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The CSN Way: The "Joe the Plumber" effect
By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
There are some things that you can count on in October - the leaves changing color, the weather starting to get colder, and in this election season, presidential debates discussing something wacky (like, say, Joe the Plumber).
In the world of FCS football, fans can count on seeing teams like Appalachian State, UMass, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, and Montana in the FCS Top 25, with San Diego and Dayton vying for the Pioneer League title, and James Madison head football coach Mickey Matthews keeping the Virginia area newspapers filled with copy from his entertaining press conferences.
But looking around how the conference races are shaping up, there’s not much else that seems, well, normal. The debate about which tax plan is better for Joe the Plumber (and the strange referendum on Joe the Plumber’s plumbing credentials) will rage on, but one thing’s for sure: around the FCS, the wealth is clearly spread around.
The Top 25 - Then and Now
Comparing at the Sports Network’s Top 25 from the beginning of the year to this week shows a lot of familiar faces, like Montana, McNeese State and North Dakota State. The trouble is that all three of these teams - preseason picks to win their divisions in the Big Sky, Southland and Missouri Valley Football Conferences - are already no longer in control of their own destiny in regards to their league titles.
While Montana was in their customary position in the Top 10 in the preseason, few thought then that the Big Sky conference race would be led by the team that beat the Griz, Weber State. Most felt that the team that was picked No. 8, Eastern Washington, would be vying for the title. But the Eagles, with Big Sky losses to Portland State and Montana last week, are all but eliminated from the conference hunt.
Last year, the Big Sky conference race boiled down to the Montana/Eastern Washington game at Washington-Grizzly stadium. But this year, there looms a slew of important games - not least a potential showdown between undefeated teams in Big Sky play in two weeks, when quarterback Cameron Higgins will try to weave some more magic against Lumberjack quarterback Lance Kreisen.
Rename it the ‘Norris Conference’?
North Dakota State was picked as the No. 2 team out of the preseason. But that was before they ever played a Missouri Valley Football Conference game, and as Northern Iowa’s Mark Farley would tell you, you take a beating in the conference.
The Bison have tumbled down to No. 20 in the most current rankings, though, and have no more margin of error in the MVFC conference race with two conference losses to Youngstown State and Western Illinois. At 3-3 and 1-2, runningback Tyler Roehl faces a must-win game at the UNI Dome against quarterback Pat Grace and the Panthers of Northern Iowa.
With less than half the conference schedule played, my petition to officially rename the MVFC to the “Norris Conference” has been politely ignored by the league leadership. But you could definitely make that case this year, since every team in the conference has at least one league loss. (The last team without a loss, Illinois State, fell 31-17 last week to - you guessed it - Northern Iowa.)
As a result, everyone is still in it - even winless Indiana State. But if North Dakota State gets that third league loss this weekend, they may be eliminated in the rough-and-tumble Norris Conference.
Behind the “Eight” Ball
In the Southland, McNeese State, returning quarterback Derrick Fourroux, started out the year ranked at No. 12, and currently are ranked No. 10. Sam Houston State was unranked, but were a trendy pick to possibly break into the Top 25 and win the Southland with quarterback Rhett Bomar entering his senior season.
Although it is early, few thought that both the Cowboys and Bearkats would both be 0-1 when league play started this past weekend.
Many thought that Sam Houston State might have problems containing quarterback Nathan Brown and No. 13 Central Arkansas, though they were a late two-point conversion away from forcing overtime in a thrilling 46-44 game in Conway, Arkansas.
But many more were shocked at McNeese State’s early stumble against 4-2 Texas State, after a furious comeback fell short in a 45-42 upset at home. Folks knew that the Bobcats had a potent offense, but quarterback Bradley George’s 30-for-47 performance against the class of the Southland was an explosion onto the national scene.
Four teams - the Bears, Bobcats, Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin - sit at 1-0 in the eight-team Southland. Of this bunch, you’d have to think that Central Arkansas - eligible for the Southland Conference title, but not their autobid since they’re transitioning from D-II - has the edge.
