2013 Football, Game 11: The Citadel vs. VMI

The Citadel vs. VMI, the Military Classic of the South, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 1:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 16. The game will not be televised, although it will be streamed on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via the thirteen affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary.

WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station for the network; the station will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each home football game. It is also possible to listen to the game via a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

Note that 1:00 pm ET start time, an hour earlier than for the past two home games. Don’t be late!

Also: The Citadel’s basketball team will be playing North Greenville at McAlister Field House on Saturday, with tipoff scheduled for 7:05 pm ET. If you have your ticket from the football game, you can watch the basketball game for free.

The hoopsters won their first game of the season on Tuesday, beating Presbyterian 82-68 in the home opener. The team shot well against PC, and held off the Blue Hose down the stretch despite a fair amount of foul trouble.

I hope a lot of Bulldog fans make Saturday a personal football/basketball doubleheader.

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

VMI game notes

SoCon weekly release

Big South weekly release

Kevin Higgins on the SoCon media teleconference

Sparky Woods on the Big South media teleconference (beginning at the 18:20 mark)

The Kevin Higgins Show

Advertisement for VMI-The Citadel (video)

Ben Dupree is the reigning SoCon offensive player of the week

Dupree once found out that wearing flip-flops can be problematic

Game story from The Post and Courier on The Citadel’s win over Elon

Game story from the Burlington Times-News on The Citadel’s win over Elon

This preview is going to be a little lighter on the usual historical/statistical minutiae (possibly a blessing in disguise), as I’m on the road much of this week.

Just a lot of “odds and ends” observations…

The game story from the Burlington (NC) newspaper included two quotes that I want to highlight:

Obviously, it’s a low point right now for Elon football

The above comment is from Elon head coach Jason Swepson. He is in his third season, but it may be his last if he keeps having to make pronouncements like that one. It’s not the way the school wanted to exit the SoCon before starting gridiron action in the CAA next season.

Yeah, since I’ve been on the team, it’s probably the lowest we’ve come as a Phoenix, or the Phoenixes, or whatever you want to call us

That was said by Elon’s starting quarterback, Mike Quinn. “Phoenix, or the Phoenixes, or whatever you want to call us” is so…expressive.

I missed this article that ran last week in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, but better late than never. Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern currently have losing records against league teams, and I get the impression that doesn’t hurt the feelings of SoCon commissioner John Iamarino one bit.

VMI played its final Big South conference game last week against Gardner-Webb, and a funny thing happened. VMI won.

It wasn’t even close, as the Keydets prevailed 27-9. Gardner-Webb owns victories this season over Wofford and Furman, so yes, this was an upset.

How did it happen? Well, mostly it happened because A) VMI’s defense has been improving over the course of the season, and B) Gardner-Webb couldn’t get out of its own way.

Gardner-Webb opened the game by fumbling a snap into its own end zone, where VMI senior linebacker Weston Reber fell on the ball for a touchdown. G-W fumbled again on its next drive, setting up a Keydet field goal.

Those were two of Gardner-Webb’s five turnovers. The Runnin’ Bulldogs also committed thirteen penalties, and shanked a punt that went for just six yards. It just wasn’t G-W’s day.

Choice comments from Weston Reber:

“I just saw the ball on the ground,” said Reber, referring to G-W quarterback Lucas Beatty, who had lost the ball after having trouble fielding a low snap.

“I was on a lineman and I said, ‘I’m getting this damn ball, this thing is mine!’ It was a foot away and it kept rolling and kept rolling, and when it rolled over the [goal line] I just took off and dove on it.”

Reber laughed and jokingly added: “Hopefully, they will take away some demerits from me for the touchdown!”

I wouldn’t count on it…

Sparky Woods, discussing matters during his media teleconference:

We would like to defeat Citadel [sic] so we could continue this reign the Big South has over the Southern Conference.

He did mention that a year from now, he might feel differently about the conference dynamics, given VMI will be in the SoCon next season. Of course, it’s not a given that Woods will be in charge of the Keydets when the school returns to the league.

VMI’s victory over Gardner-Webb was only its second win of the season, and first over a Division I opponent. Woods is in his sixth season in Lexington, and has won only 15 games during that time.

A new AD, Dave Diles, has taken over at VMI, and Diles will have a decision to make about Woods’ future after the season.

VMI is last in the Big South in the following categories: scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, offensive third down conversion rate, scoring defense, pass defense, defensive third down conversion rate, kickoff return average, kickoff coverage average, and net punting.

Keydet opponents average 6.2 yards per play. VMI is allowing an average of 35.0 points per contest.

The Keydets can point to some positives. VMI leads the Big South in passing offense (though it is next-to-last in pass efficiency), and its red zone defense is actually quite respectable (allowing 4.6 points per opponent possession inside the 20).

The negative to that red zone defense statistic is that opponents have had 47 such possessions.

VMI also has a knack for inducing penalties. I’m not sure how that happens, but VMI leads the Big South in the category, and it’s the second year in a row VMI opponents have been prone to committing infractions when facing the Keydets.

Last year, by far The Citadel’s worst game of the season in terms of penalties came at VMI. Those mistakes almost cost the Bulldogs the victory. That is something to watch on Saturday.

Redshirt senior A.J. Augustine will start at quarterback for VMI against The Citadel, the third straight start for the native of St. Petersburg. It’s too bad he’s not a native of St. Augustine.

Augustine replaced Eric Kordenbrock, who had started most of VMI’s games at the position since midway through his freshman year. He is the alltime leader in passing yardage for the Keydets.

