Farewell to Huesman, unexpected rise of The Citadel highlight SoCon
(STATS) -- Jacob Huesman did everything he could for Chattanooga while cementing his status of one of the best all-time FCS dual-threat quarterbacks. And as the Mocs prepare to move on without him, The Citadel is ready to move up in the Southern Conference.
Everything pointed to the Mocs being the class of the Southern, and they did not disappoint en route to a 9-4 finish. Huesman and running back Derrick Craine combined for 2,495 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground, while defensive lineman Keionta Davis anchored a stout defense with 13 1/2 sacks and 17 tackles for loss.
Chattanooga claimed its third straight conference title, sharing honors with the upstart Bulldogs, and reached the FCS playoffs for the second straight year. But the bitterness of a second-round overtime playoff loss to Jacksonville State in Huesman's final game is somewhat negated considering his senior class left his father - head coach Russ Huesman - the foundation that can sustain this level of success.
"I hope we've made a good impression on them, so that (the underclassmen) continue to be good leaders and lead us to a national championship," linebacker A.J. Hampton told Chattanooga's official website. "When we came in, everything was a whole different story. ... Gradually over the years we started winning, getting support from the city and I feel like we've slowly gotten better and better.
"We've had good chemistry and I've enjoyed being around my friends."
Samford was originally pegged to be the team to challenge Chattanooga for conference supremacy, but The Citadel changed the dynamic of the Southern with a 44-25 road victory over the Bulldogs Oct. 17. The Citadel just went about its business, churning out points and rushing yards with their triple-option offense and holding opponents at bay by forcing turnovers, and before anyone realized it, Mike Houston's team had the chance to win the title outright at Chattanooga in its conference finale.
Though that didn't materialize as the Mocs won 31-23, no one saw The Citadel's 9-4 record and first-round road playoff win coming, and there's plenty of reason to believe that bigger and better things could come in 2016 with quarterback Dominique Allen and backs Tyler Renew and Cam Jackson all returning for an offense that set school records with 4,510 rushing yards and 5,474 overall yards, and defensive tackle Mitchell Jeter and cornerback Dee Delaney leading the defense.
But with success comes challenges, none bigger than Houston's departure to James Madison following The Citadel's best season since 1992. Athletic director Jim Senter moved quickly in promoting offensive coordinator Brent Thompson to head coach and retaining defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton, a best-case transition scenario ahead of a season of higher expectations.
"I don't know why you want to look outside when you have quality people inside who are ready to take the reins," said Senter, who interviewed only Thompson and Drayton. "There was a lot of interest and a lot of people reaching out to us, but that doesn't mean that they're the right fit at the right time for this institution.
"That's what we're committed to: fit, fit, fit. And I believe we had two quality candidates internally."
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: It was little surprise Huesman completed a "three-peat" as the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year. The do-everything signal-caller topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight year and accounted for four touchdowns - two rushing and two passing - in a 41-35 overtime postseason loss to top-seeded and eventual runner-up Jacksonville State. Huesman also made himself known to NFL scouts after being named the MVP of the Tropic Bowl in Miami, running and throwing for touchdowns in leading his team to a 38-14 victory.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Overshadowed by the triple option, The Citadel's defense often put the offense in position to succeed with an aggressive ball-hawking style supported by a strong pass rush. Though Jeter won conference player of the year honors with a SoCon-best 8 1/2 sacks, the sophomore Delaney is the "pick" here. He led the Southern with five of the team's 20 interceptions - the Bulldogs had only three in 2014 - and added 46 tackles, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one blocked kick as he earned first-team STATS FCS All-America honors.
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: Everyone would have forgiven The Citadel had it simply prepared for the postseason in its regular-season finale at intrastate rival South Carolina. Besides, the Bulldogs - a 22 1/2-point underdog - were coming off a loss at Chattanooga that cost them the outright Southern Conference title, so a hangover would have been understandable.
Instead, The Citadel ran wild as Tyler Renew rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns - the latter a 56-yard dash with 6:07 left for the go-ahead points - to power a 23-22 upset of the Gamecocks. Cam Jackson added a 59-yard TD run as the Bulldogs gashed South Carolina for 350 rushing yards - right around their season average of 346.9 - and gained all sorts of confidence ahead of their impressive playoff run.
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: "Disappointment" is an unfair word to use for the Mocs, though "lament" may be more accurate here. They did everything asked of them considering the high expectations they rightfully faced as reigning Southern champs, so there's no disappointment there.
At the same time, the Mocs' postseason fate completely changed following their 17-14 loss at Mercer - then winless in the conference - on Nov. 7 while ranked third in the country. Instead of moving one win closer to what would've certainly been a first-round bye and potentially home-field advantage all the way through the semifinals, the Mocs eventually had to play the opening week of the postseason and were given a killer draw opposite No. 1 Jacksonville State in the second round as they finished one step shy of a second straight quarterfinal appearance.
BY THE NUMBERS:
2 -- Returning 1,000-yard rushers in the Southern Conference for 2016: Derrick Craine (Chattanooga) and Detrez Newsome (Western Carolina).
14 -- Victories by Western Carolina the last two seasons under coach Mark Speir. The Catamounts went 3-20 in his first two seasons.
55 -- Distance in yards of the career-long field goal by Furman's Jon Croft Hollingsworth that provided the final margin in the Paladins' 16-15 upset at FBS school UCF on Sept. 19.
84 -- Receptions by Aaron Sanders, setting a single-season VMI record. He needs eight catches in 2016 to become the Keydets' all-time leader.
515 -- Return yards on The Citadel's 20 interceptions, 129 more than the second-best FCS team.
2,230 -- Passing yards by Samford's Devlin Hodges, good for third among FCS freshman quarterbacks, trailing only STATS FCS Freshman Player of the Year Case Cookus (Northern Arizona) and Anthony Lawrence (San Diego).
3,748 -- Combined rushing yards of quarterback Dominique Allen and A/B-backs Renew, Jackson, Isiaha Smith, Evan McField and Reggie Williams, all of whom return to The Citadel next season.
12,248 -- Total yards rushing and passing by Huesman, who finished 15th all-time in FCS.
NEXT YEAR: The conference expands to nine with the addition of East Tennessee State, which finished 2-9 as an independent in its first season since 2003. The one contest against a future SoCon opponent went poorly as Mercer blasted the Buccaneers 52-0 on Oct. 17. ... Thompson's first year leading The Citadel will definitely not be a walkover because Samford, Western Carolina and Mercer all appear poised to make a charge while Chattanooga reloads to stay in the mix. ... Hodges headlines the list of Samford's returning offensive skill players, which also features running backs Denzel Williams and K'rondis Larry plus wideouts Karel Hamilton, Emmanuel Obajimi and Kelvin McKnight as well as tight end Devon Schmitt. ... Though the Catamounts lose quarterback Troy Mitchell to graduation, they still have Newsome, who finished with 1,390 yards and 12 TDs rushing and receiving. He also threw a 75-yard scoring pass. ... Mercer went 2-5 in conference play this past season, but they lost to The Citadel by two and beat Chattanooga. Russ will be the linchpin for next season's senior-laden Bears after throwing for 2,141 yards and 18 touchdowns with only three interceptions, and he is part of a formidable rushing trio with Tee Mitchell and Alex Lakes - they totaled 2,020 yards and 20 TDs on the ground.