But this weekend, McNeese State and Sam Houston State face off against one another - and at least one of those talented teams will sit at 0-2 when it’s done. Two weeks into the conference race, and at least one frontrunner will be seriously behind the eight ball.
That’s Not All
There is a lot of other exciting conference play shaping up in other FCS conferences, too.
- Three teams in the SoCon - Appalachian State, Wofford, and Elon - sit atop the league standings undefeated in league play. You know one of these three will lose one in the next two weeks. The only question is: who will it be? And can Furman - the only remaining SoCon team with one conference loss (to Elon), find themselves back in the race?
- The Colonial Athletic Association, as predicted, has Richmond, UMass, New Hampshire, and James Madison at the top of the league standings. But not everyone thought Villanova - who beat Richmond 26-20 at home - would be in the position they are today. If they handle Rhode Island this weekend, it could very well set up a top-5 showdown the following week against No. 1 James Madison.
- The OVC had two teams in the Top 25 to start the year: Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky. Now, both those teams have fallen out only to be replaced by Tennessee State and Jacksonville State, with Tennessee-Martin possibly entering the rankings very, very soon.
- Last year’s Patriot League champs, the Fordham Rams, sit at 0-2 in the conference after a 45-24 defeat at the hands of Lehigh. Unless the powers of the Patriot League beat each other up an awful lot, Fordham may go from league champion to playing out the season.
- With Hampton’s 17-14 victory over last year’s MEAC champion Delaware State a couple of weeks ago, two familiar faces - the Pirates and South Carolina State - sit atop the conference, with a huge battle in a couple weeks that could determine the league champion.
- There are three undefeated teams left in FCS: No. 16 Liberty (6-0), who seem well-poised to win the Big South with four leaguemates without winning records; Sacred Heart (6-0) who won two games against sub-D-I opponents, won two games against non-scholarship teams and two league opponents with a combined record of 2-10; and 6-0 San Diego, who have a huge Pioneer Football League battle two weeks from now against 5-1 Dayton.
- SWAC West features two undefeated teams in league play (Grambling State and Southern) and a team that will eagerly jump in should both falter (Prairie View A&M). As for SWAC East, with four teams at 1-1 and one at 0-2, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge the victor.
One thing’s for sure: FCS conference play is heating up. Even the presidential candidates and Joe the Plumber can agree on that.
For the second straight week, I was barely over .500. An abysmal 15-12 puts me at 128-55 on the year. This puts me officially under 70% on the year: 69.9%, to be exact.
I did have some bright spots: I nailed the Harvard win over Cornell (predicted: 35-15, actual, 38-17), and the Lafayette win over Columbia (predicted: 13-3, actual, 19-3). My uncanny luck with Northern Iowa continues as I got them beating Illinois State, too (predicted: 30-10; actual, 31-17).
Regrets of the Week
Usually I’m so good at finding trends in series - like Prairie View A&M not beating Grambling State in 27 years, for example, or Youngstown State always seeming to come up short against Northern Iowa. So how on Earth did I see that William & Mary quite simply has New Hampshire’s number? I ignored the fact that the Tribe won over the Wildcats five times from 2000 to 2005 - after all, they played only twice during the Ricky Santos era, and William & Mary was very good at that time. But trends are trends, and I should have seen at a bare minimum that it wasn’t going to be a blowout in favor of New Hampshire. 41-20 Wildcats? Ugh!
No. 2 Appalachian State at Georgia Southern. Some people look at records: Appalachian State has only lost to LSU and No. 1 James Madison this year, while Georgia Southern struggled against Austin Peay and Northeastern. Some people look at trends, where Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, two of the bitterest rivals in the SoCon, have split the last four games. Some look at the athletes’ performances, like Mountaineer quarterback Armanti Edwards’ 1,094 passing yards, 388 rushing yards, and 15 touchdowns - and the fact that they ultimately overwhelmed their last two SoCon opponents, The Citadel (47-21) and Samford (35-24). But this Eagle team feels like they have Appalachian State’s number, and I look at Georgia Southern linebacker Quentin Taylor: averaging an amazing 11 tackles a game, and now - reportedly, according to the Statesboro Herald - sporting a “wide mohawk", complete with dreadlocks. Whether Georgia Southern can get back into the SoCon race or even get to an at-large playoff berth, this is the Eagles’ Super Bowl - their Super Bowl last year when they broke Appalachian State’s 30 game home winning streak (in a 38-35 victory), and their Super Bowl this year. In what is always an intense game in a playoff-like atmosphere - Georgia Southern rides Taylor’s confidence to victory.
