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FCS Review: Southland race has depth

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(STATS) - So the Southland Conference title that second-ranked Sam Houston State is supposed to run away with this season …

Saturday's high-scoring night across the conference suggested it won't be as easy as expected for the Bearkats.

The night was punctuated by Central Arkansas' 28-23 win over Arkansas State - the second over an FBS program since the Bears joined the FCS in 2006. Ironically, wide receiver Brandon Cox, an Arkansas State transfer, scored the winning touchdown.

"We played our butts off against Oklahoma State (last year)," coach Steve Campbell said. "We played our butts off against Texas Tech (two years ago). And we played out butts off tonight. And it's great to be proud of a team for fighting their butts off and then getting rewarded for it by winning the football game."

Last year, only four of the 11 Southland teams posted winning records, but there appears to be better depth this season.

Like Sam Houston (3-0) and Central Arkansas (3-1), Stephen F. Austin (3-1) also is 2-0 in the conference race, and the Lumberjacks are threatening to join the national rankings. They will try to turn the race upside down when they face the Bearkats next weekend in Houston.

Then there's McNeese, which rebounded from a three-point loss to SFA with a win over Incarnate Word. The defending conference champion also has a matchup ahead with Sam Houston.

Nicholls, which had a 23-game losing streak as recently as last October, wasn't even supposed to be in the conversation, but the Colonels have come within three points of two FBS programs - a 41-40 heartbreaker to South Alabama this past Saturday after a 26-24 setback to Georgia to open the season.

With 2013 and '14 Southland champ Southeastern Louisiana as well as Lamar still anxious to cause trouble in the conference behind All-America running back Kade Harrington, the title race has some potential spoilers.

With talk always on Sam Houston making another deep run in the FCS playoffs, the Bearkats may not want to look ahead too often.



Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:

1.) The Missouri Valley Football Conference, which only has conference games remaining in the regular season, had quite the impressive September against FBS programs. Its teams finished 4-6 overall with one win on each of the four Saturdays. Western Illinois' 28-23 triumph at Northern Illinois joined Northern Iowa (Iowa State), Illinois State (Northwestern) and North Dakota State (Iowa) for a single-season record in the MVFC. "We came in, there's always that FBS-FCS middle line separating us," Leathernecks quarterback Sean McGuire said. "But we've seen it's a thin line and obviously a lot of teams have shown that this year. We showed it today."

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2.) If Cal Poly has been the team overlooked for the Top 25 - OK, the Big Sky squad won't this week after a third straight win over Montana - then the team which has been overrated is William & Mary. The Tribe (2-2) were much too high in the national poll at No. 8 last week and a loss at Elon with wins only over two MEAC teams leaves them searching for an identity as their CAA Football schedule really toughens. They probably need to at least split their next two games on the road at New Hampshire and James Madison.

3.) Ohio Valley Conference power Jacksonville State, last year's national runner-up to North Dakota State, heads into its bye week knowing Auburn transfer Roc Thomas has come on strong to take pressure off quarterback Eli Jenkins, who also has his top wide receiver, Josh Barge, back from injury. The triple threat combined to dominate Liberty 48-19 Saturday night.

4.) There's a reason preseason polls are conducted before training camp. Once teams pick up footballs, everything changes. Look at some of the rough starts conference favorites are having: Richmond suffered a 28-point loss to Stony Brook in its CAA Football opener. Big Sky favorite Northern Arizona lost the game and quarterback Case Cookus to a shoulder injury at home against Eastern Washington. Alcorn State, the two-time defending SWAC champ, already has two conference losses.

5.) Speaking of Alcorn State, the rematch of last year's SWAC Championship Game was one-sided as Grambling State handled the Braves 43-18. Transfer quarterback Devante Kincade had 482 total yards and a hand in all six Grambling touchdowns. The Braves, who travel to Arkansas next, aren't the same team without injured QB Lenorris Footman.

6.) San Diego played "keep away" from Dayton in winning 34-22 at home in the matchup of last year's Pioneer Football League co-champs. The Toreros held the ball for 41 minutes, 25 seconds, only punting twice to Dayton's eight times. Tevin Heyward's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Toreros the lead with 4:31 left and Anthony Lawrence's 62-yard scoring pass to Jonah Hodges sealed the win.

7.) Just when it looked the Northeast Conference would remain without a signature win over an FCS scholarship program, Sacred Heart won 38-10 at No. 20 Stony Brook, just one week after Stony Brook pounded then-No. 2 Richmond 42-14. The Pioneers were mediocre last season after winning NEC titles in 2013 and '14, but coach Mark Nofri has an excellent senior class this season. Against Stony Brook, quarterback RJ Noel passed for a touchdown and also rushed for two scores, while the defense held an opponent scoreless in the second half for the fifth consecutive game.

8.) Wofford (3-1) didn't allow East Tennessee State to reach its side of the field, surrendering only 76 yards in a 31-0 win that marked its second consecutive shutout. A program known for its triple option rushing, the Terriers also are taking away the run, allowing a mere 2.1 yards per carry and 56.5 yards per game. The Southern Conference squad wants to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence, but its road schedule is brutally tough.

9.) Georgetown struggles in the Patriot League as the only program not to offer football scholarships, but the Hoyas usually hold their own against other non-scholarship teams. Coach Rob Sgarlata's team beat Columbia 17-14 to improve to 3-0 - all against non-scholarship teams. Quarterback Tim Barnes waited his turn to become the starter and has been efficient as a senior. A tough stretch await the Hoyas, beginning next Friday night at Harvard.

10.) As expected, Delaware State was woefully overmatched in a 79-0 loss at Missouri, but second-year coach Kenny Carter sees the benefits for his MEAC program beyond the athletic department's much-needed payday: "Let's do this comparison," he said. "Compare it to being in the weight room and trying to get stronger. If you're in the weight room and you're lifting weights and you're lifting little weights, you're not going to get any stronger. You've got to lift heavy weight to get stronger. And it's the same thing in football. You go play opponents that you see are better than you, and on paper they're definitely better than you, how are you going to refine your skill set or see where you are if you don't play people that are better?"



Illinois State and North Dakota State, who have shared the last two Missouri Valley titles, meet for the first time in the regular season since 2013 next Saturday at the Fargodome.

Other Top 25 matchups, depending on Monday's new STATS poll, have Western Illinois going to South Dakota State in the Missouri Valley and former Big South rivals Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina squaring off on the teal turf at Coastal.

Also, key conference matchups include: Big Sky, Cal Poly at North Dakota and Southern Utah at Montana; CAA, Delaware at James Madison and William & Mary at New Hampshire; Ivy, Penn at Dartmouth (Friday night); MEAC, North Carolina Central at a surprisingly winless Bethune-Cookman; Southland, Sam Houston State vs. Stephen F. Austin in the "Battle of the Piney Woods" at NRG Stadium in Houston; and SWAC, Prairie View A&M at Grambling State.