SoCon Weekend Primer
By Southern Pigskin Staff
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We have reached the final week of the SoCon regular season.
It is a sad day my friends – the final day of the regular season. The seasons always go by way too quickly. Now, we have an automatic bid to the playoffs to determine, which, ironically enough, will be decided in a game in which none of the three contenders are playing. On a side note, I personally am not a fan of ending the season against SEC foes, as four teams are this weekend, but that’s another story for another day.
Western Carolina (1-9, 0-8 SoCon) at Alabama (9-1, 6-1 SEC), 12:21 p.m., SEC Network/ESPN3
This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. It’s bad enough that the Catamounts have to go play at the defending FBS champions, but they have to face them in the first game since Texas A&M upset the Tide, meaning Nick Saban will most likely have his players playing at their highest level possible. The question becomes how long will Alabama keep its foot on the pedal. For Western, you want to come out, play your best and try not to get beat by too many points.
Quarterback Troy Mitchell could have a good day for the Catamounts. After all, he is a mobile quarterback like Johnny Manziel, who Bama fans are still having nightmares over. The Tide are missing a few stars on defense and have struggled to stop teams on third down recently, so if the Catamounts can get in third and manageable situations, they could stay in the game. Running back Darius Ramsey will have to fight for every yard, and receivers Jacoby Mitchell and Spearman Robinson will have to step up when called upon to try to help their quarterback with the offensive load.
On the other side of the ball, it could be a long day for WCU. They already have the third-worst defense in the nation, giving up just under 520 yards per game, and Saturday will surely not help that number. They have been gashed all year by the run (332.3 yards per game), something Nick Saban and the Tide have surely identified and will attack. The good news is that senior linebacker Rock Williams needs 12 tackles to move up to tenth on Western’s single-season tackles list (he already has 105 this season and leads the SoCon with 13.1 tackles per game), and he will have plenty of chances to add to his total.
Prediction: Alabama 56, Western Carolina 7
The Citadel (6-4, 4-3) at Furman (3-7, 2-5), 1:30 p.m., ESPN3
This game is huge for a variety of reasons. It is one of the oldest rivalries in the conference. With a win, the Bulldogs would have the seven D-I wins necessary to make the playoffs. Oh, and this game will determine who gets the Southern Conference’s automatic bid to the postseason. If The Citadel wins, then Georgia Southern earns the auto bid. If Furman pulls off the upset, then the bid goes to Appalachian State.
The Bulldogs have been dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball, which looked at one point like they would derail their once promising season. They narrowly survived a comeback attempt from rival VMI a week ago after building a 21-point lead. The offense will have to have plenty of time-consuming drives to give their defense a rest as their rush defense, which gives up 224.3 yards per game, tries to slow down Furman’s Jerodis Williams. Darien Robinson (953 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and Ben Dupree (755 rushing yards, eight TDs) will have a challenge as they face a Furman defense that gives up 158.2 yards per game on the ground. Robinson also needs 47 yards to become The Citadel’s first 1,000 yard rusher since 2007. The defense, led by linebackers Carson Smith (84 tackles), James Riley (31 tackles in three games) and lineman Mark Thomas (5.5 sacks), will have their hands full trying to slow down Williams and the Furman offense.
The Paladins are coming off a near upset of rival Appalachian State last week and are looking to end the season on a high note. Williams has been the highlight for the team, as the senior has run for 1,067 yards (third in the conference) and 10 touchdowns (fourth in the conference). Freshman Reese Hannon has provided a nice compliment to Williams, throwing for 1,859 yards and seven touchdowns, though The Citadel has been tough against quarterbacks all season (167.4 yards per game, eight touchdowns – third and second-best in the conference respectively). On the other side of the ball, linebackers Gary Wilkins (team-high 85 tackles), Matt Solomon (81 tackles) and Mitch McGrath (76 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) will need to be at their best against the Bulldogs’ triple option attack.
Prediction: The Citadel 24, Furman 21
Elon (3-7, 1-6) at Chattanooga (5-5, 4-3), 2 p.m.
Two teams going in opposite directions finish up the season in Chattanooga Saturday, as the Mocs play host to the struggling Phoenix. Chattanooga looks for its third winning season in the last four years, while Elon hopes to stop the bleeding and build some momentum heading into the offseason.
After starting the season 1-3, the Mocs have gone 5-2 behind a shutdown defense and the stellar play of freshman quarterback Jacob Huesman. Their defense currently ranks 11th in the country, giving up 302.1 yards per game, which shouldn't come as a surprise. Russ Huesman’s Mocs have always had a solid defense, and 2012 is no different. Linebacker Wes Dothard (85 tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) leads the defense, but defensive lineman Davis Tull has become a force in his own right. Defensive backs Sema’je Kendall and D.J. Key will need big games, as the conference’s second-best pass defense faces the conference’s top passing offense. Huesman (795 rushing yards, 1,478 passing yards, 17 total touchdowns) should have another big game against Elon’s defense, which has struggled against the run (giving up 239.7 yards per game).