Wide Mohawks 40, Narrow Ties 37
No. 3 Elon at Chattanooga. Coach Lembo is calm as a cucumber when it comes to, say, beating nationally-ranked Furman or nationally-ranked The Citadel. But when it comes to travelling to 1-6 Chatty for a SoCon league game - that’s where he gets nervous. How will quarterback Scott Riddle and wideout Terrell Hudgins play in this candidate for a letdown game, with Wofford looming in two weeks? The Mocs may be playing to try to save head coach Rodney Allison’s job, and will battle fiercely in this one. But the Phoenix, who have been in their share of close ones already this year, somehow manage to put this one away.
Frank Gorshins’, or Jim Carreys’? 27, Errol Wynns’, or Errol Flynns’? 24
Western Carolina at No. 4 Wofford. Unlike Allison, 2-5 Western Carolina head coach Dennis Wagner’s job for now is safe. But that won’t make the job any easier for the Catamounts to face linebacker Seth Goldwire and the Terriers. Wofford rolls and sets up next week’s “Game of the Week” against the Phoenix.
The Ramblin’ Pups 35, The Kittamounts 14
No. 5 Cal Poly at No. 21 South Dakota State. By far the class of the out-of-conference matchups this weekend, this one also has the feel as a playoff proving ground for both teams. Runningback Kyle Minett (527 yards, 10 TDs) and the Jackrabbits, already at 3-3 and probably without any margin for error the rest of the way, need a big out-of-conference win here to keep the momentum going for the brutal Missouri Valley schedule to come. But quarterback Jonathan Dally and the Mustangs also need this one badly: with FBS Wisconsin looming at the end of the year, they certainly don’t want to rely on a win against a 1-5 FBS team as the only quality win to show the playoff committee. Unfortunately, the issue might come down to an injury: with Cal Poly runningback James Noble likely out with a broken hand, the scales seem to tip over to the Jackrabbits.
Jacked Up 47, Dilly Dallies 39
No. 20 North Dakota State at No. 6 Northern Iowa. As important as this game is to the MVFC title race, it’s do-or-die for sure for the Bison, who at 3-3 and 2 conference losses would almost certainly be out of the conference race with a loss. Unfortunately they’re playing Northern Iowa, featuring wideout Johnny Gray and runningback Corey Lewis - and a team who has won four straight home games. The Bison will play tough - and will have their shots in this game. But they won’t have enough big plays to beat the methodical Panthers in the UNI Dome. Welcome to the MVFC, Bison - this is what it’s all about.
Purple Passion 34, Bison Burgers 20
No. 7 Villanova at Rhode Island. You might be tempted to take the Rams in a ‘tweener game’ for quarterback Chris Whitney and the Wildcats. Don’t be.
‘Home of the Quarterback Who Hasn’t Started Shaving’ 30, ‘Home of the Rams Who Just Started Passing’ 17
Sacramento State at No. 8 Montana. Once my sleeper pick to make some noise in the Big Sky, wideout Tony Washington and the Hornets have limped to a 1-2 conference start. Add to that the fact that Sacramento State has never, ever beaten the Griz (0-13) - and that’s the recipe for a big Griz win.
King Cole Bergquist 27, Arnold Schwarzeneggers 13
No. 9 Richmond at No. 10 UMass. For both teams, it’s a proving ground. Can quarterback Liam Coen and UMass finally beat a team that’s currently in the Top 25? (They lost to James Madison 52-38.) As for the Spiders, they beat nationally-ranked Elon the first game of the year, but can they put behind them their heartbreaking last-second loss to James Madison at home (38-31, on a last-second punt return)? I’ve noticed that Spider quarterback Eric Ward has struggled if you take away powerful receiving threat Kevin Grayson - and UMass has just the corner to do it, with cornerback Jeromy Miles. Advantage: Minutemen.
