SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman feels the Southern Conference took an unwarranted hit on its reputation a few years back, one it is ready to wipe away with a stable, improving league.
The SoCon had been one of the country's best Football Championship Subdivision leagues since college football split into Division I and Division I-AA more than three decades ago. Yet after FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern left the league to move up three years ago, Huesman thought few took the conference as seriously as before.
''Absolutely ridiculous,'' he said. ''We've gotten a bad rap for a few years now.''
Expect that to change, Huesman said.
His Mocs were picked to win a fourth straight SoCon football title by league coaches and media at the league's preseason gathering Wednesday.
There's no doubt the league saw an overhaul in recent seasons. Georgia Southern reached the NCAA playoffs 11 times and won two national championships during their two decades in the league. Appalachian State was in 16 NCAA playoffs and won three straight FCS titles from 2005-07.
The last time both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State made the playoffs in 2012 was also the last time the SoCon had three teams in the NCAA tournament. East Tennessee, Mercer and VMI - who've combined for zero playoff appearances. VMI has not had a winning record since 1981. East Tennessee restarted football last fall after an absence of 11 years while Mercer went even longer between teams (no football from 1942 to 2012) before restoring the program.
The changes may have cost the SoCon in the selection room. Western Carolina, at 7-4, was on the bubble last year for the 24-team field but was ultimately left out.
Catamounts coach Mark Speir thought his team had done enough to get in, but ultimately ''let a bunch of men in Indianapolis decide whether we get to play anymore.''
Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino understands the reluctance to buy into the league's recent changes. He thinks time and stability will ultimate sway doubters about the SoCon's power.
''When you're worried about realignment issues, it makes it harder on the coaches to recruit,'' Iamarino said. ''We've got two programs that are very young and it's just going to take some time to be successful.''
Maybe not that much time, said Western Carolina's Speir, who has spent all but three of his 26 football seasons coaching in the Southern Conference.
''From top to bottom, this league is as strong as it's ever been,'' he said.
Newbie Mercer toppled league champion Chattanooga last season while the Citadel returned to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1992, including a FBS victory over South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference.
The Citadel was picked second to Chattanooga in coach and media voting. The rest of the coach's picks were Samford third, then Western Carolina, Mercer, Wofford, Furman, VMI and East Tennessee. The media selected Western Carolina third, then Mercer, Samford, Wofford, Furman, VMI and East Tennessee.
Western Carolina running back Detrez Newsome was named the league's preseason offensive player of the year while Chattanooga defensive lineman Keionta Davis got picked for player of the year honors on the other side of the ball.
Huesman said his team is ready to contend with a strong league and build on what it's done in recent seasons. An emphasis for improvement is in the playoffs, where the Mocs lost in the second round the past two seasons, and against FBS opponents, which Huesman said is where he and other SoCon teams can most strongly debunk the idea the SoCon has slipped.
He pointed to the Citadel's win over South Carolina and Furman's takedown of UCF last season as evidence that the conference is robust and ready to rumble with anyone in college football.
''I think that's going to help the league moving forward,'' he said.