For the Phoenix, it is about pride more than anything at this point. Elon’s offense, long the team's strength, has taken a step backwards this year. The Phoenix do rank fifth in yards per game (385.8), but have the lowest scoring offense in the conference (25). They had a rough day a week ago against Samford, and can expect more of the same against the Mocs. Quarterback Thomas Wilson (2,854 yards – second-best in the SoCon, 23 touchdowns – best in the SoCon) comes in with a sore shoulder and may not play Saturday. If he cannot go, sophomore Mike Quinn will get the start. Receiver Aaron Mellette has a chance to make history Saturday though – with two touchdown catches, he would tie Randy Moss for most the touchdown catches in a season. If the Phoenix want any chance in this game, they need to win the turnover battle against the Mocs, which is much easier said than done. Elon has a -4 turnover margin this season, while the Mocs are +7 in that category.
Prediction: Chattanooga 28, Elon 24
Wofford (8-2, 6-2) at South Carolina (8-2), 1:00 p.m., ESPN3
The Terriers travel to Columbia, SC on Saturday to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in their toughest test of the 2012 season. In the all-time series, Wofford trails 4-18, but not all hope of playing well is lost for the Terriers. The Gamecocks are without their All-SEC running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a horrific knee injury earlier in the season. In games of FCS vs FBS, the main goal is to walk away healthy. We all know a win by Wofford is very unlikely, but to stay healthy and walk away with a nice paycheck is your primary goal.
As far as football is concerned, Steve Spurrier will face an offense he has not seen since his coaching days of the early 90's. The wingbone offense used to be a staple of Spurrier's offensive playbook, but the Old Ball Coach will need to knock the dust off his playbook to relive the prime years. South Carolina must accomplish one thing to run away with this game: slow down Eric Breitenstein.
The pounding fullback will run as hard as any running back South Carolina has faced all season, although Breitenstein has yet to face a defense like the Gamecocks'. The talented back can expect to see plenty of Shaq Wilson and the speedy South Carolina defense.
The key for Wofford will be staying in the game late into the second half, and putting pressure on South Carolina. Wofford must stay within two touchdowns to have a chance in the game. This will be a tall task against Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks offense.
Prediction: South Carolina 34, Wofford 13
Samford (7-3, 5-3) vs Kentucky (1-9), 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
If there is a SoCon game this week that could see a FCS vs FBS upset, it is Samford vs Kentucky. Surprisingly, Samford matches up well against the Wildcats from Lexington. The game on Saturday will be the first meeting between the two schools, and the game could turn out to be closer than the experts predict. For Samford, the gameplan has not changed all season.
The key for the Bulldogs is establishing the run with Fabian Truss, who ranks sixth in the SoCon in rushing at just over 100 on the ground per game. Truss is also fourth in the conference in kickoff return yards at 27 per game. The "do everything" back for Samford is the main cog in the Bulldogs offense. If the Bulldogs can establish a run game early, they can wear down the shaky Wildcats defense and bait them into overplaying the run. That is where Andy Summerlin comes in to play. Summerlin can pick apart a defense through the air, as he ranks third in passing yards and total offense in the SoCon.
For the Wildcats, the gameplan looks oddly similar, because Samford ranks 49th in the FCS in rushing defense. Kentucky needs to expose the weakness of the Bulldogs defense, and running back Raymond Sanders is just the man for the job. Sanders has 492 yards and four touchdowns on 94 carries this season. But don't expect Kentucky to just run the ball, because the Wildcats will take several deep shots down the field.
The Wildcats' prime target, La'Rod King, is a speed demon who can stretch the Bulldogs defense. Kentucky only has one win this season, but this game could help the Wildcats better deal with their nine losses.
Prediction: Kentucky 27, Samford 24
Georgia Southern (8-2, 6-2) at Georgia (9-1), 1:30 p.m., ESPN3
Georgia Southern will take on in-state opponent Georgia for only the fourth time ever on Saturday. The Bulldogs have won all four of the previous meetings, including the last game in 2008 by a score of 45-21. For some reason, the game this season has a lot of intrigue. The Eagles offense reached its pinnacle when head coach Jeff Monken made the tough decision to start Jerick McKinnon over veteran quarterback Ezayi Youyoute. The decision paid off, as McKinnon has over 1,300 yards of total offense and 16 touchdowns.
While Georgia Southern is playing extremely well, it would be tough to find an SEC team hotter than the Bulldogs right now. Georgia has won four games in a row, including a win over then No. 2 Florida. The Bulldogs have hit their stride, and Georgia is playing it's best football since 2002. Mark Richt's squad boasts a balanced attack, showing an ability to make plays both on the ground and through the air. Freshman running back Todd Gurley has been the surprise player of the year for the Dawgs. Gurley has reached the endzone 11 times and is only 27 yards shy of the 1,000 yard mark.
Both teams have one of the best defenses in their respective ranks, and have shown the ability to shut down potent offenses.
For Georgia, the key player on defense is linebacker Jarvis Jones, who some consider the best defensive player in all of FBS football. And with his stats, who can argue? For Georgia Southern, the key defensive player is Jonathan Stevenson, who has shown great instincts and speed on the field, totaling 83 tackles on the year.
There is something inside me that sees this game being a nail-biter for over 90,000 in Sanford Stadium.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Georgia Southern 24
The SoCon Weekend Primer is put together by Southern Pigskin writers Russell Varner and David England.