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« College Sporting News 2009 Preseason FCS All-AmericansInside the OVC: Media Day Notes Pt. II »

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CSN So South: Despite Yard Work Issues, SoCon Serves Up Competitive Balance for 2009

floated rightBy Myron Hosea, CSN So South Columnist

This certainly wasn’t the story any of us expected to grab attention as college football teams kicked off preseason practice: The marquee player of a team, a conference and a division of football lands on the sideline because of a lawn mower accident. Yet, that is how the season got started in Boone, N.C., when All-American quarterback Armanti Edwards injured his foot while mowing his lawn.

Injuries exist as an all-too-prevalent aspect of football. It frustrates players, coaches and fans. So if it’s tough enough seeing the face of your team injured in a game, imagine hearing he goes down mowing the lawn. The good news is that Edwards is expected to recover in a few weeks. Exactly how long remains to be seen. The chances of Edwards returning for the season opener at East Carolina appear cloudy right now, though Mountaineer fans are hoping he will.

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Pirates’ coaches likely will prepare for him to be taking snaps in the opener. The question will be what kind of “football” shape he’ll be in when he does take the field. As a senior, Edwards should have little trouble with the game plan, but stamina might be an issue. The Mountaineers do have a quarterback with experience as DeAndre Presley filled in for Edwards a few times last season.

Let’s hope that Edwards makes a full recovery and plays as many games as possible. The FCS game is just a lot more fun with him on the field.

The 2009 football season looks like one of the more important ones for the Southern Conference in some time. Within itself, the league should be brutally competitive with good teams struggling to build stellar records. It could mirror the 2007 season when as many as five teams had a shot at the crown heading into the final two or three weeks.

However, you get the sense that the SoCon needs to bolster its national prominence despite the success of Appalachian State and the league’s long history of success during the last 30 years. How does a conference with a dominant team for three years and as many five or six teams in the national Top 25 on any given week, land just two teams in the playoffs each of the last two seasons?

The SoCon could benefit greatly by having three teams, not just two, who finish with fewer than four losses, improving the chances of a third team in the playoffs. It will be easier when the playoffs expand next year, but it would be a great boost to see three SoCon teams playing the last weekend of November.

The talent is there to do that.

The Mountaineers should make it, of course. Elon has the talent and experience. Wofford is in a pattern of exceeding expectations and is the only SoCon team other than Appalachian State to make the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Furman and Georgia Southern are eager to return to the postseason, and they just might have the pieces to do that, though they have more question marks than the other three already mentioned.

Perhaps Samford or The Citadel could jump up and surprise. As you can see, the SoCon possesses enough depth to generate several good teams even though they might have to live with 7-4 or 6-5 records.

With preseason preparations under way, let’s take a look at comments from each of the coaches at the recent Southern Conference teleconference. Some commented on the competitiveness of the league.

Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore: “I think there are four or five teams who could go win this whole thing. If you’re close to the SoCon, you realize there are a lot of good football teams. So one or two guys get beat up or you get a young guy or even an older guy who gets on a roll playing really well, his team could win it. You’ve got to stay healthy, and then the guys you expect to play well have got to play well.” (By the way, these comments were pre-lawn mower accident.)

Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman: “It’s great to be back at Chattanooga. I’m thrilled to be the head coach here. I think our team is excited about this season. I think these kids want to win. I think they’re excited about the direction we’re going. But they know it’s a challenge. It’s a great league, and I’ve seen firsthand how strong this league is.”

The Citadel head coach Kevin Higgins: “We are very excited about this season. We had great participation by our players during the summer months. … We now have more depth than we’ve ever had. We’re bigger, and we’re stronger, and I think — in particular defensively — we’re going to be a better football team than we were last year.”

Elon head coach Pete Lembo: “I’m just excited to get back into football. You know, as a head coach, there are always so many things going on from an administrative standpoint, whether it is fundraising or working on facilities or working with other administrators on campus. It’s rejuvenating for me to get back into football.”

Furman head coach Bobby Lamb: “We had over 75 young men stay here this summer, working out and kind of bonding together. … We’re excited about what’s in front of us. We know we have a huge challenge because this conference continues to get tougher and tougher each year. We’re just ready to get the season started.”

