Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The retooled Southern Conference hopes the 2013 football season was a good sign for the future.
With traditional powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern making their final lap around the conference, the title race was quite good even though neither team made a serious run at the crown.
Chattanooga, Samford and Furman all tied for the SoCon crown at 6-2, two games ahead of a four-team logjam that included ASU and GSU.
With those two teams moving to the FBS level and Elon to the Colonial Athletic Association this year, VMI, a SoCon member from 1924-2003, will return to the conference, though likely as one of the lower-tier teams. Also, Mercer's growing program comes aboard and could become a title factor in the not-to- distant future.
In another year, East Tennessee State will debut in the SoCon to push the conference back to nine teams.
It's not the same old SoCon, but parity appears more evident.
Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Tennessee at Chattanooga was the one team among the three tri-champions not to qualify for the FCS playoffs. In fact, the Mocs, who boast the return of conference players of the year in quarterback Jacob Huesman and defensive end Davis Tull, haven't been to the postseason since 1984.
As The Citadel's new head coach, Mike Houston will keep the triple option going with the Bulldogs' offense. The Bulldogs dropped from 7-4 in 2012 to 5-7 this past season.
Wofford's triple option looks to get back on track after a disappointing 5-6 season. Halfback Will Gay averaged nearly seven yards a carry, but the team was down 80 rushing yards per game. This year's team is returning three starters on the offensive line.
As coach Mark Speir tries to rebuild Western Carolina's struggling program, he has building blocks in the five players who made the SoCon all-freshman team last year. That tied for the conference high.
Coach Bruce Fowler did a superb job in getting Furman to rebound from a 2-4 start to earn a share of the SoCon title and then add a playoff win in its 8-6 season. He returns plenty of quality starters on both sides of the ball, although the loss of kicker/punter Ray Early can't be underestimated.
In VMI's first year back in the SoCon, coach Sparky Woods has to replace a bunch of top seniors from last season. At quarterback, redshirt freshman Al Cobb will have an opportunity to replace the departed Eric Kodenbrock.
Having played and coached in the Southern Conference at Furman, Bobby Lamb returns to the conference as Mercer's second-year head coach. The Bears finished 10-2 in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League last year.
Furman defensive end Shawn Boone returns as a fifth-year senior. He has made 26 career starts, but was lost to injury after two games last season.
Chattanooga's conference-best defense gets back a trio of injured players in defensive tackle Derrick Lott, defensive end Zach Rayl and cornerback Sema'je Kendall.
Western Carolina has a deep wide receiving corps and none of the players is more dangerous than redshirt junior Karnorris Benson, who caught 12 touchdowns last season.
VMI wants the ball in the hands of junior wide receiver Sam Patterson, who averaged 17 yards per catch and reached the end zone eight times last season.
Samford has brought in touted transfer Michael Eubank from Arizona State to perhaps replace quarterback Andy Summerlin. But returnees Carson Barnette, Tyler Small, Albert Mitchell and Drew Pederson are in the mix as well.
Mercer is building its running game. Not only were JeTarii Donald and Payton Usher outstanding as freshman backs last year, but redshirt freshman Alex Lakes is ready to grab playing time this year.
Both of the Wofford safety spots are up for grabs between four likely candidates.
A running back platoon might be in order at Western Carolina as the Catamounts can call on Darius Ramsey, Shaun Warren and Garry Lewis.
Wofford usually has a dominating defensive presence and this year it might be defensive end Tarek Odom.
Samford wide receiver Karel Hamilton played well as a freshman in 2013, but he's ready for the next step this season.
Slotback Vinny Miller was The Citadel's third running option last year, but this season the Bulldogs will rely on him extensively.
While Furman's veteran defense loses a starting cornerback and a safety, the replacements, Jamarri Milliken and Trey Robinson, may be even better.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
While Mercer was terrific against the run last season, it was porous against the pass.
Samford has to cut down on the 31 sacks allowed last season.
Furman wants to produce more explosive plays on offense, and quarterback Reese Hannon, 1,000-yard rusher Hank McCloud and enough wide receivers return with even more experience.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Tennessee at Chattanooga: March 2-April 11
The Citadel: Feb. 18-March 15
Furman: March 18-April 5
Mercer: March 3-April 5
Samford: March 7-April 11
Western Carolina: March 18-April 12
Wofford: March 3-April 2
VMI: March 22-April 26