Appalachian State and Georgia Southern coaches say they’ll play for a Southern Conference title this season, even if both are ineligible to win the crown in their final seasons in the league before moving to the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
The schools have won or shared championships in the Football Championship Subdivision league a combined 22 times since 1986, yet both will play the season with more than the 63 scholarships allowed by FCS. That means they can’t officially win the SoCon title or participate in the NCAA FCS playoffs.
That’s not stopping Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield or Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken from chasing conference titles. Each says if his team finishes with the best record after conference play, they’ll celebrate a championship like they have done so often in the past.
“We might not be recognized by somebody else, but we’re certainly going to recognize that and that’s our goal,” Monken said Wednesday.
The league’s coaches and media agree, each group picking Monken’s Eagles to win a third consecutive title. Georgia Southern shared the championship with Appalachian State and Wofford a year ago.
Monken has gone 31-12 in his three seasons at Georgia Southern and says he’ll change nothing about the way he runs the program or approaches the season as the team transitions to bigger boy football in the Sun Belt.
This season marks one of transition for the Southern Conference, which has lost five of its 12 members – and three of its nine football schools – since last November.
Along with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern’s departure to the FCS, Elon is moving to the Colonial Athletic Association after this academic year.
College of Charleston, which does not have football, left for the CAA earlier this month while the Southern Conference’s most prominent basketball program in Davidson is leaving for the Atlantic 10 Conference. The SoCon recently announced the additions of East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI, giving them 10 members starting next season.
“It’s a relief,” league Commissioner John Iamarino said. “I'm happy to talk about football again after the challenging year we had last year.”
He says his players have tuned out the buzz on campus about moving up and want to have one more memorable FCS season.
“We’ve never done anything different,” he said. “Our philosophy hasn’t changed. All we’ve ever focused on is the next game and trying to be the best team.”
Appalachian State was selected second by league coaches and third by league media. The Mountaineers are also handling a change of coaches with former Appalachian State quarterback and offensive coordinator Satterfield taking over for Jerry Moore, the SoCon career leader with 215 victories.
“Don’t expect a lot of changes,” Satterfield said with a smile.
He, too, has got his players locked onto what’s achievable this year and not looking down the road at what's ahead in the Sun Belt.
“We owe that to our seniors,” Satterfield said. “Our guys have lofty goals to go out there and win them all.”
Even if they do, that won't qualify for the expanded, 24-team FCS playoffs, which the Mountaineers won three consecutive seasons from 2005-2007. Monken led Georgia Southern to the national semifinals in 2010 and 2012, losing both times. The Eagles have won six national championships.
“Probably one of the things I’ll be most regretful of when I'm done coaching and my careers over is that as a head coach I wasn’t able to help Georgia Southern win another national championship because it means so much to the school,” he said. “That's the benchmark for this program. Without that opportunity this year, certainly there's some disappointment.”
Wofford coach Mike Ayers says the Southern Conference's reputation as one of the top FCS leagues has been enhanced by Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. There are several schools, though, who Ayers believes are on the verge of title runs, whether the Mountaineers and Eagles remained in the league or not.
Wofford was selected second by the media and fifth by league coaches, a disparity Ayers says points to the SoCon's competitiveness.
“I know what it is every Saturday to play against these people and I promise you there’s a coat-of-paint difference from top to bottom between every one of them,” he said.