2018 Football, Game 3: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel at Mercer, to be played to be played at Five Star Stadium in Macon, Georgia, with kickoff at 4:00 pm ET on September 22, 2018.

The game will be streamed on ESPN+. Frank Malloy will handle play-by-play, while Jason Patterson supplies the analysis and Kristin Banks patrols the sidelines.

The contest can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. 

Luke Mauro (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) calls the action alongside analyst Cal McCombs. The sideline reporter is Jay Harper.

The Citadel Sports Network — 2018 radio affiliates

Charleston: WQNT 1450AM/92.1 FM/102.1 FM (Flagship)
Columbia: WQXL 1470AM/100.7FM
Greenville: WLFJ 92.9FM/660AM
Sumter: WDXY 1240AM/105.9FM

Links of interest:

Game preview from The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

– SoCon weekly release

– “Game Day Central” at The Citadel’s website

– AFCA Coaches’ poll

– Brent Thompson’s 9/18 press conference

– Brent Thompson’s 9/19 radio show (video)

Bulldogs dodge yet another hurricane

– The game between The Citadel and Charleston Southern has been rescheduled

Mercer has two of the SoCon’s players of the week

Boxscore from Mercer-Samford

Takeaways from Mercer’s victory over Samford

Redshirt freshman Robert Riddle is now Mercer’s starting quarterback

– Mercer press conference (from 9/17) featuring Bobby Lamb and players Eric Jackson and Tee Mitchell

I didn’t get a chance to write a separate review of the Chattanooga game, so I’m going to start by discussing that matchup. At the end of this post, I’ve added my traditionally awful photos from the contest.

First, let’s compare some stats from Game 1 (Wofford) and Game 2 (Chattanooga):

Category The Citadel Wofford
Field Position +11 -11
Success Rate 26.1% 32.0%
Explosiveness 0.719 1.745
Finishing drives 4.67 (3) 7.0 (2)
Turnovers 0 3
Possessions 12 13
Offensive Plays 66 53
Yards/rush 3.9 7.7
Yards/pass attempt 2.1 2.9
Yards/play 3.6 6.9
3rd down conversions 2/16 4/10
4th down conversions 4/6 0/0
Red Zone TD% 66.7 (2/3) 100.0 (2/2)
Net punting 42.4 35.8
Time of possession 32:38:00 27:22:00
TOP/offensive play 29.67 seconds 30.98 seconds
Penalties 2/20 yards 3/45 yards
1st down passing 0/1 3/5, 23 yards
3rd and long passing 0/5 1/1, 3 yards
4th down passing 1/2, 23 yards 0/0
1st down yards/play 3.75 4.75
3rd down average yards to go 7.9 7.4

 

Category The Citadel Chattanooga
Field Position 11 -11
Success Rate 45.3% 46.9%
Explosiveness 0.727 1.65
Finishing drives 3.5 (6) 2.8 (5)
Turnovers 2 1
Possessions 9 9
Offensive Plays 75 49
Yards/rush 4.3 4.7
Yards/pass attempt 7.5 12.1
Yards/play 4.7 8.8
3rd down conversions 10/18 4/11
4th down conversions 3/4 0/1
Red Zone TD% 66.7 (2/3) 50.0 (2/4)
Net punting 25.3 -1.5
Time of possession 37:07:00 22:53:00
TOP/offensive play 27.84 sec 25.60 sec
Penalties 7/78 8/47
1st down passing 2/4 44 yds 6/12 131 yds
3rd/long passing 2/2 14 yds 1 sk 5/6 149 yds 1 int
4th down passing
0/0 0/1
1st down yards/play 5.8 7.4
3rd down average yards to go 6.5 9.2

Note: Overtime statistics are not included, and the same is true for Chattanooga’s final three plays of the first half. As I mentioned in the review of the Wofford game, the stats for that contest do not include The Citadel’s last play of the first half.

One of the things that might surprise some folks is that The Citadel and Chattanooga had almost the same percentage of successful offensive plays. The Mocs, of course, had a significant edge in “explosive plays”, which was also the case for the Bulldogs against Wofford. The numbers in that category were quite similar for both games.

On the defensive side of the ledger, my primary observation was that all too often, UTC quarterback Nick Tiano had time to admire the late afternoon sky above Charleston before throwing the football. The Bulldogs obviously struggled to cover Bryce Nunnelly, but almost all of the wideout’s big gains came on slow-developing plays.

Tiano was not sacked, despite throwing 28 passes. He was pressured occasionally, as The Citadel was credited with six “hurries”. The Bulldogs also successfully defensed six passes (five breakups and a pick). While each hurry did not automatically result in a pass breakup/interception, the fact there were six of each was not coincidental.

The Citadel’s offense was better versus UTC than it was against Wofford, at least in terms of consistency. The big plays largely were absent, however, aside from Jordan Black’s nifty 25-yard TD toss to Grant Drakeford at the end of the first half. That play was the Bulldogs’ biggest “explosion” play in the first two games, one of only three plays so far in the young season with an IsoPPP number over 2.

All three of those “2+” plays were pass plays. I think that if Jordan Black has the opportunity to throw the ball more often in standard down-and-distance settings, rather than mostly airing it out in passing down situations, The Citadel could see a sizable uptick in explosive plays. One thing I was happy to see against the Mocs was Black throwing the ball on first down, which he did four times. He also passed twice on second-and-short plays.

On The Citadel’s 11 pass plays (ten throws and a sack) versus Chattanooga, the Bulldogs were in obvious passing situations five times, and in standard downs on six occasions. I think that is a solid mix. It is much better than what happened against Wofford, when all 11 of Black’s passes came in actual or de facto passing situations.

I appreciate Brent Thompson discussing his fourth-down calls from the Chattanooga game on his radio show. It is interesting to get insight on the coach’s thought process for each of those situations.

Generally, I agreed with his decision-making versus UTC. Some of his calls were very aggressive, particularly going for it on 4th-and-2 from the Bulldogs’ own 30-yard line in the first possession of the third quarter. The fake punt was also a take-no-prisoners play; alas, it got short-circuited by a fumble.

Both of those calls came in or around what I denoted as “Boo Territory” on my 4th-down decision chart, a graphic created for my August essay on creating more big plays. “Boo Territory” is actually a reference to one of The Citadel’s mascots, though it could also serve as what the reaction in the stands might be for a failed attempt in that part of the field. At any rate, I liked the pugnacious nature of the calls.

However, there was a more conservative decision made on The Citadel’s opening possession of the contest. The Bulldogs had already converted a 4th-and-2 on the UTC 38-yard line earlier in the drive. On 4th-and-10 from the Mocs’ 33-yard line, though, Thompson elected to punt. The kick went into the end zone, for a net of only 13 yards.

I wish the Bulldogs had gone for it, even on 4th-and-10. Part of my thinking is that there are usually a very limited number of possessions in The Citadel’s games (against UTC, each team only had nine).

When a drive gets inside the opposing 40, it may be that taking a chance is the way to go, simply because there will be few opportunities to get back in that area over the course of the contest.

Thompson wanted to play field position at the time. He may also have influenced by the third-down play, which gained only 3 yards, and came after a low-blocking penalty put the Bulldogs “behind the chains”.

Speaking of that low-block infraction, I was interested (and concerned) by this article in SBNation about the rule changes on blocks below the waist:

College football has seemingly figured out a way to slow down a good triple-option attack: throw flags…Army has gone from averaging 4.2 penalties per game (10th in FBS) to 6.3 this year (63rd), and Georgia Tech has gone from 4.0 (fifth) to 5.0 (22nd).

A tweet embedded in the piece noted that Army “has been called for 7 illegal blocks in [its] first 3 games [after the] Black Knights were whistled for 4 illegal blocks in 13 games last season”.

The Bulldogs have been called for a low block in each of their first two games. The 15-yard penalty assessed for each infraction all but eliminates a possession for a triple option team, as Brent Thompson pointed out on his radio show.

One suspects the powers-that-be in college football would like to see the triple option go the way of the dinosaurs, preferring the more open (and arguably more dangerous) spread offenses currently in vogue.

The rule changes for this season appear particularly specious. As Paul Johnson was quoted as saying:

Either blocking below the waist is dangerous or it’s not. It’s not any more dangerous five yards down the field than it is on the line of scrimmage. If it’s that scary, they ought to not tackle below the waist.

This is an issue that will be watched throughout the season. That includes games played in the Southern Conference.

Two quick special teams comments:

  • The Bulldogs have to start making field goals.
  • Chattanooga averaged a net of -1.5 yards (!) on two punts, but somehow did not allow any points on the subsequent possessions.

In August, Mike Capaccio was named The Citadel’s new director of athletics. Last week, he discussed several issues related to his position in a wide-ranging interview with Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier. You can read the article here: Link

I wish Capaccio the best of luck, but I have to shake my head at the hiring process.

Capaccio had been serving as The Citadel’s interim AD since mid-July, but says he had not put his hat in the ring for the full-time gig until he was asked to.

“I was encouraged to apply by some people in administration, and it was not something I was anticipating,” he said. “I was happy in the role I was in. It happened very quickly; it was under a three-week deal from when I applied until I was named AD.

“What I was told is that I was the guy who could come in and get this thing going, because I already knew the inner workings of the organization. The Citadel is a different school, and it takes time to get accustomed to it.”

In other words, someone came to Capaccio, said “Hey, you need to apply” — and less than three weeks later he was the AD.

That, after statements like these:

“The challenge is, we truly have an unbelievable candidate pool in front of us,” [search committee chairman Dan] Bornstein said. “It will be very difficult to narrow the field, because we have an extraordinary field, and an extraordinarily diverse field in all aspects.”

Daniel Parker of Parker Executive Search told the committee that the field of 100 interested applicants was unusually large.

“Typically, we have 60 to 70 candidates,” he said. “On this search, we’ve had more than 100 who went through the process of submitting a letter of interest and a resume, providing references and completing a questionnaire.

“We have sitting athletic directors from Divisions I, II and III, deputy ADs, senior associates, senior women’s administrators, with ethnic and gender diversity. They come from backgrounds in compliance, fund-raising and coaching.”

Parker also said there were candidates from all the “Power 5” conferences (the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12).

Who are we kidding here?

First of all, why was a search firm hired (for $70,000) before potential internal candidates could be assessed?

Parker Executive Search supposedly rustled up over 100 candidates (including “sitting athletic directors from Divisions I, II, and III”). Despite that, someone (or multiple someones) in an administrative capacity at The Citadel decided, very late in the game, to call an on-campus employee and ask him to apply for the position.

Like I said, I hope Capaccio does a great job for The Citadel. He has a reputation for being an outstanding fundraiser, and the military college certainly needs someone with that skill set as its AD.

You will excuse me for thinking, however, that Parker ought to refund the school at least part of that $70,000 — or if not, explain the real purpose of the search.

With the recent postponement (and cancellation, in some cases) of numerous Division I football games due to Hurricane Florence, there has been talk that college football needs to make an adjustment in its annual calendar. Given the number of contests affected by weather problems in recent years, schools are starting to look for ways to make their respective schedules more flexible.

The easiest way to do that is to add a second bye week to the schedule. This is something that has been under discussion in recent years.

It won’t matter next year, because in 2019 there are 14 Saturdays between Labor Day weekend and the Saturday after Thanksgiving (rather than the usual 13). Every FBS team will have two byes next fall.

However, most years there are only 13 such Saturdays, and hence only one bye week.

If a change would be made, the college football season would start (for most teams) the weekend before Labor Day, meaning the schedule would start one week earlier that it does now.

This would have repercussions for FCS schools as well, because it would increase the chances of the subdivision allowing teams to schedule 12 regular-season games on an annual basis, instead of just having the option in seasons with 14 Saturdays (like in 2019).

An earlier start to the FCS regular season could be pushed again if the FBS restructures its regular season. The higher level of Division I has been considering a standardized 14-week format that would require two byes for each FBS team.

Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander, whose conference voted against the permanent 12th game in the FCS, agreed such a change on the FBS level could become a game-changer for the defeated proposal in the subdivision.

“The Big South membership was not unanimous in its opposition to the 12th game proposal,” he said. “However, we voted against it because we prefer that the (NCAA) Football Oversight Committee conclude its study of the football calendar before any further extension of the season. At the conclusion of that study, should there be a move toward a standard 14-week season, our position may change.”

I think a 12-game regular season would be quite beneficial to The Citadel. It would almost certainly mean an additional home game every season for the military college, and with the added revenue that goes along with it.

The postponement of The Citadel’s game with Charleston Southern created a bit of scheduling trivia. From The Citadel’s game notes:

The change in the schedule means the Bulldogs will open the season with three straight conference games. That has not happened since the Bulldogs opened the 1926 season with three straight Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association games.

In 1926, The Citadel started 2-1, losing to Chattanooga but beating Stetson at home and winning…at Mercer.

The 1926 team is better known for beating both Clemson (15-6) and South Carolina (12-9) that season, each away from home (the victory over the Gamecocks came in Orangeburg). The head coach was Carl Prause, and the team was captained by Ephriam “Ephie” Seabrook, a two-time All-State guard for the Bulldogs.

Seabrook would later coach the South Carolina team in the Shrine Bowl (in 1941). He is also remembered for driving Tom Howie (the future “Major of St. Lo”) from a Rhodes Scholar candidate interview in Columbia to Charleston in 1928, arriving just before kickoff of a game versus Clemson. (Led by the irrepressible Howie, the Bulldogs beat the Tigers 12-7.)

It is hard to put much stock in Mercer’s team statistics after three games, partly because the Bears have only played one competitive game. MU opened the season with a 66-14 loss to a very good Memphis team, then followed that up with a 45-3 pasting of Jacksonville, a Pioneer League squad.

Last week, Mercer opened its SoCon campaign with a 30-24 victory at Samford, an eye-opener for a lot of people (though maybe not such a big surprise to veteran observers).

The game was fairly evenly played on the stat sheet, but the Bears dominated time of possession (35:27), consistently converting on third down (7 for 13). Mercer held a 17-7 lead at halftime and never relinquished it.

Robert Riddle (6’3″, 207 lbs.), a redshirt freshman from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, is the new starting quarterback for the Bears. The game against Samford was Riddle’s first as the full-time starter, as he has won the job over last year’s QB, Kaelan Riley.

Riddle had a fine game versus the Birmingham Bulldogs, completing 23 of 34 passes for 316 yards, with one TD and one interception. For that effort he was named the SoCon’s offensive player of the week. He is apparently no relation to former Elon quarterback/pugilist Scott Riddle.

Senior running back Tee Mitchell (5’10”, 204 lbs.) rushed for 103 yards against Samford. Mitchell, a second-team preseason All-SoCon selection who led the Bears in rushing last season, scored two touchdowns against The Citadel in last year’s contest between the two teams. He went to high school at The Bolles School in Jacksonville before spending a year at the Air Force Academy prep school.

Nine different Mercer players caught passes in last week’s game. Marquise Irvin (6’3″, 216 lbs.), a preseason first-team all-league pick, led the Bears in receptions with six. The native of Huntsville had three catches versus the Bulldogs last season. He also serves as Mercer’s punt returner.

Sam Walker (6’4″, 242 lbs.) was the preseason first-team all-conference tight end in the SoCon. He is a redshirt senior from Cumming, Georgia.

Although listed as a backup, converted defensive back Stephen Houzah (5’9″, 161 lbs.) showed his potential as a wide receiver against Samford, catching a 73-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter.

Samford’s projected starters on the offensive line average 6’4″, 293 lbs, though that is including a 255 lb. right tackle (Dawson Ellis). Listed weights for the other four positions on the o-line: 287, 297, 305, 319.

The left tackle spot is manned by 6’3″, 287 lb. redshirt junior Austin Sanders, a preseason first-team all-SoCon selection. Sanders, from Stone Mountain, Georgia, began his collegiate career at Mississippi Valley State.

Mercer generally employs a 3-4 defense, though as must always be noted, teams often line up differently when facing a triple option opponent.

The Bears had three preseason all-conference picks on D, one for each level of the defense. One of them, redshirt senior outside linebacker LeMarkus Bailey (5’11”, 199 lbs.), was a first-team selection.

On the defensive line, Mercer features second-team all-SoCon preseason choice Isaiah Buehler (6’3″, 259 lbs.) and 6’0″, 288 lb. noseguard/bowling ball Dorian Kithcart. They are a tough duo; Kithcart in particular had an outstanding game versus The Citadel last season.

