In the FCS Huddle: Week 13 Preview

1:38 PM, Nov 21, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There are 148 meetings between them.

Coaches will give the cliche answer everyone expects: "The next game is always the most important."

But in the case of Lafayette and Lehigh this weekend, whose historic rivalry dates back well over 100 years, the 149th meeting between the two Pennsylvania-based schools may in fact be the most unique and most important matchup yet.

The winner of the regular-season Patriot League finale will not only earn the conference's outright title, but also will claim the league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, which begin next weekend.

In an up-and-down season for both programs, the news that a win can prolong one team's campaign should make players, coaches and fans alike ecstatic for a multitude of reasons.

A win and a trip to the postseason would make Lafayette's season especially unique, though, as it would represent an FCS (and Division I-AA, for that matter) first.

The Leopards can become the first team ever to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. The Division I-AA playoffs began in 1978.

When you consider the odds of that happening, it seems both plausible and implausible at the same time. Since an automatic postseason bid goes to the winner of a CONFERENCE, that winner need only maintain a sufficient conference record. So a losing overall record realistically would then imply that specific team had a poor season playing out-of-conference opponents. Makes sense, right? It does for Lafayette.

On the other hand, because conference scheduling makes up a large chunk - nearly two-thirds - of a team's season schedule, wouldn't playing well in conference give said team at least a .500 record overall? Not necessarily.

Lafayette has found the formula to make it work. The Leopards (4-6 overall, 3-1 in the Patriot League) are coming off a win against previously unbeaten Fordham, which was without regular starting quarterback Michael Nebrich. Lafayette began the season 1-5, with its lone win coming against its only league opponent in those first six weeks - Bucknell. Once Patriot League competition became a regular occurrence, the Leopards picked up the pace.

Fordham is ineligible for the Patriot League title. The league declared the Rams ineligible in 2010 after their program began using football scholarships. The rest of the league didn't follow suit with scholarships to players until this year.

Had this conference race taken place a year from now, we'd be talking about Fordham and Lafayette as the two one-loss Patriot League teams vying for the title, with Lafayette holding the head-to-head tiebreaker (Fordham is currently 4-1 versus Patriot teams, as Lafayette would be had last Saturday's game counted in the standings). Lehigh lost to Fordham earlier this season, 52-34. The Mountain Hawks would therefore be sitting at 3-2 in conference play.

But that's not the scenario right now. Instead, we have a chance to see a team with a losing record make the playoffs for the first time in FCS history.

Now take a look at the other sideline. Lehigh is 8-2 (3-1 Patriot) this season despite losing its starting quarterback, senior Brandon Bialkowski, for the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone in a Week 9 matchup against Bucknell. Bialkowski was ranked among the FCS' best quarterbacks statistically prior to his injury.

But it's last season's culmination that has the Mountain Hawks dead set on this year's automatic conference bid.

Lehigh had a perfect record heading into the team's second-to-last contest of the 2012 season against Colgate. The Raiders were also a perfect 4-0 in the Patriot League. The winner received the automatic bid to the playoffs and the conference title. Translation: Lehigh has been in this situation before.

Colgate won the head-to-head matchup and the auto bid to the playoffs, while the Mountain Hawks were left hoping the selection committee would favor their 10-1 record.

The committee didn't think it was good enough.

Lehigh was left out of the postseason altogether, and, should the Mountain Hawks lose this weekend to Lafayette, the story of last season's finish may repeat itself.

Saturday's battle will feature two freshman quarterbacks - one (Drew Reed of Lafayette) who took over because of insufficient play early in the season, which led to the team's 1-5 overall start, and the other (Nick Shafnisky of Lehigh) because of the injury to Bialkowski.

Say what you will about the circumstances, but it's borderline eerie how well the two teams' stories match up for Saturday's game.

Win, and you're in. It's the perfect scenario. Shouldn't the final week of the regular season always be this exciting?

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network FCS Top 25 and other select games (all times ET):

Thursday, Nov 21

Nicholls (4-7, 1-5 Southland) at No. 8 Southeastern Louisiana (9-2, 6-0)

Kickoff: 7 p.m. (ESPN3.com)

What to know: After stamping out Sam Houston State at home, 34-21, the Lions are, for the first time, the champions of the Southland Conference (they'll share the title with McNeese State at minimum). And they can maintain their perfect league record this weekend with a win over Nicholls.

