Southeast Region Teams Eye FCS Title Run with Strong Preseason Rankings
(Quarterback Michael Hiers throwing a pass against Mercer University | PC: @SamfordFootball)
Furman and Samford find themselves in an interesting position in 2023. They will not only fight for Southern Conference supremacy, they will have the weight of an entire region on their backs. Both have high preseason rankings and are loaded with offensive talent and a host of FBS transfers. But what makes this season different from others is belief; not just the teams belief in themselves but the region's belief that they could end the reign of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
It seems like forever ago since Appalachian State had the FCS world in a chokehold for three seasons. Three straight championships and the dismantling of Michigan at the hands of the legendary Armanti Edwards. From 2005-2007 the Mountaineers brought the Southeast Region back to prominence not seen since legendary coach Paul Johnson won back-to-back championships to end the 1900's and begin the 2000's at Georgia Southern.
Since 2007 the FCS Championship has been missing a Southeast Region contender as the Missouri Valley, Big Sky, and Northeast universities have dominated the championships. Defending FCS Champion South Dakota State will return a large number of players from their dominant 2022 championship run. However both Samford and Furman believe they have the firepower to go to battle with anyone anywhere. There are three factors that should set both teams up for a trip to Frisco this season.
Strength of Schedule
Samford's only regular season loss last season was to the FBS champion Georgia. That dominance only afforded them a six seed in the playoffs and a date with a tricky Southeastern Louisiana squad. Furman only lost two regular season games. One was to ACC Champion Clemson and the other was a touchdown loss to the SoCon champs Samford. They were not in the top eight teams to receive a first round bye. Instead they had a first round match against a surging Elon team. Both teams lost in the quarterfinals but even if they won, it would have set up a rematch in the semifinal not exactly ideal when the other conferences in the tournament with multiple participants all had a path to an all conference FCS Championship game.
This season both teams are established as top teams in the country which should help their seeding if their fates are similar as last season. It will also help that there are other teams in the SoCon who are getting attention. Mercer is another team in most top 25 polls while Chattanooga has also garnered some top 25 attention. Having two more teams garnering looks from around the nation will definitely make Furman and Samford's journey more difficult but if they are to beat those two again this season, they will be considered quality wins which seems to not have been the case in 2022. This means that both teams have a chance to break into the top four and get more advantageous first round bye.
Offense Offense Offense!
Furman and Samford were the 25th and 27th ranked scoring offenses in 2022. Both teams return a ton of talent from those squads. Samford returns seven offensive starters and are led by quarterback Michael Hiers who was a Walter Payton award finalist. Two if his top three receivers return as well. Furman also brings back their signal caller along with their top three receivers but it is their rushing attack that makes them special. That attack is led by running back Dominic Roberto.
More important than the skill positions, both teams return three starters on the offensive line which is key to their offenses running smoothly. That level of continuity can not be understated on teams that aspire to challenge for a championship. The trenches have been the unit where the championship-caliber teams separate themselves. Both lines show their value in stark contrast to each other. For Samford the offensive line unlocks their ability to throw the ball all around the field. Furman is considered a balanced attack but they dominate teams with the rushing attack. The continuity along the offensive lines put them in rare spaces.
(Caption: Tyler Huff punching it in for a touchdown against Elon | PC: @PaladinFootball)
Maneuvering the Portal!
Usually when teams from this region have success you see players from the team look to improve their status by transferring to FBS programs. Teams that are able to retain their best players and keep them from transferring to other institutions have a greater chance of sustained success. Furman only lost three players to the teamer portal and Sanford only lost one. On the contrary, the Bulldogs welcome six FBS players from that includes five defensive backs. The Paladins have two FBS players joining the team, one of which is another offensive lineman who will join the fold.
The activity bringing in transfers makes sense for both teams. Furman returns 18 starters and a large portion of their two deep this season. Samford lost more pieces from their 2022 squad but they replaced a lot with transfers. In addition to the six FBS players signed, they also signed eight FCS players as well. They have added SEC players in the secondary along with FCS All-Conference performers at linebacker and defensive back. That is a lot of proven talent on each team and they will be motivated to make their presence felt in the Fall.
(Caption: Samford transfer from Charleston Southern Kamron Smith | PC: Kamron Smith)
Mid-September will give both teams and FCS fans a look at what this season can be with their FBS matchups. Furman will face South Carolina on September 9th hoping to fare better than their 35-12 showing in 2022 against Clemson. Samford faces Auburn on September 16th after their 33-0 loss to UGA in 2022. Both games will be showcases for the FCS as these teams vie for the admiration of the entire subdivision. Both have legitimate shots to be competitive when you consider how early in the season these matchups happen and how potent the offenses are for both squads. If one or both are able to pull an upset or at the very least make the games competitive it will serve notice to the country that they are legit contenders to punch their ticket to Frisco.