Western Carolina looks to take next step in SoCon turnaround

(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.

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SOUTHERN CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLLS=

COACHES=

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.

MEDIA=

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.

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SOUTHERN CONFERENCE PRESEASON TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year - Jacob Huesman, QB, Chattanooga

Defensive Player of the Year - Michael Pierce, DL, Samford

OFFENSE=

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

DEFENSE=

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

SPECIAL TEAMS=

PK - Henrique Ribeiro, Jr., Chattanooga

P - Brian Sanders, Sr., Wofford

RS - Chandler Curtis, So., Mercer

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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."

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