Kordenbrock suffered a serious concussion against Presbyterian, during a play that resulted in an ejection for a Blue Hose player. As a result, Kordenbrock’s college career is over.

Running back Derrick Ziglar rushed for 94 yards and a TD against Gardner-Webb. He had rushed for 100+ yards in the previous two games, becoming the first Keydet with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in four years.

VMI’s top receiver is Sam Patterson, who is averaging 17 yards per catch. Patterson has seven touchdown receptions and has caught at least one TD pass in four of his last five games.

Earlier in the year, Patterson had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, the first VMI player to do that since 2005.

VMI’s starting offensive line averages 6’4″, 289 lbs. The biggest of the group is 6’8″, 325 lb. Andy Marcotte.

The starting center for the Keydets, Will Lucas, is a native of Hartsville. He was the only VMI player named to the Big South’s preseason all-conference team.

Another Keydet who turned up on a couple of preseason “watch lists” was tight end Mario Thompson. Unfortunately, three weeks ago Thompson suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Weston Reber, the player with the potentially demerit-erasing fumble recovery against Gardner-Webb, is VMI’s leading tackler. He has one more stop than free safety Alex James.

Outside linebackers Logan Staib and Chris Harper lead the team in tackles for loss and sacks, respectively. Cornerback James Fruehan has two interceptions; seven of his teammates have one each.

VMI’s defense will line up against The Citadel in a 3-4, or a “three down look”, or a five-man front…pick your terminology.

As mentioned earlier, the Keydets have shown some improvement on D in recent weeks and won’t lack confidence from last year’s game against the Bulldogs. In that contest, The Citadel did not score an offensive touchdown in the second half.

VMI placekicker Dillon Christopher was named the Big South special teams player of the week for his performance against Gardner-Webb, which included a 52-yard field goal. Earlier this season, Christopher made a 45-yarder, so he’s got a strong leg. He has been a bit inconsistent, though, and is 7-12 on field goal attempts for the season.

He is also the kickoff specialist for the Keydets. Christopher has six touchbacks in 38 kickoffs this year.

David Eberhardt is averaging 39.0 yards per punt for VMI. So far this season, only one of the Keydets’ 65 punts has been blocked, which is better than VMI’s recent history in that department.

Ripped from the pages of The Citadel’s game notes…

The Citadel is 0-5 against VMI on November 16. Saturday’s date? November 16. Uh-oh.

The Bulldogs did beat Clemson on November 16, 1918. Perhaps the department of athletics should have tried to flip the dates for the VMI and Clemson games this season.

Saturday is the “Hall of Fame Game” at Johnson Hagood Stadium. This year’s honorees: Chip Cannon, Lance Hansen, Jim McMillan, Dan McDonnell, Richard Moore, and Joe Turbeville. Congratulations to all.

Richard Moore may be the least-known of the six. He probably needs to get a little more attention. Moore (class of 1953) was the rifle coach at The Citadel from 1959-62. To quote the press release:

The Bulldogs were undefeated in shoulder-to-shoulder competition during those four seasons and regularly defeated teams from Army, Navy and Air Force.  The Bulldogs finished first in the Hearst National Rifle Match, which equated to national championships, in 1959, ’60 and ’61.

Arguably the most successful coach in Citadel history, Moore’s four teams captured Southern Conference and state championships each year and along the way, three shooters – Robert Metsker ’60, David Edgerly ’62 and Keels Dickson ’62 – all earned All-America citations, becoming the first Citadel program to showcase three All-Americans.

State, conference, and national championships. That works for me.

Moore’s tenure as the rifle coach ended when he was transferred for a tour of duty in Vietnam, which serves as a reminder that the game against VMI is also Military Appreciation Day.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that my preview of the VMI game might be just one sentence: “The Dogs better not lose to VMI.”

I decided a few more sentences wouldn’t hurt, but the bottom line is that this is a must-not-lose game for The Citadel.

That was true last year, too, and the Bulldogs hung on for a victory in a game that was a little too close for comfort. The Citadel can’t afford to let VMI hang around on Saturday, as the Keydets may have a little more confidence this time around that they can pull off the upset.

In a season that has been more of a struggle for The Citadel than was anticipated, it is now even more critical that the coveted Silver Shako is retained.

Of course, it’s always important to keep the greatest trophy in all of sports in Charleston, where it belongs.

2013 Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. Elon

The Citadel at Elon, to be played in Elon, North Carolina, at Rhodes Stadium, with kickoff at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday, November 9. The game can be heard on radio via the thirteen affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines.

WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station for the network; the station will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each football game. It is also possible to listen to the game via a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

Elon game notes

SoCon weekly release

Kevin Higgins on the SoCon media teleconference

Jason Swepson on the SoCon media teleconference

The Kevin Higgins Show

“Sunday Lifts” — The Citadel Strength and Conditioning

Vinny Miller had a good game against Samford

Elon video highlights against Chattanooga

Elon video highlights against Appalachian State

No major changes for Elon during its bye week

Elon football wasn’t supposed to struggle like this. Under Pete Lembo, the Phoenix enjoyed a solid five-year run, contending for the Southern Conference title several times. While Elon never could quite finish first, the school did make an appearance in the FCS playoffs in 2009.

It wasn’t all seashells and balloons for Lembo, possibly the only SoCon coach to have had one of his own players attempt to fight him on the sidelines during a game. However, Lembo parlayed his fine work at Elon into a gig at Ball State, where he has continued to win games (fashioning a 24-11 record in Muncie through Wednesday’s action).

