Appy team to beat in SoCon

By Matt Hill

   Predictions: 1. Appalachian State, 2. Georgia Southern, 3. East Tennessee State, 4. Western Carolina, 5. Furman, 6. The Citadel, 7. Wofford, 8. Chattanooga, 9. VMI
   After standing in the shadows of Furman and Georgia Southern the last few seasons, the Appalachian State Mountaineers should be the team standing alone on top of the Southern Conference this season.
   The Mountaineers return much of their team back, while Georgia Southern and Furman suffered major graduation losses. This makes Appalachian the favorite win the league.
   The Eagles shouldn't fall too far despite losing head coach Paul Johnson, All-American fullback Adrian Peterson and quarterback J.R. Revere, because they have much of the defense and most of the offensive line back.
   East Tennessee State and Western Carolina could be able to challenge for the title this season. The Bucs return all 11 starters on defense, while Western Carolina returns some explosive offensive weapons.
   Furman, who was in the 1-AA championship game a year ago, was hurt the most by graduation. Plenty of talent remains, so expect the Paladins to remain competitive.
   The Citadel should be much improved, and Wofford has the potential to bounce back from a disappointing 2001 campaign.
   Chattanooga could also surprise, while VMI should once again bring up the rear in its last season in the Southern Conference.
   Most coaches try to play down their role as favorites, and Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore is one of them.
   "Sounds like all those guys have been drinking," Moore said when asked about being the favorite to win the Southern Conference.
   But all evidence is pointing to the Mountaineers winning it all. The Mountaineers have many weapons back, while other teams are rebuilding.
   One weapon in Moore's arsenal is quarterback Joe Burchette. He had a streak of eight-straight games with a touchdown pass last season, and finished the year with 184 completions in 339 pass attempts.
   "The thing about Joe is he is beginning to emerge and change as a leader," Moore said.
   Jerry Beard becomes ASU's featured running back after rushing for 855 yards last season. He has 1,429 career rushing yards, and should become the eighth Mountaineer player to clip the 2,000 yard mark for a career.
   On defense, the Mountaineers are led by All-American defensive end Josh Jeffries. Jefferies is Appalachian State's career leader in quarterback sacks.
   Also on Appalachian's stout defense is lineman K.T. Stowall. He led the Mountaineers last season with 17 tackles for loss.
   If the Mountaineers do win the league, they would have earned it. In addition to a date at 1-A Marshall, Appalachian must face Georgia Southern, ETSU and Western Carolina on the road.
   The Eagles lost a legendary coach and a legendary player, but new head coach Mike Sewak has plenty of talent remaining to make a run at the Southern Conference title.
   Former head coach Paul Johnson left to try and resurrect the Navy program, and record-setting fullback Adrian Peterson is now playing for the Chicago Bears. Also gone is quarterback J.R. Revere from a team that made the national semifinals last season.
   The Eagles may have lost some key personnel, but not many people believe GSU is going to fall too far off the SoCon map this season.
   "I think people looked through the numbers and saw that we had a good defense," Sewak said.
   That defense is led by national defensive player-of-the-year candidate Freddy Pesqueira. Pesqueira finished last season with 103 tackles.
   Linebacker Joe Scott and strong safety David Young are also back from the Southern Conference's best defense in 2001.
   Chaz Williams and Trey Hunter will battle for the starting quarterback job, while Hakim Ford is leading the charge to replace Peterson.
   Even though some question marks abound, Sewak says the goals haven't changed.
   "Our goal is still the same," Sewak said. "Our goal is to win the national championship."
   Bill Bleil seemed to have a bright future with Western Carolina after earning Coach-of-the-Year honors in the SoCon last season, and leading the Catamounts to a 7-4 overall record. But in a strange twist, Bleil was fired during the off-season.
   Enter Kent Briggs, who inherits a team with a load of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the football.
   Briggs knows his team has a lot of talent, but is not getting too caught up in the hype.
   "We've got to go out there and win one game at a time, and take it one play at a time," Briggs said.
   With Peterson and Louis Ivory now out of the conference, the SoCon's premier running back might be Western Carolina's Fred Boateng. He rushed for 1,225 yards last season, and is only a junior.
   Explosive wide receiver Michael Banks also returns. He's a two-time All-Southern Conference pick.
