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Showcase Saturday for Mocs, ‘Dogs, SoCon

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Chattanooga and The Citadel will play for the 50th time on Saturday, with that golden anniversary potentially coming with first-place in the standings.

We've got our hands full this week for sure but I do know this, they've got their hands full when they come to Johnson Hagood Stadium.
~Brent Thompson

The tradition of the Southern Conference is one that stretches across the region like vines on a wooden fence. There is reliability in those planks, nails that hold history in place as a photograph does time. Though the league has changed over the decades, the expectations have not; programs compete for championships, measuring themselves against some of the best competition in the game. Saturday evening in Charleston, South Carolina, that stability will be on display.      

There are three top ten matchups on the Division I football schedule this weekend: Alabama at Tennessee, Ohio State at Wisconsin and Chattanooga vs The Citadel. The latter stands as a showcase of two of the top FCS programs in the country. Both conference and national implications will be on the line as the fifth-ranked Mocs travel to the eighth-ranked Bulldogs in a pairing of last season's conference co-champions. This weekend will be the first top ten matchup in the league since Georgia Southern defeated Wofford in 2012.    

In mid-October, the Southern Conference is the lone league in the FCS with two undefeated teams, an earmark with an upcoming expiration date. Saturday, however, may mark the beginning of the conference's postseason picture taking shape. The loser in Johnson Hagood Stadium will still have a great chance to make the playoffs, a provision which doesn't lessen the significance of the meeting, but, rather, enhances it; these programs, and the league as a whole, have earned that distinction.    

Chattanooga has gone 16-1 in Southern Conference play over the last two-and-half years. The three-time defending league champions have won a postseason game two seasons in a row and are considered, by some, to be the top contender to five-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Having given up just 73 total points, the Mocs currently lead the nation in scoring defense and total defense and, with 41.8 points per game, rank 7th in scoring offense. This fall, they are currently the only 6-0 team in the FCS.  

Chattanooga has been ranked for 42 consecutive weeks, one of the longest active streaks in all of college football. The Mocs have been slotted inside the national top ten for a remarkable 16 straight weeks. For four renditions, Chattanooga has been pegged third, behind only the Bison and Sam Houston State. Never before have the Mocs been ranked higher than they are now.  

Dating back this past season, The Citadel has won 12 of 14, its lone losses coming to the Mocs and Charleston Southern, in the playoffs, by one possession. Included in that span are a postseason triumph over Coastal Carolina and a win at SEC foe South Carolina. The Bulldogs lead all of NCAA football with 388 yards rushing per game. Close finishes have largely been where The Citadel has been most effective; in contests decided by seven points or less over the last calendar year, the Bulldogs are 6-0, including five wins by a total of 12 points.

The Citadel is 5-0 for just the second time in school history, with first year head coach Brent Thompson experiencing unparalleled initial success with the Bulldogs. He recently set a new program mark for wins to start a career, breaking a record in place since 1906-1907. Including being in the top ten for the past month, The Citadel has now been ranked for 12 consecutive weeks. This is a new peak for the Bulldogs since being ranked number one in the country in 1992.    

Any outline of the FCS simply has to include both Chattanooga and The Citadel, two major players as the stretch run settles in. Their upcoming clash stands as one of the national games of the year.

A primetime spotlight will showcase one proud conference and two powerful programs; the end result could prove to be a conference crown and prime playoff positioning. 

"This week, Chattanooga is a top-5 team and they are a top-5 team for a reason. They've got great personnel, they are well coached and they are very fundamental, they've got playmakers on offense and on defense," explained Brent Thompson, head coach of the Bulldogs. "We've got our hands full this week for sure but I do know this, they've got their hands full when they come to Johnson Hagood Stadium."

The matchup to watch will be The Citadel's triple-option attack against the Mocs' top-ranked defensive unit. Not only do the Bulldogs have the game's most-prolific running game, The Citadel has averaged a mere stumble under 500 yards on the ground over their past three outings and just set a new mark in the FCS this fall with 559 yards in a win over North Greenville. Chattanooga is allowing just 71.7 yards rushing per game, however, and only 2.3 yards per attempt.   

In a battle of strength vs strength, something will have to give.

"If they're going to go sideline to sideline whether it's triple option or not, they spread you out so you better be able to have some guys that can run. That's not going to be the only thing that defends those guys, but hopefully you can limit some of their big plays," added UTC head coach Russ Huesman. 

After a dramatic November finale that resulted in a share of the league title a season ago, Chattanooga and The Citadel will now meet before the leaves have fully turned. The stage, though, has long been set. With similar expectations on the two sidelines and the conference rivals at arm's length in the national polls, week seven comes with a postseason setting. A leader in the clubhouse will ultimately walk off the field.

The Mocs and the Bulldogs will play for the 50th time on Saturday, with that golden anniversary potentially coming with first-place in the standings. Chattanooga, The Citadel and the Southern Conference will soon take center stage, a well-deserved honor for the evolution of both programs and the league.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports