A quick glance at the 2017 SoCon non-conference football slate

Some other links related to the upcoming season for The Citadel:

Inside the Numbers: The Citadel’s run/pass tendencies, 4th-down decision-making, and various per-play statistics, along with the highly anticipated coin-toss data

A look at “advanced statistics” from the Bulldogs’ 2016 league campaign

Preseason rankings and ratings

The Citadel’s fans aren’t afraid to travel

This year, the SoCon cohort will have its usual share of games against major conference teams, along with several intriguing matchups with FCS squads in other leagues. While there are four games against Division II schools, at least two of those D-2 teams (possibly three) are of playoff caliber in that division.

That said, I think contests against non-D1 teams should be avoided by SoCon schools (the same is true for basketball). I realize that putting together a schedule can be a challenge, but from a playoff perspective, it’s important for league teams to have as many opportunities as possible to accumulate victories against D-1 opposition. From that standpoint, playing an FBS team and a D-2 squad in the same season is less than ideal.

Every SoCon team will play three non-league games, with the exception of Western Carolina. The Catamounts have four matchups against out-of-conference opponents, because one of those four games is at Hawai’i. Thus, with the “Hawai’i Exemption” in effect, WCU is playing a 12-game regular-season schedule.

East Tennessee State is the only conference team that will not face at least one FBS opponent. The Buccaneers are only in their third year since re-starting their football program. However, ETSU will play at Tennessee in 2018.

Of the eight schools that are playing FBS squads, seven of them have matchups with teams from Power-5 conferences. The only one that doesn’t is VMI, which has Air Force as its FBS opponent.

Which SoCon outfit has the toughest non-conference schedule? That’s an easy question to answer — it’s Mercer. The Bears tangle with two SEC teams this season.

Around the league:

– Chattanooga:

The Mocs open the season in “Week 0” with a nominally neutral-site matchup in Alabama against OVC kingpin Jacksonville State, with the contest billed as the “Montgomery Kickoff Classic” and televised on ESPN. Chattanooga has lost four games to JSU since 2012; all were close, with two going to OT (including a playoff meeting in 2015).

UTC plays all three of its non-league opponents in the first four weeks of the season. After the Jacksonville State game, Chattanooga has a week off before facing LSU in Baton Rouge. The Mocs then host UT Martin, which won 7 games last season and has finished in the top 3 of the OVC in each of the last five seasons.

– Mercer:

Uh, yikes. After a Thursday night home opener versus Jacksonville that shouldn’t be too treacherous, the Bears will travel to Auburn (September 16) and Alabama (November 18). Good luck with that.

An argument could be made that Mercer has the toughest non-conference schedule in all of FCS. There are arguably three other contenders for that “honor”: Northern Colorado (which plays at Florida and at Colorado), Delaware State (at West Virginia, at Florida State) and Alabama A&M (the only FCS squad to play three FBS opponents this year).

My vote goes to Delaware State, in part because the Hornets were winless last season. Kenny Carter has a tough row to hoe in Dover.

– Samford:

This may be one of the trickier out-of-conference slates in the SoCon, at least in terms of being more difficult than it appears on the surface.

Samford opens the season at home on Thursday night versus Kennesaw State, which you may recall beat Furman last year (though KSU also lost to ETSU in 2016). I think Kennesaw State may be a “sleeper” team this season in the Big South. At least one preseason publication ranked the Owls in its Top 25.

The Birmingham Bulldogs keep the home-on-Thursday thing going in Week 2, playing a weeknight contest against Division II West Alabama. The Tigers are a solid D-2 program, having averaged almost 7 1/2 wins per season since 2009.

Like UTC, Samford wraps up its non-conference campaign early, as SU goes between the hedges to play Georgia on September 16.

– Western Carolina:

As mentioned above, the Catamounts are playing four non-league teams this year as part of a 12-game slate. The game at Hawai’i is the season opener.

WCU’s other three out-of-conference opponents are all from the state of North Carolina. Western Carolina hosts Davidson on September 9, and then travels to Boiling Springs (the N.C. version) to face Gardner-Webb the following week.

The Catamounts conclude regular-season play with a game in Chapel Hill against North Carolina on November 18, the first football game ever between those two programs.

– VMI:

The Keydets’ meeting with Air Force (September 2) is the first of its kind on the gridiron between those two military schools.

VMI returns to the post the following week to play D-2 Catawba, which went 5-6 last year but was 9-3 the season before. That 2015 campaign for Catawba included a two-touchdown victory over Davidson, the last time the Indians faced a D-1 opponent.

On September 16, VMI travels to Moon Township, PA, to play Robert Morris. The Keydets are one of two Southern Conference teams to have scheduled the Colonials this season; those are the only two NEC-SoCon meetings this year.

RMU was 2-9 last season, with one of the losses coming to another Virginia squad, Liberty (41-7). VMI and Robert Morris last played in 2013, a 37-31 2OT victory for the Colonials in Lexington.

– The Citadel:

The Bulldogs open with two home games against familiar non-conference opposition. The Citadel has played Newberry and Presbyterian a combined 102 times in its football history.

Newberry was 10-2 last year, and made the D-2 playoffs for a second consecutive season. The Wolves have played two D-1 schools in the last three years (Jacksonville and Charleston Southern), losing the two games by a total of nine points.

Presbyterian was 2-9 last season, with just one win in Big South action (versus Monmouth). PC opens at Wake Forest on Thursday night before travelling to Charleston to face the Bulldogs for the first time since 2010.

The Citadel ends the regular season with a game at Clemson, which has been a fairly decent FBS program over the past couple of years.

