Conference realignment, SoCon style: history repeats itself

Everyone knows that the Southern Conference has been through a lot of membership changes over the years, with two splits of particular note leading to the formation of the SEC (in 1932) and ACC (1953). However, there have been other moves of consequence since then, and a few of those are instructive when looking at the current SoCon landscape.

This post is just an overview of some of those machinations. Not all of them, though. That would take up way too much bandwidth…

Tangent: linked above is a 1953 article on the newly formed ACC, which noted that Virginia and West Virginia were “running a neck and neck race” for the eighth spot in the league. UVA won that contest, much to the displeasure of certain WVU bloggers who had been confidently tweeting about WVU’s inevitable invite, despite the fact that Twitter had not yet been created and they had not yet been born.

When it comes to movement among SoCon schools over the last four decades, there have been two major themes:

– Davidson’s skittishness

– Longtime CAA commissioner Tom Yeager’s occasional, grandiose attempts to break up the SoCon

First up, the Wildcats.

The league lost four more members in the seventeen years after the ACC schools made their exit. Washington and Lee departed in 1958, Virginia Tech left in 1965, and West Virginia finally moved out of the conference in 1968.  George Washington dropped out in 1970.

Once the Colonials had left the league, that meant Davidson and VMI were the only two schools remaining in the SoCon that had ever won the conference’s men’s basketball tournament, then and now the nation’s oldest. Perhaps Davidson took this as a sign to start making moves of its own, or maybe those moves would have happened anyway.

At any rate, from that point forward Davidson has been the league’s femme fatale, always a doubt, sometimes leaving, sometimes staying, once actually gone, then suddenly back.

In 1969, Davidson’s football team, led by the estimable Homer Smith, went 7-4 and won the Southern Conference. The Wildcats played in the Tangerine Bowl.

By February 1970, Smith was gone, resigning after the school’s board of trustees decided to cut his budget by almost half. Then in 1973, Davidson decided to de-emphasize football by eliminating football scholarships.  In a move that reporter John Kilgo described as “bush league style”, the school administration notified the press before telling the AD, football coach, or the players. (Kilgo would later become the Wildcats’ radio play-by-play announcer for basketball.)

Davidson’s decision to get out of the scholarship football business didn’t go over very well with some of the other league members, but by then there were other issues too. The looming I-A/I-AA split was one of them. It was a key factor in East Carolina and Richmond leaving the SoCon, and Richmond’s departure also led to William & Mary and VMI leaving — but then the folks in Lexington changed their minds, and VMI stayed.

Both Richmond and ECU wanted to remain at the I-A level, as did William & Mary, and those schools were concerned that the SoCon’s recent or inevitable additions of Appalachian State, Western Carolina, UT-Chattanooga, and Marshall would result in the league becoming a I-AA conference. (Another school that had been interested in joining the league, James Madison, was not seriously considered.)

The departing schools tried to form a new “Big Conference“, which would have included Richmond, East Carolina, William & Mary, VMI, Southern Mississippi, and South Carolina. They were hoping to add two or more of Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Florida State. It didn’t work out (FSU soon wound up in another new league, the Metro).

Of those schools that left the Southern Conference, only ECU would remain in the subdivision now called FBS.

Then Davidson decided to leave the SoCon, effective July 1, 1977. The school stated that it wanted “to associate with an athletic conference offering national-level competition in basketball.” Sound familiar?

However, the school changed its mind in February of 1977 and decided to stay.

By now the league had two “established” schools (The Citadel and Furman), one recent entrant (Appalachian State), three other new schools (WCU, UTC, and Marshall), and two other schools that had been in the league for a long time but had considered leaving (Davidson and VMI).

It didn’t take that long for Davidson to shake things up again in the SoCon. In 1985, the school decided to join the new Colonial League (later renamed the Patriot League) for football. The rest of the Southern Conference schools, however, turned down Davidson’s request to remain in the SoCon for its other sports. Davidson then left the league in 1988.

Tangent: in another article around that time, it was mentioned that the Southern Conference’s constitution “limits membership to 12 institutions”. I thought that was interesting.

By the following year, though, there were Davidson-back-to-the-SoCon rumblings. That was because Marshall was already making noises about leaving the league (though that didn’t happen until 1997). Among the schools reportedly in the mix at that time: Richmond, James Madison, and William & Mary (all as football-only members, a concept the conference ultimately rejected), Eastern Kentucky (which was still on the SoCon radar six years later), and Liberty.

Eventually, Davidson would be brought back into the league (sans football) in 1992.

Now in the space of two years, Davidson has turned down the CAA and is seriously considering the Atlantic 10. There is nothing new under the sun.