The third man on the d-line is seriously large 6’5″, 297 lb. defensive end Destin Guillen. The Greenville resident, like Kithcart a redshirt junior, is one of three South Carolinians on the Mercer roster.

Eric Jackson (5’8″, 172 lbs.), Mercer’s starting strong safety, was a preseason all-league pick. Jackson had seven tackles against the Bulldogs in last year’s contest.

Starting cornerback Harrison Poole (5’11”, 196 lbs.) had an interception last week versus Samford, and also had a pick against The Citadel last season.

Placekicker Cole Fisher (6’2″, 188 lbs.) was last week’s special teams player of the week in the SoCon. He made 3 of 4 field goal tries against Samford. Fisher also handles kickoffs for the Bears.

Matt Shiel (5’11”, 209 lbs.) is Mercer’s starting punter. Shiel is a native of Doncaster, Australia.

Shiel has one of the more unusual college backgrounds in Division I football, as he played his freshman year of football at Auburn before transferring to Mercer for the 2015 season. He subsequently went back to school in Australia for two years before transferring back to MU this year. Yes, he has actually transferred to Mercer twice.

Starting wide receiver David Durden (6’2″”, 197 lbs.), a freshman from Midville, Georgia, is listed as the primary kickoff returner for MU, while Steven Nixon (5’11”, 221 lbs.) returns as the long snapper.

Odds and ends:

– The weather forecast for Saturday in Macon, per the National Weather Service: mostly sunny, with a high of 92 degrees. The projected low on Saturday night is about 69 degrees.

– Per one source that deals in such matters, Mercer is a 7 1/2 point favorite over The Citadel, with an over/under of 48 1/2.

– Other lines involving SoCon teams:  Furman is a 17-point favorite at East Tennessee State; Western Carolina is a 24-point favorite over VMI; and Samford is a 3 1/2 point favorite at Chattanooga.

Wofford is off this week.

– Also of note:  Elon is a 13-point favorite at Charleston Southern, and Alabama is a 25 1/2 point favorite over Texas A&M. The Citadel’s opponent next week, Towson, has a bye this week.

– Massey Ratings: The Citadel is ranked 67th in FCS. Mercer is ranked 28th (a 14-spot jump from last week).

Massey projects the Bulldogs to have an 24% chance of winning, with a predicted final score of Mercer 29, The Citadel 19.

Other FCS rankings of note in Massey:  Towson (19th, a leap of 19 spots from last week), Elon (21st), Colgate (25th), Kennesaw State (27th), Wofford (31st), Samford (37th), Furman (38th), Yale (39th), Chattanooga (40th), Western Carolina (52nd), Charleston Southern (63rd), UT Martin (68th), East Tennessee State (86th), Gardner-Webb (95th), Tennessee Tech (96th), South Carolina State (97th), Presbyterian (102nd), VMI (116th), Davidson (124th), Mississippi Valley State (125th and last).

Massey’s top 5 FCS squads: North Dakota State, James Madison, South Dakota State, Weber State, and Eastern Washington.

Massey’s top ten FBS teams (in order): Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Clemson, Penn State, LSU, Auburn, Oklahoma State, and Washington. Mississippi State is 11th, Notre Dame 12th, Virginia Tech 14th, North Carolina State 18th, Duke 20th, Boston College 21st, South Carolina 29th, Wake Forest 38th, Vanderbilt 46th, Memphis 52nd, Appalachian State 56th, Florida State 59th, Army 64th, Navy 65th, Toledo 73rd, North Texas 74th, Tennessee 75th, Air Force 78th, Wyoming 80th, North Carolina 88th, Georgia Southern 108th, Coastal Carolina 110th, Charlotte 125th, Liberty 126th, Old Dominion 128th, and UTEP 130th and last.

– Among Mercer’s notable alumni:  music promoter Phil Walden, NBA player/coach Sam Mitchell, and publisher/executive Reg Murphy.

– Mercer’s roster includes 62 players from Georgia. Other states represented on its squad:  Florida (12), Alabama (5), Tennessee (4), South Carolina (3), North Carolina (2), and Texas (1).

Mercer has one of the least geographically diverse rosters in the SoCon, though not included in the above breakdown is punter Matt Shiel, who as noted earlier is from Australia.

The three Palmetto State players on Mercer’s squad are the aforementioned Destin Guillen (a product of Berea High School), redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Burnett (who attended Airport High School), and freshman offensive lineman Tyrese Cohen (from Midland Valley High School).

However, Mercer once again has no players from legendary gridiron factory Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, a circumstance which in the long run will result in a painfully low ceiling for the Bears’ aspirations as a program. As has been said many times, ignoring the famed Maroon and Orange is a perilous maneuver.

– The Citadel’s geographic roster breakdown (per the school’s website) is as follows: South Carolina (47), Georgia (28), Florida (9), North Carolina (5), Texas (5), Tennessee (4), Pennsylvania (3), Alabama (2), New York (2), and one each from Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

– This week’s two-deep is similar to the one released for the Chattanooga game. Mason Kinsey makes an appearance on the depth chart as one of the Bulldogs’ defensive tackles. Also, Rod Johnson is listed as the primary kick returner.

– The Citadel has a 3-5-1 record on games played on September 22, including a 2-1 mark in SoCon play. The three wins:

  • 1962: 19-0 over Davidson, in a game played at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Dwight Street caught a touchdown pass from Wade St. John, and the halfback also added two field goals. Sid Mitchell had the other TD for the Bulldogs, with his score following a drive set up by a Joe Cannarella fumble recovery.
  • 1979: 27-14 over Vanderbilt at Dudley Field in Nashville. Tim Russell was 7 for 12 passing for 111 yards and a TD (caught by Byron Walker), and also added 74 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, both Stump Mitchell and Danny Miller rushed for over 100 yards, with Mitchell scoring once and Miller twice. The Bulldogs rolled up 499 yards of total offense.
  • 1990: 21-10 over Marshall before 17,105 fans at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Everette Sands rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown, while Jack Douglas accounted for The Citadel’s other two TDs. Lester Smith, J.J. Davis, and Shannon Walker all had interceptions, as the Bulldogs’ defense forced six turnovers.

– The Citadel has victories over Mercer in four different cities:  Charleston, Macon, Savannah, and Augusta. The Bulldogs are 3-0 in Macon, with wins in 1926, 2014, and 2016.

– Saturday is Family Weekend at Mercer. I suspect there will be a lot of people on campus, with many of the visitors (but not all) attending the game. The parking lots open at 9 am.

It is hard to judge how The Citadel will fare this week, mainly because of the unexpected break in the season. While the Bulldogs are 0-2 so far, there are positives that can be taken from their play to go along with some obvious negatives. However, now The Citadel has to essentially re-launch its season.

Can the Bulldogs establish some momentum? Will they avoid falling behind early in the game?

Mercer is coming off what might be its most impressive victory in conference play since Bobby Lamb restarted the program, and will be at home. There is an element of the unknown about the Bears as well, however.

How will Mercer react to a big win and subsequently being a solid favorite the following week? Also, I have this nagging question running through my head — just how good is Samford, really? Do we know for sure?

I guess we’ll find out some of the answers to those questions, and more, on Saturday.

Here are the really lousy pictures from the Chattanooga game. They are not annotated, although the game shots are in order; as usual, there are more photos from the first half than the second, for a variety of reasons (but mostly operator error).

 

2017 Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Mercer, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on October 7, 2017.

The game will be streamed on ESPN3.com. Kevin Fitzgerald will handle play-by-play, while former Bulldogs linebacker James Riley supplies the analysis. 

The contest can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. 

Mike Legg (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze

The Citadel Sports Network — 2017 Affiliates

Charleston: WQNT 1450AM/92.1 FM/102.1 FM (Flagship)
Columbia: WQXL 1470AM/95.9FM
Greenville: WLFJ 92.9FM/660AM
Sumter: WDXY 1240AM/105.9FM

Links of interest:

– The Citadel won’t hit the panic button

– Back at home after a month away

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

– SoCon weekly release

– FCS Coaches’ poll (The Citadel is ranked #17)

– STATS FCS poll (The Citadel is ranked #17)

– Brent Thompson’s 10/3 press conference, including comments from Tyler Davis and Kailik Williams (video)

– Brent Thompson’s 10/4 radio show (video)

– The Bulldog Breakdown [10/2] (video)

Mercer running game searching for its rhythm

Bears rout VMI

Mercer is right back in the SoCon title race

Bobby Lamb says the series has been “a bloodbath”

Mercer’s student newspaper: this is the best MU team since football was re-instituted in 2013

Mercer highlights versus VMI (video)

Mercer highlights versus Wofford (video)

It is very disappointing when the Bulldogs throw in a complete clunker of a game, regardless of the sport. That is magnified in football, however, because there are only a limited number of opportunities to generate a positive outcome. It is important to make the most of each and every contest.

That didn’t happen on Saturday. The contest was essentially over after the first quarter. I know that the team “played better” in the second half, but does that really matter? I don’t think so, to be honest.

Garbage time is garbage time, particularly when the team in question is not an extremely young squad, but rather an outfit coming off consecutive league titles and expected to compete for another one. There are no truly positive developments to be taken from the debacle at Seibert Stadium. It was simply a bad loss.

That said, the following is also true: many of the players and coaches on the current team have been part of the pigskin scene at the military college for the last 2+ years.

Over that time period The Citadel is 22-7, 15-2 in the SoCon, with two conference crowns and a win over an SEC team (along with a road playoff triumph). The next victory by the current edition of the Bulldogs will tie the 1959-60-61 teams for most wins by the program over a three-year period (23).

In other words, there are a bunch of winners on the roster. They are used to success, and they’re not likely to take a step back after a bad performance.

Temporary stands have been set up on the East side of Johnson Hagood Stadium in time for the game against Mercer:

Seating has been added to the east side of Johnson Hagood Stadium for the stretch run of the 2017 season. The seating is general admission and will be available on a first-come, first-serve so fans are encouraged to purchase their general admission tickets in advance. The seating is in close proximity to the Bulldog Beer Garden and the Kids’ Zone…

The Bulldog Beer Garden…is located next to the Altman Center on the southeast side of the stadium. Concessions including food and beverages will be located in this area presented by Sticky Fingers.  The adjacent location will also have a kid’s fun zone with inflatables for children of appropriate ages.  The Bulldog Beer Garden will be tented, accommodate up to 500 patrons, and will have TVs playing football games of interest…

…[the Kids’ Zone] includes Jumpcastles, face painting, and other fun activities [that] are available for ages 12 & under.

The temporary seating (not including the beer garden) will have room for approximately 1,000 spectators.

Saturday’s game is part of Parents’ Weekend. Schedule of events: Link

On Friday, seniors will receive their class rings. That is a big deal at The Citadel, of course, even for football players who have already picked up their fair share of hardware. As Kailik Williams said:

It means a lot. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to make it. Sometimes, I didn’t even think I was going to make it.

There are plenty of alums who can relate to that sentiment.

The football program is currently on a very good run when it comes to the “celebration games”, Parents’ Day and Homecoming. The Citadel has won ten straight of those contests, winning on Parents’ Day and Homecoming in each of the last five seasons.

From what I can tell, that is the longest winning streak in those games since the Bulldogs’ first Homecoming game — which, according to former school president/historian Oliver Bond, occurred in 1924. The Citadel defeated Furman 6-0 in that October 25 contest at Hampton Park before more than 4,000 fans, with Anderson native Carl Hogrefe scoring the winning touchdown.

However, five Parents’ Day wins in a row is not a school record. The mark for sustained success on Parents’ Day is eight, a streak that began in 1978 with a 21-14 win over Delaware and lasted through 1985, a 10-3 victory over Western Carolina.

The Citadel has not played Mercer on Parents’ Day or Homecoming before this season.

The Bulldogs led FCS in offensive 3rd-down conversion rate prior to the Samford game (61%). However, The Citadel only converted 3 of 13 third-down attempts last Saturday.

A look at first down/third down plays explains why, especially when compared to the first three games this season.

Average yards picked up on first down by The Citadel:

  • vs. Newberry: 8.1 yards
  • vs. Presbyterian: 7.0 yards
  • vs. East Tennessee State: 6.0 yards
  • vs. Samford: 5.2 yards

That is not a great trend.

It also leads to more difficult third down situations for the Bulldogs:

  • vs. Newberry: average of 5.1 yards needed on third down to pick up a first down
  • vs. Presbyterian: average of 3.0 yards needed on third down to pick up a first down
  • vs. East Tennessee State: average of 6.3 yards needed on third down to pick up a first down
  • vs. Samford: average of 8.8 yards needed on third down to pick up a first down

Those third down conversion attempts against Samford included a 3rd-and-15, a 3rd-and-19, and a 3rd-and-28.

Penalties were a major factor in the offensive struggles. The Bulldogs were flagged eight times on offense (not counting two other infractions that were declined).

On defense, the Bulldogs have to do a better job against the pass.

Yards per pass attempt allowed:

  • vs. Newberry: 7.2 yards
  • vs. Presbyterian: 5.1 yards
  • vs. East Tennessee State: 5.7 yards
  • vs. Samford: 12.4

You aren’t going to win many games allowing 12.4 yards per pass attempt.

It should be noted, though, that The Citadel’s offense averaged 10.9 yards per pass attempt itself, in line with its season average. I wouldn’t mind that number for the Bulldogs in any game they play during the season.

Key stats for The Citadel through four games:

The Citadel Opponents
Points per game 31.0 20.2
Rushing yardage 1334 351
Average per rush 5.0 3.5
Average per game 333.5 87.8
TDs rushing 12 5
Passing yardage 440 822
Comp-Att-Int 20-42-2 66-108-7
Average per pass 10.5 7.6
TDs passing 5 6
Total offense 1774 1173
Total plays 309 207
Yards per play 5.74 5.67
Kick returns-yards 6-128 12-236
Punt returns-yards 6-44 1-1
Fumbles/lost 6/1 2/1
Avg penalties/penalty yards per game 5.0/43.0 2.5/23.8
Net punt average 39.7 37.2
Time of possession/game 37:24 22:36
3rd down conversions 33/62 12/38
3rd down conversion rate 53.2% 31.6%
Sacks by-yards 8-44 3-20
Field goals-attempts 2-3 1-2
Red Zone touchdown rate 13-19 (68.4%) 6-9 (66.7%)
  • The Citadel leads the nation in time of possession
  • The Bulldogs are second nationally in rushing offense and 14th in the country in rushing defense
  • Despite the 3rd down struggles last week, The Citadel is still 4th in FCS in offensive third down conversion rate
  • Defensively, the Bulldogs are 22nd nationally in third down conversion rate
  • The Citadel is 12th in turnover margin
  • The Bulldogs are 11th in net punting
  • Even with 10 accepted penalties versus Samford, The Citadel is 17th nationally in fewest penalties per game
  • The Citadel is 35th in scoring offense and 29th in scoring defense
  • The Bulldogs are 12th in offensive pass efficiency, a number that includes The Citadel’s 22 yards per catch rate, tops in FCS

Mercer has been competitive ever since joining the Southern Conference in time for the 2014 football season. The Bears have had a habit of playing close games. What they have not done as often as MU fans would like is win those games.

Since 2014, Mercer has played 14 conference games decided by five points or less. The Bears are 4-10 in those contests. Three of those losses have come against The Citadel, by a total of five points.

Of the four close SoCon victories, two have come on the road (both against VMI). One of the two home wins was a 17-14 decision over Chattanooga in 2015, a result that helped The Citadel claim a share of the Southern Conference title.

This year, Mercer has lost two hard-fought SoCon contests, including a home loss to Wofford that the Bears probably should have won.