Southeastern Louisiana is led by quarterback Bryan Bennett, who tops the Southland in rushing touchdowns and is a Walter Payton Award candidate. His experience playing at Oregon before transferring has helped lift the Lions to a new level of play. In a position-driven game like football, the quarterback is a whole new definition of field general.

For a team so known for its offense, the SELU defense has had its fair share of success. The Lions are ranked 21st nationally and first in the Southland in scoring defense, averaging 22 points per game to opponents. Although their spot in the postseason is guaranteed, seeding is still anything but decided, and an impressive unbeaten conference season is right in front of them, just two years removed from a 1-6 conference record.

Prediction: Southeastern Louisiana 37, Nicholls 17

Saturday, Nov. 23

Liberty (7-4, 3-1 Big South) at No. 18 Charleston Southern (10-2, 3-1)

Kickoff: 11 a.m. (ESPN3.com)

What to know: The Buccaneers can clinch a share of the Big South Conference championship and its automatic qualifier to the playoffs simply with a win over Liberty. Beating Liberty, though, can be anything but simple.

The Flames have quietly won four in a row after their double-overtime loss to Coastal Carolina on Oct. 19, only allowing an opponent to score over 20 points once in that span. On the flip side, Liberty ranks 21st in the nation and second in the Big South in scoring offense, averaging 35.5 points per game. The Flames are coming off a game in which they scored 59 points against Brevard.

The Bucs will be gunning for the conference championship behind running back Christian Reyes, who was slowed to nearly a halt against the physical Gardner- Webb defensive front. Reyes accounted for just 32 rushing yards on 13 carries while the Bucs didn't score an offensive touchdown in the loss. Look for the Flames to exploit the potential for overusage with Reyes. If Dan Croghan III is forced to throw too many times, he will (characteristically) turn the ball over.

Prediction: Liberty 34, Charleston Southern 27

Harvard (8-1, 5-1 Ivy) at Yale (5-4, 3-3)

Kickoff: Noon

What to know: Harvard's triple-overtime loss to Princeton on Oct. 26 really lit a fire under the team. The Crimson have won three in a row, including a shut out of Columbia two weeks ago, and a 38-30 win over defending Ivy League champion Penn last Saturday.

The Penn win can be a bit deceiving, too. Harvard jumped ahead 38-0 before Penn mounted a furious comeback attempt. The Quakers converted just 2-of-13 on third-down attempts in the contest.

With a shot at the outright Ivy League title now out of the picture, the Crimson will be playing for a share of the crown. But Yale won't go down easy.

The Bulldogs are coming off a loss to Princeton, but regular quarterback Henry Furman didn't see the field. Neither did running back Tyler Varga. And Morgan Roberts, who is listed on the Yale roster as a quarterback (a Clemson transfer quarterback) played a bit of receiver against the Tigers and wound up catching a touchdown pass. There's clearly plenty of fight in this Bulldogs team, although things aren't all set in terms of roster adjustments.

Prediction: Harvard 35, Yale 24

No. 4 Maine (10-1, 7-0 CAA) at No. 21 New Hampshire (6-4, 5-2)

Kickoff: Noon (CSN-NE, PHI, MA, CSS)

What to know: Maine has already clinched the CAA Football title outright and the automatic playoff bid that comes with it. But there's still plenty on the line in this matchup between these bitter border rivals.

Whether it's for bragging rights, the Brice-Cowell Musket or a shot at the playoffs, this annual contest typically lives up to its hype. And, once again, the Wildcats will be battling for their playoff lives.

A loss would surely knock New Hampshire out of contention, while a win, especially against the fourth-ranked team in the country, could go a long way for the Wildcats' playoff chances.

Maine is unbeaten in the FCS this season, and shut out Rhode Island on Saturday. Quarterback Marcus Wasilewski leads the Black Bears with 26 total touchdowns and has his team on a seven-game win streak. And Rhode Island can attest to Maine's strong defense.