Tom Yeager’s first known attempt to punch a gaping hole in the SoCon came in 1996. At the time, the CAA did not sponsor football. Yeager was intent on changing that, and in a big way. The CAA apparently tried to entice The Citadel, Furman, VMI, and Davidson (yes, despite its football situation) to join a league that would have also included Richmond, William & Mary, and James Madison.

That didn’t happen. Neither did a potential 12-team SoCon football league.

Not on the CAA wish list in 1996: Georgia Southern, which had joined the Southern Conference in 1992. Five years earlier, a SoCon spokesman had suggested that GSU was “a little bit beyond the fringe geographically” to become a league member. However, a little-known shift in a continental tectonic plate moved Statesboro significantly closer to conference headquarters, and Georgia Southern was eventually invited.

Yeager came back with a vengeance in 2000, and this time he had an even bigger idea. The CAA went after no fewer than seven Southern Conference schools: VMI, Furman, The Citadel, Davidson, Wofford (which had joined the SoCon in 1997), UNC-Greensboro (which had also joined the conference in 1997), and the College of Charleston (a SoCon member since 1998). The CAA would have been a fourteen-member league, with eight of those schools playing football.

The gambit failed when Richmond stunned the CAA in May by moving to the Atlantic 10. In the wake of UR’s departure, the SoCon invited JMU and William & Mary to join. However, those schools elected to stay in the Atlantic 10 for football. Eventually, the Atlantic 10 football schools would all fall under the CAA umbrella (though that didn’t officially happen until 2007).

At the same time the SoCon was extending invites to JMU and William & Mary, the CAA offered VMI a spot in its league. VMI (second only to Davidson in its league identity issues) decided to stay, but was out of the SoCon three years later. Now, of course, it is a leading candidate to return to the league.

Last year, Yeager and the CAA attempted to grab three SoCon members: Appalachian State (which obviously had FBS aspirations instead), the College of Charleston (which jumped) and Davidson (which said thanks but no thanks). In 2013, internet rumors continue to swirl about various SoCon-to-CAA transfers, from the prosaic (Elon and only Elon) to the fanciful (the fabled “expanded CAA southern division”).

We’ll see what happens — or doesn’t happen. With the SoCon, something usually happens.

Football, Game 6: The Citadel vs. Chattanooga

I’ll begin this post with what may become an annual riff on UTC nomenclature.  As I noted last year, trying to determine what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga isn’t the simplest thing in the world to do:

Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website detailing some of the nickname history.

I’ve actually made a change from last year in how I am referring to the school.  While the school itself is still called the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it is now consistently calling its athletic teams “Chattanooga” while still using the “UTC” acronym.  Therefore, I’ll drop the “UT-Chattanooga” usage.

Irrelevant but semi-interesting:  while surfing UTC’s website (the main one, not the athletics site) I found out that UTC was actually a private school until 1969, when it merged with the University of Tennessee.  Between 1889 and 1907, it was called U.S. Grant University.

Both UTC and The Citadel have had football programs that have been in the doldrums for a decade or more.  However, the Mocs appear poised to finally move up the ladder in the Southern Conference, under the direction of Russ Huesman.  Huesman inherited a program that had gone 1-11 in the year before he arrived.  In 2009, his first year at the helm, the Mocs improved to 6-5.

This season Chattanooga is 2-2, after losing its first two games to Appalachian State and Jacksonville State, both currently ranked in the FCS Top 5.  The Mocs rebounded with victories over Eastern Kentucky and Western Carolina, the latter game played in Cullowhee.

Those two losses may have excited the UTC fan base more than the two wins, as both were close games against quality opponents.  Chattanooga led Appalachian State 28-7 at halftime before the Mountaineers scored 28 fourth-quarter points to take a 7-point lead.  The Mocs scored what would have been the tying touchdown with under a minute to play, but Huesman elected to go for two.  It didn’t work, and Appalachian State escaped Finley Stadium with a victory.

Chattanooga also led Jacksonville State 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, only for the Gamecocks to respond with 14 fourth-quarter points.  JSU’s game-winning TD came on a 72-yard pass play with 1:16 remaining.  That game, played in Alabama, came one week after Jacksonville State’s stunning win over Mississippi.

UTC’s 42-24 victory over EKU included 548 yards of total offense, including 375 yards passing (4 TDs) from B.J. Coleman and 122 yards rushing from Erroll Wynn.

Against Western Carolina, the Mocs turned the ball over four times, one of those being a fumble returned for a touchdown (Chattanooga lost three fumbles overall).  UTC was also burned by a wide receiver pass for a TD, but prevailed 27-21 in part because the Mocs D forced four turnovers of its own.

