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In the FCS Huddle: 2011 SoCon preview

Quick, grab a pen, open your smartphone or tie a string around your finger.

Whatever you need to do to remind yourself, make sure you mark Oct. 29 on your calendar.

What's so important about that day, you ask? Arguably the most important regular-season game on the FCS schedule all season - Georgia Southern at Appalachian State.

Featuring seven members from The Sports Network/Fathead.com Preseason FCS All- America Team, last season's Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist and a leading candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com), this game is going to be loaded with star power.

Oh, yes, it's also likely to serve as the de facto Southern Conference championship game.

Despite being winners of six straight SoCon championships, the Mountaineers are no longer looked at as the sole team to beat in the conference as the Eagles have made massive strides over the past two seasons.

Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Georgia Southern, but with its national semifinal berth, it would seem the renovation is nearly complete.

Aside from a national championship - which the Eagles haven't won since back- to-back titles in 1999 and 2000 - it would seem the final piece of Georgia Southern's return to glory would be usurping the Mountaineers of their stranglehold on the conference.

With Georgia Southern starting the year at 4-4, the 2010 edition of the Eagles-Mountaineers matchup didn't determine a SoCon champion, but rather put the victor on track for its successful playoff run - and perhaps a SoCon title this season.

"I think we all kind of started to pick up what the coaches were saying a little bit better," Eagles offensive lineman Brett Moore said. "I think from then on we went out there and everybody just had the drive to get better, got focused and were determined to change the culture that we had."

With the culture getting a kick-start from a 21-14 overtime win against Appalachian State, the Eagles ripped off six straight wins before falling to Delaware in the national semifinals in December.

While Oct. 29 is the game many SoCon fans are looking forward to, at Wofford they're hoping that game will simply determine who finishes second to the Terriers.

Last season, Wofford was crowned co-champion of the SoCon, but lost to Georgia Southern in the FCS quarterfinals after it had beaten the Eagles in the regular season.

Hosting both Appalachian State and Georgian Southern, the Terriers' fingerprints could be all over the championship race, especially if fullback Eric Breitenstein has anything to say about it.

Breitenstein, the SoCon's preseason offensive player of the year, is coming back from a 1,639-yard, 22-touchdown performance as a redshirt sophomore.

"It's pretty cool, it's a big honor, but I couldn't have done it without the guys on the offensive line," Breitenstein said of the preseason honor. "I got a lot of opportunities; last year was just one of those years a lot of those openings were for me.

"If you're not going to take away the fullback, we're going to give it to the fullback and, hopefully, that continues this year."

And if teams can't eliminate Breitenstein from the Wofford triple-option, don't be surprised if the Terriers, Eagles and Mountaineers are once again neck-and-neck-and-neck in the SoCon standings.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2011 Southern Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Georgia Southern 2. Appalachian State 3. Wofford 4. Chattanooga 5. Elon 6. Furman 7. Samford 8. The Citadel 9. Western Carolina

Offensive Player of the Year: Eric Breitenstein, Jr., FB, Wofford

Defensive Player of the Year: Brent Russell, Jr., NT, Georgia Southern

1. GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (10-5 overall; 5-3 SoCon)

COACH: Jeff Monken (second year at Georgia Southern; 10-5 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (11 offense/9 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jaybo Shaw, Sr. (1,747 total yards, 21 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: NT Brent Russell, Jr. (71 TT, 18.5 TFL, 8 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: FB Robert Brown, Sr. (213 rushes, 1,004 yards, 7 TDs) SB/WR J.J. Wilcox, Jr. (85 rushes, 484 yards, 6 TDs) SB Darreion Robinson (61 rushes, 460 yards, 3 TDs) WR Tray Butler, So. (13 catches, 168 yards, 2 TDs) WR Mitchell Williford, Jr. (12 catches, 151 yards) TE Tyler Sumner, Jr. (10 catches, 149 yards) OL Brett Moore, Sr. OL Brandavious Mann, Sr. OL William Maxwell, Sr OL Blake DeBartola, Jr. OL Dorian Byrd, So. OL Zach Lonas, So. DL Roderick Tinsley, Sr. (55 TT, 12.5 TFL, 6 FF) DL John Douglas, Sr. (33 TT, 2.5 TFL) DE Dion DuBose, Sr. 29 TT, 3 TFL, 3.5 sacks) LB Josh Rowe, Jr. (104 TT, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) LB Darius Eubanks, Jr. (56 TT, 4.5 TFL) DB Derek Heyden, Sr. (98 TT, 7.5 TFL, 3 INT, 3 FF) DB Laron Scott, Sr. (44 TT, 6 INT, 16 PD) P Charlie Edwards, Sr. (41.0 avg, 19 I20, 62 long) K Adrian Mora, Sr. (19 of 21 FG, long 45)

