(STATS) - As expected, Chattanooga is entering its final conference game trying to nail down the Southern's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
Completely unexpected, though, is The Citadel - alone atop the conference - trying to keep that berth from the Mocs in Saturday's showdown between the Southern's two ranked teams in the STATS FCS Top 25.
The Bulldogs (7-2, 6-0) - picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches poll - seek their first outright Southern Conference title since 1992, which is also the last time they reached the FCS playoffs.
The eighth-ranked Mocs (7-2, 5-1) were a unanimous preseason pick to win a third straight conference title but must win this game to defend the crown.
"It's probably the biggest game since we've been here with so much on the line," coach Russ Huesman said.
They were undone by four turnovers in a 17-14 loss at Mercer last Saturday, ending their 12-game conference winning streak. Coach's son Jacob Huesman completed 15 of 21 passes for 197 yards but had two interceptions as Chattanooga lost for the first time since a season-opening 23-20 defeat to current No. 1 Jacksonville State.
"Obviously we're going to have to play better than we did last week," the elder Huesman said. "By better, I mean we can't turn the ball over four times in a game and not get it in on the 1-yard line with two shots at it."
Even with Jacob Huesman coming off a subpar game, Bulldogs coach Mike Houston knows his team must contain the senior quarterback, who is 121 rushing yards shy of becoming the sixth FCS quarterback to reach 1,000 in both passing and rushing in consecutive seasons. He's run for 280 yards over the past two games.
"You've got to account for him, both in the run game and the pass game," said Houston, who watched Huesman rack up 244 total yards and three touchdowns in last year's 34-14 Chattanooga victory. "He's what makes their offense go ... he's the engineer that makes everything work."
There are two ways the 21st-ranked Bulldogs can limit Huesman. The first is with their ball-hawking pass defense, which is tied for the FCS lead with 17 interceptions - four of which they've returned for touchdowns - and tied for third with five TD passes allowed. It's a stunning reversal from last year when The Citadel picked off only three passes and gave up 18 passing touchdowns.
"There was a lot of improvement that needed to be made, a lot of room there with the potential we had on the roster," Houston said. "Our defensive coaches put a lot of emphasis on forcing turnovers ... I think the buy-in of the players and the way they've responded has really been the difference on the field Saturdays."
The other is running their option offense effectively to keep Huesman off the field. The Citadel has averaged 355.2 rushing yards and 5.8 per carry during its five-game winning streak, and six of the 18 rushing touchdowns in that span have been 34 yards or longer.
The Mocs have some familiarity defending it since Wofford also runs the option, but Russ Huesman noted that could also work against them.
"It helps that we've played an option team like Wofford but it also can help The Citadel because they can see how we defended it," he said. "If you give them a seam, it's 80 yards, so we have to be really sound."
The Citadel's option attack relies on sophomore quarterback Dominique Allen's decision-making and a deep corps of backs. Allen leads the Bulldogs with 633 rushing yards and is one of seven players with at least 200 as they've averaged 5.8 per carry, good for fourth in the FCS.
CATAMOUNTS WAIT IN THE WINGS=
While the talk of the Southern Conference is the Chattanooga-Citadel showdown, Western Carolina is the only other team with a winning record in conference play and could finish tied for second if the Bulldogs beat the Mocs. First, though, is a second road contest this season against an SEC opponent as the Catamounts face Texas A&M at College Station on Saturday.
Western Carolina (6-3, 4-2) has won five of six since a 55-10 loss at Tennessee on Sept. 19, and bounced back from a 41-13 loss at Chattanooga by routing Furman 48-10 as Troy Mitchell threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns to wrap up a 5-0 mark at home. While the Catamounts are receiving votes in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, coach Mark Speir refuses to get drawn into the playoff debate until after they close the season at VMI.
"Right now, all we can do is prepare and go down and play the very best we can against Texas A&M, and then come back and go up to VMI the next week," he said. "I think if you're at the top tier of your conference - top two-to-three of your conference - you hope the playoffs thoughts are there. That's not for us to decide."
After finally winning a close game and springing the biggest upset of the season in Southern play, Mercer (4-5, 1-4) tries to avoid a letdown at Furman (4-5, 2-3). The Bears held off the Mocs by forcing four turnovers, and equally impressive, killed off the game with their four-minute offense after Zach Jackson intercepted a pass at Mercer's own 16-yard line.
Mercer had suffered its five losses this year by a combined 22 points, including a one-point defeat on a missed extra point in overtime and two on fourth-quarter touchdowns with under two minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
"You're just happy for your kids and I want to give a shout-out to our players who really hung in there," coach Bobby Lamb said. "They believe in our system, they believe in the process and at the end of the day, there's got to be some results. We finally got the results we wanted. It was a great win for us and we're proud of it."
BULLDOGS SEEKING PRIDE=
While the season has not gone according to plan for Samford (4-5, 1-4), it can end on a three-game win streak with victories at Wofford (4-5, 2-3) and Mercer. The Bulldogs finally got their defense on track, ripping Clark Atlanta 43-0 after yielding 120 points during a three-game losing streak that scuttled their conference title hopes.
"We're playing a team that this week has the same record as we do," coach Chris Hatcher said. "So, I think it's going to come down to who's the most motivated team on Saturday, and right now I'm feeling really good about where we are."
Redshirt freshman Devlin Hodges has thrown for 987 yards and seven touchdowns starting the last three games.