(STATS) - While the FCS playoffs are unchartered territory for The Citadel given it's been 23 years since its last postseason appearance, the Bulldogs do have a sense of familiarity with Saturday's first-round opponent and host Coastal Carolina.
It's been a season of overachieving for the 18th-ranked Bulldogs (8-3), who are in the playoffs for the first time since 1992. They claimed a share of the Southern Conference title under second-year coach Mike Houston, saw defensive lineman Mitchell Allen win the conference's defensive player of the year award and showed their mettle by bouncing back from their lone conference defeat at Chattanooga by stunning FBS opponent South Carolina 23-22 last Saturday.
Getting to this point shows just how long a road it was for Houston and The Citadel.
His first game in charge of the Bulldogs came against the Chanticleers, who opened that contest last Aug. 30 with an eight-play, 60-yard drive for a touchdown. After a Bulldogs turnover on the ensuing possession, Coastal Carolina punched in another touchdown after three plays to take a 14-0 lead after less than seven minutes en route to a 31-16 victory.
"That was our first game here. We were infants and they were already an established program," Houston recalled. "Obviously we are a lot different program now than we were then and we've come a long ways. I think the other thing that may tie in more so than that is the fact that so many of our players know so many of their players."
Coastal Carolina counterpart Joe Moglia is taking little from that victory as he's well aware The Citadel has evolved into a far tougher challenge, more so after its upset of the Gamecocks.
"That was their first game as a staff last year, now they've been together two years," said Moglia, whose team is ranked 10th, tied with South Dakota State in the STATS FCS Top 25. "You can't even compare those games, and they were effective moving the ball against us.
"I think they had a lot to play for and physically, they took it to South Carolina. They did an outstanding job against them."
Allen and the ball-hawking Bulldogs defense that recorded 17 interceptions and forced 25 turnovers will have their hands full with the Chanticleers. Alex Ross threw for 2,594 yards and 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions, and running back De'Angelo Henderson topped 1,000 yards for the second straight season, totaling 1,245 to go with 15 TDs.
Ross and Henderson were first-team all-Big South selections, and Henderson was named the conference's offensive player of the year. He also has an FCS-record streak of 25 games with at least one touchdown.
"This is the same lineup we face a year and a half ago," Houston said. "A lot of experience there, they have a talented group of receivers and a very big offensive line so the biggest thing is you can't focus on any one facet because they have so many weapons in all phases there on offense."
The Citadel will counter with its triple-option offense, which ranked second in the FCS in rushing at 344.3 yards per game and ninth in third-down conversions at 49.3 percent. Quarterback Dominique Allen finished with team highs of 717 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, leading six backs who racked up at least 400 yards.
"The offense is certain to be reckoned with, they run the triple-option with expertise," Moglia said. "They'll pass the ball when you're cheating and think you're stopping the run. They are tough, physical, aggressive kids."
Though Coastal Carolina has been ranked in the top 10 all year, this is its lowest spot after climbing as high as No. 2. It's also the fourth straight year the Chanticleers are in the FCS playoffs, something Moglia hopes will provide an advantage Saturday.
"It's an accomplishment but you're still getting ready for a game," he said. "It's a more important game than a normal game but if you don't win those games, you don't get to the playoffs. For us, having gotten to the playoffs four times in a row, we're very proud of it."
The winner of this game will face No. 8 seed and ninth-ranked Charleston Southern in the second round Dec. 5.