Speaking of Coleman (a transfer from Tennessee), you may remember him from last year’s game, in which The Citadel blew a 15-point lead.  During the UTC rally, the Mocs went to a no-huddle offense, and the Bulldogs never stopped it, despite the fact Chattanooga could not run the ball.  Coleman somehow threw 61 passes without being sacked, and was only “hurried” once.

Obviously, The Citadel has to turn that around on Saturday, but it won’t be easy.  For one thing, UTC appears to actually have a running game now, with senior Erroll Wynn averaging exactly 100 yards per game in three games (he didn’t play against App State).  That should take a lot of pressure off Coleman, who is averaging almost nine yards per pass attempt and has thrown 10 TD passes (against only 3 interceptions).

Chattanooga doesn’t seem to be missing Coleman’s main target from last season, Blue Cooper, all that much, as Joel Bradford has already caught 30 passes and is averaging over 126 yards receiving per game (nearly 17 yards per reception). Bradford is also a fine punt returner.

Other than the fourth-quarter problems against Appy and JSU, the Mocs D has played well, holding both EKU and WCU to less than 60 yards rushing and forcing eleven turnovers in its last three games, including nine interceptions.  Four of the picks were made by freshman Kadeem Wise.

Defensive end Chris Donald is another Tennessee transfer making an impact for the Mocs.  He has 4.5 sacks so far this season.  UTC is currently ninth in the country against the run.  One reason for that is linebacker Ryan Consiglio, who is averaging almost eleven tackles per game.

You may have seen Jeff Hartsell’s breakdown of The Citadel’s recent recruiting classes on “Bulldog Bites”.  Just for comparison, here is the two-deep from The Citadel’s playoff game against North Carolina A&T in 1992.  I could be wrong about a couple of these guys, but I should have most of this right.  The number by a player’s name is the year he entered The Citadel (for instance, Jack Douglas entered in the fall of 1988, hence “88”).

QB — Jack Douglas (88) and CJ Haynes (90)

FB — Everette Sands (89) and Travis Jervey (91)

LHB — Erick Little (90) and Terrance Rivers (90)

RHB — Cedric Sims (89) and Undra Mitchem (90)

TE — Marty Fagan (88) and Greg Perry (89, and originally a walk-on)

WR — Cornell Caldwell (89) and Damond Boatwright (90)

LT — David Morelli (88) and Doug Cobarras (89)

LG — Shayne Stephens (89) and Levi Davis (90)

C — Brett Copeland (88) and Bart Hearn (91 walk-on, I think)

RG — Lance Hansen (88) and Scott Reagan (89)

RT — Carey Cash (88) and Mike Wilkerson (91)

PK — Jeff Trinh (91)

DE — Garrett Sizer (89) and Ed McFarland (89, and originally a walk-on)

DE — Judson Boehmer (89) and Brad Keeney (92)

RT — LaQuincy Powell  (89, and yet another walk-on from that class), Todd Lair (91, maybe a walkon; not sure)

LT — Jake Erhard (89) and Lenny Clark (91)

LB — Micah Young (91) and Jim Wilson (88)

LB — Rob Briggs (89) and Tracey Gamble (90)

LB — Mike Wideman (89) and Kendall McKnight (90)

LCB — Torrency Forney (89) and Chauncey Chappelle (92)

RCB — Detric Cummings (90) and Corey Gay (90)

SS — Dan Johnson (89) and Ahren Self (91)

FS — Lester Smith (88) and Speizio Stowers (89)

P — Eric Willingham (88)

The return specialists were all part of the offense-defense two-deep.  Sizer was the long snapper.

46 players —

9 fifth-year seniors (including Douglas, Smith, and Cash)

17 players from the ’89 recruiting class, including three walk-ons

10 from the ’90 recruiting class

8 from the ’91 recruiting class

2 “true” freshmen

One quick note on the above:  the 1991 recruiting class was actually rather thin; only two other scholarship members of that class would contribute in future seasons. Whether that “lost class” was a key factor in the eventual decline in The Citadel’s gridiron fortunes is hard to say, although it certainly didn’t help.

I had plenty to say about the loss to Western Carolina last week, and about some things that rather obviously need to improve.  I’ll add a little to what I already mentioned, and note a couple of other things:

— I was glad to see that Kevin Higgins acknowledged the poor play of the secondary against WCU (you can read about his press conference here and here).  Watching the lack of ball awareness was excruciating.

— He also addressed game-planning for opposing defenses, explaining what he feels the issues are.  I suspect that this wouldn’t be as big a problem if the Bulldogs were in Year 3 or Year 4 of the triple option.

