FCS Top 25 preview - Week 4

(STATS) - The numbers are impressive - the best in the FCS - but all Samford and Chattanooga want on Saturday is one.

One big victory in the Southern Conference.

The direction of the conference's title race would change dramatically if Samford pulls a road upset at Finley Stadium. Fifth-ranked Chattanooga (3-0) has claimed at least a share of the last three SoCon titles and is favored to win it again, but the unranked Bulldogs (2-0) think they were mostly overlooked in the preseason.

Their matchup pits a Chattanooga squad that ranks No. 1 nationally in fewest points (4.7), total yards (164.3) and passing yards (102.7) allowed per game against a Samford squad that is top-ranked in scoring offense (56 ppg).

"It's really impressive," Chattanooga linebacker Nakevion Leslie, the team's leading tackler, said about the big start to the season. "We are going to have a lot of targets coming at us and we will need to prepare and do everything we can to try and stay at the top. That'll win us football games. We don't like giving up points at all, but there are a lot of good offenses that are evolving so we need to evolve as a defense as well."

The Mocs are bracing to face much more passing Saturday. Samford has been a different team since Devlin Hodges became the starting quarterback midway through last season. As a redshirt sophomore this season, he's been highly efficient while completing 62 of 84 attempts (73.8 percent) for 595 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception.

The Bulldogs will spread out the Chattanooga defense with four-wide receiver sets, led by Emmanuel Obajimi, TaDarryl Marshall and Kelvin McKnight. But the Mocs have smothered opponents, going the first 171 minutes, 51 seconds of the season - over 11 quarters - before allowing a point.

The Mocs' defensive line has been particularly stout. With Keionta Davis, the SoCon preseason defensive player of the year, commanding attention, the other defensive end, Vantrel McMillan, has roamed into backfields for 6 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks.

"They're the best in the league," Samford coach Chris Hatcher said. "They're the three-time champs. They're very simple in what they do, they're very well coached and they play hard. They're not a top-five team in the country for nothing. They'll be the best team that's left on the schedule."

The gaudy statistics may be a bit deceptive. Samford's first game was a 77-7 win over Division II Mars Hill, although the Bulldogs then went on the road for an impressive 35-29 win over Central Arkansas. Chattanooga's opponents are a combined 1-8, its toughest being Furman last Saturday.

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FCS GAME OF THE WEEK=

The Matchup: No. 4 Eastern Washington (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at Northern Arizona (1-2, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET Saturday at Walkup Skydome (10,000) in Flagstaff, Arizona

Television: Fox Sports Arizona, Fox Sports Prime Ticket, SWX, WatchBigSky.com

Series: Eastern Washington leads 19-12 (most recent meeting: NAU won 52-30 last Nov. 8 in Cheney, Washington

The Skinny: Northern Arizona's second straight win in the series last season started Eastern Washington on a three-game Big Sky losing streak which ended its three-year run as conference champion.

The visiting Eagles are deep at quarterback and could keep Gage Gubrud as the starter or go with Reilly Hennessey, who came off the bench against Northern Iowa. They are hopeful of getting All-America Cooper Kupp (shoulder injury) back on their deep wide receivers unit. The defense, maligned through the years, has played well in the second half of the Washington State and UNI wins. Linebacker Zach Bruce has a team-high 29 tackles.

Eastern contained Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus relatively well in last year's game, but the sophomore is coming off the second seven-touchdown performance of his career. WRs Elijah Marks and Emmanuel Butler are off to strong starts, but one of the keys to the offense is to get running backs Kendyl Taylor and Corbin Jountti chewing up yards against the EWU defensive front. The Lumberjacks defense has done a good job of applying a pass rush from all directions.

Prediction: This could be a track meet. Northern Arizona, 38-35.

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STATS FCS TOP 25 SCHEDULE=

X-Predicted Winner

Saturday, Sept. 24

All Times ET

X-No. 11 James Madison (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at Maine (0-2, 0-0), noon - "So, you're the team we've heard about." These CAA programs haven't met since 2012, and the host Black Bears will have a hard time keeping up with JMU's offense.

X-No. 12 Charleston Southern (1-2, 0-0 Big South) at Monmouth (2-1, 0-0), 1 p.m. - This is the earliest Big South conference opener in its 15-year history. The Buccaneers players who were suspended for the Florida State game will have gone three weeks between games.

