Saturday, November 26, 2022

Furman set to host Elon in FCS playoff opener

Furman noseguard Cameron Coleman (0) is one of 12 Paladins to earn
All-Southern Conference honors this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the first time in 17 years, Paladin Stadium is set for some postseason football. Eleventh-ranked Furman will host No. 12 Elon Saturday at noon in the opening round of the FCS playoffs. It's the Paladins' first home playoff game since a 14-12 win over Nicholls State in the opening round of the 2005 playoffs. Saturday's winner will travel to San Antonio to play at seventh-seeded Incarnate Word next Saturday.

"It's an exciting time for us. This never gets old when you get this opportunity," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "To win this thing by having to go on the road for five weeks is a pretty tough challenge, so having the chance to play at home is huge.

"I'm thankful to our administration. When we came back here as a staff we put in some fund-raising efforts to help us make a good, strong bid (to host a first-round game). For our football team, I think what I'm most proud about is the improvement we've made all year. We're certainly playing our best football, which we need to be."

The Phoenix (8-3) come into Greenville with statistical numbers that look quite a bit like Furman (9-2). Elon leading rusher Jalen Hampton has 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns on 221 carries (4.6 yards per carry). Furman leading rusher Dominic Roberto has 963 yards and 10 touchdowns on 159 attempts (6.1 ypc).

Elon's second-leading rusher is quarterback Matthew McKay, who has 406 yards and three touchdowns on 108 attempts (3.8 ypc). Furman's second-leading rusher is quarterback Tyler Huff, who has 537 yards and five touchdowns on 86 carries (6.2 ypc). McKay has completed 177-of-283 passes for 2,471 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 157.5 Huff is 167-of-238 passing for 1,888 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions for a rating of 149.8.

Elon has allowed 200 points this season and its defense has 66 tackles-for-loss, including 34 sacks, and has forced 21 turnovers. Furman has given up 203 points and its defense has 77 tackles-for-loss, including 25 sacks, and forced 24 turnovers.

"We're built similarly. They want to rush the football and be efficient throwing it. One thing that's stood out from talking with folks that's faced them is their appearance. With their size and length, they're an impressive looking group," Hendrix said. "Their quarterback was at N.C. State then Montana State. He's a big tall guy who's accurate and is certainly a threat to run. ... Their running back is a Virginia Tech transfer and they're really big up front with big receivers as well.

"Defensively, their numbers are really outstanding in a a really good league."

Furman will be going for its sixth win in seven playoff games against current Colonial Athletic Association teams. The Paladins will also try to earn the Southern Conference some much needed respect on a national level. While the nine-team SoCon still has the wild concept of every team playing one another every season, the 13-team CAA gets multiple playoff bids each year for teams who often have conveniently not faced one another.

That wasn't the case for Elon this year though. The Phoenix went 4-1 against FCS playoff teams this season, including a 3-1 mark against fellow CAA playoff teams. Elon handed fifth-seeded William and Mary its only loss this season with a 35-31 road win on Sept. 24.

"They're one of the ones that played all their league teams that got in. I think that's huge for their credit," Hendrix said. "We have a lot of respect for them and we've had a couple of really good games against them right when we first got back here. ... We will certainly have to be at our best this weekend."

Despite having four SoCon teams ranked in the top 20 of the Stats Perform (media) poll much of the second half of the season, only sixth-seeded Samford and Furman made the 24-team playoff field. Chattanooga was upset in the regular season finale for the second consecutive year when it fell at Western Carolina last Saturday, while Mercer was snubbed after a 50-44 double overtime loss at Samford.

Perhaps if Mercer had not taken its league champion to double overtime on the road and instead lost by five touchdowns like Montana did at Montana State last week, it could've made the field and gotten a home game to boot. The Grizzlies (7-4) will be going for their first win over a team with a record of better than 4-7 this season when they host Southeast Missouri State (9-2) Saturday. SEMO, which has one win over a team with a winning record, got the Ohio Valley Conference's autobid on a coin flip after it finished tied with Tennessee-Martin atop the OVC standings at ... 5-0.

Losing down the stretch didn't prevent CAA member Delaware from also making the field and also getting rewarded with a home game. The Blue Hens (7-4), losers of four of their last six games including a 27-7 loss at Elon, get to host St. Francis (Pa.), champions of the 45-scholarship limit Northeast Conference. NEC teams are 1-12 all-time in the FCS playoffs.

So why Elon?

Every team in the FCS playoffs is supposedly "good," so every matchup is supposedly "tough." But between teams buying home games in the opening round - and perhaps buying their way into the field seemingly this season - and making the the playoffs via coin flips after playing only five conference games, the whole FCS postseason system seems more out of whack than ever.

A case in that point is this Saturday's game in Greenville. In a 24-team field, how is it that the 11th and 12th-ranked teams square off in round one? Even with "regional matchups" factored in, this just doesn't make sense. In a real tournament where every team was seeded, Furman would be considered a No. 10 seed based off of being aligned with No. 7 seed UIW. That would mean the Paladins' opponent would be the No. 23 seed, which certainly would not be Elon.

"I'll be honest with you. I'm not real crazy about the (selection) process," Hendrix said. "I think it needs to be tweaked. I can't say I was surprised it was Elon, because I knew they would be a possibility but I thought others might be more of a possibility. ... I was just really excited to have a home game."

In a logical playoff system, Furamn's opponent Saturday should more likely have been unranked ASUN/WAC automatic qualifier Eastern Kentucky, unranked Big South champion Gardner-Webb or unranked Davidson, the automatic qualifier of the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Gardner-Webb and Davidson didn't register among others receiving votes in the final Stats Perform poll.

Instead, 7-4 Eastern Kentucky is hosting Gardner-Webb with the winner getting on a bus to travel to fifth-seeded William and Mary. Meanwhile, Richmond - which lost at Elon in double overtime this season - gets to host Davidson Saturday.

In this week's scientific Massey Ratings, Furman is rated ninth, Elon 19th, Richmond 20th, Eastern Kentucky 31st, Gardner-Webb 44th and Davidson checks in at 98th.

A dozen Paladins earn All-SoCon honors

While Saturday will be Furman's first home playoff game since 2005, this season also marks the Paladins' highest win total since 2005. That season came up again this week when three offensive linemen earned first team All-SoCon honors for the first time since 2005.

Tackles Anderson Tomlin and Pearson Toomey and guard Jacob Johanning made the Coaches' first team along with All-American tight end Ryan Miller. Furman had two first team picks on defense in noseguard Cameron Coleman and free safety Hugh Ryan.

Second-team selections were running back Dominic Roberto, cornerback Travis Blackshear, linebacker Braden Gilby, and return specialist Wayne Anderson. Bandit Alex Maier and safety Caleb Williams represented Furman on the All-Freshman team.

"I could go back and look at some playoff teams we've had here and say, 'yeah, I knew that team could line up and play with anybody.' For others I might say, 'if we could win a game,' " Hendrix said. "What's excited me about this team all year long is that I think we can line up and play with anybody. We will have our work cut out for us Saturday, but I just think we're a team that can do that."

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