   On defense, free safety Justin Fryer and linebacker Nick McNeil were also All-Southern Conference picks last season, and they're back to provide leadership.
   Western does travel to Auburn this season, but the Catamounts have Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and ETSU at home.
   The Paladins have the most rebuilding to do after a spectacular year in 2001. It was a season that saw Furman avenge a regular-season loss to Georgia Southern in the national semifinals.
   Furman then lost to Montana in the 1-AA championship game, then lost head coach Bobby Johnson to Vanderbilt.
   The Paladins also lost many All-Conference players, including former Walter Payton Award winning tailback Louis Ivory and linebacker Will Bouton.
   Furman didn't look far for its coaching replacement, as assistant Bobby Lamb takes over for Johnson.
   Lamb thinks the fact they kept it in house will help the Paladins make a smooth transition.
   "It's not quite as big of a change as it seems on the outside," Lamb said.
   Billy Napier enters his second season at quarterback after completing 62.3 percent of his passes last season. His favorite target will most likely be Bear Rinehart, who caught 34 passes in 2001.
   Furman lost seven starters on defense, but defensive tackle Lebryan Sperling has started 31 games in his career and is a force to be reckoned with.
   Furman's first game should be the most intriguing of all the Non-Conference games involving SoCon teams. The Paladins play Coach Johnson's Vanderbilt Commodores Sept. 7 in Nashville.
   The Bulldogs showed a lot of promise last season despite winning only two Southern Conference games. The Citadel returns most of its personnel from a team that lost to Appalachian State 8-6, Georgia Southern 14-6 and Western Carolina 28-25.
   "A lot of people feel like we're going to be a better football team," The Citadel head coach Ellis Johnson said. "I think we've got a chance to be. But we've got some huge questions marks that are going to have to be answered."
   The Citadel might have been picked even higher if it wasn't for quarterback Mazzie Drummond's academic woes. That position will now go to Auburn transfer Jeff Klein or Joe Call.
   The strength of the team seems to be on defense, as linebacker Lamar Sales leads an experienced group.
   After talk about the Terriers maybe challenging Georgia Southern, Furman and Appalachian State in 2001, Wofford bombed out at 4-7 overall and 3-5 in Southern Conference play.
   "It was not a good year," Wofford head coach Mike Ayers said. "Our expectations were extremely high, and things didn't work out. But last year's gone and this year is a new year."
   The Terriers lost quarterback Travis Wilson to graduation, but return fullback Melvin Jones. Jones rushed for 905 yards in 2001.
   On defense, nose tackle Nathan Fuqua is a three-time All-Southern Conference selection. Fuqua is the school's all-time leader for tackles for loss.
   Also back on defense is Matt Nelson, who also was an All-SoCon pick a year ago.
   Chattanooga head coach Donnie Kirkpatrick hopes that the medical bills won't be as high for his football players this season.
   Injuries decimated the Mocs' program in 2001, which led to a 3-8 season (1-7 in SoCon).
   Kirkpatrick thinks if the Mocs stay healthy, they could improve this year.
   "We should be vastly improved," Kirkpatrick said. "Last year I thought we were rebuilding a little bit, and that was before we were going to get all those guys injured. I thought this year we would have a chance to be a little bit better, and we should be.
   The Mocs might have gotten a lot better with the transfer of UCLA quarterback Ryan McCann. Kirkpatrick believes he can be one of the top players in the SoCon.
   "He's a good player," Kirkpatrick said. "He's as good a player as the league's got. He's 6-4 about 235 pounds. He runs really well and throws really well. He's really fit into our system, and has fit in really well with our kids."
   The defense has a lot of question marks, but linebacker Josh Cain was a second-team All-American last season.
   The Keydets will be leaving the Southern Conference after this season to join the Big South. VMI head coach Cal McCombs hopes that the Keydets last season in this league will be one to remember.
   "The players are wanting to go out with a bang," McCombs said.
   The Keydets can only go up. VMI finished last season 1-10 overall (1-7 in SoCon).
   VMI does have nine starters on offense returning, including quarterback Joey Gibson. Gibson completed 52 percent of his passes in 2001.
   Lineman Matt Kluk and linebacker Chris Walsh lead a VMI defense that returns eight starters.