Samford (2-0, 0-0 Southern) at X-No. 5 Chattanooga (3-0, 1-0), 2 p.m. - The last time the Mocs started a season with at least four straight wins was 1979, when coach Russ Huesman was playing defensive back.

Austin Peay (0-2, 0-1 OVC) at X-No. 18 Eastern Illinois (2-1, 0-0), 2 p.m. - Many of the Panthers' statistics aren't overwhelming, but they've made big plays when they count. OK, want impressive? The Panthers have beaten Austin Peay by an average of 58-11 in the last four meetings.

X-No. 9 Illinois State (2-1, 0-0 Missouri Valley) at Indiana State (2-1, 0-0), 3 p.m. - The Redbirds have owned Indiana State, winning five straight and 16 of the last 18 games in the series, but they're facing this week's MVFC offensive player of the week, Sycamores QB Isaac Harker.

X-No. 6 Montana (2-0, 0-0 Big Sky) at Cal Poly (2-1, 0-0), 3:05 p.m. - The Griz's not-so-easy-road-assignment: try to slow Cal Poly's FCS-leading rushing offense (392.3 ypg) and fullback Joe Protheroe, whose 467 yards pace the nation.

No. 13 Western Illinois (2-0) at X-Northern Illinois (0-3), 3:30 p.m. - Three MVFC teams have beaten FBS opponents this season. The Leathernecks have lost 15 in a row against the FBS and are 6-29 all-time, but all of the wins are against Mid-American Conference programs.

X-No. 23 Colgate (1-1) at No. 7 Richmond (2-1), 3:30 p.m. - The Road Warriors from the Patriot League have yet to play at home. Actually, with their success in the playoffs last year, this is Colgate's sixth straight road game. Richmond looks to find a run game and clear out the cobwebs from Stony Brook.

Furman (0-3) at X-No. 17 Coastal Carolina (2-1), 6 p.m. - Seven of the Chanticleers' final nine games are at home. With quarterback Josh Stilley (knee) out, junior Tyler Keane hopes to solidify himself at the position.

X-No. 19 Villanova (2-1) at Lafayette (1-2), 6 p.m. - Lafayette leads the series 4-0 with a 77-3 advantage in points. OK, these eastern Pennsylvania teams haven't played since 1920.

Sacred Heart (3-0) at X-No. 20 Stony Brook (2-1), 6 p.m. - With three opening wins, Northeast Conference program Sacred Heart has a head start on winning the Pioneer League. The Pioneers finally veer away from the Pioneer to visit Stony Brook, which is coming off its demolition of CAA power Richmond and has bigger goals in mind.

Saint Francis (1-2) at X-No. 22 Albany (3-0), 7 p.m. - The surprising Great Danes, who have matched last year's win total, are first in the FCS in turnovers forced (12) and interceptions (seven), and second in turnover margin (plus-10).

X-No. 24 McNeese (1-2, 0-1 Southland) at Incarnate Word (1-2, 1-1), 7 p.m. - It must be a season of passing if McNeese is allowing only 108 rushing yards per game yet is only ranked 25th nationally in the category. After two close losses, coach Lance Guidry says the Cowboys' best is yet to come.

X-No. 3 Jacksonville State (2-1) at Liberty (1-2), 7 p.m. - Instead of at Williams Stadium, they should meet halfway between their schools in a stadium that fits both of their Top 10 fan bases. The Flames beat Montana and Coastal Carolina in prime-time home games last season.

Elon (1-2, 0-0 CAA) at X-No. 8 William & Mary (2-1, 0-0), 7 p.m. - The Tribe need All-CAA running back Kendell Anderson to be healthy, but redshirt freshman Albert Funderburke is averaging 8.8 yards per carry. It helps to have a veteran offensive line that includes 6-foot-8 right tackle Jerry Ugokwe.

X-No. 2 Sam Houston State (2-0, 1-0 Southland) at Houston Baptist (2-1, 1-1), 8 p.m. - Well, the Bearkats did rack up 63 points and 727 yards in last year's game.

No. 25 Portland State (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at X-Southern Utah (1-1, 0-0), 8 p.m. - The defending champion Thunderbirds are still playing solid defense despite the losses of James Cowser, Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims. It's up to Portland State QB Alex Kuresa to get the Vikings on track.

Idle: No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 10 The Citadel, No. 14 Northern Iowa, No. 15 South Dakota State, No. 16 Youngstown State and No. 21 North Carolina A&T

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