Sam Houston, C. Arkansas meet in pivotal Southland matchup

(STATS) – If it’s possible to have a de facto conference championship game on the first weekend of October, this is it.

The early date for Sam Houston State taking on Central Arkansas is a surprise – some even may say a faux pas – not only because the past four meetings came in the final game of the regular season, but the last two came with high stakes. Most expected this year’s to be the same, so it would have seemed the Southland Conference schedule makers should have built the drama a while longer.

Instead, the Southland title picture will become very clear – if not all but decided – when the third-ranked Bearkats visit the No. 11 Bears on Saturday.

Besides being the conference’s only two ranked teams, they were the only ones to receive first-place votes in the Southland’s preseason poll after being the league’s only playoff qualifiers last year. Sam Houston enters on a 12-game conference winning streak, and Central Arkansas’ only two losses in its last 15 Southland games were both to the Bearkats.

The teams played an unofficial conference title game in the 2016 regular-season finale, having both entered with perfect records in league play. SHSU won that one 59-23 and beat Central Arkansas 42-13 in 2015, which likely wrapped up an at-large playoff berth for the Bearkats and sent the Bears packing.

“It seemed like last year the conference championship was on the line and year before, we felt like even though we were 7-4 and didn’t get in the playoffs, it felt like if we had won that one we definitely would have got in,” Bears coach Steve Campbell said. “So there has been a lot riding on it at the end of the year.”

Though Campbell’s club was blown out both times, there’s reason to think this showdown could be a lot more interesting. Besides the fact that the game is in Conway, Arkansas, the Bears are coming off a bye week after manhandling their previous two opponents by a combined 79-19 score.

The Bearkats were coming off a bye leading into their matchup with an upstart Nicholls squad last Saturday and rolled to a 66-17 victory over the Colonels, who two weeks earlier had given Texas A&M a scare.

“(Central Arkansas is) coming off a bye week, and you can see how that changed us in terms of having fresh legs and having everyone back,” Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler said. “And it’s also at their place, tough place to play. I’m sure its gonna be a great crowd, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Part of the challenge is that Central Arkansas appears to have a more potent offense than in previous years. The Bears are averaging 460 total yards, even getting 421 in a season-opening loss at Kansas State. They scored on three of their first four possessions with lengthy drives before the Wildcats slowed them down.

Senior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand is in his third season as the starter and looks better than ever, completing 73.8 percent of his passes to rank second in the FCS. His 9.29 yards per attempt and 167.4 passer rating put him among the top 15.

“I really like their scheme offensively,” Keeler said. “Poses a lot of problems, just ask Kansas State. They were trying to figure it out for the first half. Quarterback’s really efficient, very good football player.”

Keeler does have the better quarterback, however. Jeremiah Briscoe is the reigning STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner and is off to another terrific start, throwing for more than 1,000 yards with 10 TDs during the Bearkats’ 3-0 start.

Facing the Central Arkansas defense should be his toughest test in conference play, though Briscoe tore up that unit for seven touchdown passes last year. This Bears defense has seven sacks after being one of 20 FCS teams last season to finish with at least 30.

Briscoe, though, has been sacked just twice through three games after being sacked eight times in the 2016 regular season.

“I think people have really overlooked the job our offensive line has done this year,” Briscoe said. “You can’t get in that rhythm and that zone without those guys up front protecting you.”

SHSU has racked up at least 500 yards of offense in each of the past three matchups with the Bears and won them all. However, all of those games came at the end of a grinding regular season.

The Bears are a lot fresher this time, not just because this is only their fourth game of the season, but it comes following a week off.

“The bye week came at a good time to be able to implement the gameplan against Sam Houston and get some extra work on that,” Campbell said. “I do think it came at a really opportune time for us.”