OUTLOOK: Last year, the Eagles surpassed all expectations on their way to a berth in the FCS semifinals. Entering his second season, head coach Jeff Monken's installation of the triple-option offense has been a smashing - or smashmouth - success with five players returning who rushed for at least 400 yards last season. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw, a former transfer from Georgia Tech, has a dangerous arsenal at his disposal as Robert Brown, J.J. Wilcox and Darreion Robinson can turn any handoff or pitch into a touchdown. The defense, which garnered numerous preseason SoCon honors, jumped all the way from last to second in total defense last season. An early favorite in the SoCon, the Eagles are one of the nation's best teams on paper entering this season.

2. APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS (10-3 overall; 7-1 SoCon)

COACH: Jerry Moore (199-79 in 22 seasons at Appalachian State; 226-126-2 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB DeAndre Presley, Sr. (1,131 rushing yards, 2,631 passing, 34 total TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DL John Rizor, Sr. (47 TT, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jamal Jackson, So. (23 rushes, 100 yards, 1 TD) RB/KR Travaris Cadet, Sr. (115 rushes, 671 yards, 6 TDs) RB Cedric Baker, Sr. (60 rushes, 261 yards, 5 TDs) RB Steven Miller, Jr. (Junior college transfer) WR Brian Quick, Sr. (47 catches, 844 yards, 9 TDs) TE Ben Jorden, Sr. (27 catches, 306 yards, 6 TDs) OL Orry Frye, Sr. OL Matt Ruff, Sr. OL Xan Thomas, Sr. OL Kendall Lamm, FR. DL Dan Wylie, Sr. (39 TT, 1.5 sacks) DL Gordy Witte, Sr. (15 TT) DL Zach Miller, So. (North Carolina State transfer) NT Dan Wylie, Sr. (39 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) LB Jeremy Kimbrough, Jr. (45 TT in 8 games) LB Brandon Grier, Jr. (64 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) DB Ed Gainey, Sr. (48 TT, 1 INT, 9 BU, 1 FR) DB Troy Sanders, Jr. (60 TT, 7 PBU) DB Dominique McDuffie, Jr. (51 TT, 4 INT) P/K Sam Martin, Jr. (39.2 avg, 19 I20, 63 long)

OUTLOOK: It seems almost sacrilegious not to pick the Mountaineers to win the SoCon (they have won or shared the last six titles). But with as close as the SoCon is going to be this season, Appalachian State isn't considered the sole contender. That being said, the Mountaineers are ready to follow wherever quarterback DeAndre Presley will lead them - which could be a national title. With a senior-laden offense, Presley will disperse the ball around to fellow upperclassmen Travaris Cadet, Brian Quick and Ben Jorden, who combined for 21 touchdowns last season. The defense did graduate top tackler D.J. Smith, who had an amazing 144 tackles last season, and three-time first-team All-America safety Mark Legree, but returns all but four starters from a unit that was third-best in the SoCon. While it will be a challenge to replace nine-sack defensive end Jabari Fletcher, there aren't many coaches who know how to run a consistent program like Jerry Moore.

3. WOFFORD TERRIERS (10-3 overall; 7-1 SoCon)

COACH: Mike Ayers (154-107-1 in 23 seasons at Wofford; 165-128-2 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: FB Eric Breitenstein, Jr. (267 rushes, 1,664 yards, 22 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Ameet Pall, Sr. (60 TT, 22.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Mitch Allen, Sr. (681 rushing yards, 871 passing, 12 total TDs) QB Brian Kass, So. (297 passing yards, 156 rush) RB Donovan Johnson, So. (53 rushes, 353 yards, 2 TDs) RB Brad Nocek, Jr. (14 rushes, 79 yards, 1 TD) WR Brenton Bersin, Sr. (32 catches, 703 yards, 9 TDs) OL Nate Page, Sr. OL Jared Singleton, So. DE Alex Goltry, Sr. (31 TT, 7 TFL, 1 sack) DL Eric Eberhardt, Sr. (41 TT, 10 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 FF) LB Mike Niam, Jr. (65 TT, 2 TFL in 8 games) LB Mike McCrimon, So. (55 TT, 1 INT) LB Phillip LeGrande, Jr. (41 TT, 4.5 TFL) LB Anthony Carden, Jr. (29 TT, 1 TFL) DB Blake Wylie, Jr. (51 TT, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 8 PD, 1 FF) DB Preston Roseboro, Sr. (44 TT, 1 INT) DB Stephon Shelton, Jr. (14 TT) DB Caleb Lucas, So. (Navy transfer) P Kasey Redfern, So. (36.2 avg) K Christian Reed, Jr. (13 of 16 FG, 48 long)

