(STATS) - As professional wrestler Ric Flair once put it, "To be the man, you have to beat the man."
Samford gets that opportunity Saturday when it hosts reigning Southern Conference champion and 10th-ranked Chattanooga in an early season showdown that could provide the tone for how this conference race unfolds.
Despite not being in the STATS FCS Top 25, the Bulldogs have looked quite impressive offensively in their two victories. After easing past Central Arkansas 45-16 to open the season Sept. 3, they set a school record with 752 yards of offense in routing Florida A&M 58-21 last Saturday.
Michael Eubank followed up his career-best 372-yard, four-touchdown performance versus Central Arkansas by throwing for 280 yards and a pair of scores against the Rattlers. The fifth-year senior and former transfer from Arizona State is 9-4 since arriving in Birmingham, Alabama.
"We didn't change much from what they did last year offensively, but he's playing at a high level," first-year coach Chris Hatcher said of Eubank, who was named the Southern's offensive player of the week. "He's been very accurate, especially on the deep ball, he's throwing that really well right now."
Eubank, who has seven completions of at least 25 yards, is also getting help from the backfield tandem of K'rondis Larry and Denzel Williams, who are both averaging more than 7.0 yards per carry. The duo is capable of creating big plays - Williams' two TDs have come on runs of 49 and 29 yards, while Larry dashed 54 yards for one of his two scores - and that has certainly grabbed the attention of Mocs coach Russ Huesman.
"I think the QB is playing as good as anyone in the league right now, he's very confident and throwing a great ball, putting it where it needs to be," Huesman noted. "Their backs are really, really good, they're physical upfront offensively."
Despite bouncing back from a 23-20 season-opening loss to current No. 1 Jacksonville State on Sept. 5 with a 44-34 win over Mars Hill, there is still some unease in Chattanooga. The Mocs didn't put away the game until Derrick Craine scored from six yards with 3:59 left to cap a career-high 169-yard, three-TD effort, and they allowed the Division II Lions to roll up 427 yards of offense.
"We're clearly not happy about our performance in the first two games on defense," senior linebacker A.J. Hampton said. "People have been missing gaps. This week we're really focusing on playing gap defense like we have in the past and getting back to UTC defense. I feel like we definitely need to step up the intensity."
Even with their early wobbles, the Mocs still have plenty of firepower. Jacob Huesman continued putting his name atop most of Chattanooga's passing categories, becoming the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes (55) and completions (591) while climbing to third in passing yards (6,431) after going 25 for 37 for 265 yards and three touchdowns against Mars Hill.
Huesman is also close to becoming the second player in Southern Conference history to have at least 4,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards. The dual-threat quarterback is 99 rushing yards shy of joining Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards as the only players in the SoCon to reach those milestones.
"The best thing that he's done is he talked his quarterback's mama into letting her son come play for him over there and he's a fine football player," Hatcher joked about Russ Huesman getting his son to play for the Mocs. "He can beat you running and throwing, so we're going to have our hands full this week."
Huesman did most of his damage on the ground in last year's 38-24 victory, rushing for 86 yards and two touchdowns as the Mocs rolled up 252 rushing yards and intercepted Eubank three times. Huesman has thrown for 521 yards and two touchdowns without an interception in three games versus Samford, winning two of them.
"Last year we were the Southern Conference champions and the vibe this year has been to 'three-peat,'" Craine said. "That's what keeps us really motivated is to go out there and win another Southern Conference title."
While Samford and Chattanooga each try to gain an early foothold in the conference, VMI will try to notch a marquee victory for the Southern at No. 22 Richmond on Saturday. It will be a reunion of sorts as first-year Keydets coach Scott Wachenheim and defensive coordinator Tom Clark were part of Richmond coach Danny Rocco's staff at Liberty, and former VMI coach Sparky Woods is now with Rocco as Richmond's associate head coach and running backs coach.
VMI has shown a proficient passing offense thus far, averaging an FCS-best 379.0 yards as Al Cobb has thrown for 713 yards and five TDs. Three Keydets have at least 11 receptions, with Aaron Sanders leading the way with 18 catches for 173 yards.
"This is particularly challenging this week because (Richmond) are very well-coached defensively," Wachenheim said. "They're very solid upfront, very physical, their linebackers can run to the ball, and they have two outstanding corners and safeties that will come up and hit you."
The Keydets have had their issues defensively, giving up 88 points, 60 first downs and 1,066 yards in splitting their first two games.
Four teams are playing FBS opponents, all on the road, as Wofford travels to Idaho, Furman takes on UCF, The Citadel plays Georgia Southern and Western Carolina treks to Neyland Stadium to face Tennessee. It will be the second straight week at an FBS foe for the Paladins, who played Virginia Tech tough for a half in a 42-3 defeat at Blacksburg.
The Catamounts are playing an SEC opponent for the fourth straight year - they actually have two this year with a Nov. 14 date at Texas A&M - and history is clearly against them. Western Carolina is 0-49 against FBS schools, including 0-16 versus the SEC, and this will be its first game against the Volunteers - a founding member of the Southern Conference in 1921.
Lastly, Mercer seeks its second 3-0 start in three years as it faces Ohio Valley Conference member Tennessee Tech. The Bears, who are 10-0 in nonconference games under coach Bobby Lamb, have totaled 1,060 yards in wins over Austin Peay and Stetson and rolled up a school-record 623 yards in a 57-14 rout of the Hatters last Saturday.