National title aspirations for SoCon's big three

By MATT HILL

STAR Staff

   Predictions: 1. Georgia Southern, 2. Furman, 3. Appalachian State, 4. Wofford, 5. East Tennessee State, 6. Western Carolina, 7. Chattanooga, 8. VMI, 9. The Citadel.
   The Big three in the automobile business are Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.
   The Big three in the Southern Conference all have connections to cars. Georgia Southern, Furman and Appalachian State look like they're driving toward the national championship.
   Georgia Southern is looking to repeat as Southern Conference and national champs. The Eagles seem to be heading in the right direction with Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Peterson coming back for his senior season.
   Furman doesn't look to be far behind as Walter Payton award winner Louis Ivory is back for his final campaign. The Paladins have Nov. 3 circled on their calendar, as they will be looking for two straight wins over the Eagles.
   Appalachian State has 13 starters returning from a squad that made it to the Division 1-AA semifinals just one year ago. With quarterback Joe Burchette leading the way, look for the Mountaineers to once again threaten for the conference title.
   Wofford is looking to break through this season, while ETSU, Chattanooga and Western Carolina all have to replace solid quarterbacks. That should make it tough for those schools to contend for the title.
   The military schools of VMI and The Citadel will most likely finish near the bottom once again.
   GEORGIA SOUTHERN
   The Eagles return 18 starters from last year's national championship team. That includes Peterson, who himself gives Georgia Southern another chance at all the marbles.
   Peterson was injured in the middle of last season and it showed. The Eagles lost to Furman 45-10. Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson believes keeping people healthy will be key for Georgia Southern to repeat as national champions.
   "We have to be injury free," Johnson said.
   Quarterback J.R. Revere returns for his senior season. Revere recorded four 100-yard rushing games, nine 100-yard passing games and scored 11 touchdowns.
   The offense should be explosive, but Johnson believes his defensive line could be just as good.
   "We're going to have a bunch of depth on the D-line," Johnson said. "We've probably got more guys up there than we've ever had that can play."
   That includes defensive tackle Freddy Pesqueira, a first team All-American last season.
   The secondary could be a question mark for Georgia Southern. Johnson will have to replace three seniors from last season.
   Georgia Southern will get Furman and Division 1-AA powerhouse Delaware at home this season. The Eagles will have a tough road game with Appalachian State on Oct. 13.
   FURMAN
  
Walter Payton award winning tailback Louis Ivory coming back is the good news for Paladin fans. The bad news for Furman is quarterback Justin Hill has departed.
   "We've got to replace a guy that I think put us back in the championship picture," Furman head coach Bobby Johnson said.
   Billy Napier is the heir apparent to Hill, who threw for over 1000 yards last year in an offense that was dominated mostly by Ivory.
   Ivory rushed for over 2000 yards during the Paladins 9-3 playoff season.
   The offensive line is also a big factor in Ivory's success. Center Chris Stewart and offensive guard Marty Priore are both All-Americans.
   The defense is headed up by All-American Will Bouton. Overall, the Paladins have 10 defensive starters returning.
   APPALACHIAN STATE
  
Last season the Mountaineers were unsettled at quarterback. But now, Joe Burchette has emerged and should propel Appalachian (10-4 in 2000) to the playoffs once again.
   Burchette became the starter in mid-season and shined. He threw for 2,364 yards and completed 16 touchdown passes.
   "His role has changed," Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore said. "Last year, he was an upstart quarterback. Now, he's got to become one of our team leaders."
   The Mountaineers return a good portion of their offensive line, which is anchored by center Tyler Elkins, a third team All-American.
   Senior Karim Razzak caught 25 passes out of the backfield in 2000. His rushing total of 394 should increase now that he is a full-time starter.
   On defense, linebacker Justin Seaverns recorded 80 tackles last season, while All-Conference defensive end Josh Jeffries also returns.
   WOFFORD
  
The Terriers look like the best of the rest. Wofford went 7-4 last season and was ranked No. 23 in last 1-AA poll.
   "We've been a play away," Wofford head coach Mike Ayers said. "When it's time for the big plays, you've got to make the plays."
   Quarterback Travis Wilson can certainly make the plays. He threw for 1203 yards and rushed for 779 last year.
   "He's an experienced quarterback that's a leader," Ayers said. "If Travis is healthy all year, we'll have a shot."
   Halfback Jesse McCoy is another offensive threat. He is averaging 8.1 yards per carry in his SoCon career.
   Nathan Fuqua returns to head up the defense. He recorded 66 tackles from the nose tackle position.
   WESTERN CAROLINA
  
The Catamounts have 10 offensive starters returning, but that one who is not coming back will really be missed.
   David Rivers, the quarterback that threw for over 2800 yards, has taken his act to the Canadian football league, leaving Brian Gaither to take over the reins.
   "He will be fine," Western Carolina head coach Bill Bleil said. "He's more athletic than Rivers. We think eventually he will be as good or better."
   Michael Banks is one of the SoCon's top receivers, catching 62 passes in 2000. Fred Boteng should become the focal part of the offense this year. He rushed for 968 yards last season.
   On defense, the Catamounts return one of the conference's top free safeties in Justin Fryer. He led the league with seven interceptions in 2000.
   CHATTANOOGA
  
The Southern Conference's most potent passing attack belonged to the Mocs last season. Quarterback Chris Sanders threw for 3,730 yards in 2000.
   But Sanders, along with talented receivers Richmond Flowers and Ronnie Strickland, are now gone. This leaves Chattanooga head coach Donnie Kirkpatrick some big shoes to fill.
   "When you lose the most productive passer in league history, you're going to have a big hole," Kirkpatrick said.
   Justin Barnes and Marshall transfer Chuck Spearman are battling for the starting spot.
   One wideout that is back happens to be Cos DeMatteo. He had 971 receiving yards and caught 11 touchdown passes.
   A Mocs defense that struggled last year should be better, as nine starters return.
   Kirkpatrick believes his team could take some lumps this season.
   "We're probably still a year away," Kirkpatrick said.
   VMI
  
The Keydets finished 2-9 last year, but there is some hope as 18 starters are back for 2001.
   "I think we're getting better," VMI head coach Cal McCombs said.
   Joey Gibson gives the Keydets good production at quarterback. Gibson threw for 1,439 yards last season.
   Gene Cauthen returns for his fourth year as a starting running back for the Keydets.
   Nose tackle Matt Kluk and inside linebacker Chris Walsh heads up what should be a much improved defense.
   McCombs is very optimistic.
   "We've got some experience and some depth," McCombs said. "Our kids are beginning to believe that we can be competitive."
   THE CITADEL
  
All-American Travis Stephens returns at linebacker, but it looks like it is going to be another long year for the Bulldogs.
   "We've got too many people leaving after one year," first-year head coach Ellis Johnson said. "Fourth and fifth year players on our level are the ones that make you a better football team."
   While the quarterback position still has to shake out, Maurice Murphy should be the star of the offense. Murphy rushed for 854 yards last season.
   Stephens and defensive tackle Travis Cunningham anchors the defense.