New Hampshire is unbeaten at Cowell Stadium this season, and has won five of its last six games - twice against ranked opponents (at home). The last time Maine won at New Hampshire was Nov. 17, 2001. Since then, the Wildcats have only lost twice to the Black Bears - in 2002 and in overtime in 2010, both times in Orono.

New Hampshire's fourth-ranked CAA scoring offense (31.8 ppg) versus Maine's second-ranked CAA scoring defense (20.2 ppg) will make for an enticing matchup.

Prediction: New Hampshire 28, Maine 26

Wofford (5-5, 4-3 Southern) at Furman (6-5, 5-2)

Kickoff: noon

What to know: Wofford's three straight losses signal the end of playoff hopes for the Terriers, who made it to the quarterfinal round of the FCS postseason and lost to eventual champion North Dakota State in 2012. Wofford has made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.

That's not the case for Furman. The Paladins need a win to gain a share of the Southern Conference title and also a Samford victory over Elon to win the automatic bid to the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Right now, there is no team more fired up in the conference than Furman.

The Paladins have won three in a row, and only lost to FBS power LSU in the past five weeks. But taking down run-heavy Wofford won't be an easy task. The Paladins are ranked 76th in the country in rushing defense, giving up 182.6 yards per game to opponents' ground attacks, while Wofford ranks second in the SoCon and seventh nationally in rushing offense.

The overall lack of defensive production is a bit alarming when looking at last weekend's Wofford game versus Appalachian State, and Furman has been rolling offensively in back-to-back weeks. If Furman wins, the Paladins will be glued to the TV watching Samford take on Elon, which starts at 3 p.m. ET

Prediction: Furman 24, Wofford 20

Lafayette (4-6, 3-1 Patriot) at No. 17 Lehigh (8-2, 3-1)

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. (MASN2)

What to know: How fitting. College football's most-played rivalry also will decide the winner of the Patriot League title and which teams gets the automatic bid into the FCS playoffs.

The 149th meeting between these two teams could prove to be historic. And these teams are quite similar as they meet to end the regular season. Each team starts a freshman under center, but that quarterback didn't begin the season in a starting role.

Nick Shafnisky was forced into Lehigh's quarterback role after senior Brandon Bialkowski was declared out with a broken collarbone, while Lafayette's Drew Reed took over after inconsistent play from others on the roster.

Lafayette leads the all-time series, 76-67-5, although Lehigh has won in the last five seasons. Since Bialkowski went down, running back Keith Sherman has stepped up immensely, gaining 350 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries in the past two weeks alone. With Sherman and reliable receiver Lee Kurfis, and a plus-4 turnover margin in the last two weeks, Lehigh should be considered the favorite for the bid, especially playing at home where the team hasn't lost this season.

Prediction: Lehigh 32, Lafayette 27

No. 12 Fordham (10-1) at Colgate (4-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

What to know: The two "other" teams in the Patriot League race. Sure, the Lehigh-Lafayette matchup is the one that will decide the league's title winner and playoff contender, but Fordham (ineligible for the league title) and Colgate (was just eliminated last weekend) still makes for an exciting matchup.

The Rams are fighting for an at-large playoff bid, since they're still eligible on that level. But they suffered their first loss of the season a week ago to Lafayette without regular starting quarterback and Walter Payton Award candidate Michael Nebrich. Because of the Patriot League ineligibility and what some considered to be a light regular-season schedule (despite wins over FBS Temple and CAA Villanova early on), the Rams shouldn't feel too safe.

Nebrich is found on the Fordham two-deep depth chart for this week and is listed as questionable to play this weekend in the finale.

Colgate does have its quarterback set to play in Gavin McCarney. It's been an up-and-down season for McCarney, who was set back early on with injury issues. If Nebrich plays, he and his offense will try to be as on-point as possible as they gear up for playoff action.

Prediction: Fordham 35, Colgate 27

No. 11 Coastal Carolina (10-1) at South Carolina (8-2)

Kickoff: 1 p.m. (Pay-Per-View)

What to know: The Chanticleers can still win a share of the Big South title, as long as Charleston Southern loses to Liberty. As far as getting a playoff bid is concerned, an at-large bid seems pretty likely for the Chants, regardless of what happens in this season-ending contest against a tough SEC team.