Teams that have run an option attack for a long time, like Navy or Air Force or Wofford, generally force the opponents to adjust to them, not the other way around.  That’s because their players have been in the system long enough to recognize different defensive looks, and understand basically (if not always specifically) what each person’s job is when facing a certain setup.

Having said that, I was a little concerned that Higgins seemed confident in what Russ Huesman’s defense will probably do on Saturday.  He’s basing that on what Huesman has done in the past against the option, but the Mocs have had a week off and presumably a lot more time to put in new things.  What if UTC comes out in a defensive formation for which the Bulldogs aren’t prepared?  Another lost half for The Citadel’s offense?

— Amidst all the talk about changing quarterbacks, his decision to change placekickers has seemingly gone under the radar.

— About those quarterbacks…

I’ll be honest.  I don’t care which quarterback starts.  If Higgins thinks Sam Martin starting might jump-start the team in the opening quarter, then by all means run him out there.  The bottom line is that both Martin and Matt Thompson are going to play, and they’re both going to play about the same number of plays — at least, that’s the plan.

Martin has looked more comfortable in the offense than Thompson, but he hasn’t been that much better.  We’re not talking about the second coming of a healthy Jamelle Holieway here.  At this point, we don’t know if we’re talking about the second coming of a healthy Brendan Potts (which would be okay by me).

Neither Martin nor Thompson has mastered the center/QB exchange (to be fair, neither have the centers).  Thompson seems to still struggle with the “mesh”, and should also heed the advice of John Wooden — be quick but don’t hurry.  However, he’s a true freshman with some obvious talent, and he deserves a chance to show what he can do (as does Martin).  This is, as I’ve said before, a transition season, although not everyone seems to understand that.

While leaving the stadium on Saturday after the WCU game, I overheard a Bulldog fan say, in a non-ironic way, that the loss to the Catamounts meant “we won’t go to the playoffs now.”  You don’t say…

One thing both quarterbacks must improve (and for that matter, their receiving corps): the Bulldogs currently have a pass completion rate of 35.4%.  While The Citadel doesn’t throw the ball a lot in this offense, it has to do better than that.  Completing less than 36% of your pass attempts is just horrendous.  If that percentage holds up, it would be the lowest completion percentage for a Bulldog squad since 1965.  Care to guess how many games that 1965 team won?

Two.

The Bulldogs will be Underdogs on Saturday, and deservedly so.  However, I’ll close this post by pointing out that there is hope for the game against UTC:

1)  Chattanooga, while improved, hasn’t really proven that it’s made a move to the next level in the Southern Conference, at least not yet.  Those two games against Appalachian State and Jacksonville State were both impressive in a lot of ways, but they were also both losses.  Last year The Citadel also lost a close game to Appalachian State at home, in overtime.  It did not lead to a winning season.

I’m not quite ready to buy stock in a team which to this point in the season has only beaten Eastern Kentucky (which has just one win on the season) and Western Carolina.

2)  The Bulldog offense may continue to struggle, but I find it hard to believe that the defense (particularly the DBs) will have two consecutive clunkers.  I think there is a lot of talent on that side of the ball, and sometime (hopefully soon) it will begin to show. Also, there is something to be said for regression to the mean.

We’ll find out Saturday.

Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. UT-Chattanooga

Note:  it can be difficult to figure out what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website.  The page includes a quotation from Jimmy Fallon.  As you may have guessed, the quote is not very funny.

In the post that follows, I will call the school either “UT-Chattanooga”, or “UTC”, because that’s what I’ve always called it, and I see no particular reason to change.

Around this time last year The Citadel played UT-Chattanooga in Charleston.  It was Homecoming for the Bulldogs, and everyone expected a big win, since the Mocs were 1-9 (and would eventually finish 1-11).  At that time I wrote about how UTC had collapsed as a program after consistently challenging for league honors in its first 10-15 years in the Southern Conference.

Well, The Citadel did win that day, but barely, letting a team playing out the string with a lame-duck coach hang around and nearly steal the victory.  The Bulldogs survived thanks to Andre Roberts’ last-minute punt return TD, but despite winning the game, it was almost as poor a showing as The Citadel had for this year’s Homecoming.

UT-Chattanooga replaced Rodney Allison with Russ Huesman, who basically has the ideal background for a UTC head coach.  Huesman played high school football at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati for Gerry Faust, who was destined to become a much-maligned coach for Notre Dame (albeit one who never lost to Navy).  Huesman then played college football for the Mocs, with his first two years under Joe Morrison and his last two under Bill “Brother” Oliver.