OUTLOOK: The Terriers were crowned co-champions of the SoCon last season with Appalachian State and should be in the running this season. The triple-option or "wingbone" offense is likely to funnel through Eric Breitenstein, who is a certain national award winner if he can match his performance from last season. Breitenstein's backfield partner Mike Rucker graduated, leaving a void which will likely be filled by Donovan Johnson, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season. Defensively Wofford's strength is in the defensive line as an experienced unit, highlighted by Ameet Pall, held opponents to just 3.5 yards per rush last season. Pall tied for second in the Buck Buchanan Award voting.

4. CHATTANOOGA MOCS (6-5 overall; 5-3 SoCon)

COACH: Russ Huesman (12-10 in two seasons at Chattanooga; 12-10 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Joel Bradford, Sr. (81 catches, 1,284 yards, 8 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Ryan Consiglio, Sr. (110 TT, 9.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB B.J. Coleman, Sr. (215 completions, 2,996 yards, 26 TDs) RB J.J. Jackson, Jr. (63 rushes, 231 yards, 3 TDs) RB Chris Awuah, Jr. (26 rushes, 119 yards, 1 TD) WR Marlon Anthony, So. (17 catches, 195 yards, 3 TDs) WR Jarret Burns, Jr. (4 catches, 48 yards) OL Omre Harris, Sr. OL Kevin Revis, Fr. OL Adam Miller, Jr. OL Austin Wilson, Jr. DL Nick Davison, Sr. (45 TT, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF) DL Joshua Williams, Jr. (32 TT, 3.5 TFL, 5 sacks) LB Shane Heatherly, Jr. (45 TT) LB Gunner Miller, So. (35 TT) LB Wes Dothard, So. (32 TT) CB Kadeem Wise, So. (29 TT, 6 INT, 6 PBU, 8 PD) S Chris Lewis-Harris, Sr. (55 TT, 1 INT, 2 FR) S Jordan Tippit, Sr. (29 TT, 3 INT, 1 TD) P Mike Hammons, Sr. (38.4 avg, 1 of 1 FG) RS Brian Sutherland, Jr. (914 return yards)

OUTLOOK: Entering the third year under coach Russ Huesman, the biggest question at Chattanooga is whether or not the Mocs will make a run at the SoCon title. It's a possibility, especially with the dangerous passing duo of B.J. Coleman and Joel Bradford and the Mocs' turnover-happy defense. Bradford, the top returning receiver in all of the FCS, hauled in 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns last season. While Coleman will look for Bradford often, the defense will once again look to create turnovers like they did last year when it took the ball away 27 times in 11 games. Considering the senior leadership on both sides of the ball, not finishing above .500 would be a huge disappointment.

5. ELON PHOENIX (6-5 overall; 5-3 SoCon)

COACH: Jason Swepson (first season at Elon; 0-0 overall)

STARTER RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Aaron Mellette, Jr. (86 catches, 1,100 yards, 12 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Joshua Jones, Sr. (75 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Thomas Wilson, Jr. (28 of 45, 290 yards) QB Mike Quinn, Fr. QB Tyler Smith, Fr. RB A.J. Harris, Sr. (124 rushes, 608 yards, 8 TDs) RB Dontay Taylor, Sr. (28 rushes, 47 yards) SB Jeremy Peterson, Jr. (21 catches, 229 yards, 1 TD) TE Andre Labinowicz, Sr. (11 catches, 106 yards, 1 TD) WR Kierre Brown, So. (14 catches, 201 yards, 2 TDs) OL Net Cuthbertson, Sr. OL Rodney Austin, Sr. OL Logan Hardin, Sr. RG Rodney Austin, Sr. DE Brandon Brant, So. (38 TT, 3 TFL) DE Jordan Jones, So. (32 TT, 3 FF) LB Dale Riley, Jr. (44 TT) DB Blake Thompson, Jr. (61 TT, 4 INT) DB Andrew Straus, Sr. (33 TT) DB Chandler Wrightenberry, So. (27 TT, 3 INT) KR Jamal Shuman, Sr. (5 returns, 99 yards) P Kenton Beal, So. (37.8 avg) P John Reece, Jr. (35.5 avg) K Adam Shreiner, Jr. (7 of 14 FG, long 47)