The Gamecocks are coming off a win over Florida behind four Elliot Fry field goals and a Connor Shaw touchdown pass. But the real intriguing matchup will be South Carolina's defense, led by Jadeveon Clowney, against Coastal Carolina's offense and Lorenzo Taliaferro.

Coastal is third in the FCS nation in scoring offense, averaging 45.5 points per game. And despite getting injured a couple back, Taliaferro remains second in the country in total rushing touchdowns this season with 23 - four back of Towson's Terrance West.

This game is a no-lose situation for the Chants, who could gain some valuable experience before the playoffs and simply hope for a Charleston Southern loss. A win over South Carolina would shock the nation. Either way, Coastal is gearing up for a playoff run.

Prediction: South Carolina 45, Coastal Carolina 20

No. 22 Princeton (8-1, 6-0 Ivy) at Dartmouth (5-4, 4-2)

Kickoff: 1:30 p.m.

What to know: The Big Green have enjoyed a successful season in Ivy League play this year, currently sitting at 4-2 in the conference. But none of the Ivies can top Princeton and its run toward the league crown.

The Tigers have set offensive records by the handfuls this season under the field direction of Quinn Epperly, who most recently torched Yale for 221 passing yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth score on the ground. The Tigers have figured out that the key to winning an Ivy League championship is having a lefty quarterback who wears No. 4. Jeff Terrell from 2006 can attest.

Big Green sophomore quarterback Dalyn Williams is developing into a stud under center, while senior running back Dominick Pierre leads the stable of Dartmouth rushers.

Although Dartmouth is ninth in the FCS and ranks first in the Ivy League in scoring defense, the Princeton offense that ranks second in the country in scoring offense will be too much for the Big Green to handle.

Prediction: Princeton 32, Dartmouth 21

Florida A&M (3-8, 2-5 MEAC) vs. No. 14 Bethune-Cookman (9-2, 6-1)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. at Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (ESPN Classic)

What to know: Bethune-Cookman's offensive philosophy is simple: run the ball down the opponent's throat. That much was clear last Saturday against Hampton, as the Wildcats gained 475 yards on the ground in their 42-12 win.

Maybe it was out of sheer frustration from losing their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game in nearly two seasons that the Wildcats dominated the Pirates. They'll likely do it again against a Florida A&M defense that ranks 85th in the country against the run. The quietly sinking Rattlers haven't had nearly as much offensive production as they would've liked this season.

One thing is certain about Bethune-Cookman's style of play, though, that could get the team in trouble should it make the playoffs, and that has to do with the team's absurd amount of penalties. The Wildcats have been flagged 65 times in the last four weeks, recording double-digit penalties in all of them. That won't keep them around in the postseason too long, assuming they make it there with a win this weekend.

Prediction: Bethune-Cookman 38, Florida A&M 17

No. 16 South Dakota State (7-4, 4-3 Missouri Valley) at No. 15 Youngstown State (8-3, 5-2)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3.com)

What to know: These two Missouri Valley Football Conference teams each need a win badly to stay alive when it comes to the playoff hunt. And at the moment, they're on opposite ends of the momentum spectrum.

South Dakota State has won three in a row and four of their last five games, which puts them back in the chase for an at-large postseason bid. Meanwhile, Youngstown State could potentially have wrapped up the MVFC auto bid had it not lost its last two contests, most recently to top seed North Dakota State.

The game at Youngstown will feature two very solid running backs - the best freshman rusher statistically in the nation (Martin Ruiz) and the back tied for second in rushing yards (Zach Zenner). The Penguins get a boost playing in front of their home crowd, too.

Ultimately, this game could be decided on defense. South Dakota State is tied for fourth in the country in passes intercepted with 17, including Winston Wright's pick he returned 80 yards for a score against South Dakota last weekend. Let's see if the Jackrabbits can keep riding the momentum wave.

Prediction: South Dakota State 28, Youngstown State 23

No. 2 Eastern Illinois (10-1, 7-1 OVC) at UT Martin (7-4, 5-2)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPN3.com)

What to know: Eastern Illinois has already clinched the Ohio Valley Conference title outright and the automatic playoff berth, but the higher the postseason seeding, the better.

