(STATS) - Southern Conference football came back strong last season and the 2016 title race could be even better.
As a three-time defending champion, Chattanooga remains the team to beat. But the Mocs lost their offensive leader - quarterback Jacob Huesman - and have to play on the road against last year's other co-champion, The Citadel, which didn't win in Chattanooga but followed up with a victory over South Carolina to end the regular season and then against Coastal Carolina in the FCS playoffs.
Western Carolina, Wofford and Samford have built up talent and hold Top 25 aspirations as well. Even Mercer's young program beat Chattanooga last year - the only Southern Conference program to do so in the last two seasons. The conference also goes back to nine teams with East Tennessee State rejoining for the first time since 2003.
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The SoCon is still recovering from the loss of national powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the FBS level, but after a subpar 2014 season, the conference is on the upswing.
Following is a look across the Southern Conference with spring practices getting underway in college football:
2015 Records: 9-4 overall, 6-1 Southern (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: March 28-April 23
Storyline: It feels so different without quarterback Jacob Huesman, a four-year starter and three-time SoCon offensive player of the year, leading the way, but the Mocs will surround new signal caller Alejandro Bennifield with nine returning offensive starters. The left-hander is talented as well with speed and a strong arm. But running back Derrick Craine working behind offensive lineman Corey Levin will be the first option for the three-time defending conference champs. The defense is strong in the secondary and pass rusher Keionta Davis is back to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, although the Mocs have to build depth on the defensive line. They will even be strong on special teams so coach Russ Huesman is simply reloading, not lamenting the graduation of his son.
EAST TENNESSEE STATE
2015 Records: 2-9 overall, FCS Independent in 2015
Spring Practices: Feb. 26-April 2
Storyline: With a year of experience following their return to football for the first time since 2003, the Buccaneers were optimistic when they opened spring practices. Last year's squad started mostly freshmen - 22, including special teams - and only one starter was beyond his sophomore season. Plus, a number of last year's redshirts are ready to challenge for positions. The rough season gave coach Carl Torbush's squad a sense of where it needs improvement, and that includes getting bigger at the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Austin Herink should keep getting better. Dylan Weigel drew the headlines at linebacker, but it appears River Boruff and Austin Gatewood are ready to break out as well.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 2-5 Southern (Tie/6th)
Spring Practices: Feb. 25-April 2
Storyline: Despite a victory over Central Florida and a three-game winning streak, the Paladins lost five of their last six games in a disappointing season. They return six starters on offense and eight on defense as well as kicker/punter Jon Croft Hollingsworth. They want to get back to running the ball consistently - long a staple of the program, but there hasn't been enough of it in back-to-back losing seasons. In fact, leading rushers Antonio Wilcox and Triston Luke were both under 400 yards this past season. Defensively, the Paladins managed only eight sacks, so they need adjustments in their pass rush. Safety Trey Robinson is a standout and Aaquil Annoor appears ready to take a big step there as well.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 2-5 Southern (Tie/6th)
Spring Practices: Feb. 8-March 4
Storyline: Year 4 of the return to football brings a highly experienced squad as coach Bobby Lamb has welcomed back 11 starters on offense and 10 on defense. Last year's team upset Chattanooga, but it needs to play with consistency if the Bears are going to winning more often in the SoCon. John Russ returns for his fourth season as the starting quarterback and there always seems to be plenty of running backs (Alex Lakes and Tee Mitchell included) and all-purpose threats. Injuries hurt the Bears last season, so their depth has to be better. One of the players returning from injury is linebacker LeMarkus Bailey, who was off to a great start before he was lost in the third game of the year.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 3-4 Southern (Tie/4th)
Spring Practices: March 31-April 16
Storyline: The development of quarterback Devlin Hodges in the second half of last season suggests he's a future star, which brings added intrigue to coach Chris Hatcher's second season back in the SoCon. Wide receivers coach Russ Callaway was promoted to offensive coordinator, and improvement on the O-line is a priority because the running game and pass protection went through struggles last season. But the return of seven starters on each side of the ball provides a comfort level. On defense, it's particularly important for the Bulldogs to find new leaders after the loss of some all-conference standouts in defensive lineman Michael Pierce, linebacker Justin Cooper and cornerback James Bradberry.
2015 Records: 9-4 overall, 6-1 (Tie/1st)
Spring Practices: Feb. 23-March 24 (spring game is March 19)
Storyline: The feeling in Charleston, South Carolina, is that this is the third year of the Bulldogs' initial plan under former coach Mike Houston because Brent Thompson, promoted from offensive coordinator, has been a big part of the improvement and will keep many of the concepts in place. Among the returnees on offense are the four top rushers in the triple option - quarterback Dominique Allen and backs Tyler Renew, Cam Jackson and Isiaha Smith - but the Bulldogs bring back only three of the five offensive linemen who started 18 straight games together. The defense is an aggressive unit and features All-America cornerback Dee Delaney, but the unit wants to stop drives earlier. Despite some of the changes, there is expectation of another big season ahead (North Carolina Tar Heels, beware).
2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 1-6 Southern (8th)
Spring Practices: April 7-30
Storyline: There figures to be more continuity, and eventually improvement, with the Keydets in coach Scott Wachenheim's second season. Four of last year's losses were by decided by six or fewer points, so they feel close to turning the corner this season. Quarterback Al Cobb is ready to be one of the best in the conference, but has to cut down on throwing interceptions (18). The Keydets are working to find depth on the offensive line and need to improve their running game. The defense was improved last year and returns nine starters, including linebackers and leading tacklers Ryan Francis and Allan Cratsenberg. Like the offense, the Keydets defense needs better play up front, so that is a focus this spring. The Keydets play all three nonconference games on the road, which means they will play only four times at Foster Stadium.
2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 5-2 Southern (3rd)
Spring Practices: March 4-April 8
Storyline: The big loss is veteran quarterback Troy Mitchell - the program's all-time leader in total offense. Junior Wes Holcombe, Mitchell's backup each of the past two seasons, has the upper hand to land the top job, but redshirt freshmen Kalen Whitlow and Tyrie Adams and Mars Hill transfer Garrett Young will battle for the No. 1 job. It also hurts to lose three starters on the offensive line, but the new QB will have excellent weapons around him in Detrez Newsome - the Catamounts' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 - and wide receivers Spearman Robinson and Terryon Robinson, who missed last season with a wrist injury. Dustin Landry was recently named defensive coordinator and will have to retool the line, but there was young defensive depth a year ago and excellent linebacker Daniel Riddle has two more seasons ahead.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-4 Southern (Tie/4th)
Spring Practices: Feb. 29-March 24
Storyline: Coach Mike Ayers enters his 29th season with the Terriers and feels his team is ready to get back to the playoffs. Last season's team was ravaged by injuries, so the likes of running back Will Gay, offensive lineman Mike Jones and linebacker Terrance Morris will be back along with 17 returning starters (eight on offense and nine on defense). Quarterback Evan Jacks returns to run the triple option (which averaged over 300 rushing yards) and his line will be one of the best in the conference, anchored by right tackle Anton Wahrby. Graduation will make the secondary look different, so safeties JoJo Tillery and Nick Ward have to take big steps this season. Linebacker will be thin in the spring after some offseason surgeries, but the Terriers expect to be ready for a big 2016.