OUTLOOK: With a new head coach and a new quarterback, the Phoenix are a bit of a wild card in the SoCon. A former assistant at North Carolina State, Jason Swepson takes the reigns of a program that struggled at the start of 2010 before reeling off four straight victories to end the season. However, gone from that late season's turnaround is highly decorated quarterback Scott Riddle, who led the SoCon in total offense last season. Junior Thomas Wilson, who started one game last season - a win against the Citadel - seems to be the man for the job. The defense, which returns six starters, is a young group, but behind the senior leadership of linebacker Joshua Jones, the Phoenix could challenge for a high finish in the SoCon.

6. FURMAN PALADINS (5-6 overall; 3-5 SoCon)

COACH: Bruce Fowler (first season at Furman; 0-0 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: OT Ryan Lee, Sr.

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Ryan Steed. Sr. (65 TT, 4 INT, 3 FF, 2 TDs)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dakota Derrick, Jr. (20 of 41, 196 yards, 1 TD) QB Chris Forcier, Sr. (3 of 5, 43 yards) RB Tersoo Uhaa, Sr. (73 rushes, 325 yards, 7 TDs) RB Jerodis Williams, Jr. (84 rushes, 389 yards, 6 TDs) RB Hank McCloud, Fr. TE Colin Anderson, Jr. (16 catches, 242 yards, 3 TDs) WR Sederrick Cunningham, Sr. (18 catches, 238 yards) WR David Hendrix, Sr. (14 catches, 210 yards, 1 TD) WR Tyler Maples, Sr. (19 catches, 151 yards, 3 TDs) OL Daniel Spisak, Sr. OL Dakota Dozier, So. DL Josh Lynn, Jr. (54 TT, 2 sacks) DL Colton Keig, Jr. (21 TT) DL Shawn Boone, So. (22 TT) DL Rick Lang, Jr. (21 TT) LB Kadarron Anderson, Sr. (121 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FF) DB/LB Mitch McGratch, Jr. (21 TT) DB Nathan Wade, Jr. (64 TT, 3 INT) K Ray Early (11 of 12 FG, long 52) P Chas Short (38.3 avg)

OUTLOOK: It'll be an interesting season for the Paladins, as they'll be led by rookie head coach Bruce Fowler into a season of uncertainty. Gone is their top offensive threat, wide receiver Adam Mims, and questions surround who will start at quarterback after the departure of Cody Worley. Joining whomever is the starter in the backfield is running back Tersoo Uhaa, who could have a strong season of running the ball behind offensive tackle Ryan Lee. Uhaa scored seven TDs in just seven games last season. While the offense is loaded with questions, the Paladins' defense showed a prowess for taking the ball away last season, compiling 14 interceptions. However, no matter how many balls the defense picks off, it still could be a long season for the Paladins.

7. SAMFORD BULLDOGS (4-7 overall; 2-6 SoCon)

COACH: Pat Sullivan (19-25 in four seasons at Samford; 43-67-1 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Dustin Taliaferro, Sr. (133 of 224, 1,327 yards, 5 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Alex Davis, Sr. (41 TT, 3 TFL, 7 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Connor Lowery, Jr. (55 of 108, 545 yards, 1 TD) RB Fabian Truss, So. (46 rushes, 301 yards, 1 TD) RB Jonathon Sillers, Jr. (22 rushes, 83 yards, 2 TDs) WR Kelsey Pope, So. (28 catches, 364 yards) WR Chris Cephus, So. (15 catches, 222 yards, 1 TD) WR Jacobi Rodriguez, Sr. (1 catch, 75 yards, 1 TD) OL Charlie Sanford, Jr. OL Joe Collins, Jr. OL Ryan Dudchock, Jr. OL Jacob Kirschenbaum, Jr. OL Kasy Morrison, So. OL Geore Allers, Jr. DE Austin Hayes, Sr. (13 TT, 3 TFL) DT Devyn Keith, Sr. (14 TT, 1 sack) LB Darion Sutton, Jr. (61 TT, 5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) LB Sean Thompson, Sr. (25 TT) LB Durell Hill, Jr. (36 TT, 3 TFL) DB Corey White, Sr. (31 TT, 1 INT) DB Alvin Hines, Jr. (30 TT, 1 PBU) K Cameron Yaw, Jr. (17 of 23 FG)

OUTLOOK: Despite a win over national semifinalist Georgia Southern last season, the Bulldogs continued its backslide since making the move to the SoCon before the 2008 season. Having lost both its top rushing and receiving threats from last season, Samford is likely to struggle to a third straight losing season, despite returning senior quarterback Dustin Taliaferro. The Bulldogs add a new offensive coordinator in Rhett Lashlee, a former offensive graduate assistant at Auburn. Defensively, the Bulldogs graduated their top two defenders from last season and return only four starters from a unit that was inconsistent last season.

