(STATS) - It was the November game that Western Carolina football hadn't seen in a long time - a virtual Southern Conference championship game for a program on the rise.
But if there is one score that stood out the most in the SoCon title race last year, it was the one in Cullowee, North Carolina, when the door was slammed rather rudely on Western.
In a battle of conference unbeatens, it read: Chattanooga 51, Western Carolina 0.
"We aren't there yet and that Chattanooga game proved it," Catamounts coach Mark Speir said. "But our guys are working hard."
Chattanooga, which finished without a loss in the conference, was selected as the overwhelming favorite in both the SoCon coaches' and media preseason polls released at preseason media day Wednesday. But with traditional powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern having moved on to the FBS a year ago, and budgets and facilities seeming more comparable across the SoCon, there's reason for optimism across the conference.
And, oh, are they optimistic at Western Carolina, which was picked second in the media poll and third in the coaches' poll.
The Catamounts only have to replace one starter, so they expect to be playing for a title again come this November. Maybe this time, the Catamounts will get in the first punch.
"Last year, finally, all that experience paid off and we were able to pull off a second-place finish and 7-5," said Speir, whose program went a combined 3-20 in 2012 and '13 - his first two seasons with the Catamounts.
"What's neat about this (senior) class is not a lot of student-athletes get this opportunity to take a program that was at the very bottom - history, record-wise, financially, reputation - and change culture. For a year, they've changed the culture. We've been talking about this year. The culture change is over, I'm tired of talking about that, it's been changed. Now it's about setting an expectation and what the bar is going to be around here."
The bar is held highest by senior quarterback Troy Mitchell, who was nominated to the 2015 STATS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List. His dual-threat ability is heightened by the return of a plethora of skill-position standouts, including wide receivers Terryon Robinson, Karnorris Benson and Spearman Robinson.
The Catamounts, coming off their most conference wins since 2001, may just have to win the SoCon title to reach the FCS playoffs. In an 11-game season, two of their three out-of-conference games are against SEC opponents, Tennessee and Texas A&M, and within the conference, they will face road games against Chattanooga and Wofford. So gaining an at-large bid may be difficult.
But they're not thinking about an at-large bid.
"Obviously, our goal, like everyone else in the Southern Conference, is to win a Southern Conference championship. And I think, legitimately, for the first time, this class has an opportunity to go do that," Speir said. "This is a big year. We just have to capitalize on this year and solidify that we're not a one-hit wonder."
Chattanooga returns seven starters on each side of the ball, having gone 7-0 in SoCon play and 10-4 overall last season while winning in the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history. The Mocs will be led again by senior quarterback Jacob Huesman, the SoCon's preseason offensive player of the year and winner of the last two postseason awards. He was one of a conference-high 12 Mocs on the preseason team, including eight first-team selections.
Preseason defensive player of the year honors went to Samford senior defensive lineman Michael Pierce. He helped anchored a Bulldogs defense that surrendered only 19.7 points per game and ranked second in the SoCon in total defense (312.7 yards per game) last season.
The Southern Conference will have eight teams again. East Tennessee State, which was represented at media day, is returning to football for the first time since 2003, but will play this season as an FCS independent, rejoining the conference schedule as a ninth member next year.
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLLS=
1. Chattanooga (7 first-place votes), 49 points.
2. Samford (1), 40.
3. Western Carolina, 38.
4. Wofford, 30.
5. Furman, 22.
6. Mercer, 20.
7. The Citadel, 18.
8. VMI, 7.
1. Chattanooga (29), 239.
2. Western Carolina (1), 190.
3. Samford, 176.
4. Wofford, 148.
5. Furman, 120.
6. Mercer, 93.
7. The Citadel, 82.
8. VMI, 32.
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE PRESEASON TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Jacob Huesman, QB, Chattanooga
Defensive Player of the Year - Michael Pierce, DL, Samford
QB - Jacob Huesman, Sr., Chattanooga
RB - Alex Lakes, So., Mercer
RB - Denzel Williams, Jr., Samford
OL - Sam Frye, Sr., The Citadel
OL - Joe Turner, Sr., Furman
OL - Gunnar Bromelow, Sr., Samford
OL - Corey Levin, Jr., Chattanooga
OL - Anton Wahrby, Jr., Wofford
TE - Duncan Fletcher, Jr., Furman
WR - Karel Hamilton, Jr., Samford
WR - Spearman Robinson, Jr., Western Carolina
DL - Mitchell Jeter, Sr., The Citadel
DL - Michael Pierce, Sr., Samford
DL - Josh Freeman, Sr., Chattanooga
DL - Keionta Davis, Jr., Chattanooga
LB - Cory Magwood, Sr., Furman
LB - Justin Cooper, Sr., Samford
LB - Nakevion Leslie, Jr., Chattanooga
DB - James Bradberry, Sr., Samford
DB - Dee Virgin, Jr., Chattanooga
DB - Lucas Webb, So., Chattanooga
DB - Trey Morgan, Jr., Western Carolina
PK - Henrique Ribeiro, Jr., Chattanooga
P - Brian Sanders, Sr., Wofford
RS - Chandler Curtis, So., Mercer
FIVE KEY SOUTHERN CONFERENCE GAMES=
Chattanooga at Samford (Sept. 19) - New Samford coach Chris Hatcher inherits some terrific individual pieces. Can the Bulldogs put them all together to turn the SoCon race upside down from the start?
Western Carolina at Wofford (Oct. 17) - The offseason focus has come off Wofford and moved to Western Carolina. Oh, how things have changed in the conference.
Western Carolina at Chattanooga (Oct. 31) - The quarterback matchup of Troy Mitchell (WCU) versus two-time SoCon offensive player of the year Jacob Huesman (Chattanooga) is a dandy.
Furman at Samford (Oct. 31) - After an injury-plagued season, the Paladins have plenty of experienced players. But their road schedule is brutal.
VMI at The Citadel (Nov. 7) - The Citadel has won eight straight meetings in "The Military Classic of the South."