Mercer’s schedule after five games:

  • beat Jacksonville 48-7, an easy win over an overmatched Pioneer League foe (JU has recovered to win its next 3 games, though)
  • lost 28-27 to Wofford, a game in which the Bears led by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter
  • played very well (particularly on defense) in a 24-10 loss at Auburn; Mercer forced five turnovers in that contest
  • lost 26-23 in overtime at East Tennessee State; MU led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter
  • defeated VMI 49-14, rolling up 575 yards of offense in the process

Statistics of note for the Bears:

Mercer Opponents
Points per game 31.4 19.8
Rushing yardage 790 721
Average per rush 3.9 3.4
Average per game 158 144.2
TDs rushing 10 9
Passing yardage 1108 1009
Comp-Att-Int 83-135-5 88-125-5
Average per pass 8.2 8.1
TDs passing 10 3
Total offense 1898 1730
Total plays 340 334
Yards per play 5.58 5.18
Kick returns-yards 12-242 22-267
Punt returns-yards 7-75 7-68
Fumbles/lost 4/2 9/6
Avg penalties/penalty yards per game 5.4/46.2 6.2/62.8
Net punt average 37.4 35.3
Time of possession/game 29:15 30:45
3rd down conversions 28/67 32/72
3rd down conversion rate 41.8% 44.4%
Sacks by-yards 9-57 6-48
Field goals-attempts 4-6 3-6
Red Zone touchdown rate 15/20 (75.0%) 8/15 (53.3%)
  • Mercer leads the nation in kick return defense
  • The Bears are 30th nationally in net punting
  • MU is 40th in FCS in offensive third down conversion rate and
  • Conversely, the Bears are 100th (out of 123 teams) in defensive third down conversion rate
  • Mercer is 54th in rushing offense and 57th in rushing defense
  • MU is 31st in scoring offense and 27th in scoring defense
  • Mercer is 23rd nationally in turnover margin, helped by six recovered fumbles on defense (1oth-best in FCS)

Mercer’s passing attack accounts for 58.3% of its total offense, though only 41.5% of its offensive plays from scrimmage are passing attempts (including sacks).

After four years as the starter, MU quarterback John Russ graduated. Mercer had a replacement ready, however.

Redshirt freshman Kaelan Riley (6’3″, 222 lbs.) is 80 for 132 passing this season (a 60.6% completion rate), averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, with 10 TD passes against five interceptions. The native of Calhoun, Georgia accounted for 75 touchdowns in high school (with a win-loss record of 54-4) while also playing basketball and tennis. Brent Thompson described him as a “spectacular” player.

Running back C.J. Leggett (5’9″, 217 lbs.) began his college career at Georgia Tech. After an injury, he transferred to Mesa Community College.

The redshirt junior from Suwanee, Georgia is averaging 4.6 yards per carry for the Bears. In recent weeks, his workload has increased, despite not being listed as the starter on the two-deep. He rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries versus ETSU, and added 89 yards on 16 rushes against VMI.

Other MU running backs of note include Tee Mitchell (5’10”, 203 lbs.) and Alex Lakes (5’11”, 221 lbs.). Lakes has had an injury-ravaged career, but the redshirt senior is still Mercer’s all-time leading rusher.

Mitchell was a second-team All-SoCon pick in 2015, but was suspended for the entire 2016 season. He is now back and a definite threat in the backfield.

Two years ago, Mitchell (a former Air Force Prep school student) and Lakes combined for 98 yards and a TD against The Citadel at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Junior tight end Sam Walker (6’4″, 229 lbs.) was a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection. He did not play versus VMI, but is expected to suit up against The Citadel.

Wide receiver Marquise Irvin (6’2″, 215 lbs.) is a junior from Huntsville, Alabama. He was a second-team all-conference choice in 2016. Irvin had eight catches for 81 yards in last year’s game against the Bulldogs.

Brent Thompson noted that Mercer does a good job of getting Irvin the pigskin, including bubble screens. He can catch the deep ball too.

Avery Ward (6’2″, 191 lbs.) is a senior wideout from Alpharetta, Georgia, who has been a regular for the Bears since his freshman campaign. In 2014, he had 104 yards receiving (including a 65-yard TD catch) against The Citadel. He also led the team in catches versus the Bulldogs the following season.

Chandler Curtis (5’11”, 200 lbs.) is a senior who, when not injured, is a fine wide receiver and a scintillating return man. The problem for Curtis over his college career has been staying healthy.

He was healthy enough to haul in a 61-yard touchdown pass against VMI last week. Curtis has been the primary punt and kick returner for the Bears this season.

Mercer’s projected starting offensive line averages 6’3″, 298 lbs. Right guard Caleb Yates (6’3″, 294 lbs.) is a three-year starter who was a preseason second-team all-league pick.

Mercer noseguard Dorian Kithcart (6’0″, 285 lbs.) was described by Brent Thompson as a “big load” who “moves extremely well”. He is a redshirt sophomore from Durham.

Defensive end Isaiah Buehler (6’3″, 262 lbs.) was a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. This season he has 2 1/2 tackles for loss, along with 2 quarterback hurries.

Eric Jackson (5’8″, 190 lbs.), a redshirt sophomore from Powder Springs, Georgia, is a strong safety who currently leads the team in tackles. He has 39 stops through five games.

Inside linebacker Lee Bennett (6’0″, 221 lbs.) is filling up the stat sheet for the Bears this season. He is second on the team in tackles, and also has two tackles for loss (including a sack), a quarterback hurry, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery. Bennett had six tackles versus The Citadel in 2016.

LeMarkus Bailey (5’11”, 201 lbs.), an outside linebacker, leads the team in tackles for loss, with 6 1/2. The native of Marietta, Georgia is a redshirt junior. He had one of the three tackles for loss Mercer recorded against The Citadel in last year’s contest.

Placekicker Cole Fisher (6’1″, 190 lbs.) was the preseason first-team all-conference kicker. Fisher made a 50-yard field goal against Samford last year. This year he hasn’t made one of that distance, though he did attempt a 52-yarder versus Jacksonville.

Fisher is also Mercer’s kickoff specialist. While only four of his 29 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, opponents are only averaging 12 yards per return against the Bears (which leads the nation, as mentioned earlier).

Mercer’s punter is true freshman Grant Goupil (6’2″, 184 lbs.). Nine of his 22 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.

Odds and ends:

– The weather forecast for Saturday, per the National Weather Service: a 30% chance of showers, with an expected high of 84 degrees. It will be mostly cloudy, with winds of 6-14 mph.

I have a feeling it is going to be one of those wet and windy days. Field conditions could be tricky for both teams and might favor the defenses.

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is a 6-point favorite over Mercer. The over/under is 50.

– Other lines involving SoCon teams: Furman is a 4-point favorite at Chattanooga; Samford is a 35-point favorite at VMI; Wofford is a 3.5-point favorite over Western Carolina; and East Tennessee State is an 8.5-point favorite over Robert Morris;

Around the Palmetto State, Clemson is a 21.5-point favorite over Wake Forest; South Carolina is a 2.5-point home underdog versus Arkansas; South Carolina State is a 16.5-point favorite against Morgan State ; Coastal Carolina is a 1-point underdog at home versus Georgia State; Presbyterian is a 20-point home underdog against St. Francis University (which upset Liberty last week); and Charleston Southern is a 31-point underdog at Indiana.

– Massey Ratings: The Citadel is ranked 42nd in FCS, a drop of 12 spots from last week.

Mercer is ranked 56th in FCS, moving up three places from last week. Overall (all college teams ranked), The Citadel is 176th, while Mercer is 202nd.

Massey projects a final score of The Citadel 26, Mercer 23. The Bulldogs are given a 56% chance of winning.

Other FCS rankings in Massey of note: Wofford is 17th (up one spot), Samford is 24th (up 14 spots), Western Carolina is 29th (a jump of 18 places, the second week in a row the Catamounts have moved up exactly 18 spots), Furman is 35th (up 8 places), Charleston Southern is 38th, Chattanooga is 54th (down 22 spots), East Tennessee State is 76th (down six places), South Carolina State is 87th, Presbyterian is 101st, and VMI is 109th (down three places).

The FCS top five in Massey’s rankings, in order: North Dakota State, James Madison, Youngstown State, South Dakota, and Illinois State.

– Since 1911, The Citadel has a 9-5-1 record for games played on October 7. That includes two wins over Richmond and victories over the Charleston Navy and the Parris Island Marines.

The Bulldogs last played at home on October 7 during the 2004 season. That was a Thursday night game against Benedict in Johnson Hagood Stadium during the year of “half a stadium”, which included temporary stands for the cadets on the West side (shades of this week’s game in reverse).

I was at that contest (won by the Bulldogs 29-0), which is on the short list for “worst atmosphere” of any game every played by The Citadel at JHS. Attendance: 5,127, which I believe is the lowest recorded for any game at Johnson Hagood Stadium since at least 1964.

– Changes to The Citadel’s two-deep for the Mercer game: Gage Russell is now listed as the starter at punter; the backup at that position is Branden Glick. At B-back, Brandon Berry has been added to the depth chart.

– Baseball facts about Mercer that I am required to mention every time the Bulldogs meet the Bears:

Mercer was once coached by George Stallings, who helmed both the football and baseball teams. He was a little better at coaching baseball.

Stallings would later become known as “The Miracle Man” for leading the Boston Braves to the 1914 World Championship. That team was in last place in the National League on the 4th of July but stormed to the pennant (by 10 1/2 games!), then dispatched the favored Philadelphia Athletics in a four-game sweep to win the World Series.

Denton True “Cy” Young served as Mercer’s baseball coach from 1903-05. Mercer won the Georgia state championship for college teams in all three of those years.

After each spring in Macon with the Mercer team, Young returned to pitch for Boston (the team now known as the Red Sox); during that three-year stretch, he compiled a major league record of 72-44 with a 1.96 ERA.

– Among Mercer’s notable graduates are TV personality/attack dog Nancy Grace, missionary/spy John Birch, and current Georgia governor Nathan Deal.

– Mercer disbanded its football program following the 1941 campaign, and didn’t field a team again until 2013. This is the fifth year for the program since the re-institution of the sport in Macon.

– The roster for Mercer (per its game notes) includes 62 players from the State of Georgia. Other states represented on the roster: Florida (15 players), Tennessee (9), Alabama (5), South Carolina (2), and one each from North Carolina and Texas.

The two Palmetto State players on Mercer’s squad are redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Destin Guillen (who attended Berea High School), and freshman quarterback Brett Burnett (a product of Airport High School). However, Mercer has no players from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School on its roster, an inexplicable oversight for a university actively searching for high-quality gridiron talent.

– The Citadel’s geographic roster breakdown (per the school’s website) is as follows: South Carolina (47 players), Georgia (29), Florida (6), North Carolina (5), Alabama (4), Texas (4), Pennsylvania (3), Tennessee (2), New York (2), and one each from Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, and West Virginia.

After the first four to five games of the 2017 season, it appears that the SoCon could be a complete free-for-all. Every team except VMI is capable of winning (and losing) in conference play on any given week.

While that is good from a competitiveness standpoint, I’m afraid it might also mean that a team with a 5-3 conference record will struggle to gain a playoff spot, because it may be hard to for the league squads to separate themselves into easily defined groups (playoff-caliber teams, non-playoff teams, etc.). The league’s non-conference results haven’t been terrible, but they haven’t been that good, either.

For The Citadel, that potential problem is even more acute, because the Bulldogs finish the regular season at Clemson.

That is why each SoCon contest is so important. It is quite possible that to participate in the postseason for a third consecutive season, the Bulldogs can only afford one more league setback.

It is thus even more critical to “hold serve” at home. The one advantage The Citadel has is that it has not played a conference game at Johnson Hagood Stadium thus far.

The Bulldogs have to cash in on their four SoCon home games. Those matchups will be against Mercer, Wofford, Western Carolina, and VMI.

It won’t be easy, and that starts with this week’s matchup. Mercer has been very close to beating the Bulldogs for three straight years.

There is no question that the team from Macon desperately wants to end the close-but-no-cigar run it has had against The Citadel. Those losses have undoubtedly been very hard to take, particularly for head coach Bobby Lamb.

There is also no doubt, however, that the Bulldogs want to put their poor afternoon at Samford in the rear view mirror. The surest way to do that is to win in front of a supportive Parents’ Day crowd.

The stakes, as always, are high. The drive for the playoffs begins anew on Saturday.

2016 Football, Game 1: The Citadel vs. Mercer

In a swift, clean game of football of football this morning, The Citadel eleven defeated that of Mercer University by a score of ten to zero. On account of the unusual time of the game, 11 a.m., the attendance was not very large, but the crowd made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.

A very noticeable feature was the presence of a great number of ladies, who formed fully one-fourth of the spectators.

The game was an excellent exhibition of the possibilities of the new rules. While the cadets attempted a few straight bucks, the gains were, in almost every instance, made on end runs, quarterback passes, and fake or quarterback kicks.

Mercer’s gains were made mostly on a long end pass, and the old style half-around-end. The game was also characterized by frequent punting. McCathran and Hammond divided the honors. The cadets were very successful in recovering punts and fumbles…

…The Citadel back-field has shown to no greater advantage this year than in the game today. The team ran interference for them like a machine, and time after time, a blue and white jersey went around the ends for long gains.

The Evening Post, November 10, 1906

The Citadel at Mercer, to be played at Five Star Stadium in Macon, Georgia, with kickoff at 7:00 pm ET on Thursday, September 1.

The game will be televised on Fox Sports Net South, Fox Sports Net Midwest+, and Fox Sports Net West. It will be streamed on ESPN3 and Fox Sports Go, with play-by-play from Darren Goldwater, analysis by Ray Goff, and reporting from Lindsay Rowley. 

The contest can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. 

Mike Legg (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze.

It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

The Citadel Sports Network — Affiliates

Charleston: WQNT 1450AM (Flagship)
Columbia: WQXL 1470AM/95.9FM
Greenville: WLFJ 92.9FM/660AM
Sumter: WDXY 1240AM/105.9FM

A few of my recent posts revolving around football, including the upcoming season for The Citadel:

  • I broke down last season’s conference statistics, including (but not limited to) 4th-down decisions, run/pass tendencies, and…the coin toss
  • Updated to reference the 2015 numbers, I produced my latest of many posts on attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium
  • I took a look at scheduling, in terms of which teams The Citadel’s opponents will play before (and after) facing The Citadel
  • With the past as a guide, I wrote about the difficulty the Bulldogs have had over the years in sustaining success

Links of interest:

Season preview from The Post and Courier

Brent Thompson’s “career crisis”

STATS SoCon preview (The Citadel is picked to finish second)

College Sports Madness preview (The Citadel is picked to finish second in the SoCon)

– SoCon media and coaches’ preseason polls (The Citadel is picked to finish second in both polls)

Southern Pigskin preseason poll (The Citadel is picked to finish second)

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer [link when available]

SoCon weekly release

FCS Coaches poll (The Citadel opens the season ranked #15)

Brent Thompson interview with Southern Pigskin (video)

Brent Thompson at The Citadel’s Media Day (video)

Brent Thompson talks to Phil Kornblut on SportsTalk, as do Cam Jackson and Joe Crochet (audio)

Brent Thompson’s 8/30 press conference (video)

The Bulldogs’ depth will be tested early

Mercer continues preparations for The Citadel

Bobby Lamb’s 8/29 press conference (video via Periscope)

Mercer student paper’s sports editor previews the Bears’ season (and picks Mercer to beat The Citadel 34-28)

FCS Coaches’ Poll

It’s time for football, everybody!

FOOTBALL!!!

FOOTBALL!!!

FOOTBALL!!!

Since this is only Mercer’s third season in the Southern Conference, I think it’s still worthwhile to briefly outline the institution’s history, including that of its football program.

The school now known as Mercer University was founded in 1833 (as a preparatory school for boys) and was originally located in Penfield, Georgia, a small town between Atlanta and Augusta. The campus relocated to Macon in 1871.

The university is named for Jesse Mercer, a Baptist leader who was the first chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees. The college was originally established by Baptists, but no longer has an affiliation with the denomination.

MU has about 4,500 undergraduate students and almost 4,000 graduate/professional students. Mercer has over 76,000 alumni.

In January of 1892, Mercer played its first-ever football game, losing 50-0 to Georgia in Athens. The contest provided the origin story for how the team came to be known as the “Bears”.

The choice of the bear as Mercer’s mascot is said to have been prompted by a University of Georgia football player. In that first football game between the two schools, one of the Georgia players saw a Mercer player burst through the line of scrimmage and exclaimed, “Whence cometh that bear?”

A school publicist (or perhaps an enterprising newspaper reporter) almost certainly invented that quote, which was undoubtedly inspired by Epicurus. There is no telling what Mercer’s mascot would be if that individual had instead been philosophically aligned with Zeno of Citium.

Mercer decided to play an easier opponent for its second game, and thus tangled with the Savannah Catholic Library Association. The Bears still lost, 20-2.

Then someone in Macon got the bright idea to schedule Georgia Tech, which had not yet played a football game. Mercer won, 12-6.