Huesman was a longtime assistant at William & Mary, where he coached the secondary (Huesman was a DB himself at UTC) and was later the defensive coordinator.  Players he coached while with the Tribe include longtime NFL interception magnet Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  That’s not a bad list of guys to have as references.

He then moved to Memphis for several seasons, including a stretch as recruiting coordinator for the Tigers, before spending five seasons as the defensive coordinator for Richmond, the defending FCS champions.

That’s a nice resume for any prospective head coach at the FCS level; being an alum is an even bigger bonus.  Huesman seems to have given the program some much-needed enthusiasm.  Home attendance has increased significantly, with three of the ten biggest crowds in Finley Stadium history so far this season.  There was even a bonfire on Wednesday night.

Another thing Huesman did was bring in a transfer from Tennessee to play quarterback.  B.J. Coleman has had a solid season for the Mocs, nothing flashy stats-wise but generally getting the job done.

Coleman has thrown fourteen touchdowns against six interceptions, although he did throw three picks last week against Appalachian State.  Five of his six interceptions for the season, in fact, have come in the last three games.  Coleman is a sophomore who will have two more years of eligibility after this season.

The Vols transfer has spread the ball around, although his favorite target is definitely Blue Cooper, who has 68 receptions and could conceivably make the All-SoCon squad ahead of Andre Roberts (Elon’s Terrell Hudgins is a lock for the other first-team spot at wide receiver).

UTC suffered a blow when running back Bryan Fitzgerald was injured and lost for the season.  Freshman Chris Awuah is the leading rusher for the Mocs, but he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.  UTC is last in the league in rushing offense.

UTC has respectable, if not eye-popping, defensive statistics across the board, generally ranking in the upper half of the SoCon in most categories for conference-only games.  The Mocs have struggled, however, in defending 3rd-down conversions; the Mocs D is 7th in the league (The Citadel is 8th in the league, ahead of only Furman).  Another sore spot for the defense is red zone conversion rate; UTC is last in the SoCon, and has allowed 17 touchdowns in 25 opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

The Mocs are tied for the lead in interceptions in conference play with eight; free safety Jordan Tippet has five of his own.

One defensive stat that is very impressive for UTC:  sacks.  The Mocs have 24 sacks on the season; their 16 sacks in league play in second-best in the conference.  The primary sack-master is right defensive end Josh Beard, who has 10.5 of them so far this year.  His partner in crime on the other side of the line, freshman DE Joshua Williams, has 6.

Despite the mediocre 3rd-down defense numbers and lack of a rushing game, UTC leads the league in time of possession.  The Mocs don’t hurt themselves with penalties (second in the SoCon).  UTC is next-to-last in net punting, but features an outstanding placekicker in Craig Camay, who is 13-16 converting field goals this year, with a long of 52.  Camay is also a weapon for onside kicks; the Mocs have recovered four of five onside kick attempts in league action.

A few other odds and ends:

— I was surprised to find out that The Citadel is UT-Chattanooga’s most common opponent.  Saturday’s game will be the 43rd meeting between the two schools.  The school in second place on the Mocs most-played list?  Tennessee, which has faced UTC on 41 occasions.  The Vols are 37-2-2 in those games.

— UTC is 5-4, but if it has dreams of a winning season, it probably needs to beat The Citadel.  Next week, the Mocs play Alabama.  Yikes.

Tangent:  what is with the SEC and these late-season matchups against FCS schools?  Last week, there were four such games:  Tennessee Tech-Georgia, Furman-Auburn, Northern Arizona-Mississippi, and Eastern Kentucky-Kentucky.

Last year, of course, The Citadel closed out its season by playing Florida.  Why aren’t these games being played in the first couple of weeks of the season? I hope all of them were Homecoming games.

— UTC’s game notes reference The Citadel’s football stadium (on the same page) as “Haggod Stadium” , “Johnson Hagood Stadium”, and “Sansom Field”.

— The Citadel has never won four straight games against UT-Chattanooga.  The Bulldogs currently enjoy a three-game winning streak versus the Mocs.

It’s hard to say what The Citadel’s chances on Saturday are, since it’s hard to determine which Bulldog team will show up — the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that played Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford?

It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback.  If I had to guess (and it’s only a guess), I would say that Miguel Starks, even if just “85%”, will get the nod.  Just the thought of a gimpy Bart Blanchard sitting in the pocket as the two sack-happy UTC defensive ends converge on him is cringe-inducing…

I certainly hope that the Bulldogs are more competitive than they were last week.  This is a big game for UTC, which has a chance for a winning season.  Given that the Mocs won a total of six games in the previous three years, that would be a major accomplishment.  UT-Chattanooga will be ready to play on Saturday.  The Bulldogs better be ready as well.