Bearkats looking to prove their worth vs. Mocs

AP Photo

(STATS) - Sam Houston State is the top-ranked team in the nation in the eyes of the pollsters, has an offense that's averaged a touchdown more than any FBS outfit and a quarterback who has put up video game numbers nearly every week this season.

The FCS playoff committee was considerably less impressed.

The subdivision's only unbeaten team had to settle for the fifth seed in the playoff field, so the Bearkats figure to have more than a spot in the quarterfinals on their mind Saturday when they take on Chattanooga at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville.

Sam Houston State went 11-0 in 2011 just as it did this season, but that year found itself as the No. 1 seed in the playoff field, making it all the way to the championship game before falling to North Dakota State in what was the first title of the Bison's five-year reign.

That Bearkats team outscored its opponents 554-224, playing in a Southland Conference that had just one other ranked team - No. 15 Central Arkansas - and not much is different in 2016. Sam Houston State rolled up a 596-285 advantage on its foes, good for a 54.2-point average that made even Heisman-favorite Lamar Jackson's Louisville team (45.3) look like amateur hour by comparison. UCA is again the Southland's only ranked team, at No. 14.

And yet K.C. Keeler's squad, which has made the semifinals in four of the last five seasons, finds itself seeded behind four seemingly less accomplished teams.

"It is what it is. Whatever the committee is going to seed, they're going to seed," Keeler said on the FCS selection special. "All I know is that we're undefeated. We were No. 3 in the country last year, No. 4 the year before. I have a better team this year, so I think we're excited to play anyone in the country. If we have to go on the road, we have to go on the road. ... We've had a phenomenal year, a historic year. We're ready for that second season."

Speaking of Central Arkansas, the Bears were the most recent victim on Sam Houston's offensive rampage before Keeler's team's bye in last week's first round. Jeremiah Briscoe threw seven touchdown passes in less than three quarters - his fourth game with at least six this season while all other FCS passers have nine - in a 59-23 rout.

What that 2011 team certainly didn't have was a passer of Briscoe's ilk. That fantastic finale gave him 52 touchdown passes, making the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award finalist just the fifth quarterback in FCS history to crack the half-century mark.

All that could spell trouble for a Chattanooga team that came from a conference where the other two top teams (Wofford and The Citadel) ran the option.

"I mean they're averaging almost 56 points a game and 570 yards a game," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said. "I think their quarterback is a potential All-American. I don't want to make it seem all gloomy here. I mean they're good, no question about it, but I like our team too."

As difficult a task as it may seem, Chattanooga (9-3) has reason to believe it can head out of Huntsville with a win. The Mocs' pass defense was fifth in the FCS in yards per attempt (5.81). Five of their 12 touchdown passes allowed came in the last two weeks, three to Alabama and two in what amounted to garbage time in the second half of last week's 45-14 first-round rout of Weber State. The one vaunted passing attack they did face was Samford's, and Chattanooga held the prolific Devlin Hodges under seven yards per attempt in that 41-21 win.

"They're going to throw and catch, we can't get frustrated defensively," Huesman said. "They've caught balls on everyone they've played. We can't miss a tackle and let them go 65 yards or take bad angles and let them go for 50. They made a lot of people look silly trying to tackle them, so that's the most important thing is trying to get them on the ground."

The Bearkats aren't bad on the ground, either, averaging 5.5 yards a pop largely behind the duo of Remus Bulmer and Corey Avery while totaling 29 TDs.

There's similar balance at Chattanooga. Alejandro Bennifield gives the Mocs a quarterback who can move the pocket and make the occasional play with his feet, and he averaged 8.08 yards per pass attempt while tossing 25 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions. Behind him is senior tailback Derrick Craine, who's having his best season yet with 6.3 yards per carry.

Keeler sees a lot of similarities to the team his Bearkats most recently faced.

"I think they are well coached and are a bit like UCA in terms of offense," he said. "They can run the ball at you, but the quarterback can hurt you.

"The interesting matchup will be their offensive line versus our defensive line. If we can disrupt their run game and get a pass rush on the quarterback, if we do those things we will be fine."

That means Chattanooga must contain defensive end P.J. Hall, one of three finalists for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan award. The junior leads the Southland with 21 tackles for loss and three fumbles recoveries while his 9 1/2 sacks rank second.

It's a lot to ask of the Mocs in their first game in Texas in 50 years. But with the FCS title game in Frisco, Chattanooga doesn't want to wait more than a month for another visit to the Lone Star state.

"Well, it's not the big stage yet," Bennifield said. "The next time we go to Texas, it will be the big stage.

"This time it's just another game."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.