His successor, Jason Swepson, hasn’t been so lucky. Swepson is now 10-21 in his career as the Elon head man.

Maybe, though, it’s less about Swepson and more about the program. In the five seasons prior to Lembo’s arrival, Elon’s cumulative record on the gridiron was 14-42.

It could be that with the way the football program is currently constituted, Elon cannot win consistently at the D-1 level. That isn’t what its upwardly mobile administration wants to hear, of course.

“This is going to be a sixty-minute football game….probably go into overtime.” — Elon head coach Jason Swepson, referring to his squad’s upcoming game against The Citadel.

Playing a sixty-minute game has been a problem for the Phoenix, at least in terms of offense. In six of Elon’s eight games against D-1 opposition, it has failed to score a touchdown in the second half.

Elon was shut out by Georgia Tech, 70-0, a game which featured a running clock. The Phoenix managed a third-quarter TD versus North Carolina A&T but lost, 23-10.

After scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, no Phoenix player since then has entered the end zone in the second half. That’s a four-game stretch which includes an OT loss to Western Carolina, breaking a 33-game Catamount losing streak versus Division I opponents.

The WCU setback dropped Elon to 2-7 on the season. After being off last week, the Phoenix is finishing the 2013 season with home matchups versus The Citadel and Georgia Southern before travelling to Birmingham to face Samford.

Of the 122 schools listed in the FCS statistical database, Elon is 89th in scoring offense — and also 89th in scoring defense.

The run/pass ratio for the Phoenix from last year to this season is essentially unchanged. In 2012, 53% of Elon’s plays from scrimmage were passes; this year, 52%.

Elon’s yards per rush has increased from 2.58 (in 2012) to 3.90 (this season), a step forward. However, its yards per pass has declined from 7.99 to 6.22. Thus, its yards per play has been reduced from 5.4 to 5.1.

The Phoenix’s offense has not been particularly good in the red zone, averaging 4.65 points per trip. In the SoCon, only Furman and The Citadel have fared worse inside the 20. (The Bulldogs are last in the league in red zone points efficiency, at just 4.55 points per trip.)

Elon is next-to-last in the league in offensive third down conversion rate, at just 33.6%.

The Phoenix ranks next-to-last in the SoCon in total defense, ahead of only Western Carolina. It is dead last in the league in pass defense (though its defensive pass efficiency ranking is more respectable).

Elon is seventh in the league in rushing defense. In general, the Phoenix D has struggled to get off the field. While its defensive third down conversion rate is middle-of-the-pack, Elon has allowed more first downs than every league team save WCU.

Elon has been okay when it comes to turnover margin (+1 for the season).

Also, for whatever reason, opponents are more likely to commit penalties when playing Elon than most other teams. This reminds me a little bit of last year’s VMI team.

That worries me because the game in Lexington was the one time last season The Citadel committed an unusual number of infractions. The lack of discipline almost cost the Bulldogs the contest.

Elon quarterback Mike Quinn is a junior in his first year as the starter. He has completed 64% of his passes, with 14 TDs and only 5 interceptions. Quinn is currently on a streak of 207 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, which is a single-season SoCon record.

He is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt, though, which actually isn’t much higher than what The Citadel’s passers have averaged (5.9).

The Phoenix has three running backs who each have between 300 and 400 yards rushing. Tracy Coppedge has the best yards per carry average of the trio, but he also has lost four fumbles.

Rasaun Rorie has been Elon’s leading receiver. He has 51 catches, with four of those going for touchdowns. Kierre Brown, a preseason second-team All-SoCon pick, has 38 receptions out of the slot. Tight end Doug Warrick has three TD catches.

Elon’s offensive line averages about 6’4″, 282 lbs. None of the five starters weighs 300+ lbs. Center Clay Johnson was a preseason second-team all-conference selection.

The Phoenix will be seeing a triple option team for the third time this season, having already faced Georgia Tech and Wofford. During the SoCon teleconference, Jason Swepson said Elon would use two different defensive fronts against The Citadel.

He also mentioned that Elon is “banged up on defense.” On Saturday, the Phoenix will be without the services of defensive end Jordan Jones and defensive back Akeem Langham.

Jones, suffering from a high ankle sprain, has 34 career starts, including the first eight games of 2013. Langham has started five games this season, four at cornerback and one at strong safety. His football career may be in jeopardy after sustaining two concussions in a four-week span (and at least his third while in college).

Middle linebacker Jonathan Spain is probably Elon’s best defensive player. A preseason first-team All-SoCon selection, Spain is the second-leading tackler for the Phoenix.

Fellow linebacker Alexander Dawson leads the team in stops, with 61. Free safety Chandler Wrightenberry has been credited with 47 tackles.

John Silas hasn’t started a game yet for Elon, but the backup linebacker has 48 tackles. Also of note: Elon has had three different players start at nosetackle this season.

Elon’s placekicker is freshman John Gallagher. He is 7-16 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 48.

Gallagher also kicks off for the Phoenix; 19 of his 41 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. The Phoenix leads the SoCon in kickoff coverage.

David Petroni was the SoCon special teams player of the week in Elon’s loss to Appalachian State, and may have had an even better game in the Phoenix’s win over Furman.

In that contest, FU’s average starting field position was its own 19-yard line, and Petroni’s performance was a big part of the reason why the Paladins faced a “long field” much of the afternoon. For the season, he has placed 28 punts inside the 20-yard line (out of 53 kicks).