8. THE CITADEL BULLDOGS (3-8 overall; 1-7 SoCon)

COACH: Kevin Higgins (27-40 in six seasons at The Citadel; 83-65-1 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: FB Terrell Dallas, Sr. (135 rushes, 665 yards, 6 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Tolu Akindele, Sr. (80 TT, 4 TFL)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Matt Thompson, So. (23 of 62, 353 yards, 3 TDs) QB Ben Dupree, So. (67 rushes, 187 yards, 1 TD) RB Terrance Martin, So. (42 rushes, 220 yards, 1 TD) RB Van Dyke Jones, Jr. (27 rushes, 125 yards, 1 TD) RB Rickey Anderson, Sr. (2 catches, 60 yards) WR Domonic Jones, So. (12 catches, 192 yards, 2 TDs) OL Tyler Thornton, Sr. OL Neal Strange, Jr. OL Keith Carter, So. DL Chris Billingslea, Jr. (47 TT, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) DL Derek Douglas, So. (41 TT, 4 TFL, 3.5 sacks) DL Quintin Turner, Sr. (40 TT, 8.5 TFL) LB Rod Harland, Sr. (64 TT, 3 TFL) LB DeAndre Smith, St. (35 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack) DB Keith Gamble, Jr. (21 TT, 1 PBU) DB Joseph Boateng, Jr. (39 TT, 5 PBU, 3 INT) K Ryan Sellers, Sr. (5 of 9 FG, long 47) P Cass Couey, Jr. (39.1 avg)

OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs switched to the triple option last season and it resulted in the fourth-best rushing attack in the SoCon. Sophomore quarterbacks Matt Thompson and Ben Dupree are both back to lead the offense, which will most likely run through fullback Terrell Dallas. While Dallas had more carries than any other Bulldog last season, The Citadel returns four of its top five rushers. The defense only allowed 26.9 points per game last season, but The Citadel's offense struggled to turn rushing yards into points. Scoring less than 10 points in five games last season is not a trend that looks favorable to a turnaround this season.

9. WESTERN CAROLINA CATAMOUNTS (2-9 overall; 1-7 SoCon)

COACH: Dennis Wagner (7-27 in three seasons at Western Carolina; 51-64-1 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Michael Johnson, Jr. (151 rushes, 611 yards, 5 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Rock Williams, Jr. (66 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Zac Brindise, Sr. (123 of 222, 1,405 yards, 7 TDs) QB Brandon Pecheloff, So. (26 of 72, 357 yards, 3 TDs) WR Josh Cockrell, Sr. (31 catches, 352 yards, 1 TD) WR Nate Harris, Sr. (74 rushes, 342 yards, 1 TD) WR Deja Alexander, So. (32 catches, 524 yards, 2 TDs) WR Jacoby Mitchell, Jr. (39 catches, 441 yards, 5 TDs) OL Nathan Postelle, Jr. OL Teddy Rhoney, Jr. OL Rory Pederson, Jr. OL Ryan Moore, Jr. DL Trey Selby, Sr. (24 TT, 2.5 TFL, 4 sacks) DL Brian Johnson, So. (28 TT, 2 sacks) LB Ricky Schwarz, Sr. (61 TT, 2 sacks) LB Brandon Vaught, Sr. (52 TT) LB Courtland Carson, So. (26 TT) DB Elijer Martinez, Jr. (17 TT, 1 PBU) DB De'Von Richardson, Jr. (Navy transfer) P Blake Cain, Sr. (39.3 avg)

OUTLOOK: Sitting at 2-3 after five games last season, it appeared the Catamounts were in a position to complete their first winning season since 2005. However, that was not the case as Western Carolina lost its last six games - all by at least 14 points. This season, the offense hopes its new pistol formation can add some firepower, which will most likely be provided by running back Michael Johnson. On defense, the strength seems to lie in the linebackers, while the depleted secondary from last season adds Navy transfer De'Von Richardson. Even with Richardson in the mix, it will be difficult for the Catamounts to climb out of the bottom of the SoCon.