In the FCS Huddle: There's life in the SoCon after all

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Updated: 4/01 8:49 am

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's been just over one year since Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced their move to the FBS level, joining the Sun Belt Conference, effective this summer.

That neither perennial power went on to be much of a factor in the Southern Conference title race last season was surprising, and it underscored how there will be life in the conference, through quality football, after their departure.

No, the retooling of the SoCon with the additions of Mercer and VMI for this season, and East Tennessee State for 2015, won't offset the significant losses of Georgia Southern, which has the most national titles in FCS history with six, and App State, which has another three. Elon also is leaving the SoCon for the Colonial Athletic Conference this year.

But the number of SoCon football members will get back to nine when East Tennessee State begins play next year, and after what happened in the Big South and Northeast conferences last season, the SoCon can find inspiration that the light won't be going out anytime soon.

And, yes, the SoCon can only move forward. Lamenting the losses of its two leading football programs isn't going to change the situation.

The Big South is coming off a terrific season, its first since losing arguably its strongest program, Stony Brook, which had won a share of four straight titles from 2009-12. The Seawolves moved to CAA Football.

Without Stony Brook, which didn't fit in geographically, four of the six teams had winning records last year. Coastal Carolina was a Top 10 team nationally, reaching the FCS quarterfinals and winning a school-record 12 games. Liberty earned a share of the Big South title, while Charleston Southern won its first seven games en route to a school-record 10-win season. Plus, Gardner-Webb defeated three Top 15 teams in a surprising turnaround.

The situation in the NEC was even a little more dire than the Big South's. The conference dropped from nine football programs to seven after losing Albany, which had won a share of the 2011 and '12 titles and represented the NEC in the 2011 playoffs, to the CAA, and Monmouth to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The Hawks wanted to remain in the NEC for football only, but the conference said no.

What resulted in the wake of the losses was perhaps the best conference title race in all the FCS. The race went down to the final day of the regular season and Sacred Heart, which represented the NEC in the national playoffs, shared the title with Duquesne at 4-2 in conference play. Three other teams were just one game behind, and the other two teams were only two games behind in a tight bunch.

Without Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, the Southern Conference can no longer be talked about as being one of the elite FCS conferences. The CAA, Big Sky and Missouri Valley are now the trio in that conversation.

But the SoCon remains in the next tier with the Ohio Valley and Southland conferences, and can shoot for added prominence again after this transition period, which will last beyond this season as the new teams settle in.

Wofford has enjoyed terrific success under coach Mike Ayers, while Chattanooga is primed for a banner season after sharing last year's title with Furman and Samford, who represented the conference in the national playoffs.

Mercer's program appears on the rise, although it's adding scholarships for the first time this year and needs time to continue raising its stature. VMI isn't ready to excel in a conference that also includes The Citadel and Western Carolina.

The success of East Tennessee State's return to football also seems like a long-term answer for the SoCon.

One program, and probably more, need to rise to a higher level - a national championship-type level.

But the Big South and NEC races in 2013 should serve notice that the SoCon can band together in tough times.

And don't forget, the Southern Conference race was pretty solid even when Appalachian State and Georgia Southern made their final laps last year and finished just .500 in conference play.

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