Mercer was once coached by George Stallings, who helmed both the football and baseball teams. He was a little better at coaching baseball; Stallings would later become known as “The Miracle Man” for leading the Boston Braves to the 1914 World Championship.

Cy Young served as Mercer’s baseball coach from 1903-05.

Mercer disbanded its football team following the 1941 campaign, and didn’t field a gridiron squad again until 2013. This is the fourth year for the program since the re-boot.

Incidentally, that 1892 victory over Georgia Tech was the only time the Bears ever beat the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech won 15 of the other 16 meetings (one ended in a tie).

Mercer’s next opponent following its game against The Citadel? Georgia Tech.

The next few sections include statistics for 2015 SoCon contests only, unless otherwise indicated.

Before making some statistical comparisons, a quick review of each team’s 2015 SoCon season:

Mercer opened last year’s conference campaign with a 34-33 OT loss to Wofford in Macon. The Bears trailed by 10 points with just three and a half minutes to play, but had a chance to win the game in regulation before settling for a short field goal and OT. In the extra session, Mercer scored a touchdown but missed the PAT, opening the door for the Terriers.

The Bears then lost a tough road game to Western Carolina, 24-21. MU led 21-3 in the second quarter, but the Catamounts scored two fourth-quarter TDs for a comeback victory.

The next SoCon contest was at home, versus VMI. The Keydets prevailed, 28-21, after controlling much of the game (VMI at one point led by 21 points).

Mercer then lost a tough game to The Citadel at Johnson Hagood Stadium, 21-19, missing a potential tying two-point conversion attempt. It was the second consecutive season that situation presented itself to Mercer, and the second consecutive time the Bears were unable to forge a tie. My review of that game is here: Link

The Bears’ first league win of 2015 was an upset, a 17-14 home victory over eventual league co-champ Chattanooga. MU held off a late comeback attempt by the Mocs, intercepting a pass deep in its own territory while maintaining a three-point lead, and then sealing the win by running out the clock with a pair of first downs.

That was Mercer’s ninth game of the season; the following week, the Bears went to Greenville and beat Furman in OT, 27-20. The Paladins scored late to tie the game at 20, but had to attempt a longer-than-usual PAT due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Furman missed the kick, the game went to overtime, and Mercer wound up winning the contest four plays later.

Mercer returned to Macon for its season finale and was beaten by Samford, 47-21. MU actually led in the third quarter but gave up multiple big plays down the stretch; Samford scored 28 points in the fourth quarter.

The Citadel opened its SoCon campaign in 2015 with a solid home win over Western Carolina, 28-10. The Bulldogs’ next league game was also at home, against Wofford, and The Citadel handled the Terriers 39-12.

Following that victory, The Citadel won consecutive road games in impressive fashion, versus Samford and Furman (by 44-25 and 38-17 scores, respectively). The Bulldogs then edged Mercer 21-19, and retained the coveted Silver Shako with a hard-fought 35-14 win over VMI.

Both of those games were at home. The Citadel lost its final conference game of the season, 31-23 at Chattanooga, though the Bulldogs still won a share of the Southern Conference title.

In league play, Mercer’s offense averaged 22.7 points per game. The Bears averaged 5.2 yards per play, including 4.4 yards per rush and 6.5 yards per pass attempt.

Mercer threw the football 185 times, averaging 26.4 tosses per conference game. MU passed or was sacked attempting to pass on just over 40% of its offensive plays from scrimmage (Mercer was sacked eight times in seven SoCon matchups).

Slightly less than half (48.1%) of MU’s offensive total yardage came via the air. Mercer scored twenty touchdowns in conference play, eleven rushing and nine passing. The Bears were intercepted three times (one each in the last three conference games of the season) and fumbled ten times in league contests, losing four of those fumbles.

Defensively, The Citadel allowed 18.3 ppg in SoCon action. The Bulldogs allowed 5.1 yards per play, including 3.7 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per pass attempt. As I noted in my statistical review of The Citadel’s 2015 league campaign, that yards per rush stat was an improvement over the corresponding 2014 numbers by almost exactly two yards.

The Bulldogs sacked opposing quarterbacks twenty times in league play, and intercepted thirteen passes (breaking up twenty other throws). SoCon opponents averaged 30.3 pass attempts per game versus The Citadel (with those tosses accounting for 46.1% of all offensive plays run from scrimmage against the Bulldogs).

The Citadel’s defense recovered seven fumbles in conference action.

Mercer had exactly 100 third-down attempts in SoCon play, converting on 39 of them. The Bears went for it on fourth down on fifteen occasions in conference action, successfully making the line to gain nine times (60%).

MU was in the Red Zone 22 times in seven league contests, scoring sixteen touchdowns in that situation (for a RZ TD rate of 72.7%).

Mercer’s time of possession per game in conference play was 31:28. The Bears averaged only 2.7 penalties per SoCon game, resulting in an average of just 20.7 penalty yards accepted against Mercer in those contests.

The Citadel’s defense held league opponents to a third-down conversion rate of 33.7%. Against the Bulldogs, SoCon opposition was 8 for 13 on fourth-down tries (61.5%).

In Red Zone situations versus conference teams, the Bulldogs allowed a TD rate of 52.2% in 2015.

As far as penalties are concerned, the SoCon traditionally is loathe to call infractions against The Citadel’s opponents, and that is reflected in last year’s numbers. While the Bulldogs were called for 42 penalties in seven conference games (6.0 per contest), the opposition was only flagged 29 times (4.1 per game).

MU allowed 26.9 points per game to league opponents. Conference teams averaged 6.4 yards per play against the Bears, including 5.6 yards per rush and 7.8 yards per pass attempt.

Mercer’s defense faced 183 pass attempts in SoCon play, just two fewer pass attempts than the Bears tried on offense. MU had eleven sacks in conference action; in a mirror image of Mercer’s offense, 40.4% of opposition plays were pass attempts (or sacks while attempting to pass).

The Bears allowed 3,087 yards of total offense in seven league games, with 46.1% of that total being passing yardage. Mercer allowed 24 touchdowns in SoCon play, 18 on the ground.

MU intercepted seven passes in conference matchups, and forced thirteen fumbles (while recovering nine opponent fumbles).

Offensively, The Citadel rung up 32.6 points per game in league action. The Bulldogs averaged 6.1 yards per play, including 5.6 yards per rush and 9.7 yards per pass attempt. While there were a limited number of passes in The Citadel’s triple option offense, that’s still a very impressive statistic.

League opponents intercepted two Bulldog passes and broke up four others, out of a total of 63 pass attempts in conference action.

The Citadel lost eight fumbles in seven SoCon games. In an illustration of the nature of variance in fumble statistics, the Bulldogs lost twelve fumbles in their other six matchups, losing at least one fumble in every non-league contest except one — the game against South Carolina.

Holding onto the football will be a point of emphasis for The Citadel this season.

Mercer’s defense allowed a third-down conversion rate of 54.5% against league teams. On fourth down, opponents of the Bears were six for twelve.

SoCon opposition entered the Red Zone against Mercer 27 times in conference play. MU allowed 18 touchdowns in that situation (66.7%).

The Citadel’s third-down conversion rate on offense was exactly 50% in SoCon games. On fourth down, the Cadets were 3 for 8 (37.5%).

In 2015, The Citadel’s time of possession in SoCon play was 32:13. The Bulldogs had a Red Zone TD rate of just 56.3% in 2015 against conference opposition, an area in which The Citadel needs to improve in 2016.

For individual statistics, all games (SoCon and non-conference) are included.

Before I get to John Russ and company, let me quickly review the four non-conference games Mercer played last season.

Mercer was 3-1 in those four games. The Bears lost at Tennessee Tech by a 29-22 score, but won by a lopsided margin in the other three contests — 28-7 at Austin Peay, 57-14 versus Stetson, and 52-0 against East Tennessee State.

Obviously, ETSU will be a league opponent for both Mercer and The Citadel this season, but last year that wasn’t the case.

The Bears could have named their score against both Stetson and East Tennessee State, to be honest. In the game against Tennessee Tech, Mercer trailed early before making a comeback, only to be foiled by a late Golden Eagles touchdown. MU only scored two TDs in five red zone trips, which was probably the difference between winning and losing the game.

I’m going to mention one other thing about Mercer’s non-conference games. I came across a statistical oddity that had me rechecking numbers two or three times to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake. Check out the net rushing totals for Mercer and its opponents in these four contests:

  • Mercer 261, Austin Peay 56
  • Mercer 256, Stetson 43
  • Mercer 261, Tennessee Tech 56 (yes, exactly the same totals as in the Austin Peay game)
  • Mercer 261, East Tennessee State 68

Mercer had 261 net rushing yards in all three of its non-conference matchups with opponents from the state of Tennessee. I don’t know what the odds are on that happening, other than they are very long indeed.

(In its one league game against a team from the Volunteer State, Mercer finished with 173 net rushing yards versus Chattanooga.)

Mercer returns 22 starters (including offense/defense/specialists), tied with East Tennessee State for the most returnees in the league. As a comparison, The Citadel returns 15 starters, second-fewest in the conference (Western Carolina has 14 starters coming back).

The Bears are led by quarterback John Russ (6’0″, 201 lbs.), a senior from Buford, Georgia. He has started all 35 games for Mercer since the program’s resumption in 2013.

Last season, Russ completed 58.2% of his passes, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt, with 18 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He did not throw an INT until the ninth game of the campaign.

Russ (a self-described “simple guy”) also rushed for 382 yards and 7 TDs, while usually operating out of a “pistol” formation. Last year against The Citadel, the QB was 13 for 25 through the air for 130 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times by the Bulldogs.

Junior running back Alex Lakes (5’11”, 222 lbs.) rushed for 1,107 yards in 2014, which led the SoCon. Last year, he struggled through an injury-marred season (that included a punctured lung). Lakes rushed for 51 yards and a TD versus The Citadel in the 2015 matchup.

Chandler Curtis (5’11”, 202 lbs.), a junior, was a first-team All-SoCon selection in 2014 as a freshman. Curtis returned four kicks (three punts and a kickoff) for touchdowns that year.

Curtis hurt his ankle in last year’s season opener, and never got on track afterwards. He also suffered an injury during Mercer’s game against The Citadel, after making three early catches. As a result, he only appeared in three games for the Bears in 2015.

When healthy (and he says he is ready to go this year), Curtis is a threat to go the distance any time he has the ball in his hands. Besides his kick-returning exploits, Curtis had four catches of 40+ yards in 2014.

Avery Ward (6’2″, 178 lbs.) led the Bears in receptions last season, with 40, averaging just over 12 yards per catch.  Six of his grabs went for TDs. Ward caught a 65-yard touchdown pass against The Citadel in the 2014 game between the two teams. He had three receptions for 37 yards in last year’s contest.

Sophomore Jimmie Robinson (5’8″, 179 lbs.) was a high school track star who appeared in all eleven games for Mercer last season as a wideout and kick returner. Robinson may not start, but should see plenty of action for the Bears as a stretch-the-field kind of player.

Mercer tight ends are a factor in the passing game. Robert Brown (a 6’2″, 225 lb. senior) and Sam Walker (a 6’4″, 232 lb. redshirt sophomore) combined for 42 receptions last year, including four against The Citadel (with Brown’s lone reception resulting in a touchdown). Walker was a preseason second-team all-league selection.

MU frequently uses two tight ends in its offense, sometimes employing one of them in an “H-back” role.

Mercer’s projected starters on the offensive line average 6’2″, 287 lbs.

Kirby Southard (6’0″, 271 lbs.) has started every game at center for Mercer since the beginning of the 2013 season. John Russ is the only other Mercer player who has started all 35 games for the Bears over the last three years.

Right tackle Bret Niederreither (6’3″, 296 lbs.) began his collegiate career at Temple. In 2014, Niederreither started against The Citadel, but at defensive tackle. In 2015, he started eleven games for the Bears along the offensive line. In 2016, he is a preseason all-SoCon pick.

Mercer lines up on defense in what is nominally listed as a 3-4 setup (I’ve also seen it described as a 3-3-5). Of course, the formation may change against a triple option attack.

Tripp Patterson (6’1″, 213 lbs.) is a senior linebacker who led Mercer in tackles last season (with 70), despite making only six starts. The transfer from Air Force had eleven stops versus the Bulldogs in last year’s game.

Middle linebacker Lee Bennett (6’0″, 223 lbs.) finished second on the team in tackles last season, with 67. The junior had eight tackles against The Citadel last season.

Defensive end Isaiah Buehler, a 6’3″, 258 lb. redshirt sophomore, had two tackles for loss (seven total) against The Citadel last year. Buehler was a preseason second team all-conference choice.

“Bandit” linebacker Tosin Aguebor (6’3″, 238 lbs.) was also a preseason second-team all-league selection. The senior played all eleven games for Mercer last year, after missing the entire 2014 campaign due to injury.

Macon native Tyler Ward (6’1″, 228 lbs.) had 13 tackles against The Citadel in 2014. Ward, one of Mercer’s captains, should see action as part of the linebacker rotation.

Nosetackle Austin Barrett (6’2″, 311 lbs.) had a career-high eight tackles versus the Bulldogs last year. Barrett seems to enjoy playing against military colleges, the junior having registered two sacks last season against VMI.

Free safety Zach Jackson (6’0″, 203 lbs.), a transfer from TCU, had 10 tackles versus The Citadel in 2014. The redshirt senior was injured and did not play against the Bulldogs last season.

Mercer will have to replace its punter, holder, and long snapper this season. The new punter will have big shoes to fill, as Matt Shiel was very effective for the Bears last year.

Last season, placekicker Jagger Lieb (5’9″, 194 lbs.) was 11 for 18 on field goal attempts, with a long of 43. In 2014, he made a 48-yarder against The Citadel.

The junior may face competition for the starting job from sophomore Cole Fisher (6’1, 192 lbs.), who converted the only field goal attempt he tried last season. One thing that Mercer needs to fix is its PAT issues, having missed four of them last year (including a critical one versus Wofford).

Chandler Curtis and Jimmie Robinson are expected to handle most of the return duties for the Bears. As mentioned above, Chandler could be particularly dangerous. That was certainly the case in 2014.

There was some indication that this season, The Citadel might open up the aerial attack (or at least throw the football more than nine times per game in league play). With Jordan Black getting his first start at quarterback on Thursday, however, I suspect that the Bulldogs won’t be throwing the ball all over the field in Macon.

Whether or not they would have anyway is subject to question. While it’s one thing to talk about passing more often, I’m not sure Brent Thompson is all that desperate to have a more balanced offensive approach. A quote from a recent Jeff Hartsell article on the coach was illuminating:

[Bucknell] went 4-7 in 2009 before head coach Tim Landis left for an assistant’s job at San Jose State. Thompson was left looking for a job, and unhappy with what had happened to his offense.

“We were getting into some shotgun stuff, trying to take what we did under center and put it in the shotgun,” he said. “It’s something a lot of teams do — Wofford does it well. But it was deteriorating our physicality, eroding our techniques and I was probably trying to placate too many people, trying to be sexy and more dimensional.

“So I said, if I have it to do over again, we’re going to establish blocking fundamentals, get good at something and go from there.”

Sometimes it takes a game or two for the triple option to start running smoothly. That is reflected, to a certain extent, in the records of the Lenoir-Rhyne teams that featured Brent Thompson as the offensive coordinator, and the 2014 season at The Citadel.

  • 2010: After crushing Chowan 59-10 in its opener, Lenoir-Rhyne lost its second game of that season 20-17 to Concord (a quality D2 program in West Virginia)
  • 2011: Lenoir-Rhyne opened the season with a 26-6 road victory over Concord
  • 2012: In its opener, Lenoir-Rhyne lost 24-21 at Concord
  • 2013: Lenoir-Rhyne lost 18-10 at home to Concord in the season’s first game; L-R would then reel off 13 consecutive wins
  • 2014: The Citadel lost 31-16 at home to Coastal Carolina to begin the season

Last year, the Bulldogs enjoyed an easy 69-0 home victory over Davidson, arguably the perfect lead-in to the conference campaign. This year, The Citadel won’t have that luxury, opening with a league game (and on the road).

