SoCon Playoff Primer
By Southern Pigskin Staff
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Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford all kick off their 2012 playoff campaigns at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Congratulations. You have made it to the playoffs. You still have a chance to accomplish the goal you set out for when training camp started late in the summer: winning a national championship. You have overcome plenty of challenges since then, but none of that matters now. It is all about the here and now, and about how you play when the spotlight is shining on you the brightest. Congratulations on making the playoffs. Now tell me, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Wofford, what are you going to do about it?
In the immortal words on legendary boxing referee Mills Lane, “Let’s get it on!”
No. 11 New Hampshire (8-3, 6-2 CAA) at No. 9 Wofford (8-3, 6-2 SoCon), 2 p.m., ESPN3
Since you read this blog a lot, I’m going to assume you know plenty about the Terriers already. Payton Award finalist Eric Breitenstein leads the high-powered Terrier attack, while linebacker Alvin Scioneaux takes charge on defense. So let’s learn about the New Hampshire Wildcats.
Sean McDonnell is in his 14th year as head coach of his alma mater, compiling a 104-65 record in that time. The Wildcats have an offense that can keep up with anyone in the nation, as they average 470.9 yards per game (ninth in the nation) and 36.6 points per game (10th in the nation). They have an extremely balanced attack – 234.2 on the ground (same as Wofford) and 236.7 in the air – led by quarterback Andy Vallas (1,506 yards, 18 touchdowns, three interceptions), back Nico Steriti (870 yards, nine TDs) and receiver R.J. Harris (981 yards, nine TDs). But, as talented as their offense is, their defense is bad – 433.6 yards per game (which ranks 103rd in the country). Most importantly, when facing a team like Wofford, New Hampshire’s run defense gives up 164.6 rushing yards per game (67th in the country).
Wofford’s defense will need to be at its best to slow down the Wildcat attack. Scioneaux, Mike McCrimon and co. will need to be all over the field as they try to slow down this balanced and dangerous offense. On the other side of the ball, the Terriers just need to play their style of offense....long, time-consuming drives that feature plenty of Eric Breitenstein, Donovan Johnson and whoever lines up under center (let’s assume it’ll be Brian Kass). They will be the biggest key to the game – if they can hold onto the ball and wear out New Hampshire’s defense, they should be able to pull away late. But, if the offense can’t get anything going or they continually turn the ball over, the Terriers could be in trouble. Either way, the first ever meeting between these two schools looks like it will be a classic.
Prediction: Wofford 33, New Hampshire 23
No. 16 Illinois State (8-3, 5-3 MVFC) at No. 7 Appalachian State (7-3, 6-2 SoCon), 2 p.m., ESPN3
In another first ever meeting, Illinois State and Appalachian State offer an intriguing battle. While the Mountaineers are led by their high-octane offense, the Redbirds are known for their shutdown defense. Their pass defense in particular is quite strong, leading to the always fascinating unstoppable force versus immovable object clash.
Here’s what you need to know about the Redbirds: they came out of the gates on fire, winning their first five games, but then went .500 for the remainder of the season. They sport quite the impressive resume, which includes wins over FBS school Eastern Michigan, Ohio Valley Conference champion Eastern Illinois, No. 8 Youngstown State and No. 14 Indiana State. Led by Buck Buchanon Award candidate Colton Underwood (9.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss – both rank in the top 10 nationally), the Illinois State defense ranks 16th against the pass, fourth in sacks and second in pass efficiency. Their “weakness” would be their run defense, which still ranks 37th in the nation. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Matt Brown (2,676 yards, 20 TDs) and receiver Tyrone Walker (conference leader in receptions – 71 – and yards – 995) lead the Redbird attack, which ranks as the 53rd-best in the country.
It goes without saying, Mountaineer quarterback Jamal Jackson will have to be in top form against such a stout defense. Solid games from the likes of running back Steven Miller and receiver Sean Price would definitely help lighten the load off of Jackson’s shoulders as well. Defensively, defensive back Demetrious McCray will be a key player. If he can slow down Walker and Illinois State’s passing attack, then linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough can tee off on Brown and running back Darrelynn Dunn (850 yards, 12 TDs). And do not forget about the home field advantage that the Rock gives the Mountaineers. ASU has won 65 of its last 72 games at Kidd-Brewer Stadium.
Prediction: Appalachian State 34, Illinois State 28
No. 8 Central Arkansas (9-2, 6-1 Southland) at No. 6 Georgia Southern (8-3, 6-2 SoCon), 2 p.m., ESPN3
It all comes down to this time of year for the Georgia Southern Eagles. The playoffs have arrived, and the fifth-seeded Eagles look to finally get over the hump and move past the semifinals, which has been their ending point the past two seasons. It will be no easy task, however, as Georgia Southern plays the Central Arkansas Bears out of the Southland Conference. The Bears come into the contest with one more win than the Eagles and a contrasting style of play.
Georgia Southern comes into the game with the first-ranked rushing offense in the nation, and establishing the run will be a key for the home team. Jerick McKinnon has lifted the Eagles' rushing offense to another level with his decision making and speed. The quarterback leads the team in rushing with over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, but McKinnon is not limited to just the ground to find his success. The Eagles' offense has found some success through the air as well, with over 400 yards passing and five touchdowns.
The Bears will look to beat Georgia Southern with an up-tempo spread offense. There is no question that Central Arkansas operates at its best through the air, with Wynrick Smothers passing over 380 times this season for over 2,500 yards and 31 touchdowns. For Georgia Southern to slow down the potent offense of the Bears, the Eagles must limit wide receiver Jesse Grandy, who has over 700 receiving yards and has found the endzone seven times this season. The defense of Georgia Southern could cause problems for the high flying offense of the Bears with a dominant front seven. Look for Central Arkansas to spread Georgia Southern out on defense and force them to play safe versus their normal aggressive style of play on defense.
The two teams have only met once, and you have to go back six years for the first meeting between the schools, when Central Arkansas won 31-28. This should be one of the better games of the second round of the playoffs. With two different styles of play, look for a battle down to the last second. The key for Georgia Southern has been the same all season: control the clock and pound the run, forcing defenses to play assignment football. The key for Central Arkansas will be playing up-tempo and forcing the Eagles out of their comfort zone.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 24, Central Arkansas 20
The SoCon Playoff Primer is put together by Southern Pigskin writers Russell Varner and David England.