On Saturday morning, Furman's football team will load up on busses in Greenville, S.C., and head two short hours through mostly mountains to Cullowhee, N.C.
The FCS nationally ranked Paladins (5-1 with just a loss at SEC's South Carolina), hope to drive home Saturday night with a win over fellow Top 10 opponent Western Carolina (5-1 with an Arkansas loss) — but man, there may be a few points scored before any resolution is to come. And the FCS Nation will be paying close attention to the 2:30 p.m. ET kickoff, which can be viewed on ESPN+ for those who subscribe to the service. Furman is No. 4 in the Stats-Perform national poll, and WCU is No. 8.
Furman has won 14 Southern Conference championships since the I-AA/FCS ranks began in 1978. Western Carolina has won none. There's almost no question that title will come through this game.
The two programs have met every year since the I-AA/FCS level was created, and Furman leads 35-13-2 all-time since they first played in 1971. But history guarantees absolutely nothing this week, and the Catamounts have a loud home-field crowd advantage at E.J. Whitmore Stadium, as well as the nation's top offense (500+ yards per game). So far, this looks like the best WCU team since the 1983 I-AA national runner-up (but that team didn't win the SoCon).
Obviously, both teams want to hammer each other, but when asked by FanBuzz, they did agree on one thing: This year's SoCon "strength" situation is stronger than in the past, and they'd like to rival the dominant trio of the Big Sky, CAA, and MVFC in 2023. Both programs feel there are multiple SoCon teams that can make a serious dent in the FCS playoff structure. They both respect ranked No. 21 Chattanooga immensely, and programs like Mercer and Samford could throw a wrench in any team's day, too. If you dig that "us against the world" mentality, you'll find it among the SoCon crowd. They're sick of being blown off, nationally.
"We have really good teams and coaches in this league," Furman head coach Clay Hendrix told FanBuzz. "I think we all play an SEC team or ACC team, and we're in a league where everybody has to play everybody. You have to prepare every year for a team like The Citadel with the triple-option, with just a few days to get ready for it. Or a Samford with their offense (Air Raid style, known was the "Hatch Attack" there because of head coach Chris Hatcher). And at Western (Carolina), Kerwin (Bell)'s got them believing and playing at a high level. Where is the easy game?"
Hendrix's stud offensive lineman Jacob Johanning agreed.
"I think the SoCon can bring it," he told FanBuzz this week. "Obviously I don't have a lot of experience playing the teams from out west, but from what I've seen and my experience, I think it starts with Chattanooga and Western (Carolina) and us this year, and I think all three of us are the real deal."
The pleasantries and agreements end there.
Western Carolina has scored 178 points in its past three games. Star WCU RB Desmond Reid has been a big part of it but did exit the last game late with an injury. Now Reid has had two weeks to rest (WCU was open last weekend) and how much he'll figure into this weekend's game will come down to how the coaching staff looks at things come game time. But the run game and passing game at WCU have both been stout this year. Furman has scored 27 or more points on every FCS conquest this year, so it would seem there will be offensive fireworks on Saturday afternoon up in Cullowhee.
Both teams expect noise, too. Even when WCU has struggled in recent years, Catamounts fans show up. And with Furman being a nearby conference rival, one can be sure there won't be any extra room in the stands this weekend. WCU has been just short of 100 percent capacity all year, averaging just a shade under 14,000 fans a game — better than six FBS programs, currently.
"It's my favorite venue to play in on the road," Furman senior DB Hugh Ryan told FanBuzz. "It's a cool location in the mountains and their fan base? You can tell they care a lot about it. They're pretty passionate about their team, and that's the impressive thing about it. Their fans are into it, and now they're experiencing success and they're even more passionate about it."
Ryan and Johanning both said the WCU fans can be ... well ... obnoxious (OK, we're paraphrasing). They'll hover over you while you're on the sidelines, look up details about your personal life, then throw it back at the players. In other words, they're pretty normal fans. And they don't like Furman — a SoCon and FCS/I-AA blue blood that wins lots of SoCon titles and makes the playoffs, like last year when the Paladins nearly went three rounds.
"Furman has won a lot more championships than we have," Western Carolina quarterback Cole Gonzales told FanBuzz. "They expect to win. They're smart, and they have a lot of guys who've played before and depth that has played before.
"But they're coming to our place, so watch out."
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