One advantage Mercer will have is being able to prepare for a triple-option team over a longer period of time, rather than having to adapt for one week during the season. As Bobby Lamb noted:

“Any time you play [The Citadel] in the middle of the year, you’ve basically got three practice days to get out there and try to defend it, which is very difficult,” Lamb, now in his 13th year as a collegiate head coach, continued. “One of the hardest things to do is to implement it with your scout team and try to emulate what they are doing. Our scout team has had more time to work on it and I think that is going to help us with our familiarity.”

During his weekly press conference, Lamb also said that the SoCon office had called the school about potentially playing a conference game to open the season, and that when Mercer found out the opponent would be the Bulldogs, “we jumped all over it”. One further benefit for the Bears is that they will get to play two triple option teams back-to-back (The Citadel and Georgia Tech), and could concentrate even more on that style of offense in preseason camp.

Odds and ends:

– The weather forecast for Thursday night in Macon, per the National Weather Service:  a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms; partly cloudy, with a low around 72 degrees (the projected high temperature for Thursday is 95 degrees).

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is a 7-point favorite over Mercer. Earlier in the summer, that line was 8 1/2, but apparently some money has come in on Mercer. I suspect it wouldn’t take a lot of cash to swing an FCS line by a point and a half, but I could be wrong about that.

As a reminder, Mercer has played fourteen games since joining the SoCon. The Bears have only lost by more than 7 points in three of those games — twice in 2014, and in last year’s season finale versus Samford. Both of The Citadel’s games against Mercer in the last two years have been decided by two points.

– Other lines involving SoCon teams: Chattanooga is a 35-point favorite over Shorter; Samford is a 28-point favorite over Mars Hill; Wofford is a 10-point favorite at Tennessee Tech (despite the Terriers losing projected starting quarterback Evan Jacks to a season-ending injury); Western Carolina is a 17-point underdog at East Carolina; East Tennessee State is a 26-point underdog at Kennesaw State; VMI is a 30-point underdog at Akron; and Furman is a 43-point underdog at Michigan State.

Gardner-Webb, a non-conference opponent for The Citadel later in the season, is a 7-point underdog at Elon.

– Massey Ratings: As the season begins, The Citadel is ranked 12th among FCS teams. Mercer is ranked 49th.

Massey projects The Citadel to have a 77% chance of winning, with a predicted final score of 28-17.

Other FCS rankings in Massey of note: Chattanooga (8th), Western Carolina (24th), Samford (27th), Wofford (40th), Furman (51st), VMI (61st), Gardner-Webb (81st), East Tennessee State (120th).

– Per the SoCon weekly release, home teams were 13-15 in SoCon games last season. Of those 28 games, 13 were decided by one possession.

– This is the second year in a row that The Citadel has played in the first conference game of the season. In 2015, the Bulldogs hosted Western Carolina in Week 2.

– According to its media guide, Mercer has 71 players from Georgia on its roster, by far the most from any state. Only seven other states are represented: Florida (10), Tennessee (8), Alabama (5), North Carolina (2), and one each from Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

The representative from the Palmetto State is Destin Guillen, a 6’5″, 294 lb. redshirt freshman from Berea High School in Greenville. He is listed as a backup defensive end on the two-deep.

– The Citadel’s geographic roster breakdown (per the school’s website) is as follows: South Carolina (47 players), Georgia (23), Florida (9), North Carolina (7), Alabama (4), Pennsylvania (4), Texas (4), and one each from Louisiana, Maryland, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, and West Virginia.

– The depth chart released by The Citadel for Thursday night’s game includes eight “true” freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, including two projected starters on offense: redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Black, and true freshman guard Drew McEntyre. Both are Georgia natives.

Most of the newcomers are on the offensive side of the ball, as the defense has considerably more experience.

– The Citadel has victories over Mercer in four different cities: Charleston, Macon, Savannah, and Augusta. The Bulldogs are 2-0 in Macon, with a 12-7 victory in 1926 and a 28-26 triumph in 2014.

– The key play in last year’s game between the two teams was Isiaha Smith’s 83-yard TD run late in the first half. Per The Citadel’s game notes, that was the longest run from scrimmage for a Bulldog since 2004.

– One more tidbit from the game notes: The Citadel is one of only two programs to rank in the top three in FCS in fewest tackles for loss allowed per game in each of the past two seasons. In my opinion, that is a reflection of both the offensive system and the general excellence of the offensive line over those two years.

– Earlier in the post, I noted that Mercer’s opponent next week is Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets will be the first FBS team that the Bears have played since re-starting football.

Georgia Tech is the only team Mercer will play this season that the Bears did not play last year. Essentially, the Yellow Jackets replace Stetson on MU’s schedule.

– Next season, Mercer will play two FBS opponents — Auburn and Alabama.

MU will also travel to Tuscaloosa in 2021 for another game against the Crimson Tide. Other FBS opponents on future schedules for the Bears include Memphis (2018) and Vanderbilt (2020).

Mercer also has scheduled a four-game home-and-home series against Yale, with those games to take place in 2018, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

At the beginning of this post, I quoted a game story from the first meeting between Mercer and The Citadel on the gridiron, a 1906 contest won by the Bulldogs. The subheading for the article noted that the game featured an “absence of fumbling”.

Incidentally, The Citadel’s ten points in that contest came on two touchdowns, as such scores were worth five points in those days.

It was “Gala Week” in Charleston, a festival created after the 1886 earthquake to celebrate the city’s recovery from that disaster (and also to juice up the local retail scene). Apparently that is why the game had to be played in Hampton Park at 11 a.m., and it may also explain the paltry attendance. Only an estimated 200 spectators witnessed The Citadel’s victory.

I expect quite a few more fans will be at the 2016 edition of the matchup on Thursday night. It should be a fine atmosphere for a game, and I would not be surprised if significant numbers of blue-clad supporters manage to escape their weekly duties long enough to make the trip to Macon.

Mercer’s team (and fan base) is confident that the Bears can break through this season in a big way, after two years of mostly near-misses. MU has improved depth on both sides of the ball, and more than its fair share of experience.

Bobby Lamb’s charges believe they can win. Of course, the same is true for the players who will line up for The Citadel.

The Bulldogs were a major success story last year, and brought great joy to loyal fans who had waited many years for such a season. Memories were created that will last forever, but memories don’t block and tackle.

Can they do it again? Will the team be able to maintain that forward push under a new head coach, with an untested quarterback, and on the road against an opponent that could be ready to take the next step?

Those are the questions. What are the answers?

We’ll find out at least some of them on Thursday night.

Game review, 2015: Mercer

Links of interest:

Game story, The Post and Courier

Photo gallery, The Post and Courier

School release

Video from WCSC-TV, including interviews with Mike Houston, Isiaha Smith, Cam Jackson, Tyler Renew, and Tevin Floyd

Video from WCIV-TV (starting at the 8:00 mark)

Post-game video interview with Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb

Game video highlights

Box score

The Citadel didn’t play its best game of the season on Saturday afternoon, not by a long shot. However, the end result was still a victory, and that’s what mattered.

Mike Houston, in his post-game press conference:

The big key is finding a way to win when you don’t play your best.

The Bulldogs lost two fumbles, botched a field goal attempt (and were generally unimpressive on special teams), committed a couple of ill-timed penalties, and had trouble moving the ball on offense for the first 20 minutes of the game. The game could easily have been lost, particularly because Mercer was playing solid, mistake-free football (no turnovers, only three minor penalties).

However, The Citadel played well on defense throughout the game (aside from the Bears’ final drive), and the offense eventually righted itself.

Random thoughts and observations:

– The Citadel has clinched a winning season. That matters a lot to longtime followers of the military college.

– For the first time since joining the Southern Conference in 1936, The Citadel has won its first five league contests.

Only once in program history has the Bulldogs won six conference games. That was in 1992, the last time The Citadel won the SoCon. On five other occasions, the Bulldogs have won five league matchups — in 1959, 1961, 1988, 1991, and 2012.

– October was good for The Citadel, which went 4-0 during the month. I decided to check the records to see how often the Bulldogs had gone undefeated in October while playing at least four games.

It turns out to have happened seven other times:

  • 1909: Sam Costen’s tough-minded squad didn’t begin play until October, but came out of the gates strong, going 4-0-1 during the month. Two of the wins came against College of Charleston; the tie came against Georgia (0-0). The Bulldogs also beat Porter 99-0, which is still the largest margin of victory in school history.
  • 1928: This was another team that didn’t start its season until October. Carl Prause’s men won their first four games that season by a combined score of 111-8, defeating Stetson, Newberry, Davidson, and Erskine.
  • 1959: For the only time in school history, a team won five games in October. Four of those victories by Eddie Teague’s crew were in SoCon play, the first time The Citadel won four league contests in October. The second time? That happened this past Saturday.
  • 1960: This edition of the Bulldogs went 4-0-1 in October; the tie came against Florida State, an often-referenced 0-0 battle.
  • 1961: Yes, The Citadel had a three-season stretch in which October was a very enjoyable month. This team won the league, of course; three of those SoCon victories came in the tenth month of the year.
  • 1984: Tom Moore’s best team averaged almost 27 points per game in four October victories, three of which were conference affairs. The fourth win came against Davidson, a popular opponent in this month; the 1928, 1959, and 1960 teams also beat the Wildcats in October (the ’61 squad was a little impatient, defeating Davidson on September 30 that season).
  • 1988: Four of seven consecutive wins during Charlie Taaffe’s second season in charge occurred in October, including three conference victories. The week after October that year wasn’t too bad, either; on November 5, The Citadel beat top-ranked Marshall 20-3 in one of Johnson Hagood Stadium’s most memorable games.

– Of course, Mike Houston had an astute observation about what month matters most:

Fans and alumni — they remember teams that play well in November.

– The biggest play of the game, almost without question, was Isiaha Smith’s 83-yard run right up the middle near the end of the first half. It gave the Bulldogs a lead they would never relinquish, and it came after a half in which The Citadel had mostly been on the back foot. It was a brutal play for Mercer, which had done just about everything right up until that moment.

Smith’s burst was the sixth-long rushing play in school history. In what I consider a statistical oddity, only once has a pass play by The Citadel resulted in a longer gain.

That came in 1983, when current football radio analyst Lee Glaze threw an 84-yard TD pass to John Murphy. Glaze was starting quarterback Robert Hill’s backup at the time; the future All-SoCon wide receiver came into the game briefly after a minor injury to Hill, and almost immediately threw the pass that still stands today as The Citadel’s longest completion.

It should come as no shock to anyone reading this that the Glaze-to-Murphy toss came against Davidson, and in October.

– The Citadel just missed on being ranked last week in the FCS Coaches’ poll. The Bulldogs will almost certainly be in this week’s poll, however.

Eight ranked teams lost on Saturday, including #17 Montana, #18 Montana State, #22 Dartmouth, and #23 Indiana State. At least two of those teams will probably drop out of the rankings, with The Citadel moving into the Top 25.

– For the first time this season in conference play, The Citadel did not improve its rushing yards/play numbers. The Bulldogs averaged 6.0 yards per rush against Mercer, slightly lower than the 6.2 yards per rush The Citadel had versus Furman.

Six yards per carry is still good enough.

– Occasionally you will hear some rumbling noises from the West Stands when there is a heavy dose of the fullback dive. That happened at times on Saturday, particularly in the first half.

It reminded me of the game earlier this season against Western Carolina. In that game, The Citadel gave the ball to the fullback on seven straight plays in the third quarter.

In the first half versus Mercer, Tyler Renew had a stretch in which he carried the ball on seven consecutive plays. Later in the half, Renew rushed on five straight downs.

That may seem like overkill. There is a method to the madness, however — and it is hard to argue about the effectiveness of the strategy when Isiaha Smith is racing 80 yards down the field for the go-ahead touchdown.

– While I didn’t question the usage of the B-Backs, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about Mike Houston’s decision in the second quarter to punt on 4th-and-1 from the Mercer 40-yard line.

The Citadel trailed 10-0, and I thought the percentage play was to go for it. It also seemed out of character, both for the head coach and the offense in general.

I can only surmise that Houston just wasn’t confident in the offense to that point in the game, and settled for changing field position.

Mercer did move the ball on the ensuing possession, gaining 52 yards of total offense before punting. The Citadel then marched 80 yards down the field and scored a touchdown to get back into the game.

– For the first time this season, The Citadel won a game but did not “cover”. No one paying attention was surprised.

– Mitchell Jeter now has 30 tackles for loss in his career. He also had a sack on Saturday, giving him 7 for the season.

– I was disappointed in the attendance. It was a beautiful afternoon, The Citadel had won three straight games, both Clemson and South Carolina were playing road games…and there were only 10,006 people in the stands at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

The crowd next week will be larger, if only because it will be Homecoming. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain what happened on Saturday, though.

Next week, The Citadel plays VMI, with the coveted Silver Shako on the line.

The following week, the Bulldogs travel to Chattanooga to face the Mocs, with the Southern Conference title at stake. The winner also receives an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

The week after that, The Citadel journeys to Columbia to do battle with South Carolina. This is the 25th-anniversary season of “38-35”.

What does all that mean? It means the next three weeks are going to be really intense, and just a little crazy, and maybe — just maybe — a whole lot of fun, too.

I can’t wait.

The pictures, as usual, range from mediocre to bad. The first one is a reminder that a Jedi Knight is the closest equivalent to a graduate of The Citadel in the entire galaxy.

aaa

 

 

2015 Football, Game 8: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Mercer, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on Saturday, October 31. The game will not be televised.

The contest will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Kevin Fitzgerald providing play-by-play.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. WQNT will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each home football game. 

Mike Legg (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. Jay Harper will report from the sidelines; he will host the first hour of the pregame show as well.

It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

Links of interest:

Preview of Mercer-The Citadel from The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

SoCon weekly release

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Bobby Lamb on the SoCon teleconference

– Bobby Lamb discusses Mercer’s loss to VMI and game against The Citadel on a Macon radio show

Mike Houston’s 10/27 press conference (with comments from Vinny Miller and Malik Diggs)

The Mike Houston Show (radio)

Promotional spot for Mercer-The Citadel

Mike Houston is the guide for a tour of facilities upgrades at Seignious Hall

– Joe Crochet, not wasting any time

Fans of The Citadel are very excited and enthusiastic right now, understandably (and justifably) so. The Bulldogs have played very well in recent weeks, recording decisive victories over three consecutive SoCon opponents, with two of those wins coming on the road.

Now, The Citadel returns to Johnson Hagood Stadium for a pair of conference home games before playing its league finale at Chattanooga. More than a few fans are already anticipating the matchup with the Mocs.

In a way, it’s hard to blame them. However, if you are already looking past Mercer (and/or VMI), I have a message for you: slow your roll.

The Bulldogs have a tough assignment on Saturday. If they aren’t at or near their best against Mercer, a loss is a distinct possibility.

Mercer has been snakebit in league play this season. The Bears are 0-3, but look at those losses:

– Mercer trailed Wofford by 10 points with just three and a half minutes to play, but rallied to tie the game and send it to OT. The Bears actually had a chance to win in regulation, but were stopped after having a 1st-and-goal on the Wofford 6-yard line in the final minute.

MU scored first in the extra session, but missed the extra point. The Terriers scored a matching TD, made the PAT and won the game 34-33.

Mercer outgained Wofford, ran 31 more plays, had a 31-18 advantage in first downs, forged a six-minute edge in time of possession, committed fewer penalties, blocked a field goal and an extra point, won the turnover battle 2-1…and still lost.

– The Bears led Western Carolina 21-3 in Cullowhee midway through the second quarter, but WCU would win the game 24-21 after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns (the second a 4th-and-goal conversion that came with just 42 seconds to play).

Again, Mercer outgained its league opponent, this time on the road. The Bears ran more plays, had more first downs, held the ball for almost nine minutes longer than the Catamounts, only committed one penalty, and did not give up a turnover. It wasn’t enough.

– The loss to VMI was different. The Keydets built an early 21-point lead and would eventually pile up 567 yards of total offense (including 391 through the air). Mercer won the turnover battle 4-1, but otherwise were generally outplayed over the course of the game.

Mercer still had a chance to tie the game late, however, as the Bears drove inside the VMI 25-yard line, only to be stopped on downs with 90 seconds remaining in the contest.

The defining statistic from that game? VMI’s otherworldly third-down conversion rate. The Keydets converted 17 of 19 third-down attempts, including their first 12.

The run of 12 straight third-down conversions by VMI included eight passes and a QB scramble; six of those plays were 3rd-and-7 or longer. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been for Mercer.