Kierre Brown is Elon’s primary kick returner, while cornerback David Wood has been the first choice for returning punts.

Odds and ends:

– Prior to last year’s victory over Elon, The Citadel had lost three straight Homecoming games. After beating Samford on Saturday, the program is on a two-game Homecoming winning streak, which is definitely preferable.

– That win over the Phoenix broke a four-game slide in the series, which The Citadel currently leads 7-5. After Saturday’s game, it may be a long time before the schools meet again on the gridiron, with Elon moving to the CAA after this school year.

– Speaking of the CAA, Elon released its 2014 league schedule this week. It appears the school was given a break in terms of travel for next season. However, 2015 is likely to be a different story, with the Phoenix probably making trips to New Hampshire, Maine, Stony Brook, and (in non-conference play) Boston College.

Logan Airport could be Elon football’s home-away-from-home in 2015.

– Elon is averaging 8,430 fans per home game. Against Chattanooga in the most recent contest at Rhodes Stadium, the attendance was 6,547.

Last year, Elon only drew 6,158 for a game versus Furman, leading to Jason Swepson’s immortal comment that “it felt like a coffin out there.” It will be interesting to see if the atmosphere on Saturday is equally as funereal.

– I’ve written about Elon’s move to the CAA before, as part of a discussion about the overall restructuring of the Southern Conference. Maybe this move will work out for the school, but things could get difficult in a hurry for Elon.

That would be especially true if the CAA goes through even more membership changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least three schools currently competing in football in the CAA leave the conference in the next two years.

– Darien Robinson caught eight passes last week, most of them of the shovel-pass variety. As per The Citadel’s game notes, that’s the most receptions for a Bulldog since Kevin Higgins switched to the triple option in 2010.

Robinson entered the game with 17 career receptions.

– One of Robinson’s catches on Saturday came from a pass thrown by Jake Stenson. With that completed pass, Stenson now has a passer efficiency rating of 234.40.

– Ryan Bednar, injured in the game against Samford, is listed on the two-deep and is expected to play.

Saturday will be the final conference game of the year for The Citadel, and while the season has not lived up to expectations, the Bulldogs will have a chance to even their SoCon record at 4-4. Finishing .500 in the league wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

It is also a chance to win a game at a place where The Citadel has struggled in recent years, having not won at Rhodes Stadium since 2006. In 2011, the Bulldogs lost in overtime, but the 2009 game was a debacle. (Among other things, Elon had 29 first downs to The Citadel’s 5.)

Elon has had two weeks to prepare for the triple option, but has also had two weeks to think about its loss to Western Carolina. That might not be ideal.

I really enjoyed what I saw from the Bulldogs against Samford — not just the win, but the resolve. Now the team needs to continue that push on the road.

That’s not always easy, but I like The Citadel’s chances on Saturday.

Social media and the SoCon: the age of Twitter and Facebook

Last week, I saw a ranking of college sports twitter feeds posted at Tennessee’s athletics website. I thought it was interesting, though I wouldn’t want to draw any immediate conclusions from the data.

I decided to see how the SoCon schools compared to each other when it comes to Twitter and Facebook presence. This proved to be difficult, because schools don’t necessarily approach Twitter and/or Facebook in similar ways.

The league is almost evenly split between schools that have football-specific twitter feeds and those that do not. Samford has nine different sports with dedicated twitter feeds; meanwhile, Wofford doesn’t have any. There is significant variance in the number of Facebook pages created by the individual schools. Those are just a few of the differences.

Part of the reason for the contrasting approaches is probably manpower, and part of it is likely philosophical. Not everyone thinks having multiple Twitter feeds and Facebook pages is such a great idea for smaller schools. Says one social media consultant:

In college sports, unlike professional sports, fans usually have an allegiance to a school, not a team. To say that fans would be annoyed by news from other school sports in their Twitter feed might be an error…

We found that the majority of…fans appreciated news from other sports, and wanted one main feed where they could get all the news. Most of the sports communicators I’ve talked with at non-BCS schools say their fans feel the same way. Their allegiance is to the school, not a particular team.

The opportunity to showcase the team across multiple channels is much more important to a school than having a sport-specific Twitter feed or Facebook page…smaller schools (non-BCS schools) need to think about scale, not volume…Their fans bases are simply too small.

Another consideration is the percentage of people who use the different social media elements. A survey taken at the end of last year suggested that usage among internet users breaks down this way: 67%, Facebook; 16%, Twitter; 15%, Pinterest; 13%, Instagram; and 6%, Tumblr.

I would say that if your school decides to have a dedicated feed for a sport on Twitter, then it should have a Facebook page for that sport as well — and vice versa. I also am of the opinion that Instagram is on the rise, and that not using YouTube to promote your school and its teams is a major mistake.

Included in my mini-survey are all current SoCon schools, the school that just left (College of Charleston), and the three schools that will enter the league next year (East Tennessee State, Mercer, and VMI). The numbers listed (“follows” and “likes”) are as of the weekend of July 13-14.

What follows are a few observations, and then some tables, with two caveats:

1) I may have missed a couple of school feeds/pages. If I did, it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the school(s), for not making it simple for an easily confused person like myself to find their feeds/pages.

2) Twitter and Facebook are far from the only things happening in social media, of course. For example, The Citadel has done an excellent job in recent months using YouTube, and it is not alone on that front. A few schools have taken a spin with Pinterest.  Instagram has been embraced by several of the league members (as well as the SoCon office itself). However, Twitter and Facebook are the focus of this post.