The Panthers are ranked second in the country heading into the final week of play, and could wrap up at least one of the top two or three seeds in the postseason with a win over UT Martin. And Eastern Illinois showed last weekend that an opponent can't focus on just quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo offensively because players like Shepard Little can break out for a career day.

Eastern Illinois leads the nation in scoring offense, averaging 46.8 points per game. The Skyhawks, on the other hand, have held five of their seven OVC opponents to 17 points or less this season. You think that scares the Panthers? Probably not. They've scored 40 points or more in eight of their 11 games this season, including 34 or more in every game. Tennessee State had the most success against the Panthers, limiting their offense to 34 points. UT Martin has scored more than 30 points in just three games this season.

With crucial playoff seeding on the line, it's unlikely the Panthers will play it safe heading into the postseason.

Prediction: Eastern Illinois 39, UT Martin 21

No. 23 Chattanooga (8-3) at Alabama (10-0)

Kickoff: 2 p.m. (Pay-Per-View)

What to know: The Mocs made things pretty difficult for themselves by losing to Samford last weekend. Now they take on the nation's juggernaut in Alabama, which means they'll be hoping for a few key losses in the Southern Conference this weekend. Not to be pessimistic, but although nothing is guaranteed in sports, this is as close to a sure Chattanooga loss as you're going to find.

Even when not clicking on all cylinders, Alabama can be deadly. The Tide showed that last Saturday against Mississippi State, when A.J. McCarron threw two interceptions and the team had four turnovers, yet still pulled out a win. T.J. Yeldon is a future NFL star running back who will give Davis Tull, Wes Dothard and the rest of the Mocs defense something to chase this weekend.

The Mocs are hoping for a Samford loss to Elon and a Furman loss to Wofford to secure a guaranteed playoff spot. Elon will sure have to step up its game, and Furman is on a roll, winning four of its last five games while Wofford is heading in the other direction.

There won't be any surprises in this game. In Alabama's quest for a third straight national FBS title, Chattanooga just happens to be in the way.

Prediction: Alabama 47, Chattanooga 16

No. 5 Montana (9-2, 5-2 Big Sky) at No. 13 Montana State (7-4, 5-2)

Kickoff: 2:05 p.m. (ROOT-NW)

What to know: It was an uncharacteristically poor offensive showing at Bobcat Stadium last Saturday for Montana State. The Bobcats dropped their second consecutive contest, this time at the hands of Southern Utah - a team fighting for playoff contention.

The last time Montana State lost three games in a row was early in the 2006 season, which began with a Week 2 loss to Division II Chadron State, headed by current San Diego Charger Danny Woodhead. It's obvious what the Thunderbirds did on Saturday to halt the Bobcats offense: they stopped Cody Kirk and the run game.

Montana State has become a run-first offense (to its advantage), and senior quarterback DeNarius McGhee has played just well enough this season to scrape by when the run game isn't working (though that wasn't the case against Southern Utah). In a regular-season finale that's about as big as rivalries come, the Bobcats will need to step up their game.

The Grizzlies boast a strong rushing attack as well, scoring five TDs on the ground against Weber State last Saturday in the win. Jordan Canada's 189 yards and two scores led the way, and Jordan Johnson is still very efficient under center.

A Montana win seals a playoff berth, while a loss could make things rather cloudy. Montana State needs to win to have a shot. Despite the effectiveness of Montana's defensive front seven against the run, Kirk and teammate Shawn Johnson don't have many off games. This 113th series meeting will be a battle, and the Bozeman home crowd could be the deciding factor.

Prediction: Montana State 30, Montana 27

Elon (2-9, 1-6 Southern) at No. 24 Samford (7-4, 5-2)

Kickoff: 3 p.m.

What to know: Samford, one of three teams battling it out for the Southern Conference automatic playoff bid, will be keeping a close eye around the FCS this weekend as conference foes Furman and Chattanooga also take the field.

The Bulldogs need a win and a Furman loss to earn the bid. And after a two- game scare in which Samford dropped consecutive contests to The Citadel and Furman, an overtime win last Saturday against Chattanooga saved the Bulldogs' season.

