct. 1, at VMI*

Oct. 8, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 15, Western Carolina*

Oct. 22, at Austin Peay

Oct. 29, at Wofford*

Nov. 5, East Tennessee State*

Nov. 12, at Samford*

Nov. 19, Furman*

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Greenville, South Carolina

STADIUM: Paladin Stadium

COACH: Bruce Fowler (24-35 in five seasons at Furman)

LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 2-5 Southern (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Joe Turner, OG; Cory Magwood, LB; Reggie Thomas, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Andrej Suttles, FL, R-Sr. (43 receptions, 621 yards, 4 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Trey Robinson, S, Sr. (68 TT, 4 INTs, 3 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Reese Hannon, QB, R-Sr.; P.J. Blazejowski, QB, Jr.; Antonio Wilcox, RB, Jr.Triston Luke, RB, So.; Duncan Fletcher, TE, Sr.; Matthew Schmidt, OT, Jr.; Jackson Buonomia, OT, Sr.; Jordan Hawkins, NT, Sr.; Brad Minter, DE, Sr.; T.J. Warren, DE, R-Sr.; Brian Ross, DE, R-Sr.; Carl Rider, LB, R-Sr.; Byron Johnson, SS, Sr.; Jamarri Milliken, CB, R-Sr.; Aaquil Annoor, CB, So.; Jon Croft Hollingsworth, PK/P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Boasting an excellent class of seniors, the Paladins hope to reverse last year's disappointing season, which seemed promising early with a win at UCF. However, their September schedule is brutally tough, including games against last year's SoCon co-champs, The Citadel and Chattanooga. Fowler wants his offense to get back to running the ball consistently – long a staple in the program. Hannon (126-for-228, 1,409 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs) is the returning quarterback, but Blazejowski has played a lot in his first two seasons. WR Suttles and TE Duncan provide a solid pair of receiving options. Magwood is a big loss on defense and the Paladins struggled to stop the run while managing only eight sacks last season, but a solid secondary (Robinson and Annoor) suggests improvement is on the way. The Paladins' seventh-place prediction in the SoCon's two preseason polls was warranted, but they can be a better team than that.


Sept. 2, at Michigan State

Sept. 10, at The Citadel*

Sept. 17, Chattanooga*

Sept. 24, at Coastal Carolina

Oct. 1, Kennesaw State

Oct. 8, Samford*

Oct. 15, at East Tennessee State*

Oct. 29, at VMI*

Nov. 5, Wofford*

Nov. 12, Western Carolina*

Nov. 19, at Mercer*

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Lexington, Virginia

STADIUM: Alumni Memorial Field

COACH: Scott Wachenheim (2-9 in one season at VMI)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-6 Southern (8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Derrick Ziglar, RB; Joe Nelson, DL; Hayden Alford, P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Al Cobb, QB, R-Jr. (238-for-389, 2,736 yards, 14 TDs, 18 INTs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Ryan Francis, LB, R-Jr. (115 TT, 9.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brice Tucker, RB, R-So.; Aaron Sanders, WR, Sr.; Dane Forlines, WR/RS, Sr.; Andrew Lewis, OL, Sr.; Allan Cratsenberg, LB, Jr.; Alijah Robinson, OLB, Sr.; Tony Richardson, OLB, Jr.; Brian Lipscomb, OLB, R-So.; Greg Sanders, DB, Jr.; Jon Strozyk, DB, R-Jr.; Damian Jones, DB, R-Sr.; Dillon Christopher, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Competing well in the SoCon is never easy for the military academy, but VMI has an experienced team ready for improvement in Wachenheim's second season. Four of the Keydets' losses were by six points or less a year ago, so they weren't far off from more success. They return the all-SoCon preseason quarterback in Cobb, who has passed for 5,677 yards in his first two seasons. But he has to cut down on interceptions after tying for the national high (18) last season. Top WR Sanders is coming off an 84-catch season. The defense was improved last year, but it needs better play on the line. The strength is at linebacker, where Francis and Cratsenberg both went over 100 tackles last season. By playing all three non-conference games on the road, the Keydets have only four games at Foster Stadium.


Sept. 3, at Akron

Sept. 10, at Morehead State

Sept. 24, at Bucknell

Oct. 1, Mercer*

Oct. 8, East Tennessee State*

Oct. 15, at Samford*

Oct. 22, at Chattanooga*

Oct. 29, Furman*

Nov. 5, at Western Carolina*

Nov. 12, The Citadel*

Nov. 19, at Wofford*

*- Southern Conference game



LOCATION: Johnson City, Tennessee

STADIUM: Science Hill High School

COACH: Carl Torbush (first season at East Tennessee State; 17-18 overall)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 as FCS independent

STARTERS RETURNING: 21 (10 offense/11 defense)

KEY LOSS: Demetrius Anthony, WR

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jajuan Stinson, RB, R-So. (117 carries, 586 yards, 5 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Dylan Weigel, LB, R-So. (127 TT, 10.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Austin Herink, QB, R-So.; Falon Lee, RB, R-Jr.; Dalton Ponchillia, WR, R-Jr.; Drake Powell, WR, So.; Matt Brewer, OL, R-So.; Greg McCloud, OL, R-So.; Matt Pyke, OL, R-So.; Nasir Player, DL, R-Fr.; Joe Dossett, DL, So.; Chris Bouyer, DL, So.; Tremond Ferrell, DL, So.; Austin Gatewood, LB, R-So.; River Boruff, LB, R-So.; Trey Quillin, LB, R-So.; Daren Ardis, DB, Jr.; Paul Hunter, DB, Jr. (Trinity Valley CC transfer); Domenique Williams, DB/KR, So.; J.J. Jerman, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: The jump into the SoCon is a big step for an ETSU program that last year returned to football for the first time since 2003. They were outscored 416-180, beating only sub-Division I programs Warner and Kentucky Wesleyan. But last year, only one starter was older than a sophomore. Plus, a number of players who were redshirts are challenging for positions. As the Buccaneers continue to grow as a program, Torbush is relying on his offensive and defensive linemen to be noticeably bigger and better. The team's standout is Weigel, who had 56 more stops than the second-leading tackler, Boruff. QB Herink will keep getting better, and that will come with an improved running game featuring Stinson and Lee. The season's second game – Sept. 17 versus Western Carolina – will be played at Bristol Motor Speedway.


Sept. 3, at Kennesaw State

Sept. 17, Western Carolina* (at Bristol, Tennessee)

Sept. 24, at Wofford*

Oct. 1, Chattanooga*

Oct. 8, at VMI*

Oct. 15, Furman*

Oct. 20, West Virginia Wesleyan

Oct. 29, at The Citadel*

Nov. 5, at Mercer*

Nov. 12, Cumberland University

Nov. 19, Samford*

*- Southern Conference game