– The league website has a “Social Media Directory” that needs to be updated. For one thing, CofC isn’t in the conference any more [Edit 8/16: the CofC links have now been removed from the directory]. The feeds themselves also need to be checked; some are not valid, and there are also a number of omissions.

I don’t really blame the SoCon office for this as much as I do the individual schools. It’s probably very difficult, if not impossible, for the league office to keep up with team-specific feeds.

On the other hand, someone at the conference probably ought to know that @CoachMikeDement shouldn’t be the listing next to UNCG’s “Head MBB Coach” line, since he hasn’t been the Spartans’ coach for over a year and a half. Wes Miller is clearly upset about this.

– Speaking of UNCG, its AD, Kim Record, is on Twitter, and she is listed as such in the SoCon directory…but her feed is protected.

– Furman’s most-followed feed is its general athletics feed, which is not a surprise. The second-most followed Furman feed, however, is for a coach of a program that has yet to win a game. The Paladins will start playing men’s lacrosse in 2014, and head coach Richie Meade (formerly the longtime lacrosse coach at Navy) has 1024 followers.

– The twitter feed for Furman’s baseball program is run by players.

– Davidson, a basketball-first (if not only) school if there ever was one, doesn’t have a dedicated feed for men’s hoops, and head coach Bob McKillop isn’t on Twitter.

– At least one SoCon head football coach follows two different Jenn Brown accounts.

– Chattanooga’s wrestling feed has 2574 followers, which stacks up fairly well when compared to other programs across the country. The most I found for a collegiate wrestling feed was for Oklahoma State (11857). Defending national champion Penn State has 5750.

The other two SoCon schools with wrestling feeds are Appalachian State and The Citadel, though I should mention that UNC-Greensboro has a dormant feed as well (one that became inactive when the school dropped its wrestling program).

– Several SoCon schools have twitter feeds for their equipment room/staff. They tend to be fairly well-followed, too, partly because equipment room staffs from across the country all follow each other. Equipment guys circle the wagons.

– The new head football coach at East Tennessee State, Carl Torbush, isn’t on Twitter. However, there are two different parody Carl Torbush accounts, though both are inactive. ETSU’s athletics twitter feed is following one of them.

– I only found one other fake twitter feed for a conference football coach. Western Carolina’s Mark Speir has been so honored. Also parodied: SoCon commissioner John Iamarino.

– As of this weekend, Samford only had 44 followers for its men’s hoops feed, but that’s because it only established the feed on July 2.

– VMI seems to have two different official university (non-athletic) twitter feeds. Neither has many followers; perhaps I’m just missing the “real” feed.

– Of the six SoCon schools that have dedicated twitter feeds for both baseball and men’s basketball, five of them have more baseball feed followers, which may say something about the league’s status in each sport. I didn’t include College of Charleston in that group of six since it is no longer in the league, but it also has slightly more baseball feed than hoops feed follows.

– East Tennessee State doesn’t have a football twitter feed yet, or a pigskin Facebook page, but it does have a notable fan “bring/brought back football” presence for Twitter and Facebook.

– Wofford athletics only follows one feed, that of PGA pro (and Wofford alum) William McGirt. Similarly, the Facebook page for Wofford athletics only “likes” one entity — the 2012 Southern Conference basketball tournament.

– GSU head football coach Jeff Monken takes it one step further than Wofford, however. Just like Jay Bilas, Monken doesn’t follow anybody.

– With VMI being admitted to the league, the Southern Conference facebook page made sure it “liked” VMI’s university facebook site. Unfortunately, it appears the actual “active” VMI school facebook page is this one.

– UNCG is the league school with the most sport-specific Facebook pages, having one for eleven different varsity sports.

– I found a few sport-specific facebook pages that are essentially dormant. However, they are still “official”, and since they have not been deleted I included them in the tables.

– Of the lower-profile SoCon sports, volleyball may be the most active in terms of social media. Seven conference schools feature Facebook pages for volleyball, and that doesn’t include CofC or ETSU, both of which also have pages for their volleyball teams. CofC and ETSU join six SoCon schools that also have twitter feeds for volleyball.

Some of the Twitter and Facebook statistics for follows/likes are grouped in tables below. I didn’t list all the sports feeds/pages that are on Twitter/Facebook, just some of the ones that tend to draw the most interest.

Twitter

Athletics
Appalachian State 10644
The Citadel 2292
Davidson 3970
Elon 4300
Furman 2951
Georgia Southern 8493
Samford 3131
UNC-Greensboro 3466
UT-Chattanooga 4144
Western Carolina 3773
Wofford 3171
College of Charleston 4726
East Tennessee State 2651
Mercer 1578
Virginia Military Institute 1521

Football
Appalachian State 1133
The Citadel 692
Furman 759
Samford 939
UT-Chattanooga 900
Mercer 1270
Virginia Military Institute 261

Head Football Coach
Appalachian State 2585
The Citadel 555
Furman 236
Georgia Southern 4515
Samford 1005
UT-Chattanooga 571
Western Carolina 1301
Mercer 679
Virginia Military Institute 382

Men’s Basketball
Appalachian State 700
The Citadel 190
Elon 956
Furman 149
Samford 44
UNC-Greensboro 866
UT-Chattanooga 637
College of Charleston 2135

Head Men’s Basketball Coach
The Citadel 335
Furman 675
Georgia Southern 730
Samford 370
UNC-Greensboro 7572
UT-Chattanooga 2438
Western Carolina 1418
East Tennessee State 412
Virginia Military Institute 584