The next few sections include statistical team/conference comparisons for all games, unless otherwise indicated.

I debated just using SoCon games this week when making comparisons, but as Mercer has only played three league contests, I elected to go with the all-games model. I’ll occasionally note some SoCon-only numbers, however.

One reason for doing so is Mercer’s non-conference schedule, which includes three blowout victories over less-than-stellar competition.

Mercer has two wins over teams yet to win a game this season, Austin Peay (a road victory) and East Tennessee State. The Bears won those contests by a combined score of 80-7.

MU also defeated Stetson 57-14, a game played in Macon. The Hatters play in the non-scholarship Pioneer League, the same conference in which Davidson is a member.

The Bears’ other non-league game was a 29-22 loss at Tennessee Tech, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference and currently has a 2-6 record (including a 34-14 loss to Wofford).

Meanwhile, The Citadel is 5-2, with victories over Davidson (69-0), Western Carolina (28-10), Wofford (39-12), Samford (44-25), and Furman (38-17). The Bulldogs have lost to Charleston Southern (33-20) and Georgia Southern (48-13). The games against the Eagles, Paladins, and Birmingham Bulldogs were all on the road.

In seven games, Mercer’s offense has thrown the ball 208 times; four would-be pass plays resulted in sacks, a very low percentage. Not counting those sacks, the Bears have rushed 310 times, so MU has run the ball on 59.8% of its offensive plays from scrimmage.

Passing yardage accounts for 50.7% of Mercer’s total offense (with sack yardage removed from the total). The Bears average 7.8 yards per pass attempt (again, with sacks/yardage taken into account). Incidentally, that average does not appreciably change when only league games are taken into consideration.

Among SoCon teams, Mercer is third in scoring offense (33.4 ppg) and second in total offense (6.3 yards per play). The Citadel is third in scoring defense (20.9 ppg) and total defense, allowing 5.4 yards per play.

Mercer’s scoring average declines to 25.0 ppg in conference matchups.

The Bears are third in passing offense, averaging 240.4 yards per game (227.7 yards per game in three SoCon contests). MU is first among SoCon teams in offensive pass efficiency, with twelve touchdown tosses and no interceptions.

Let me repeat that: no interceptions. Mercer hasn’t thrown an interception all season. 208 pass attempts, no picks. That is impressive regardless of the level of competition, and a credit to Bears quarterback John Russ, who has thrown 195 of those passes.

The Citadel is second in the conference in pass defense, but first in pass defense efficiency. The Bulldogs are allowing 6.2 yards per pass attempt, best in the league, and have intercepted 13 passes (tops in the conference, and tied for third nationally in FCS).

Last week, The Citadel allowed two touchdown passes to Furman, increasing the total number of TD throws against the Bulldogs’ D this season to three. The 13/3 interception/TD ratio is tied for the best such mark in FCS (with Southern Utah).

The interception-free Mercer attack against the ball-hawking Bulldogs’ D…I guess that would be an unstoppable force versus an immovable object kind of thing.

As I noted in the first paragraph in this section, Mercer quarterbacks have only been sacked four times all season. The Citadel’s defense has recorded 16 sacks, second-best in the league (Chattanooga has 22 sacks). On an individual level, Mitchell Jeter has six of those sacks for the Bulldogs, second-most in the SoCon.

Mercer has completed 60.6% of its passes, fourth-best among league teams; the Bears’ completion percentage in SoCon games is just under 58%. MU is averaging 29.7 pass attempts per contest, fifth-most in the conference. The Citadel’s defense is allowing an opponents’ completion percentage of 60.2%, fourth-best in the conference.

MU is fourth in the SoCon in rushing offense, averaging 5.0 yards per carry (though in games against league teams that number drops to 4.2).

The Citadel is fifth in rushing defense, and is allowing 4.7 yards per rush (next-to-last in the league in that category). However, when only conference games are taken into account, the Bulldogs are second in rushing defense (and only allow 3.5 yards per rush).

Mercer is converting 46% of its third-down attempts, third-best in the SoCon. The Citadel is second in the league in defensive third down conversion rate (38.4%).

The Bears have a red zone TD rate of 80% (24-30), which is tops in the conference; 16 of the 24 touchdowns Mercer has scored in the red zone came via the rush. The Citadel’s red zone defensive TD rate (55%) ranks second in the conference.

When going for it on fourth down this season, Mercer is 12 for 20 (60%). Opponents of The Citadel have tried fifteen fourth-down attempts, converting ten times (Furman converted its only fourth-down try against the Bulldogs last week).

Mercer is second among league teams in both scoring and total defense, allowing 19.4 points and 353.4 yards per game. The Bears are allowing 5.3 yards per play. However, that number rises to 6.4 yards per play in games versus conference squads.

MU is first in the SoCon in rushing defense, allowing 3.7 yards per rush attempt (35th nationally). Mercer opponents have scored twelve rushing touchdowns in seven games.

There is a vast discrepancy in Mercer’s rush defense statistics when the Bears’ three league contests are isolated, though. In those three contests, MU is allowing 5.8 yards per rush.

The Citadel is first in scoring offense (35.9 ppg), third in total offense (averaging 6.4 yards per play) and leads the league in rushing offense (a category in which the Bulldogs rank second nationally, behind only Cal Poly of the Big Sky Conference). The Citadel is averaging 5.8 yards per rush attempt, best in the conference.

The Bulldogs are last in the SoCon in passing yardage per game, but average a league-best 10.6 yards per pass attempt, and are third in offensive pass efficiency among conference squads. The Citadel has five TD passes and two interceptions.

Mercer is sixth in pass defense among SoCon outfits, fourth in defensive pass efficiency, with seven interceptions against seven touchdown passes allowed (three of those picks came last week versus VMI). The Bears’ D has fourteen sacks in seven games.

At 53.3%, The Citadel leads the conference in offensive third down conversion rate, and is third nationally (trailing James Madison and Kennesaw State). MU is last in the SoCon in defensive third down conversion rate, with a terrible 51.9% rate (third-worst in all of FCS).

That percentage is even worse in league matchups (65.9%), which is what happens when you allow 17 out of 19 possible third-down conversions in one game.

The Citadel has an offensive red zone TD rate of 71.9%, third-best in the league. The Bulldogs have 23 touchdowns from red zone possessions this season, and all of them have come via the rush.

Mercer’s red zone defensive TD rate is 68.2%, which ranks next-to-last among conference teams.

The Bulldogs did not have a fourth-down conversion attempt last week, so they remain 3 for 8 on fourth down tries this year. The Bears’ defense has faced seven fourth-down conversion attempts, and has prevented a first down on five of those occasions.

The Citadel is +5 in turnover margin (gained eighteen, lost thirteen), second in the league in that category to Mercer; the Bears are +6 (gained eleven, lost five).

Mercer is tied for seventh nationally in fewest turnovers.

On field goal attempts, the Bulldogs are 5 for 7, with Eric Goins converting a 22-yarder to close out the first half against Furman last week. MU has made seven of twelve tries. The Bears have struggled a bit on PATs, missing four of them (27-31). The Citadel has yet to miss an extra point this season.

The Citadel is third in the conference in net punting yardage (37.7), while Mercer ranks fourth (38.7). As for kickoff coverage, the Bulldogs are second in the league, while the Bears are third.

Mercer is second in the SoCon in kickoff return average (24.2 yards). The Citadel is fifth (22.6). The Bulldogs did not return a kickoff last week; all four of Furman’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

The Bulldogs rank fifth in time of possession (31:01) among league teams. The Bears are third in that category (31:52).

MU is averaging 74.5 plays from scrimmage per game, with a very fast 2.34 plays-per-minute rate. The Bulldogs are averaging 68 plays per game, with a 2.19 plays-per-minute rate.

Mercer has been called for fewer penalties this year than any other SoCon team (3.7 per game). In fact, the Bears lead the nation in that category.

MU is likely to continue to lead the nation in fewest penalties after Saturday, given the aversion of league officials to penalize Bulldog opponents. Only 4.6 penalties per game have been called against The Citadel’s opponents this year (second-fewest in the conference), a multi-year trend.

Note: all statistics in the following sections are for all games.

Mercer quarterback John Russ (6’0″, 202 lbs.) has completed 61.5% of his passes, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, with twelve TD passes and no interceptions. He ranks second in the SoCon in individual pass efficiency.

Russ is responsible for 27 plays this season of 20 yards of more, 25 through the air and two on the ground. While he prefers to throw the ball, he is not afraid to run, as The Citadel found out in last season’s game against the Bears.

In that matchup, Russ rushed for 96 yards on 14 carries, including a 31-yard run. He also threw a 65-yard TD pass against the Bulldogs.

Alex Lakes (5’11”, 216 lbs.) rushed for 1,107 yards last season, which led the SoCon. However, he is currently the backup running back in Mercer’s “pistol” offense.

Lakes is still averaging over 10 carries per game, but Tee Mitchell (5’10”, 194 lbs.) is starting for the Bears. Mitchell is second in the league in rushing, averaging 95.4 yards per game.

It should be noted that Lakes suffered a punctured lung against Tennessee Tech, and missed the Bears’ game versus Wofford. That injury has surely affected his performance to this point in the season.

Mercer’s most feared big-play threat is sophomore wideout Chandler Curtis (5’11”, 201 lbs.), a first-team All-SoCon selection last season as a freshman. Curtis was an impact returner in 2014, with three punt return touchdowns and a kickoff return for a score.

Curtis hurt his ankle in Mercer’s season opener, and just returned to action last week against VMI. He had 7 catches for 109 yards and a TD in that game.

In his absence, Avery Ward (6’2″, 178 lbs.) is leading the team in receptions (28, twice as many as any other receiver). He also has four TD catches this season. Ward caught a touchdown pass against The Citadel in last year’s game.

John Russ throws a lot to the tight end, with players at that position catching 31 passes so far in 2014. Starting TE Robert Brown (6’1″, 229 lbs.) has 13 receptions, including a 51-yard catch versus Stetson and a 50-yarder against East Tennessee State.

Mercer’s projected starters along the offensive line average 6’2″, 284 lbs. Kirby Southard (6’0″, 273 lbs.) has started every game at center for Mercer since the beginning of the 2013 season.

Right tackle Bret Niederreither (6’2″, 280 lbs.) began his collegiate career at Temple. In last year’s game against The Citadel, Niederreither started at defensive tackle. This season, he has started all of Mercer’s games on the offensive line.

Mercer normally lines up on defense in what is listed as a 3-3-5 setup. Of course, the Bears may line up differently against The Citadel’s triple option attack.

Middle linebacker Lee Bennett (6’0″, 223 lbs.) leads the Bears in tackles, with 39. He had 14 tackles last week against VMI.

Tripp Patterson (6″0, 224 lbs.) is second on the team in tackles, despite making his first start last week. The transfer from Air Force has also had a 14-tackle game (versus Wofford).

Macon native Tyler Ward (6’1″, 236 lbs.) starts at the weakside linebacker position, and is Mercer’s all-time leader in tackles.

“Bandit” linebacker Tosin Aguebor (6’3″, 238 lbs.) leads the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (7.5). Aguebor started every game for Mercer in 2013, but missed all of 2014 with an injury.

Another linebacker, Kyle Trammell (6’0″, 227 lbs.) blocked two kicks against Wofford, before leaving that game with a knee injury. He hasn’t played since, though Bobby Lamb said on a local Macon radio show this week he was hopeful Trammell would be back on the field against The Citadel.

Nosetackle Austin Barrett (6’2″, 314 lbs.), a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection, had two sacks last week. Defensive end Tunde Ayinla (6’0″, 254 lbs.) has been a starter for three years.

Free safety Zach Jackson (6’0″, 203 lbs.) is a transfer from TCU. He had 10 tackles versus The Citadel last season. He was injured in last week’s game against VMI, but is expected to play this Saturday.

Cornerback Alex Avant (5’8″, 176 lbs.) was a preseason second-team all-league pick.

Placekicker Jagger Lieb is 6 for 11 on field goal attempts, with a long of 43. Last season, he made a 48-yarder against The Citadel.

Lieb is 24-27 on PAT attempts. His holder, Rob East, has had that role since 2013 (and has also done some punting for the Bears).

Punter Matt Shiel is a native of Australia who is a transfer from Auburn. Australian punters are all the rage right now in college football.

Shiel, like most of his compatriots, is a former Australian Rules Football and rugby player. He is averaging 43.6 yards per punt, with a long of 73 (last week versus VMI). Eight of his twenty-two punts have been downed inside the 20; he also has three touchbacks.

John Abernathy has been Mercer’s long snapper for the past three seasons.

While Stephen Houzah, Jimmie Robinson, and Jeff Bowens are listed as the returners on the Bears’ two-deep, you can bet Bulldog coaches are watching to see if Chandler Curtis returns to that role this week.

Curtis “scared us to death” in last year’s game, according to Mike Houston on his radio show. I can certainly understand that.

Odds and ends:

– The Citadel has been a member of the Southern Conference since 1936. It has never started 5-0 in league play.

– The weather forecast is great. As of Thursday night, the National Weather Service was projecting a nice, sunny day in Charleston on Saturday, with a high of 74 degrees and winds out of the east at 8 miles per hour.

The Bulldogs have won three straight, are 4-0 in the SoCon and on pace to play for a league championship. For the first time this season, weather won’t be an issue for a home game at The Citadel.

I hope all of that results in a big crowd at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

– Massey Ratings update: The Citadel is rated 111th in Division I, 16th among FCS teams. Chattanooga is the highest-rated SoCon team (12th in FCS).

One major caveat to those ratings is that Harvard is rated first among FCS teams. I know the Crimson is riding a long winning streak, but I don’t believe Harvard is close to being the best team in FCS.

Mercer is rated 91st among FCS teams, one spot ahead of South Carolina State.

Other FCS ratings in Massey of note include Western Carolina (23rd), Samford (41st), Furman (45th), Wofford (47th), VMI (74th), Davidson (121st), ETSU (124th), and Mississippi Valley State (125th, and last).

South Carolina is rated 61st among all D1 squads; Georgia Southern is 64th. (Clemson is 2nd.)

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is an twenty-point favorite over Mercer. The over/under is 55.

I cringed when I saw that. Heck, I hated to even type it.

It also struck me as a bogus line. Mercer has played ten games since joining the SoCon. It is 1-9 in those games, but only twice has lost by more than 7 points. Both of those games came last year, when the Bears lost 35-21 to Western Carolina and 34-6 at Wofford (in the 2014 season finale).

– Other lines involving SoCon teams: Chattanooga is an eight-point favorite over Western Carolina; Samford is favored by eight points over Furman; and Wofford is a seven-point favorite at VMI.

The WCU-UTC game will probably be the one of most interest to Bulldog fans. At least, it should be.

– East Tennessee State is in its first year of restarting a football program that will begin playing a SoCon schedule next year. The Buccaneers are 0-7 (including that loss to Mercer I referenced earlier), but have a chance to finally pick up a win this week. ETSU is a seven-point favorite at home against Warner, an NAIA Division II school located in Lake Wales, Florida.

– Of the 22 starting positions on The Citadel’s offensive and defensive units, the same player has started every game for 20 of them. That continuity is important, and beneficial.

– Mercer has 76 players from Georgia on its roster, by far the most from any state. Other states represented: Florida (13), Tennessee (6), Alabama (4), North Carolina (2), and one each from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and South Carolina (Destin Guillen, a freshman defensive lineman from Berea High School in Greenville).

Of course, the Bears also have an Australian, the aforementioned Matt Shiel.

– The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Mercer in Charleston since 1929. Of course, this will be only the second game between the two schools in Charleston since 1929.

– The Citadel has victories over Mercer in four different cities: Charleston, Macon, Savannah, and Augusta.

– This week, the Bulldogs will again sport the “blazer” look. Perhaps the light blue and white will return for Homecoming. It would be nice. I’m not expecting it, though.

What worries me about this game is that it could be a repeat of last year’s matchup, when The Citadel let Mercer back into the game in the second half and was very fortunate to come away with a two-point victory.

I’m basing that concern in part on some occasional second-half struggles this year. The way the Bulldogs played against Furman in the third quarter was a good example of that, and something The Citadel can’t afford to let happen again this week.

Mercer has a lot of big-play possibilities among its offensive players, and may be getting some of them back at the right time (notably Chandler Curtis).