This weekend, Samford welcomes in Elon, a team that has struggled mightily in conference play and has lost five straight matchups. Generating offense is the Phoenix's biggest issue. Elon has only scored more than 20 points in a contest six times this season. At the same time, the Bulldogs, with Andy Summerlin and Fabian Truss guiding the offense, have only scored fewer than 20 points in two games this season.

With the Furman game coming to an end roughly at the same time this one begins, expect the Bulldogs to be grinding for a win, just in case they don't know their fate by kickoff.

Prediction: Samford 34, Elon 18

No. 10 Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) at No. 20 Southern Utah (8-3, 5-2)

Kickoff: 3:05 p.m.

What to know: Of all the surprises this FCS season, in the end it's shaping up to be all about Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds are hot off an upset win over Montana State in Bozeman, and now look to close out their season with a second consecutive win over a Top 25 team to secure a playoff spot after relative obscurity.

A march toward the playoffs wasn't in anyone's minds for the T-Birds prior to a Week 11 matchup with Weber State. But a three-game win streak now has Southern Utah right in the thick of an at-large bid conversation, especially after the win over the Bobcats.

The newest addition to the Top 25 poll can solidify their spot with a win over the Lumberjacks, but that's easier said than done. Northern Arizona's defense is frightening, especially after yet another game in which the Lumberjacks notched an interception return for a touchdown.

The Thunderbirds offense isn't extremely explosive, and is relatively young. But there's no denying what the defense did against running backs Cody Kirk and Shawn Johnson in the win over MSU. Zach Bauman has had an up-and-down year, but can carry his team into the playoffs with a performance that leads to a win this weekend.

Prediction: Northern Arizona 29, Southern Utah 22

South Dakota (4-7, 3-4 Missouri Valley) at No. 1 North Dakota State (10-0, 7-0)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (FCS)

What to know: There's not a whole lot to say about this North Dakota State team that people don't already know. The Bison will be going for glory this weekend - a perfect regular-season record that includes key wins over FBS Kansas State, South Dakota State and Youngstown State.

All eyes will be on quarterback Brock Jensen, who can build on his already superior resume. In Saturday's win over the Penguins, Jensen threw for 200 yards and four touchdowns, also rushing for a touchdown and tossing an interception. There's not much to say, other than the kid is a winner.

South Dakota presents some challenges, especially in young quarterback Kevin Earl and running back Trevor Bouma, who were both rendered nearly completely ineffective against the Jackrabbits Saturday. But North Dakota State's defense is too strong, ranking in the top three in the FCS in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, first downs allowed, and third-down conversion percentage. Even without senior linebacker Grant Olson the rest of the way, the Bison are just too powerful defensively, and can always get the job done on offense.

Prediction: North Dakota State 32, South Dakota 19

James Madison (6-5, 3-4 CAA) at No. 7 Towson (9-2, 5-2)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

What to know: After its defeat of William & Mary on Saturday, the Towson football team will be looking for one last win in an effort to attain the highest seeding possible for an at-large bid recipient.

And really, after last year's debacle when Towson missed the postseason altogether, there isn't much of a chance the Tigers go unseen again on Sunday. The Tigers are primed for a playoff run, led by star running back Terrance West, who leads the nation with 27 rushing touchdowns (28 total TDs this season).

James Madison is sliding in the opposite direction. Two weeks ago, the Dukes were among the Top 25. But losses to New Hampshire and Stony Brook in consecutive weeks have dropped JMU below .500 in the CAA. Despite the game quarterback Michael Birdsong had against the Seawolves (355 yards, five touchdowns), the Dukes' defense couldn't contain anything on the Stony Brook offense, allowing 485 total offensive yards and five Lyle Negron touchdowns. That's why this matchup against West and the Tigers appears to be an absolute nightmare.

Prediction: Towson 42, James Madison 25

No. 9 Sam Houston State (8-3, 4-2 Southland) at Central Arkansas (6-5, 3-3)

Kickoff: 4 p.m.

What to know: Oddly enough, the team that's been to back-to-back national championships isn't in first place in its conference headed into the final week of the regular season. In fact, Sam Houston State isn't even in second in the Southland Conference race at the moment.

The Bearkats' two Southland losses have been to the two top teams - Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State - and now they must beat Central Arkansas to feel good about obtaining an at-large playoff bid.

