Wofford is the team to beat in the Southern Conference race.
That may sound a little funny considering all the conference and national success of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern through the years. But those two powers are in their final season in the SoCon as they move toward joining the Sun Belt Conference, and the FBS level, next year.
So the big boy on the SoCon block is now the Wofford program which, ironically, has the second-smallest undergraduate enrollment (1,536) in Division I football.
Pardon head coach Mike Ayers and his Terriers if they are unfazed by the additional pressure placed on their shoulders.
The Terriers are a perennial power. Like ASU and GSU, they have won two of the last three SoCon titles. They usually reload in seasons like this after suffering key graduation losses.
It's certainly a different season, though, as Ayers enters his 26th year of leading the Spartanburg, S.C., program. With the Southern Conference's impending losses (the College of Charleston, which doesn't play football, will leave the conference to join the Colonial Athletic Association this summer), its programs have to concern themselves with the future as much as the present.
Ayers has taken Wofford from the NAIA level to Division II to Division I while posting a 171-115-1 record (18 winning seasons) amid the school's high academic standards, so the 2003 Eddie Robinson Award winner, who turns 65 on May 26, knows something about winning a fight or two.
In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Ayers discusses his team, the Southern Conference and the FCS going forward.
Let's kick off:
TSN: As you try to replace (all-time leading rusher) Eric Breitenstein and (quarterback) Brian Kass, what did you learn about this group during spring practice?
MA: Well, it's a good group. Their work ethic is really good. I think it's going to be a younger football team than we've had, but there's some kids that really stepped up and showed us that they're willing to compete for a starting position.
We lost some players across the board. When you lose a guy like Eric, it's tough to replace him. But, at the same time, there's a guy that's been in our program, Donovan Johnson, that we feel like is gonna be a good player. He's been a good player in the past and now he's going to be kind of like the bell cow.
At the halfback position, we've got three or four guys that we really like and they showed some progress. At the fullback position, behind Donovan, there were some guys that came on and made some strides.
Our quarterback position, we had four of 'em competing in spring, and James (Lawson), Michael (Weimer), Evan Jacks, Taylor Bragg, all four of those guys did some good things in the spring. There were times that the lightbulb was on and there were times that the light was a little bit dim. But the more reps that they got as spring ball went on, they got better.
Defensively, we had some guys that were coming off of surgeries and several of them were inside linebackers (Mike McCrimon, SeQuan Stanley and Kevin Thomas) that could not go full speed but got a lot of teaching reps and they were able to work the skelly drill non-contact and they did fundamental periods.
We tried to get better at the fundamentals. From a defensive standpoint, we really emphasized tackling and trying to tackle the proper way. Offensively, ball security for us, that's where it starts. I think our run game is gonna be good. I think that from a throwing situation, a lot of people, if they know anything about Wofford, it's a program where we've lived by the run, and what we've tried to do this spring is become better and more effective at throwing the football. And I think we've made some progress.
We know that the schedule is going to be difficult. We open up with Baylor in Waco. That's going to be a great challenge for us. The schedule, I think, is a tough schedule, but at the same time, there's some spots in there that are going to allow us to grow a little bit and help us find out what we're all about.
TSN: You talk about all the competition. How does the personality of this year's team compare to some of your recent teams?
MA: I think they're very similar. Most of 'em have been here long enough that when it's time to work and when it's time to play they understand what that means. The big thing I think on any football team, whether it's Wofford or whether it's Alabama or whether it's somebody in the pros, you've got to have a critical mass of people that are leading and leading in the right direction. And I think that we have that.
We have a nice senior class that is coming, a senior class that there are several proven players, guys that are willing to come out and work every day. Whether it's a hot August practice or whether it's late in the season, they understand what it means to put in the day's work and earn an opportunity to be successful.
TSN: What are your feelings on Appalachian State and Georgia Southern having the chance to influence the Southern Conference title race? (they are ineligible for the title and an FCS playoff bid, but their SoCon games count in the conference standings)
MA: Well, I think you look at two schools that have decided to go a different direction. Both of 'em are schools that have been successful. You look at Appalachian over the past 10 years, three national championships and (seven) Southern Conference championships. You look at Georgia Southern and Georgia Southern's back and they've been very successful.
But when you look at those two, you've got to put us in there because we've been a team that's been pretty successful over the past decade as well. Out of the past three years, we've won the Southern Conference championship twice and we played for it the third time. (Five) out of (last six) years going to the (FCS) playoffs. We feel like we're probably going to be a team that everybody shoots at and shoots for.
Appalachian and Georgia Southern, they're gonna come out and you're gonna get their best game. It doesn't matter whether they're competing for the SoCon championship or in the NCAA playoffs. They're tough teams, they're well- coached, they have tremendous athletes. We see this year as no different than any other year, quite frankly. We play 'em and we play them here in Spartanburg. Those are two games that are critical games for us, especially when you look at the national picture.
TSN: What does the conference have to do to overcome such significant losses?
MA: I think first and foremost, everybody else has got to step up their game, everybody else has got to be a football program that when you play out of the league, you're being successful. When you're playing bigger schools at the FBS level, then you've got to be competitive.
Our league still has a lot of great football teams in it and probably the final thing that will determine how difficult the loss of Georgia Southern and App will be to the league will depend on the people that they bring into the league. There's a lot of people that are interested in joining the Southern Conference, and the presidents and ADs I'm sure will make the right decisions.
TSN: How can the FCS improve itself on a national level?
MA: I think our playoff system is outstanding, to tell you the truth. And I think by adding the additional (four) teams that keeps the FCS out there on a consistent basis. You're getting more notoriety, you're getting more buzz as far as the style of play and the product. You get teams that are going out and they're competing against some of the best teams in the country no matter what the level. You have those dream games where, for example, App upset Michigan (in 2007), and you have a situation where teams are taking ACC, SEC, Big 12 schools down to the wire, and being very competitive.
And I think all those things add up and show what type of product that we're putting out there. I think we've got to understand that the size, the resources are different (from the FBS), but it's still a great brand of football, it's still a tremendous game. We're going to do everything we can do to keep it heading in the right direction.