September 09, 2016

In the Southland and Southern conferences, there are the two teams at the top and then everyone else.

The winner between Central Arkansas and Samford on Saturday night would make a good case for being No. 3 in its league, and may even earn a number in the rankings.

Last year, Sam Houston State and McNeese were the only Southland teams to finish in the STATS FCS Top 25 and make the playoffs. It was the same in the SoCon with Chattanooga and The Citadel. So it comes as no surprise that those four teams comprise the two favorites in their respective leagues, and they're all ranked - in the top 15 no less - while none of their conference cohorts are.

It's very possible, however, they could have company after this week.

Though neither Central Arkansas nor Samford cracked the Top 25 following dominant season-opening wins, the Bears got the third-most votes among teams not to make it with 200 and the Bulldogs received 24 of their own. So a victory Saturday would almost certainly push Central Arkansas into the Top 25, and Samford may squeak in by beating a Bears team picked to finish third in the Southland and which suffered its only conference losses last season to Sam Houston and McNeese.

A 7-2 Southland record wasn't enough to get Central Arkansas a spot in the FCS playoffs, and Samford was a big reason why. The Bulldogs dominated the Bears in a 45-16 win to open last season, a loss that looked even worse to the playoff committee after Samford went 3-4 in SoCon play.

But the site for the rematch is a different one. This time the Bulldogs must head to "The Stripes" at Central Arkansas, the purple-striped field at Estes Stadium.

"I have not been since they installed the new turf," said Samford coach Chris Hatcher, who previously coached there while with Murray State. "It's a loud and a pretty rowdy crowd.

"And they're a big, physical football team. I think, last year was not indicative of how good of a team they had. We jumped on them early, hit them with some deep balls. We're going to have to do the same to get their crowd out of the game, and hopefully we'll be able to stop the run well like we did last season."

The Bears were held to 119 yards on the ground that day, their third-worst total of 2015. This season began in much different fashion, rushing for 283 yards and four touchdowns in last week's 56-13 rout of Houston Baptist.

"This week we're playing Samford and it's a totally different animal," UCA coach Steve Campbell said. "... They are very explosive offensively."

The Bulldogs put up 77 points in the opener, but it came against Division II Mars Hill. Devlin Hodges completed 39 of 49 passes for 313 yards and five touchdowns without an interception, finding freshman TaDarryl Marshall 14 times for 100 yards and a score.

It was a continuation of Hodges' impressive play from last season's 3-0 finish when he threw for 1,047 yards and seven TDs, growing more accustomed to playing in the fast-paced Samford offense.

"Each week we play a faceless opponent. It's not so much playing against UCA. We don't need to worry about what they do, we just need to come out and be us and do what we do and play with a lot of tempo," Hodges said. "Whether we need to run the ball 50 times or pass the ball 50 times, we have to be able to execute."

While Hodges didn't play in last year's win over the Bears, counterpart Hayden Hildebrand was a second-stringer at the time and attempted only four passes. He's the reigning Southland offensive player of the week after throwing for 238 yards and two touchdowns while throwing only four incompletions against Houston Baptist, not to mention he rushed for 52 yards and a score.

"Hayden Hildebrand, I thought, played exceptionally well," Campbell said. "He did a great job of controlling the offense and a great job of protecting the football. He did a great job of getting the football to the playmakers."

While Campbell's team doesn't have to face either of the Southland's ranked teams until visiting No. 11 McNeese on Oct. 15, Samford could use a win to boost its confidence going into a bye week before taking on sixth-ranked Chattanooga.

Whichever team wins will show it may also deserve to be mentioned among its conference's elite.

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