Women’s Basketball
Appalachian State 1338
Davidson 102
Elon 341
Furman 416
Georgia Southern 347
Samford 398
UNC-Greensboro 505
UT-Chattanooga 827
College of Charleston 590
East Tennessee State 374

Baseball
Appalachian State 2141
The Citadel 1263
Davidson 444
Elon 1015
Furman 427
Georgia Southern 1030
Samford 1206
UNC-Greensboro 332
College of Charleston 2413
East Tennessee State 579
Mercer 561

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Athletics
Appalachian State 5946
The Citadel 2301
Davidson 4771
Elon 4426
Furman 2629
Georgia Southern 12302
Samford 3590
UNC-Greensboro 6276
UT-Chattanooga 6459
Western Carolina 13546
Wofford 4586
College of Charleston 2405
East Tennessee State 3951
Mercer 1865
Virginia Military Institute 3632

Football
Appalachian State 45948
The Citadel 2117
Elon 867
Georgia Southern 3482
Samford 256
Western Carolina 235
Mercer 2244

Men’s Basketball
Appalachian State 2474
The Citadel 74
Davidson 554
Elon 982
UNC-Greensboro 1491

Women’s Basketball
Appalachian State 61
Davidson 187
Elon 648
Furman 612
Georgia Southern 241
UNC-Greensboro 476
UT-Chattanooga 731
College of Charleston 221
East Tennessee State 552

Baseball
Appalachian State 1659
The Citadel 408
Elon 307
Furman 177
Georgia Southern 745
Samford 1282
UNC-Greensboro 170
East Tennessee State 274

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…

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.

Conference realignment, SoCon style: some actual news (Mercer, ETSU, and VMI?) and a little speculation

Previously in this series:

SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

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

SoCon style: it is definitely nitty-gritty time now

Finally, there has been some “real” news on the SoCon expansion front.

John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and Randy King of the Roanoke Times both reported on Friday that Mercer, East Tennessee State, and VMI will be receiving on-campus visits from SoCon honchos over the next few weeks. Assuming those visits go well, it is expected that the league will vote on invitations at the end of May, at the annual league spring meetings on Hilton Head Island.

Of course, all three of those schools come with question marks. One of those questions, however, appears to have already been answered.

Mercer has a lot of positives — location, an upwardly mobile men’s basketball program, very good baseball, and a new football program. That football program was going to be non-scholarship, which was the main drawback to a potential SoCon invite, though not a dealbreaker. However, the Macon Telegraph dropped a minor bombshell in its story on Mercer’s potential inclusion in the league:

Mercer’s invitation would be contingent on committing to becoming a scholarship program, most likely for the 2014 football season.

If so, that makes Mercer the most appealing contender for SoCon membership. It’s a good school, located in the geographic footprint (and in an area of league need), with improving facilities, scholarship football, and basketball and baseball programs on the rise. Check, check, check, check, check.

It has been suggested (but not confirmed) that the CAA has started to assess whether or not Mercer might be a fit in that league. According to William & Mary’s AD, the CAA is trying to add three schools. If it is true (and I am not sure it is) that the CAA has approached Mercer, it strikes me as being a little late in the game to have done so.

East Tennessee State is a pick made primarily for the benefit of the schools on the western side of the league. It’s a natural rival for Chattanooga. ETSU men’s basketball isn’t as good as it was in the days of Les Robinson/Alan LaForce, but it isn’t terrible either (RPI last five years: 111-118-89-172-135).

Now that it is restarting football, ETSU currently fields teams in every SoCon-sponsored sport except wrestling. It will have to add up to three women’s sports to become Title IX compliant in order to “offset” football, or drop a similar number of men’s sports.

However, there is still a major question to be answered, namely the stadium situation. There is no way the SoCon will sign off on the “Mini-Dome” as an acceptable stadium for football (something ETSU’s school president has essentially already acknowledged).

If Mercer’s SoCon invite is contingent on offering football scholarships, then surely ETSU’s invitation would have to come with the stipulation that the Buccaneers’ football team play in a new (and appropriate) facility, and sooner rather than later. Reports on the progress of the prospective stadium are a bit foggy right now. It is apparently second in line (in terms of major school facility additions) behind a performing fine arts center.

If ETSU wants to join the Southern Conference, a new football stadium can’t be second in line behind anything.

Then there is VMI, which when it comes to expansion has been the whipping boy on just about any SoCon (or otherwise) message board you would care to peruse, mainly because its football team has been regularly whipped on an annual basis for three decades.

VMI has two problems when it comes to league membership. The one that isn’t mentioned as often is its lack of women’s sports — or to be more precise, its lack of women’s sports sponsored by the SoCon (since VMI does offer women’s swimming and water polo). I wouldn’t be surprised if the league asks VMI to field a sport in at least one of women’s volleyball, women’s basketball, or softball.

There has to be a commitment by VMI’s administration to improve its varsity sports teams in general, but specifically its football program, which hasn’t had a winning season since 1981. Sometimes people think making such a commitment means sacrificing values or ideals. That isn’t true.

VMI simply has to figure out a way to become more flexible while maintaining its standards. For examples of how this can be done, it only has to look at several other like-minded schools in its prospective new (and former) conference, including one located on the banks of the Ashley River.

I believe VMI is an excellent fit for the SoCon if it can make that commitment to varsity athletics. It appears I’m not alone in that assessment, as two different reporters had sources tell them in recent weeks that VMI had the most support among the current league schools.

If VMI, East Tennessee State, and Mercer are all going to play scholarship football in the SoCon, that would give the league ten teams in that sport. Would there be a nine-game league schedule, or would there be divisions?

