SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Southern Conference has always been a league of football powerhouses.
There’s always been a Big Three, and two of them have been Georgia Southern and Appalachian State since the late-1990s.
Wednesday at the SoCon’s media day, most of the talk surrounded GSU and ASU and their departure from the SoCon to the Football Bowl Subdivision Sun Belt Conference.
“The key word is change, and that’s college football at this point,” said Elon head coach Jason Swepson, whose Phoenix are leaving the SoCon to join the Colonial Athletic Association in 2014.
Change was the main topic at the event, followed closely by the power shift that is likely to happen during the 2013 season, in which GSU and ASU are ineligible for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and the SoCon title.
“I don’t think there’s any question that everybody in the league now is looking at this as, ‘Wow, what an opportunity we all have.’ I really believe that with Georgia Southern and App State leaving, it’s going to open up opportunities for all the teams to rise up,” The Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said.
Bobby Lamb, a former quarterback, assistant coach and head coach at Furman, will return to the SoCon in 2014 with his upstart Mercer Bears. Lamb joined the Paladins as a player in 1982 and coached there until 2010.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go,” he said.
Though he said his new program at Mercer has a long way to go, he sees the top spot in the SoCon as being up for grabs.
“I think what you’ll see is, you’ll see more parity,” Lamb said. “You’ll see some schools step up and really commit to being a top program in the country. I think it’s going to be exciting. Over the years, you could count on Georgia Southern and App being the top two — sometimes it was Wofford, sometimes it was Furman — but you consistently saw those names. There’ll be some different names at the top.”
Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman will miss the big-time atmosphere provided by the Eagles and Mountaineers.
“What great tradition,” Huesman said about the two departing programs. “Whether you play them at their place or they come to your place, it’s a great atmosphere. We are going to lose that atmosphere two times a year. I’m going to miss that the most. I’m not going to miss losing to them all the time, but I’ll miss that atmosphere.”
Three programs on the rise were named over and over on Wednesday as potential 2013 SoCon champions — Samford, Chattanooga and The Citadel.
Higgins has seen something in his players unlike anything he’s seen from the Bulldogs since taking over the program in 2005. The Citadel was the surprise of the league in 2012, starting the season 3-0, including wins over GSU and ASU, before losing four of the next five. They finished 7-4 and narrowly missed a playoff berth.
“Our players have a level of confidence they’ve never had before. It’s not often you can beat Georgia Southern, App State and Furman in the same season,” Higgins said. “I think it does something for you. Our players are more confident, however they still understand that you have to play one game at a time.”
Of the seven SoCon teams eligible for the 2013 league title, Wofford, Chattanooga, The Citadel and Samford were picked as the top four by the coaches and media in the preseason polls.
Still the team to beat
Southern Conference coaches picked Georgia Southern to finish first in the league standings this season, GSU’s last as a member of the SoCon. The Eagles cannot win the conference championship and cannot claim its automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs because of the move to FBS. Following are the point totals in coaches’ voting, with first-place votes in parentheses:
1. Georgia Southern (6) 57
2. Appalachian State (2) 51
3. Chattanooga (1) 47
4. Samford 43
5. Wofford 40
6. The Citadel 33
7. Furman 25
8. Elon 16
9. Western Carolina 12