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SoCon Playoff Primer

By Russell V.
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Wofford and Georgia Southern stand alone as the SoCon representatives in the FCS playoffs .

Now is when the champions separate themselves from the contenders. Wofford and Georgia Southern stand alone as the SoCon representatives in the FCS playoffs and face their toughest challenges of the season this weekend. The Eagles face off against a much improved Old Dominion squad in a playoff rematch of a year ago, while the Terriers hit the road to take on the defending national champions. Time to break down the matchups.

No. 6 Georgia Southern (9-3, 6-2 SoCon) at No. 3 Old Dominion (11-1, 7-1 Colonial), Noon, ESPN

Remember the last time these two squads met? The Eagles defeated the Monarchs in a 55-48 shootout that was filled with highlights galore. Fans can expect more of the same on Saturday, when two of the top scoring teams in the country (Georgia Southern is 14th in the nation, while ODU is the FCS leader in points per game) meet with their seasons on the line.

The star of the Monarchs’ season has been quarterback Taylor Heincke. The Walter Payton Award finalist has accumulated more than 5,000 yards of total offense, throwing for 4,655 yards, 41 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while rushing for 422 yards and 10 more touchdowns. It should come as no surprise to learn that he leads the nation in total offense. His season highlights include a seven touchdown game against Campbell, which he followed up with a ridiculous 730-yard, five-touchdown performance against New Hampshire. Last week against Coastal Carolina, he completed 32-of-44 passes for 497 yards and six touchdowns. Four of Heincke’s receivers have caught at least six touchdowns, led by Nick Mayers (69 catches, 1,083 yards, 14 TDs), while Tyree Lee (840 yards, eight TDs) paces the ground game for the Monarchs. Defensively, senior Craig Wilkins leads the team. Literally. He tops the team in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13), sacks (6.5) and interceptions (3).

With all the offense this game has to offer, defense will be the key to victory. The Monarch’s rushing defense ranks in the middle of the pack (66th in the country), giving up 163.6 yards per game, while the Eagles’ pass defense ranks 44th in the nation (202.4 yards per game). It will be a tough task to try to slow down the offenses, but whichever team does will ultimately live to play another day. Brent Russell, Dion DuBose and company will need to be at their best Saturday, but they will step up to the challenge.

Prediction: Georgia Southern 48, Old Dominion 43

No. 9 Wofford (9-3, 6-2 SoCon) at No. 1 North Dakota State (11-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley), 3 p.m., ESPN3

It doesn’t get any tougher than this for the Terriers – the defending national champions on their home turf, one of the loudest stadiums in the country. The Bison look well on their way to repeating as champions as well, combining their high-scoring offense with a suffocating defense to create a team that looks nearly unbeatable on paper.

Offensively, the Bison employ one of the more balanced attacks in the country. Their high-scoring offense (tied for 10th in the country with 34.9 points per game) is led by the running back duo of John Crockett (859 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, eight touchdowns) and Sam Ojuri (812 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, eight TDs) and quarterback Brock Jensen (2,045 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs, eight rushing TDs). But it is defensively where North Dakota State truly shines. The Bison lead in the nation in rush defense (63.3 yards per game), pass defense (134.3 yards per game), total defense (197.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (11.1 points per game). Corner Marcus Williams, the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team with five picks, while linebacker Grant Olson leads the team with 108 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. Payton Award finalist Eric Breitenstein may need the game of his life just to get to his average of 158 yards a game.

Turnovers could also play a key role in this game, which is not a good sign for the Terriers, as they have lost 32 fumbles this season, including six in the last two games (two of which were returned for touchdowns).Wofford needs to get over its season-long fumblitis, while forcing a few turnovers of its own in order to have a shot at victory. Never say never, as they say.

Prediction: North Dakota 23, Wofford 10                                                                   

Russell V. - A recent graduate of Elon University, Varner is a Southern Conference enthusiast who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. His love for SoCon football can only be matched by his love for Carolina Panthers football. He has been published in multiple newspapers in North Carolina, has worked on television and radio and now covers SoCon football for Southern Pigskin.