The USA South conference this year as I see it will have a lot of parity. There are teams that will be losing a lot of players to graduation, and have many holes to fill, and others who were not hit as hard by the four year flu.
Below is a team by team breakdown of what I expect this year from the teams in the USA South.
Averett finished on an upswing last season winning 3 of their last four games. While the end of the season was positive, the first half was just the opposite. The Cougars lost three of their first four games, and ended the season 5-5.
Averett will enter the season with quite a few roster spots to fill. They lose 16 Seniors, and with that many vacancies, producing wins may again prove difficult early. Some bright spots from last year were that the Cougars led the conference in sacks. They were second only to Christopher Newport in turnover margin, and also finished second in punting to Ferrum.
Look for Averett to have some bright spots, but to finish about mid pack in the USA South.
Christopher Newport University
Dubbed the Nigerian nightmare, Tunde Ogun returns for CNU with high expectations for another successful season. After finishing third in the nation in rushing, Ogun looks at this year as his turn to claim the National rushing title.
Also returning is quarterback Matt Long. Long guided an effective offense, and looks to gain even more consistency as he settles in to the QB role ( He had been a defensive player before last year) The Captains finished 8-1 last year with their only loss coming from the encounter with Salisbury, 38-21.
While CNU does have some roster vacancies, especially along the line, they have reason to be optimistic. Joining the coaching staff this year is Bill Dee. Head Coach at Pheobus High School for 24 years, Coach Dee is well known for running a strong successful program at Phoebus, and will be a valuable addition to the coaching staff.
Look for CNU to again be a conference front runner, and potential automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division 3 tournament.
Fortunately for the Ferrum Panthers, they have a good number of returning starters, and should be solid for '09. So what will it take to win the conference championship? With the balance in the league, I see Ferrum needing to improve in a few areas. I am a believer in statistics, so judging by the year end numbers, I see the defensive secondary as the number one opportunity for the Panthers. While much improved, the secondary gave up a lot of yards through the air. Overall, Ferrum gave up 1390 passing yards to conference opponents. (An average of 198.5 yds. per game. There were 7 passing touchdowns earned by conference opponents this past year. Opponents passing statistics vs. Ferrum shape up as follows:
NCWC 311 yards 1 TD
Greensboro College 271 yards 3 TD's
Methodist University 269 yards 2 TD's
Averett University 185 yards 0 TD's
Maryville 169 yards 1 TD
CNU 116 yards 0 TD's
Shenandoah 78 yards 0 TD's
So what do these numbers mean? Possibly that Ferrum, who ranked last in the conference, and 172nd nationally in pass defense has some work to do in that area. (By the way...North Carolina Wesleyan ended the season ranked first in pass defense in the conference, and third in the nation)
Where does this start. I believe that Ferrum needs to apply more pressure to the opponents quarterback. In the category of quarterback sacks, Ferrum's defense ended the season ranked 161st nationally, and 6th in the conference. Ferrum has always defended the rush consistently, and I would expect this year to be no different. On Offense, look for the ground game to again be the main source of offensive yardage. With two mobile quarterbacks in Dobson and Mayo, Ferrum should have one of the best offenses in the conference if not in the nation. Look for Mike Vann to lead the Panthers on the ground, but success could be affected by the loss of O- Line standouts Nic King, and Adrian Baker.
Special teams will play a huge role as always, and look for the Panthers to improve in the field goal department. Punting was the main Special Teams bright spot as T.J. Grzesikowski led the nation in punting, and is a favorite to repeat this feat this coming season. Overall look for Ferrum to be a contender for the conference championship, but they must get by nemesis's Christopher Newport, and North Carolina Wesleyan.
After another disappointing season, the Pride may be the dark horse of the conference in 2009. With a new coach, and a new offensive coordinator, it looks like the Pride will do their part to shake things up in the conference. This coupled with the fact that they only lose 7 players to graduation, gives them a lot of returning experience. Time will tell how well they gel with the system that the new coaches bring, but they have no where to go but up. I think that they will improve, but this will not be a one season process. Look for them to surprise some teams, but don't look for them in the playoffs... yet.
Their roster has been dealt the most serious blow of any team in the conference. The Scots are losing 24 players to graduation. and on a team that could only manage .500, they will have an uphill battle this year. While last season held many disappointments, the season was not without bright spots. A win over N.C Wesleyan, and a seven point loss to Christopher Newport would on the surface give one the impression that the Scots were in the mix for the conference title. Losses to Ferrum, CNU, and Averett gave them a 4-3 conference record, and a fifth place finish overall. With the roster openings due to graduation, look for a rebuilding year in Tennessee, but they should not be totally dismissed.
The Monarchs will look to rebound from a poor showing in '08. With little damage from graduation, it would seem that Methodist will have a leg up in the experience department starting in 2009. In order to contend, they must vastly improve on both sides of the ball. They ranked 7th and 8th in the conference on offense and defense respectively. Quarterback Erik Teague will be returning for his Senior season, and his passing efficiency produced one of the few bright spots for the Monarchs.
With only two wins last year, I don't think that the experience factor will be enough this year. Look for another long season for Methodist.
North Carolina Wesleyan College
If NCWC's season in 2008 could be summed up in one word, it would be "almost". A one point loss to Christopher Newport, was the only thing that kept them from being the Automatic Qualifier for the USA South Conference. They lead the conference in 8 of the 17 statistical team categories in the conference. Looking ahead, there will be reason to expect the Battling Bishops to contend, but they will have to overcome a significant loss of Seniors.
Offensively, their backfield will be strong, as all were underclassmen. I predict another strong season, but it's hard to tell how the roster losses will affect them. My feeling is that Wesleyan will be a strong challenge to whomever they face.
The Hornets will show improvement this year, and may just pull an upset. This is always a tough team, and look for Shenandoah to be no different in 2009. With little damage done by graduation, look to see them hit hard, and make some teams take notice. This team should not be taken lightly, as they have the potential to improve, and with more consistency, they can contend for the conference title. I see them finishing mid pack, but are capable of better.
Overall, the USA South should be dominated by three teams this year- Christopher Newport, Ferrum, and North Carolina Wesleyan. Any of these teams can finish on top, but neither of them are a lock. Look for upsets this year, and parity. Look for teams that have not contended to make a difference in the conference outcome, and finally look for a close finish. My predictions will be posted later, but it will be a fun season. I can't wait for kickoff!