Georgia Southern head coach Chris Hatcher: “It’s been a tremendous attitude change for us — to the good — this offseason. We struggled a lot last season, finishing 6-5. Had a lot of games that were decided by one or two points that if we make a play here or there, we may possibly find ourselves in the playoff pool. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. In the last game with Furman, we kind of found our identity with Lee Chapple as our quarterback. Came out of there with a big win, and that just really propelled us through the offseason.”

Samford head coach Pat Sullivan: “The Southern Conference reminds me a little bit of when I was coaching in the SEC. Every week, if you don’t have your A game, you can get beat and you can get beat soundly. After you’ve gone through it one year, you really see the quality of football, the quality of the programs and the commitment all the schools have made in the Southern Conference.”

Western Carolina head coach Dennis Wagner: “Week in and week out, you play opponents capable of beating anyone. If you’re not prepared, you can embarrass yourself. We certainly respect the conference even more than we did when we came in. This year, we’ve got to find a way to close the door on some of those football games because everyone is capable of exploding at any moment. [That’s] been our emphasis all spring and summer — making sure we make positive steps toward finishing games.”

Wofford head coach Mike Ayers: “We’re a very young football team. We’re counting on some freshmen that we’ve signed to come in and fill some slots. Overall, we’re encouraged just by the way the kids work and their willingness to go hard and practice hard. I think top to bottom, it’s [the SoCon] going to be awesome. I think every team will improve. It’s going to be a tough league just like it always is.”
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Appalachian State Receives Preseason Nod

SoCon coaches and media both selected Appalachian State as the preseason favorite to win the Southern Conference football title. Here’s how the voting went:

Coaches Poll Media Poll
(First-place votes in parenthesis)
1. Appalachian State (8) 1. Appalachian State (46)
2. Wofford 2. Elon (1)
3. Elon 3. Wofford
4. Furman 4. Georgia Southern (1)
5. Georgia Southern (1) 5. Furman
6.t The Citadel 6. Samford
6.t Samford 7. The Citadel
8. Western Carolina 8. Western Carolina
9. Chattanooga 9. Chattanooga

The coaches selected their annual preseason all-conference team. Edwards and Appalachian State teammate Jacque Roman have been named preseason Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year. The Mountaineers landed eight players on the First Team. Here are the first and second teams.

First Team Offense Second Team Offense
QB Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State Scott Riddle, Elon
RB Mike Brown, Furman Devon Moore, Appalachian State
RB Chris Evans, Samford Brandon Newsome, Elon
OL Mario Acitelli, Appalachian State Cole Fountain, Georgia Southern
OL Pat Illig Wofford Thomas Suggs, The Citadel
OL David Harrison, Elon Daniel DeHaven, The Citadel
OL Brett Irvin, Appalachian State (tie) Trey Johnson, Wofford
OL Daniel Kilgore, Appalachian State (tie) Tyler Haynes, Furman
OL Jon Weber, Samford (tie)
TE Chris Truss, Furman Ben Jorden, Appalachian State
WR Andre Roberts, The Citadel CoCo Hillary, Appalachian State
WR Terrell Hudgins, Elon Brian Quick, Appalachian State

First Team Defense Second Team Defense
DL Jabari Fletcher, Appalachian State Brandon Wood, Elon
DL Terrence Reese, The Citadel Anthony Williams, Appalachian State
DL Mitch Clark, Wofford Justin Brown, Furman
DL Eric Ludwig, Elon Eric Eberhardt, Wofford
LB Jacque Roman, Appalachian State D.J. Smith, Appalachian State
LB Bryce Smith, Samford Gary Blount, Wofford
LB Joshua Jones, Elon Dion Dubose, Georgia Southern
DB Mark LeGree, Appalachian State Ed Gainey, Appalachian State
DB Max Lerner, Furman Mychael Johnson, Wofford
DB Karlos Sullivan, Elon Julian Hicks, Furman
DB Cortez Gilbert, Appalachian State Buster Skrine, Chattanooga (tie)
DB Cortez Allen, The Citadel (tie)

First Team Specialists Second Team Specialists
PK Adrian Mora, Georgia Southern Jason Vitaris, Appalachian State
P Trent Hawk, Furman Bob Hooper, Samford
RS Andre Roberts, The Citadel CoCo Hillary, Appalachian State

Four SoCon players have been included on the Walter Payton Award watch list for 2009. One of them is Edwards, who in 2008 won the award that recognizes the top player in FCS. He’s joined on the watch list by Samford runningback Chris Evans, Elon wide receiver Terrell Hudgins and wide receiver Andre Roberts of The Citadel.