I’m confident in the Bulldogs. It’s just that I think Mercer is much closer to “turning the corner” than its league record suggests. One of these weeks, Mercer is going to find itself on the right side of a SoCon scoreline.

I hope it isn’t this week, though. The Citadel has its own corner to turn.

2014 Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Mercer, to be played to be played in Macon, Georgia, at Mercer University Stadium, with kickoff at 4:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 1. The game will not be televised. It will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Dan Mathews providing play-by-play, D.J. Shockley supplying the analysis, and Hannah Chalker reporting from the sidelines.

Note: this game will NOT be streamed on the SoCon Digital Network.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Mike Legg (the new “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station for The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each home football game that will be hosted by Ted Byrne. The pregame show and game broadcast will be produced by Jay Harper, who will also provide updates on other college football action.

Links of interest:

Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

SoCon weekly release

Mike Houston at his 10/28 press conference

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Bobby Lamb on the SoCon teleconference

Bulldogs plagued by self-inflicted mistakes

Mercer gears up for The Citadel

Mike Houston (in that above-linked “plagued by self-inflicted mistakes” article):

Saturday’s game was frustrating, because it goes back to what I said at the beginning of the season. And that is that we can win our share of games as long as we do what good football teams do.

Late in the year, good football teams take care of the football, don’t have penalties on critical downs and play good, fundamentally sound defense. And although we did some good things Saturday, we didn’t do those things that we needed to.

This is especially true when there is less margin for error, as is normally the case for varsity teams at The Citadel. When the Bulldogs turn the ball over three times in their opponents’ territory, and commit two false-start penalties when preparing to go for it on 4th down — well, they aren’t going to win many games, particularly on the road.

Frustrating is a good word for The Citadel’s performance against Western Carolina. The Bulldogs were ready to play last Saturday against the Catamounts. The effort was there. The execution was not.

In my game preview I wrote that I wanted to see “crisp play on both sides of the ball”. It wasn’t quite present in Cullowhee, at least from the Bulldogs’ perspective, and so the result was another loss.

The offense had the aforementioned turnover and penalty issues. As for the defense, one statistic sums up the day: Western Carolina averaged 9.6 yards per play.

The Citadel has to get better if it wants to record another victory this season. That’s the bottom line.

What is now Mercer University was founded in 1833. The school was originally located in Penfield, Georgia, a small town between Atlanta and Augusta. The campus relocated to Macon in 1871.

The institution is named for Jesse Mercer, a Baptist leader who was the first chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees. The college was originally established by Baptists, but no longer has an affiliation with the denomination.

MU has about 4,400 undergraduate students and almost 4,000 graduate/professional students. They are enrolled at twelve different colleges located in Macon (the primary campus), Savannah, and Atlanta.

Mercer has over 68,000 alumni. Its most notorious graduate is probably Nancy Grace.

Obviously, Mercer is new to the SoCon, so just to quickly recap some varsity athletics particulars:

– The school fields teams in 17 of the league’s 20 sports. The exceptions are men’s track and field (both indoor and outdoor) and wrestling.

– Mercer also has varsity squads in two sports that are not sponsored by the SoCon: women’s lacrosse and sand volleyball.

In ’92, Mercer played its first college football game.

That would be 1892. In January of that year, the Bears played Georgia in Athens, losing 50-0.

Mercer may have lost the game, but it acquired a nickname/mascot. Well, allegedly:

The choice of the bear as Mercer’s mascot is said to have been prompted by a University of Georgia football player. In that first football game between the two schools, one of the Georgia players saw a Mercer player burst through the line of scrimmage and exclaimed, “Whence cometh that bear?”

If you really believe that a football player at Georgia said “Whence cometh” while a play was in progress, I have a washed-out bridge in Adams Run to sell you. It strikes me as a latter-day explanation provided by the sports information director of a bygone era, someone inspired by Epicurus or the Bible.

Two months after the Georgia game, Mercer played the Savannah Catholic Library Association, losing 20-2.

The Bears’ first victory came in November of 1892, when they defeated Georgia Tech 12-6. The contest (which was Tech’s first-ever football game) was played in a local Macon park.

Mercer played once in 1893, losing 10-6 in a rematch with Georgia Tech played in Atlanta. The coach of the Bears for that game was George Tweedy Stallings, who had recently finished his regular job for the year, that of a professional baseball player. Stallings also served as the Bears’ baseball coach during this period.

He would play only seven major league games, but still managed to carve out his place in baseball history. Stallings managed the 1914 “Miracle Braves” of Boston, a team that was in last place in the National League on Independence Day before surging to the NL pennant. The Braves then swept the heavily-favored Philadelphia A’s in four straight games to win the World Series.

For that accomplishment, Stallings was known for the rest of his life as “The Miracle Man”.

Incidentally, Stallings is not the most famous baseball coach in Mercer history. Cy Young coached at Mercer from 1903-1905.

(One more note on Stallings: some references list him as a graduate of VMI. However, there is apparently no evidence Stallings ever attended that school.)

Mercer started playing football games on a regular basis in 1906, when it joined the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The football program would move to the Dixie Conference in 1930.

That victory over Georgia Tech in 1892 would be the only one Mercer ever recorded against the Yellow Jackets, as the Bears lost 15 of the other 16 games in the series (one matchup ended in a tie). Mercer was 0-22 versus Georgia.

The Bears were more competitive against another bunch of Bulldogs, winning four of eleven games against The Citadel (with one tie). The teams played six times in a seven-year period between 1925-31, meeting in several different locations (Charleston, Macon, Augusta, and Savannah).

That 1931 game would prove to be the last between the two programs until this season. Mercer would disband its football program following the 1941 campaign, never restarting the sport after World War II — not until last year, that is.

On November 19, 2010, Mercer’s Board of Trustees voted to reinstate varsity football, though not as a scholarship sport. The school hired former Furman head coach Bobby Lamb to lead the program two months later.

Lamb signed his first class of recruits in February of 2012, with an eye on competing in the Pioneer League (which had accepted Mercer as a member). However, when the school announced in May of 2013 that it was joining the SoCon (beginning with the 2014-15 school year), it also stated that it would transition to scholarship football. Lamb thus did not sign a full class of scholarship recruits until February 2014.

Mercer also built a new football/lacrosse complex. The 10,000-seat Mercer University Stadium opened for gridiron activity in 2013 with more fans in the stands than seats, as 12,171 supporters watched the Bears defeated Reinhardt 40-37 in the school’s first football game since 1941.

The Bears would finish last season with a 10-2 record, winning their first four contests before losing at San Diego. Mercer’s other loss last season came on the road against another Pioneer League opponent, Marist.

Not coincidentally, USD and Marist were two of the three best teams in the Pioneer League in 2013 (along with Butler). Arguably the best win of the season for Mercer was its victory over Drake.

Mercer opened this season with a back-and-forth, who-has-the-ball-last kind of game, a 45-42 home triumph over Reinhardt (which is an NAIA school in Georgia). There were ten lead changes in the contest.

The following week, the Bears lost 25-20 to Furman, the Paladins’ first game after losing starting quarterback Reese Hannon to a season-ending injury. The key play in the game was a pick-six by Furman in the fourth quarter.

MU rolled in its next two games, winning at Stetson 49-0 and pummeling Ave Maria of the NAIA 42-21 (the Bears led the Gyrenes 42-7 at halftime). Mercer then won its first SoCon game, a 27-24 triumph at VMI in which a last-minute interception near the goal line preserved the victory.

Mercer has lost three of its last four games, all conference matchups. The lone victory in that stretch was a 49-21 walloping of Austin Peay.

Samford defeated the Bears 21-18. The score was 21-10 with a minute remaining when Chandler Curtis (more on him later) returned a punt 99 yards for a touchdown. A subsequent onside kick was recovered by the homestanding Birmingham Bulldogs.

Turnovers and penalties doomed Mercer against Western Carolina (sound familiar?). The Catamounts won in Macon, 35-21.

Last week, the Bears lost at Chattanooga 38-31. Mercer trailed 35-14 before mounting a comeback, but couldn’t quite reel in the Mocs.

General statistics for consideration, Mercer’s offense/The Citadel’s defense:

Mercer has passed (or been sacked on passing plays) 39% of the time. Passing yardage accounts for just over 50% of the Bears’ total offense.

MU leads the SoCon in offensive pass efficiency and total offense. It is second in scoring offense, and third in rushing offense.

One caveat: While Mercer is averaging 33.6 points per game overall, that number drops to 23.4 points per game in league play.

Mercer is averaging 5.1 yards per rush and a SoCon-high 8.9 yards per pass attempt, which combined have resulted in a league-leading 6.5 yards per play.

The Citadel ranks next-to-last in the league in scoring, rushing, and total defense, and last in passing defense  and pass efficiency defense. The Bulldogs are allowing 5.3 yards per rush and 8.4 yards per pass attempt, which adds up to 6.6 yards per play.

The 63-56 2OT game against Charlotte skews those numbers slightly, but the Bulldogs have not played well on defense in the two games following the matchup with the 49ers either. The statistics bear that out.

Despite the fact that the Bears lead the conference in first downs per game (20.4), Mercer has not been all that successful on third down. Its conversion rate of 35.4% ranks behind every other SoCon team except Furman. Saturday’s matchup may be a case of the stoppable force versus the movable object, however, as The Citadel’s defense ranks last in opponents’ third-down conversion rate (an unsightly 49.2%).

MU’s offense has a red zone touchdown rate of 69%, while the Bulldogs are second-best in the SoCon with a defensive red zone TD rate of 51%.

Mercer is +3 for the season in turnover margin, a number that is mostly to the credit of the Bears’ defense. Only two SoCon offenses have turned the ball over more often than Mercer.

The Citadel’s defense did intercept its first two passes of the campaign last week, but the Bulldogs still rank last in the conference in turnovers forced.

General statistics for consideration, Mercer’s defense/The Citadel’s offense:

Mercer is fifth in the league in scoring defense, sixth in total defense and pass defense, fourth in rushing defense, and third in defensive pass efficiency. The differential between passing defense and defensive pass efficiency can be partly explained by the Bears’ league-leading nine interceptions.

MU is allowing 4.4 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per pass attempt, resulting in a 5.7 yards/play average.

The Citadel leads the league in rushing offense and is fourth in total offense. The Bulldogs are just sixth in scoring offense, however, and are next-to-last in passing offense (and last in offensive pass efficiency).

From a per-play perspective, The Citadel is last in the league in passing yards per attempt (5.8) and second in yards per rush (5.3). Overall, the Bulldogs are tied for fifth in yards per play (5.4).

The Citadel leads the SoCon in third-down conversion rate, at 49.2%. Mercer’s D is middle-of-the-pack in that category (39.9%).

The Bulldogs are scoring touchdowns 71% of the time when they enter the red zone. Conversely, MU’s defense is allowing TDs at a 60% clip once an opponent advances inside the 20-yard line.

Mercer is tied for the league lead in forced turnovers, with 18 (including the aforementioned nine interceptions). The Citadel’s offense is tied with Wofford for fewest turnovers committed (nine).

The odds that Mercer’s D records a sack in this game are probably not good. The Citadel’s offense has only given up a sack twice this season, while the Bears are tied for last in defensive sacks.

General statistics for consideration, special teams and miscellaneous-but-interesting:

Mercer leads the conference in punt return average, with a ludicrous 20.7 yards per return (which also ranks third nationally). The Bears have three punt return touchdowns (and also a kickoff return TD).

The Citadel is last in kick return average.

The Bulldogs have made seven of their eight field goal attempts, while Mercer is only five for ten on FG tries.

Mercer is apparently adept at drawing penalties, as opponents have committed 75 infractions while playing the Bears this season, a number that leads the SoCon. The Citadel is the exact opposite, as it ranks last in the league in opponents’ penalty yardage (and next-to-last in total opponent penalties).

The Citadel leads the conference in time of possession. The Bears are next-to-last in that category.

Mercer has a young roster, which is what happens when you’re only playing your second year of football since 1941. Mike Houston made a good point in his weekly press conference, however.

He noted this is Mercer’s third year (in terms of signing classes) and that more than 50% of the roster is the same age as Bulldog regulars like Mitchell Jeter and Nick Willis.

One example: free safety Lendell Arnold (who Houston recruited while coaching at Lenoir-Rhyne) originally attended Air Force’s preparatory school. He is a now a sophomore who will turn 22 in two weeks.

Bobby Lamb mentioned during the SoCon teleconference that Mercer currently has about 38 total scholarships in its program (presumably made up of full and partial offers, though he didn’t specify that).

John Russ (6’0″, 199 lbs.) leads the Southern Conference in passing touchdowns, with sixteen (he has been intercepted eight times). A native of Buford, Georgia, Russ leads the SoCon in pass efficiency as well.

He is completing 58% of his throws, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. In his second year as a starter, Russ has developed a reputation as a fine downfield passer. Mercer is averaging 15.5 yards per pass completion, fifth-highest in all of FCS.

Running back Alex Lakes leads the conference in rushing at 102.6 yards per game, and is also tied for the SoCon lead in rushing touchdowns with twelve. He is averaging an impressive 6.2 yards per carry, and was named the SoCon Player of the Month for September.

Lakes is from Newnan, Georgia. He spent one semester at AFA’s prep school, then wound up at West Georgia the following spring, playing defense.

When Mercer announced it was going to play scholarship football, Lakes moved to the Macon school (where he had made a previous visit) to play running back, redshirting during his first year on campus.

Mercer has another big-play running back in 5’10”, 186 lb. freshman Tee Mitchell, who played high school football at The Bolles School in Jacksonville. Mitchell had an 80-yard touchdown reception against Austin Peay and a 74-yard TD catch versus Chattanooga. He also had a 41-yard run against VMI.

Chandler Curtis (5’10”, 186 lbs.) isn’t listed as a starting wideout on the Bears’ depth chart, but don’t let that fool you. He is an impact player of a very high order.

The freshman has twenty receptions, two rushes, nine punt returns, and twelve kick returns. Ten of those forty-three “touches” have resulted in touchdowns.

He leads all of FCS in return TDs with four, including a 99-yard punt return against Samford. When is the last time you saw a guy return a punt 99 yards?

Quite a few of Curtis’ big plays have come against Mercer’s non-conference opponents, but he is not just bullying outclassed teams. Curtis has four 40+ yard receptions in league play.

Mercer got some bad news earlier this week, when it was revealed that leading receiver J.T. Palmer would miss the rest of the season with a hand injury. The junior had 39 catches (five for TDs).

Tight end Robert Brown has had his share of injury problems as well, but had 49- and 35-yard receptions last week against Chattanooga. The product of Nashville is not the largest TE in the world (6’1″, 218 lbs.), but he has a habit of making big plays (averaging 18.6 yards per catch).

Brown’s primary backup, Derek Owings, is a bigger tight end (6’3″, 248 lbs.) who has started three games this season. He spent two years at Eastern Michigan before heading south to Macon.

Mercer’s offensive line has been largely unchanged through most of the season. Average height and weight of the starters: 6’2″, 288 lbs.

Right tackle A.M. Posey is the biggest of the group, at 6’6″, 321 lbs. He began his collegiate career at Tennessee. Kirby Southard has started at center for every game over the past two seasons.

Mercer usually lines up in a 3-4 on defense. As always, things may be different when a team faces a triple option offense.

Defensive end Tunde Ayinla is second on the squad in tackles for loss, with 4.5. He also shares the team lead in sacks with two.

Nosetackle Bret Niederreither is one of two players on the Bears’ roster who played high school football north of the Mason-Dixon line (Derek Owings is the other). The 6’3″, 290 lb. Pennsylvania native transferred to Mercer from Temple.

“Bandit” linebacker Kyle Williams leads the team in tackles for loss, with six. Like several Mercer players, he spent a year at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Devin Davidson is third on the team in tackles. He’s a 6’1″, 218 lb. sophomore linebacker from Suwanee, Georgia.

Middle linebacker Tyler Ward (6’1″, 231 lbs.) is a hometown kid, having played at Tattnall Square Academy in Macon. He has been the Bears’ MLB since day 1 and currently leads the team in tackles by an enormous margin (he has 82; the second-highest total is 48).

That 48-tackle total belongs to Alex Avant (5’8″, 170 lbs.), a cornerback who (like Ward) has started every game for Mercer over the last two seasons. He played one season at Tuskegee before moving to Mercer. Avant has 14 pass breakups and three interceptions this season.

Strong safety Mike Gray is from Jacksonville. He is another player who has started every game for Bobby Lamb at Mercer.