– East Tennessee State:

ETSU opens at home against Limestone, a Division II school entering its fourth year of playing varsity football. The Saints were 5-6 last season. Limestone’s only D-1 opponent to date was a home game against Jacksonville in 2014; the Dolphins won 61-10.

The Bucs then play the defending national champion, James Madison. That game will take place in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

East Tennessee State closes out its non-conference action with a home game versus Robert Morris, three weeks after the Colonials host VMI.

– Furman:

The Paladins open the season with a conference game, travelling to Spartanburg to face Wofford. Furman’s first non-league opponent is actually a former conference foe, as Elon will be in Greenville on September 9.

The following Saturday, Furman will play North Carolina State in Raleigh. FU leads the all-time series between the two programs, 8-4-4. The two teams last met in 1985, a 42-20 Furman victory. In related news, N.C. State hired then-Paladins head coach Dick Sheridan after that season.

Furman’s next game will be in Hamilton, New York, as Colgate will host the Paladins. It’s a relatively unusual Patriot League-Southern Conference gridiron battle. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more meetings between teams in those leagues.

– Wofford:

As noted above, Wofford will open at home against Furman in a SoCon matchup. In fact, Wofford’s first two games are in conference play (the second is at Mercer), and then the Terriers have a bye week.

Wofford’s initial non-conference game of the season isn’t until September 23, when it faces Gardner-Webb in Spartanburg. The following Saturday, the Terriers make the short trip down the road to Clinton to play Presbyterian.

On November 18, Wofford will play its last regular-season game of the year at South Carolina, the third consecutive year the Gamecocks have hosted a SoCon team the week before South Carolina plays Clemson. Last year, the Gamecocks beat Western Carolina 44-31; in 2015, The Citadel defeated South Carolina 23-22.

As a whole, the SoCon’s non-league schedule compares favorably to other conferences in FCS.

Only the Big Sky has more matchups against Power-5 conference teams than the SoCon (11* to 8), and the western league has 4 more teams in its conference for football. All 13 of those Big Sky teams will play at least one FBS team this year, however, with three of the schools facing two FBS opponents.

*I’m counting BYU as a “Power-5” program.

Several of the Big Sky teams expected to contend for the league title are playing opponents from the Pac-12, including Weber State (California), North Dakota (Utah), and Northern Arizona (Arizona). I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those teams pulls an upset (Weber State having the best shot, in my opinion).

Another Big Sky power, Eastern Washington, plays at Texas Tech in its season opener. I hope there is enough electrical power available in Lubbock to run the scoreboard for that one.

EWU also has non-conference games against North Dakota State and Fordham, the latter on the road in the Bronx.

While teams in the CAA have a combined total of 12 meetings with FBS squads this season, only three of those are against Power-5 teams (Towson-Maryland, Delaware-Virginia Tech, and William & Mary-Virginia).

James Madison has to like its chances against an East Carolina team that was defensively challenged last season. In fact, one offshore site currently lists the Dukes as a 4 1/2 point favorite.

Maine is playing two FBS teams. One of the games, versus Massachusetts, will be at Fenway Park (box seats above the 30-yard line can be yours for just $99 each).

The MEAC has six games against Power-5 squads (including the aforementioned two for Delaware State), the OVC has five (one of which is Jacksonville State-Georgia Tech), the MVFC has four, the Big South has two (not counting Liberty’s game at Baylor), and the Southland and SWAC also have two. The NEC has one (Central Connecticut State-Syracuse).

While it doesn’t feature any games against Power-5 opposition, the Patriot League does have three games against FBS teams (Colgate-Buffalo, Fordham-Army, Holy Cross-Connecticut).

Incidentally, I’m a fan of the non-conference schedule Colgate put together this year — games against Furman and Cal Poly (the latter on the road), and then stepping outside the division to play a MAC school. Well done, Raiders. Rob Stone must be very proud.

None of the Ivies will play an FBS team this season, and the same is true for the teams in the Pioneer League.

Of the teams ranked in the Street & Smith’s preseason Top 25, only eight are not playing at least one FBS opponent this season. Those eight squads include three MVFC teams (North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and Illinois State); two Southland outfits (preseason #1 Sam Houston State and McNeese State); CAA power Richmond; Patriot League favorite Lehigh; and defending Pioneer League champ San Diego.

It should be pointed out that at least in the case of North Dakota State, the absence of an FBS team on the schedule certainly isn’t about an unwillingness to play teams in the bowl subdivision; rather, it more likely reflects the fact that fewer and fewer FBS programs are interested in playing NDSU.

In addition, two of the eight teams play each other this season. Sam Houston State hosts Richmond on Sunday, August 27, an attractive matchup that will be televised on ESPNU. It will also be the sideline debut for new Richmond coach (and former UTC boss) Russ Huesman.

On September 9, South Dakota State travels to Montana State in an MVFC-Big Sky intersectional affair. Another non-conference matchup featuring teams from those two conferences is Illinois State-Northern Arizona, which kicks off in Flagstaff on October 7.

Lehigh hosts Villanova in what could be the Mountain Hawks’ toughest non-conference test. It is also the season opener for both teams. Lehigh also has a potentially difficult game against Penn; like the Villanova contest, it will be played at Goodman Stadium.

San Diego’s non-conference slate includes a long road trip to Princeton. The Tigers are expected to compete with Penn and Harvard for the Ivy League title this season, after sharing the crown with the Quakers last year.

We are now less than two months away from the start of football season for almost every FBS and FCS team (Ivy League excepted). Can’t wait…

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