Is there a possibility of adding two football-only schools to get to twelve and have two six-team divisions? I say football-only because I have doubts the league wants to have more than twelve basketball schools. I could be wrong about that, though.

What about Davidson? Jeff Goodman of CBS Sports reported on April 14 that the Atlantic 10 was “close to adding Davidson to the league, likely in 2014-15”. Since that report, there has been a lot of official silence and a lot of unofficial chatter. The only news from the school itself came in a response to The Charlotte Observer:

A strong Southern Conference is in our best interest, but we have to consider all options best for Davidson in this volatile environment.

According to The Macon Telegraph, the Mercer/ETSU/VMI combo was SoCon commissioner John Iamarino’s recommendation as early as mid-April, but further moves were then tabled:

Word of Davidson’s possible departure surfaced, and Southern Conference athletics directors were tentative about following Iamarino’s recommendations.

Now, however, the league is comfortable moving forward with visits to Mercer, ETSU, and VMI. Is this because…

1) The league is no longer worried that Davidson is going to move to the A-10, or

2) The league has now come to the conclusion that Davidson’s decision cannot be influenced by any membership addition the SoCon makes

When it comes to moving to the A-10, Davidson’s risk/reward situation is well described by Jeff Eisenberg in this Yahoo! Sports column. Among other things, Davidson would have to make some adjustments in its long-established policies regarding missed class time, and the school would have to spend a lot more money on its basketball program (and presumably varsity sports as a whole).

There is also another potential factor worth mentioning. It appears Richmond is more than just a sleeper candidate for the new Big East. I had thought Richmond was behind Dayton in the race for what would in effect be the twelfth bid to a league that currently has ten members (St. Louis being team 11).

Now I’m not so sure. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Richmond, an Atlantic 10 member in basketball and most other sports since 2001, is expected to be a strong candidate if the new Big East expands from a 10-school composition to 12, growth that at some point seems likely…

…Saint Louis, also of the A-10, appears to be a potential addition to the Big East’s five Midwest schools, while Richmond would fit as an addition to the five Eastern schools.

It is a rather curious little column. The lacrosse angle also mentioned in the piece is a bit puzzling. Still, it has a “I know something I can’t print in the paper yet” feel to it, at least to me. This blurb isn’t the only suggestion that Richmond is a serious contender for a Big East spot, either.

Could the possibility Richmond won’t be in the A-10 in future seasons have an impact on Davidson’s decision? I don’t know, but I think it might.

Incidentally, in an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times that was centered around UNC-Asheville and its SoCon chances, Iamarino said that he did not have “inside information with regard to Davidson, but [he would] certainly hope that they remain in the Southern Conference.”

Davidson’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet in mid-May. My guess is that is when we will find out Davidson’s decision.

The other SoCon school that has been bandied about as possibly leaving is Elon, though that has mostly been internet speculation and rumor-mongering. The league connected with Elon is the CAA, with Elon often mentioned as part of an expanded southern division that would also include Furman, Wofford, possibly UNCG, and maybe even Davidson (never mind the fact that Davidson has already turned the CAA down once and apparently has a better offer anyway).

The much-discussed “expanded CAA southern division” is probably the conference realignment equivalent of the Kingdom of Prester John.

Most of these rumors are floated by fans of CAA schools who don’t understand their league isn’t exactly the most appealing conference in the land (not that the SoCon is exceptionally beguiling). Just as a reminder, there are only four current CAA schools that play both football and basketball in the league. It’s a cumbersome setup, and not a naturally stable one.

One of those four schools that does play football and hoops in the CAA, James Madison, is exploring its options for moving to the FBS. That leaves Delaware, William & Mary, Towson, and a group of schools that play basketball but not football, or are in the CAA only for football, and which are spread all over the eastern seaboard, from Charleston to Boston.

Furman (or Wofford, or The Citadel for that matter) would almost certainly have no interest in such a league, whether Elon decides to move on its own or not. I don’t really know what Elon will do; no one really knows what Elon will or won’t do.

I’ve written about its meteoric rise before, but I’m still a bit uncertain as to what Elon’s ultimate goals are as an institution, including what its optimal enrollment numbers (or overall scope of offerings) might be. I assume any decision made by the university will be based on what it wants for its varsity athletics, and with which schools it most wants to associate.

At any rate, I haven’t seen any legitimate source suggest that a move by Elon is imminent. Maybe it is.

If it were to move to the CAA, some of the same rambling internet sources say that Elon would be joined as an all-sports member by Albany. That school was just recently added to the CAA for football.

Stony Brook, which like Albany is a recent football-only CAA selection, would by some distance be a superior all-sports addition to the CAA. However, it is reportedly being blocked from full CAA membership by a northern cabal led by Hofstra. If that is really true, it is high comedy…or maybe low comedy. I can’t decide.

Again, it is hard to imagine the likes of Furman, Wofford, or The Citadel having any desire to become part of such a conference.

I just hope that in a few weeks time, most of the SoCon realignment is going to be over, one way or another. Something tells me it won’t be, though.

Riley Report: We must defend this park

The Citadel has now played 33 games this season, including 12 SoCon contests. There is still plenty of action left on the diamond (including 18 league games to come), but I thought it would be worth taking a quick look at how things are progressing so far in the 2013 campaign. To sum up:

– Offense: Good

– Pitching: A work in progress, but the potential is there

– Defense: Ugh

When I previewed the season, I primarily concentrated on league statistics. I’m going to go back and forth between overall and SoCon stats in this post, mainly because 12 games isn’t much of a sample size.