Three different placekickers have attempted field goals for Mercer this season; each has a 50% success rate.

Jagger Lieb is listed as the starter this Saturday. He has a season long of 42 yards, and is 3 for 6 overall in field goal tries.

Tyler Zielenske is the starting punter, though Rob East (who also holds on placekicks) has the most punts for the Bears in 2013. He’s listed as the backup punter this week.

Will Roper, who handles the kickoffs, is the only senior on the Mercer roster. For the past three seasons, Roper served as the kickoff specialist at South Carolina State.

I mentioned Chandler Curtis’ return heroics earlier in the post. The regular lead kick returner for the Bears is Payton Usher, a 5’7″, 173 lb. backup running back. In limited time, Usher is averaging 8.0 yards per carry.

Odds and ends:

– The second annual Medal of Honor bowl, an all-star game played at Johnson Hagood Stadium, will be nationally televised this year by NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). That should give the game a welcome boost; for one thing, it will likely attract more quality players as a result.

– Mercer has 63 players on its roster from Georgia, 14 from Florida, 6 from Tennessee, 3 from Alabama, 2 from North Carolina, and one each from Michigan and Pennsylvania — but none from South Carolina.

– For the second week in a row, The Citadel will be a school’s Homecoming opponent.

Bobby Lamb expects an electric atmosphere.

“There’s nothing like coming home,” Lamb said about this week’s game. “From what I’m hearing, the homecoming numbers are off the charts and people being back on campus. There’s lot of excitement, and I think we’re going to have great weather.

“This late in the season, we need this, and we need the support to try to finish this season on a positive note.”

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is a 4-point favorite on Saturday. The over/under is 56.

– This week in the Capital One Mascot Challenge, Spike The Bulldog faces Benny Beaver, the mascot for Oregon State University.

Vote for Spike!

For the fourth week in a row, the Bulldogs face a team with a dual-threat quarterback who has a lot of options at the skill positions. The defense has not fared well against the previous three squads.

Anyone less than certain about Mercer’s offensive chops should check out the statistics from the Bears’ game last week against Chattanooga. Mercer rolled up 440 yards in total offense against the Mocs, averaging a very healthy 6.7 yards per play.

On offense, I think there will be opportunities for The Citadel. Mercer struggled against Reinhardt’s wing-T offense, allowing 270 rush yards and 469 total yards. That strikes me as promising from the Bulldogs’ perspective.

Ultimately, I’m not confident in The Citadel’s chances on Saturday. The offense has to prove that besides moving the ball, it can hold on to the pigskin. It also has to avoid the killer penalties that have derailed so many potential scoring drives this season.

The defense has to get pressure on the quarterback, and get off the field on third down. Winning the turnover battle would also come in handy.

If The Citadel plays at the level it did against Western Carolina, taking into account all factors (consistency/penalties/turnovers/big plays), the Bulldogs will probably lose. If the team plays like it did against Chattanooga, the Bulldogs will lose badly.

Here is hoping that the team can get better. If it does, the Bulldogs will win this Saturday.

Improve or worsen. There are no other options.

Conference realignment, SoCon style: finally, expansion rather than contraction

Previously in this series:

SoCon style: history repeats itself

SoCon style: some actual news and a little speculation

SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

SoCon style: a look at the varsity sports portfolios of candidate schools

SoCon style: it is definitely nitty-gritty time now

Links of interest (a lot of them)…

From The Post and Courier:

SoCon commish has had enough

Q-and-A with the commissioner

New members bring “stability” to SoCon

SoCon wrap, extreme makeover edition

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Southern Conference adds three members

SoCon expects to hold steady at 10 schools

From the Burlington Times-News:

Southern Conference steps towards stability by adding three future members

From The Macon Telegraph:

Mercer heading to Southern Conference

Audio interview (three parts) with Mercer’s AD

From The Roanoke Times:

VMI accepts invitation to rejoin Southern Conference

From the Johnson City Press:

ETSU accepts invitation to Southern Conference

From the SoCon:

Audio of the teleconference announcing the additions

Not linked: a horrendous column on the conference’s football situation from the Asheville Citizen-Times. In the piece, factual errors were interspersed with snide and generally uninformed commentary.

Several columnists in the league’s geographic footprint decided to pen a “woe is the SoCon” story. The problem was that some of them had obviously not been paying attention to the league since around 1985.

Our nation’s long national nightmare is over…for a little while, anyway. The Southern Conference has added three schools while not losing any other schools in the same 24-hour period. Progress!

SoCon officials said their goal was to replace those schools without expanding its traditional Southern-states footprint.

“We’re not chasing dollars, we’re not chasing markets,” said Wofford [Director of Athletics Richard] Johnson. “We’re chasing what’s best for our student-athletes, and going back to why conferences exist, where athletes are an extra-curricular activity and we can minimize missed class time.”

[The] Citadel athletic director Larry Leckonby said the new league “is really solidified with 10 members who all want to be in the SoCon. They want to be in a geographic conference where we can bus our teams everywhere and give fans a chance to watch all the games if they choose to.

“Most leagues in today’s world have certainly gone beyond regional footprints for other reasons.”

This was a theme repeated throughout the league meetings. Unsaid but implied: the CAA is crazy to have a Boston-to-Charleston geographic footprint.

Time will tell if that is true or not (I tend to think it is), but at any rate the league can’t worry about the likes of Elon, Davidson, or College of Charleston. It has to move on without those schools and the FBS dreamers at Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Did it get it right with Mercer, ETSU, and VMI?

Most observers seem to think adding Mercer was an excellent move for the SoCon, even if the Macon school is just re-starting its football program. Mercer will be a contender in baseball (38+ wins in each of the last five seasons) and men’s hoops (regular-season Atlantic Sun champs in 2013) as soon as it joins the conference, and has the resources to be competitive in football sooner rather than later.

It’s a good thing the school has those resources, as the Bears’ football program will begin conference play in the SoCon in 2014. Mercer is going to gradually phase in scholarships under Bobby Lamb, the former Furman coach now overseeing things in Macon. In an interview with The Greenville News, Lamb described the enthusiasm for football at Mercer:

We sold 4,000 season tickets, and to put that in perspective, the most I ever sold at Furman was 1,100. The interest we generated was so great that we went ahead and set up for a second level on [the stadium]. What we’ve got down here is pretty special.

Mercer already has a competitive football-specific website: Link

The school last fielded a football team in 1941. The schedule for the Bears that year:

Georgia
Georgia Southern
Wofford
Rollins
Presbyterian
Mississippi College
Newberry
Samford
UT-Chattanooga

There is just a hint of back-to-the-future with Mercer and the Southern Conference, even though Mercer (unlike ETSU and VMI) has not previously been a member of the league. Mercer will be the 44th different school to join the SoCon.

The geography of the Southern Conference will benefit Mercer. Its school president noted this in an op-ed in The Macon Telegraph:

This move will also reduce travel burdens for our student-athletes, whose first priority must always be their work in our classrooms and laboratories. The average distance from Mercer to the nine other Southern Conference member institutions will be approximately 40 miles less than the average distance to Atlantic Sun institutions.

The travel burdens will be reduced to an even greater degree for our student-athletes in football, who will move from competition in the Pioneer Football League to the more geographically compact Southern Conference.

One other thing: while The Citadel’s basketball team has never won the Southern Conference tournament, the hoops program does have one post-season tournament title to its credit. In 1927, The Citadel won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) tournament. In the final, the Bulldogs defeated none other than Mercer (42-41).

That was the last time The Citadel beat Mercer on the hardwood, though the two schools have only played once since 1930. Now they will be competing on the same circuit again. Does that portend a tournament championship for the Bulldogs? (Please let the answer be yes.)

East Tennessee State won the A-Sun baseball tourney this season, and it wasn’t a fluke. That program is on the rise under head coach (and noted clutch hitter) Tony Skole, thanks in part to a new baseball facility. ETSU’s success or failure as a member of the Southern Conference may have a lot to do with another new facility, one for its soon-to-be-reborn football program.

ETSU is scheduled to start playing a full SoCon slate on the gridiron in 2016. By that time, a new football stadium will presumably be in place or well on its way to completion. If it is not, then the SoCon will probably be perceived as having made a mistake in issuing an invitation to the school.

No one wants to play football games in the Mountain States Health Alliance Athletics Center, better known as the “Mini-Dome”. Truth be told, playing basketball games in the building isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a good time, either.

That may be why there has apparently been some discussion about ETSU moving its men’s and women’s basketball games to Freedom Hall — no, not the University of Louisville’s old arena, but a facility located in downtown Johnson City. The linked article also contains this passage:

But before basketball or football, ETSU has stated their new performing arts center comes first and the university does have its eyes on one piece of land in particular.

That doesn’t sound overly promising for the sports programs.

East Tennessee State was clearly invited back to the SoCon for the benefit of Chattanooga and Western Carolina (and perhaps Samford to a lesser extent). The addition of ETSU gives those schools a closer geographic match for the purposes of travel and/or rivalry.

There are other positives about ETSU. Just to name one of them, I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision by the league and the City of Asheville to extend their agreement for Asheville to host the conference’s basketball tournaments was partly influenced by the Buccaneers’ fan base. That contract will now run through 2017.

Let’s face it, though: when it comes to football, the school currently has no players, no coach, and no stadium. There seems to be no agreement on where a new stadium would be located or when work on its construction would begin.

East Tennessee State will also have to add up to three women’s sports for Title IX reasons (due to the resumption of football), or drop a similar number of men’s sports.

While VMI has been the most-critiqued new addition by the league, ETSU may actually be the biggest risk. I hope the school is ready to take this step.

I would prefer being sure about it.

Ah yes, VMI, a school with a football program one publication described thusly:

You could…say the VMI football program has an upside, in the sense that it really doesn’t have anywhere to go but up.

During the SoCon teleconference, Jeff Hartsell asked the question that had to be asked. What are VMI’s plans for improving football? Will it make an effort to improve football? John Iamarino’s response:

They’ve taken some internal steps, I think, with regard to how they fund the program, how they allocate resources. They are quite aware that football is very important at VMI and certainly to the Southern Conference. I’ve often said, and it’s true I believe, nobody joins a conference to be the doormat, and I know that’s the case with all of [the new members].

None of them are coming in wanting to be at the bottom of the league. Everybody is going to be competitive. We hope that being in the Southern Conference will aid recruiting efforts at VMI, and at Mercer, and at East Tennessee State. That’s what we’ve been told by their administrators and head coaches when we’ve visited those campuses, and we trust that will be the case.

When VMI left the SoCon and moved to the Big South, its recruiting suffered, which may have come as a surprise to certain officials in its administration. Obviously, VMI doesn’t recruit in the same way as some other schools. It has a more limited pool of candidates from which to draw. However, even within that group of potential recruits, the level of competition (to include conference affiliation) does matter.

Being in the SoCon will indeed help VMI. However, it will help all the schools in the league. VMI may get better recruiting classes, but its competition will be better too.

If VMI wants to truly be competitive on the gridiron, it has to be flexible. That doesn’t mean lowering standards. It means giving its coaches and students a fair chance to be successful on the field.

When it comes to football, a commitment has to be made by the folks running the show in Lexington. We will see if that happens.

VMI’s women’s sports were not discussed during the teleconference. I wish someone had asked about them, specifically whether or not VMI will be required to add another women’s sport sponsored by the SoCon.

The school’s varsity sports portfolio for women, while understandably limited (only 10% of Keydets are female), doesn’t quite match up with the league. VMI doesn’t have women’s teams in SoCon staples like basketball, softball, volleyball, cross country, tennis, or golf — but it does have water polo and swimming teams for women.

While it is fair to wonder if VMI can be competitive in football (and in its other varsity sports), it appears that the remaining league members were happy to welcome VMI back to the fold. One school that wasn’t too thrilled about VMI, however, was soon-to-depart Elon:

Sources have said Elon and [school president Leo] Lambert, specifically, have not supported East Tennessee State and VMI for potential Southern Conference inclusion.

That revelation raised some eyebrows, particularly in conjunction with John Iamarino’s rather curt (especially for him) statement on Elon’s move, in which he referred to “Elon’s negative view of the diversity” of the SoCon.

Did Elon’s leadership have a problem with public schools? What were Elon’s relations with the existing SoCon public schools? And which schools did Elon want to add to the league in the first place?

Lambert attempted some damage control, as described in a later article:

“It is absolutely the opposite of the truth [that Elon opposed VMI],” Lambert said. “The fact of the matter is we were active proponents of VMI. I love VMI.”

Lambert said the last vote Elon participated in regarding Southern Conference expansion was to authorize campus visits for East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI.

“Elon voted for all of them. So that’s the record,” Lambert said. “It was unanimous across the conference. That’s the record.”

Asked about Elon’s collective comfort level with East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI as prospective Southern Conference members, Lambert responded: “In the final analysis, we voted for all three. But as we were talking about all three, Elon was always really excited about VMI. I think the world of VMI. It’s an excellent school.”

I doubt many of the folks in Lexington really believe Lambert when he proclaims his “love” for VMI. To be honest, I don’t either. Elon’s president got backed into a corner just when he thought he was going to be in extended, full-on celebration mode. (The Burlington paper also ran a column stating in part that it was “reasonable to call Elon ungrateful and greedy.”)

Lambert is well aware that while VMI may not be so hot on the gridiron (to say the least), it has a few other things going for it. History, prestige, cachet. A lot of schools, especially those striving for upward mobility and status, would like to be associated with such an institution. Lambert and Elon apparently did not, which would probably puzzle some of his peers.

After all, a future U.S. president once portrayed a VMI baseball player in a popular movie. On the other hand, probably the most famous video associated with Elon baseball is one of its star athletes starting (and then running away from) a brawl.

Lambert didn’t bother to express any affection, real or imagined, for ETSU.

I don’t enjoy “piling on” Elon — after all, four other schools have left or are leaving the SoCon — but its decision to bolt is a curious one. It is making an arguably lateral move to a more expensive conference, one that has been even more unstable than its current league. I really would like to know what schools Elon would have preferred as new SoCon members. Duke, Vanderbilt, and Boston College weren’t really options.

I will say that the CAA has its fair share of public schools, too, either as football-only (like Maine and Stony Brook) or full members (such as Towson and UNC-Wilmington). Maybe the grassy fields on the campuses of those schools are greener than the lawns of the SoCon institutions.

Some other things from the concluded SoCon meetings worth mentioning:

– This flew under the radar, but the league decided that all eligible teams should compete in conference championship events, starting in 2014-15. What that means is that the baseball, women’s soccer, and volleyball tournaments will not be restricted to just the top eight teams. In baseball, for example, there will be nine schools competing in the SoCon in that season, and even the last-place team will play in the conference tournament.

– All the departing schools are eligible for league titles in 2013-14 with the exception of football for Appalachian State and Georgia Southern (because they will be over the FCS scholarship limit and ineligible for the playoffs as a result).

– A decision on whether or not to raise exit fees won’t be made until the three new members begin participating in league meetings.

– Chattanooga AD David Blackburn said that he expected the league to stay at ten schools:

I anticipate it will stay at 10 for a little while. I think we’re all comfortable staying at 10 and making sure that we develop some quality and further cohesiveness before we just go out and land grab.

Don’t close the door on future additions, though. Furman AD Gary Clark:

We’ve just talked about making sure we do what makes the most sense for the Southern Conference, and I think right now that’s making sure we do the best job of integrating the new members, but we’re always going to be keeping our eyes open and constantly planning and talking strategically.

Of course, when talking about additions you also have to consider potential subtractions. It is my opinion that of the “core group” of seven schools, the one most likely to move is Chattanooga — but not to the OVC, a scenario that has been occasionally mooted.

I could see UTC considering a move to FBS in a few years, though, and leaving for a league like the Sun Belt. It isn’t in position to do anything like that right now, but it is something to keep in mind.

As for future additions, I suspect the SoCon will not go back to the Big South for another school, and at this point I’m not sure any school in the Atlantic Sun is on the short list. That might change if certain schools decide to add scholarships for football.

The other league worth watching, of course, is the perpetually unsettled CAA. The key school right now in that league is James Madison, which appears ready to go the FBS route. JMU is a little picky, though; it’s hoping for a CUSA invite, and likely won’t join the MAC (or Sun Belt) until it has no other options.

That’s all for SoCon realignment news and analysis — for now. The wheel keeps on turning…