Once the best rushing offense in the nation, Sam Houston State has slipped a ways with only spotty production from senior star Timothy Flanders. Against the Lions on Saturday, Brian Bell was the real star, throwing for three touchdowns and leading his team in rushing with 112 yards. But the Bearkats turned the ball over three times in the defeat.

A relative inability to keep opponents out of the end zone is what's hobbled Sam Houston a bit this season, but Central Arkansas knows a thing or two about underperforming. With some key injuries and inconsistent play, the Bears find themselves a middle of the road team this season after starting out as a Top 10 squad. The Bearkats shouldn't have much trouble scoring on Central Arkansas, and come Sunday we'll find out what the selection committee has planned for the Bearkats.

Prediction: Sam Houston State 37, Central Arkansas 24

No. 19 William & Mary (7-4, 4-3 CAA) at Richmond (5-6, 3-4)

Kickoff: 4 p.m.

What to know: Richmond quarterback Michael Strauss is on fire, and somehow that may be an understatement.

The junior has thrown for five touchdowns in back-to-back games, most recently compiling 543 yards through the air and orchestrating a last-minute touchdown drive that lifted the Spiders past Delaware. He'll have a test this weekend against a stout William & Mary defense, however.

The Tribe are one of several CAA teams trying to impress the selection committee in time to earn an at-large playoff bid. Though after a loss to Towson Saturday, they aren't exactly in the best position. A win is necessary this weekend to stay alive.

It's a good thing William & Mary can counter Richmond's high-flying offensive attack with the nation's best scoring defense, allowing 12.5 points per game. In 11 games played this season, the Tribe have held opponents to 10 points or fewer six times. In Richmond's last three games (all wins), the Spiders have scored a combined 112 points. Though William & Mary is 2-3 on the road this season, there's too much at stake not to bring it's "A" game.

Prediction: William & Mary 27, Richmond 20

Portland State (6-5, 3-4) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (9-2, 7-0)

Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. (ROOT-NW)

What to know: What was a very promising start to the year turned more into the realistic expectations many had for Portland State as the season progressed. The Vikings, who have been on both a three-game win streak and three-game losing streak, end the season on the red turf in Cheney.

Eastern Washington has already clinched at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title and the automatic playoff bid, but seeding could play a big factor in this weekend's matchup. The Eagles, depending on what happens to North Dakota State and Eastern Illinois (although realistically a loss to either program wouldn't affect their seeding so much), are likely going to be the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, barring a setback.

Portland State running back D.J. Adams was phenomenal in the team's loss to Sacramento State Saturday - a game in which the Hornets scored with 30 seconds left to take the lead. Adams carried the ball 26 times for 249 yards and five touchdowns, which helped land him on a list of the top five or so running backs in the country statistically.

But against an all-around team like Eastern Washington, one playmaker won't cut it. It looks like the Eagles won't be playing for a few weeks after this one, so they'll want to stay as sharp as possible in game scenarios.

Prediction: Eastern Washington 38, Portland State 27

No. 6 McNeese State (9-2, 5-1 Southland) at Lamar (5-6, 2-4)

Kickoff: 7 p.m.

What to know: Both junior quarterback Caleb Berry and receiver Reggie Begelton are coming off record days for Lamar in the team's win over Stephen F. Austin, but the Cardinals are going to need some serious firepower to take down a McNeese State team that can win a share of the Southland title and is a likely candidate to earn an at-large bid to the postseason.

The Cowboys slaughtered Northwestern State last Saturday behind quarterback Cody Stroud's 195 yards and two touchdowns and Marcus Wiltz's 135 rushing yards and score. McNeese State, ranked first in the Southland Conference in scoring offense (fourth in the FCS), averaging 42.5 points per game, has scored 112 points in its last two games after suffering a Nov. 2 loss to Southeastern Louisiana.

The Cardinals are out of the playoff hunt, but can still play a spoiler role by knocking the Cowboys down a few pegs.

Prediction: McNeese State 42, Lamar 24

Finished Regular Season:

No. 25 Tennessee State (9-3)

Last Week's Record: 15-8 (.652)

Season Record: 195-81 (.707)

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