Offensively, the Bulldogs have been solid. The breakout star has been Bo Thompson, who has established himself as one of the league’s premier power hitters, combining patience with pop — and when I say pop, I’m talking serious moonshots. Thompson has hit some of the longest home runs ever seen at Riley Park.

He also is willing to wait on his pitch, and is not easy to strike out (10 homers, 12 strikeouts). Thompson has an OPS of 1206 overall, which rises to 1478 (!) in SoCon play.

Joe Jackson is also having a nice season at the plate. Jackson has a 939 OPS overall and has been even better in league action (1167). Like Thompson, he doesn’t strike out very often (13 times in 134 plate appearances).

Drew DeKerlegand is having a fine bounce-back campaign, hitting well overall (998 OPS) and in Southern Conference games (1000 OPS). He also leads the team in getting hit by pitches, having been plunked 10 times.

Hughston Armstrong leads the team with a .383 batting average. He isn’t a power threat (only 3 of his 41 hits have gone for extra bases), but he can handle the bat (10 sac bunts, leading the squad) and knows his way around the bases (9-9 in steals).

Mason Davis continues to lead off for the Bulldogs, and has started to pick things up with the bat as of late (934 OPS in SoCon games). He is 13-16 in steal attempts and leads the team in runs scored, with 32.

Tyler Griffin has eight home runs for the Bulldogs, along with 30 runs batted in. He has been a mainstay in the batting order all season, appearing in each game, usually batting fifth. Of late he has been a bit strikeout-prone, but his overall production has been good (902 OPS).

In general, it is hard to find too much fault with the offense. At times I think the Bulldogs have been too quick to play “little ball” (The Citadel has 41 sacrifice bunts this season), but it’s hard to argue with the overall results.

The pitching hasn’t been great, but the 5.64 team ERA in SoCon play is perhaps a bit deceiving. Well, it’s deceiving in both directions…

The Citadel’s peripheral pitching statistics are actually better than last year in a couple of key categories. The K/9 rate overall is 6.85, and that rises to 7.36 in league games (it was 5.65 in SoCon action last year). The BB/9 rate is 4.01 overall, 3.33 in conference games.

Bulldog pitchers have been more homer-prone in SoCon play this year, already allowing 10 in just 12 league contests. Last season, The Citadel only allowed 17 home runs in 30 conference games.

That still doesn’t quite explain the increase in team ERA. Defensive issues could explain it, but then things get complicated. Actually, let’s talk about the defense right now.

Defensive efficiency is the rate in which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team’s defense. The Citadel’s overall defensive efficiency so far this season is .690, which is actually almost exactly the same as the overall DER last year (.687). Through 12 SoCon games (again, small sample size), the DER is .663, which isn’t great, but not too far off last season (.678).

I was puzzled at first when I ran the numbers, because they show that the Bulldogs are getting to batted balls in play at about the rate one would expect. Still, the team ERA is arguably higher than it should be, given the peripheral stats, and that doesn’t even take into account the unearned runs (22.75% of the runs scored by Bulldog opponents have been unearned). Then it dawned on me what the real problem with the defense has been, at least in league play.

The problem hasn’t been that the defense has allowed too many extra baserunners. The problem has been the defense once runners get on base.

I went back and looked at the play-by-play for all twelve SoCon games played so far this season. In those 12 games, the Bulldogs have committed 26 errors, a horrific total (their opponents have only committed 11 errors in those same contests).

However, what stands out is that twelve of those errors — almost half — were committed trying to pick off or throw out baserunners. In other words, the Bulldogs have been giving up a ton of extra bases by making bad throws. Pickoff attempts by the pitchers gone awry, overthrows from the outfield, infield singles in which the runner advances a base on a bad throw, etc.

In the Sunday game against Elon, the Bulldogs committed four errors, including three in one inning. Two of those errors in that inning were bad throws on pickoff attempts by the pitcher — and they were from two different pitchers.

I’ve heard of overaggressive baserunning, but I am starting to wonder if the Bulldogs have been guilty at times of overaggressive fielding. If The Citadel is to become a factor in the Southern Conference race down the stretch, that aspect of the team’s play must be fixed.

The Citadel also has to solidify its weekend starting rotation, which after Austin Pritcher is still a question mark. Pritcher, on the other hand, has been as dependable as ever. He has issued a few more walks than one would like, but has also managed to toss 48 2/3 innings so far this season without allowing a home run.

While the bullpen hasn’t been bad at all (and Zach Sherrill and David Rivera have done yeoman’s work, combining for 50 appearances), it is concerning that the only inning in which the Bulldogs have been outscored this season is the ninth — and that by a 16-3 count.

The Bulldogs have their work cut out for them this week, with four road games. On Tuesday, The Citadel makes its annual trip to Columbia to play South Carolina. Then the action moves to Statesboro for the weekend, with three games against Georgia Southern. The Eagles are 9-5 in league play, which is currently good enough for second place in a tightly bunched Southern Conference.

The following week features four home games. Tony Skole brings his ETSU squad to Charleston for a weekday game, and Appalachian State is the weekend opponent for a three-game conference series.

It’s the time of year when seasons begin to wax or wane. Let’s hope the Bulldogs have a lot of life left in this year’s campaign.

Below are some pictures I took at Riley Park on Saturday, a 14-7 victory for the Bulldogs over Elon. The day was sunny but rather windy, a nice day for a game, though I prefer baseball games that don’t take more than three hours to play…