Sam Houston State, Central Arkansas clash for Southland title
(STATS) – While the FBS is littered with conference title games, the FCS is nearly void of them.
Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas are having one anyway.
It's an unofficial, de facto Southland Conference championship game Saturday when the top-ranked Bearkats (10-0, 8-0) host the No. 11 Bears (9-1, 8-0). While the only league with a true title game is the SWAC, Southland schedule makers must be pinching themselves because it's been 28 years since two teams with perfect conference records played for the championship in the final week.
“If we're in the top five in the country, then Central Arkansas should be in the top five in the country because it's like looking into a mirror,” Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler said.
Both teams are headed to the playoffs regardless of the result, but there's still plenty on the line – besides just a conference crown.
Keeler's squad can make a big statement to the FCS selection committee after cruising through a weak schedule and never really being challenged. SHSU won every game by at least 13 points behind an unstoppable offense led by likely Walter Payton Award candidate Jeremiah Briscoe. The Bearkats' average of 53.7 points is best in the country, about a touchdown better than second-place Ohio State, and so is their average of 592.4 total yards.
“A team with no discernible weaknesses,” Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell said. “Very strong, and they're at the top of the statistics nationally in many, many categories. Offensively, in about every category.”
They're not at the top, however, in the selection committee rankings. The Bearkats are only No. 5 on that list while the Bears are No. 7. The top eight seeds receive first-round byes, so it's very possible the loser Saturday won't get one.
A defeat would crush SHSU's hopes of earning one of the top two seeds, which receive home-field advantage through the semifinals. That's a very real and important possibility for a Bearkats team which is 37-2 at home since the start of 2011.
The Bears, on the other hand, have been road warriors. They've won nine straight away from home, including a 5-0 record this season which includes a win over FBS foe Arkansas State and a 35-0 thrashing of defending conference champion McNeese. In fact, Central Arkansas' four road wins over FCS schools have all been by at least 20 points, so it won't be scared going into Bowers Stadium.
While SHSU was the preseason favorite to win the conference, the Bears were picked to finish third, but it was hard to see this coming after the Bears lost in Week 2. However, that defeat was to a Samford team which now resides at No. 18 in the STATS FCS Top 25, and Central Arkansas has recovered to win eight in a row.
The Bearkats haven't faced anyone of that caliber. They didn't have to play the Southland's third-place team, Southeastern Louisiana, while the Bears whipped the Lions by 30 points on the road.
Sam Houston's only non-conference wins were against Division II Panhandle State and sub-.500 Texas Southern. Central Arkansas, meanwhile, lost by only six to Samford and defeated an Arkansas State team which is tied for the Sun Belt Conference lead.
“For the most part, we've been very dominant, but it's great to have a phenomenal opponent,” Keeler said. “We are playing one of the best teams in the country this weekend. So I think for both of us it's a big ballgame, an opportunity to move up.”
Central Arkansas ranks among the FCS' top 10 defensive teams, allowing 16.8 points and 300.7 yards per game. The Bears are No. 1 against the run – in FCS or FBS – at 67.8 yards per game.
However, they're not as good against the pass, and no offense passes better than the Briscoe-led Bearkats.
No one in all of college football has more touchdown passes than Briscoe's 45, and he has only seven interceptions in 377 attempts. The FCS' top-rated passer has thrown for 3,665 yards – good for third among quarterbacks in both subdivisions – and he's been sacked just seven times.
“Tremendous poise in the pocket, he knows where he wants to go with the football,” Campbell said. “He's got great awareness, he never gets rattled. He's a very, very calming presence, and they play a fast-tempo offense. He's really got a great handle on everything that they're wanting to do. Outstanding football player.”
He could be a big problem for a Bears defense which just allowed 340 yards passing last week to Nicholls freshman Chase Fourcade and gave up 424 to Arkansas State's Justice Hansen. Each of those signal-callers had only one other 300-yard game all season. The best quarterback they've faced is Samford's Devlin Hodges – the FCS' eighth-rated passer – and he picked apart the Bears for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
Central Arkansas employs a balanced offense, throwing and rushing for more than 2,000 yards apiece, as junior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand has had a solid season with 15 touchdowns through the air and four on the ground.
Keeping up with the Bearkats – on their home field, no less – is a different animal altogether. Then again, maybe the Bears defense is the one which can keep that scary offense in check.
“Defensively, they just fly to the ball,” Keeler said. “Steve has done a phenomenal job there. They've gotten better every single year. I think this is their best team, and this is one of best defenses I've seen.”