The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Sports

September 25, 2012

SOUTHLAND NOTEBOOK: Southland action just kicked off this past weekend. For a few title contenders, it's already crunch time

With Southland title still within grasp, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and McNeese State have tough, but attainable road ahead to reach the FCS playoffs

HUNTSVILLE — It seems simple enough. Use the nonconference schedule to get ready for the brutal conference slate that lies ahead in the Southland Conference.

Even though most of the teams in the league have yet to kick off their conference openers, there has already been plenty of interesting developments that will shape the hunt for the Southland title that will unfold in the coming weeks.

For a pair of teams, including Sam Houston, the road toward a championship as well as the Football Championship Subdivison playoffs.

The Bearkats, who have fallen six spots in the Sports Network FCS Top 25 Poll from No. 3 to ninth after being upset 24-20 by Central Arkansas, now will be swimming upstream the rest of the regular season as they try to get back into the hunt and repeat as conference champs.

Sam Houston (0-1 in Southland play, 1-2 overall) is now effectively two games behind the Bears in the win-loss column as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even though the loss in Conway, Ark., set the Kats back, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road, either, in their pursuit to repeat as Southland champs.

If recent history can teach us anything, it’s that anything can happen in the Southland Conference.

Following such an emotional, come-from-behind victory for the Bears, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Central Arkansas (1-0, 3-1) to come out flat on the road against a Stephen F. Austin squad hungry for a win. That would put the Bearkats right back to square one with a neutral site (Reliant Stadium in Houston) against the Lumberjacks next up on the agenda.

Staying undefeated in conference equals a less complicated route toward a Southland title and the league’s automatic berth to the FCS playoffs. Obviously.

Keep this in mind, though. In three of the past five years, only twice (2012 and 2007) has the Southland champions run the table. If anything, the Southland campaign rarely is simple and always entertaining. Don’t expect for much change there this year.

In order to get right back in the thick of things, it certainly won’t be easy for the Kats as they will have to be road warriors and come out on top as visitors in four of their six remaining conference games. With three straight road games, including Thursday’s nonconference game against Texas Southern at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.

Sam Houston wasn’t the only team that’s now looking up at the rest of the conference and can attest to how rarely things go according to plan in the Southland. Just ask McNeese State.

Heading into their conference opener against Southeastern Louisiana (1-0, 1-3), the Cowboys were victorious in their first three games against Middle Tennessee, McMurry and Weber State, while the Lions were blown out in their first three games by Missouri, South Dakota State and Tennessee-Martin.

McNeese (0-1, 3-1) wasn’t exactly comfortable, but in good shape with a 24-10 advantage at halftime. The Cowboys struggled to move the ball in the second half and missed a field goal from inside of the 20 in the fourth quarter.

Like the Bearkats, the Cowboys are now scrambling to go on a run and see if they can finish atop the Southland.

So, what’s to happen without a conference title?

Just like with the NCAA tournaments for basketball and baseball, you want very little left up for a committee to decide if a team gets an at-large selection or not.

For teams in the Southland that end up not winning the conference title and gets the league’s automatic spot in the playoffs, that will be the reality.

The loss to Southeastern won’t help, but McNeese State also has a win against a Football Bowl Subdivision school, Middle Tennessee, which can go a long way toward an at-large berth should the Cowboys not win the Southland title.

For Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, that’s where it gets a bit harry. If the Bearkats and Lumberjacks don’t earn the Southland title and automatic playoff spot to get into the playoffs, the two preseason top 25 programs, will need to go on a lengthy run.

Since the FCS playoffs began more than 30 years ago, there hasn’t been a team in the playoffs that didn’t win their conference with less than seven wins against Division I opponents.

That number of Division I wins has such become an unofficial benchmark for team hoping to gain entry into the playoffs.

What does that mean? Either win your conference or have enough wins to satisfy the standard for the selection committee.

Due to the schedule played and to come as well as the loss against Central Arkansas, that puts pressure squarely on the Bearkats. Sam Houston has a 1-2 mark so far in 2012. That lone win, however, came against Division II Incarnate Word, meaning that the Kats still need seven Division I wins to reach the mark traditionally set by the committee if they don’t win the conference.

Sam Houston still has Texas Southern as well as six Southland games and the regular-season finale against Texas A&M. The next seven games are arguably the most winnable, so if the Kats expect to return to the playoffs, these next seven games are the ones they need to win and put away any doubt.

Stephen F. Austin, which was picked to finish second in the Southland, is in the same kind of hole. The Lumberjacks are 1-3 with their victory coming against Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State and the losses to SMU of the FBS, second-ranked Montana State and Texas State of the FBS.

The Lumberjacks’ seven remaining games to win the conference championship as well as get their seven D-I wins. Stephen F. Austin could win the Southland with less than seven D-I wins, but taking a loss would mean it would be scoreboard watching, needing certain results to take place.

As far as McNeese State, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin are concerned , now is crunch time even though there’s plenty of season left.

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