Miles and Miles of Jeromy Miles 27, Squashed Spiders on the Side of the Road, 13
No. 11 New Hampshire at Northeastern. Looking at the record, you’d think the best thing for the stung Wildcats would be to face off against a 2-4 team. The only problem is it’s against Northeastern at quaint Parson’s Field, who played a brutal schedule including two FBS schools and No. 10 UMass last weekend. With runningback Chad Kackert still out, New Hampshire will struggle to make yards in this game - and this time, Northeastern comes away with a quality CAA league win.
Northeastern Exposure 27, Kackert-less ‘Cats No Longer Cackling 17
No. 13 Central Arkansas at Texas State. Yes, Virginia: the winner of this game could be sitting pretty at 2-0 in the Southland - and yes, that’s not a typo, one of those teams could very well be Texas State. Picked to finish sixth on the eight-team Southland conference, quarterback Bradley George exploded onto the national scene last week with an eye-popping 335 yards in their shock 45-42 win. It’s not like their running game is bad, either, with runningback Karrington Bush (532 yards, 5 TDs) and fullback Stan Zwinngi (351 yards, 2 TDs). How does Central Arkansas stack up? Well, start with Payton Award candidate Nathan Brown (an amazing 1,727 yards passing and 17 TDs). This has all the ingredients for another game where the cheerleaders collapse exhausted after doing pushups after every touchdown. It’s also got the ingredients for a big home victory - and that means, Virginia, that Texas State starts the season 2-0.
George, Bush… and Zwinngi 55, What Can Brown… Almost Do For You 52
Lafayette at No. 14 Liberty. Every eye in the Big South and the Patriot League is on this game. The Flames, who have cruised through the early part of their schedule (including wins over Youngstown State and Western Carolina), are undefeated behnd the steadfast running of runningback Rashad Jennings (725 yards, 10 TDs). But they don’t face off against any old defense: the Leopards are only allowing a paltry 76.8 rushing yards per game behind the strong front seven, led by linebacker Andy Romans. A win by the Flames and they go 7-0, and barring a severe misstep in league play they seem destined for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs. A Lafayette win, and the Patriot League gets a huge shot in the arm - and big out-of-conference win - before heading into league play. The Leopard defense will do the job, but it’s the struggling Lafayette offense - who will severely miss runningback Maurice White, out with an injury - that will betray them at Williams stadium.
Heck Fire 23, Romans’ Not On a Holiday 10
Indiana State at No. 15 Western Illinois. Indiana State is 0-5, and they won’t get their first win of the year against a Leatherneck team featuring runningback Herb Donaldson that seems to be getting better week to week.
Even More Leathery Necks 59, Still Winless Trees 0
No. 16 Southern Illinois at Youngstown State. What has happened to Younsgtown State? Before the season, they were a trendy pick to win the Missouri Valley conference. Now, they’ve gone through four quarterbacks (two of whom have left the team) in an effort to somehow get the ball to wideout Ferlando Williams (277 yards, 4 TDs). It doesn’t get any easier, either, with linebacker James Cloud heading to Stambaugh Stadium this weekend. The Penguins’ struggle continues.
Salukinators 34, Ice Pops 10
No. 17 Northern Arizona at Idaho State. Is this a trap game for Northern Arizona? With the other undefeated team in the Big Sky looming in two weeks (a news flash for those who haven’t been paying attention: that’s Weber State, not Montana), a trip on the road to Holt Arena might be a big danger sign for Lumberjack fans. But 0-6 Idaho State, despite the best efforts of quarterback Russel Hill, can’t get it it all together. They seem unlikely to pull it together in time to beat Northern Arizona - who, led by defensive lineman Michael Battisti, are only giving up 7.2 rushing yards a game and lead FCS.
The Trees On D 34, The Bungles 3
Northern Colorado at No. 18 Weber State. The 1-4 Bears are better, having just come off a big 29-9 domination of Idaho State on homecoming. Unfortunately, they face off against one of the hottest teams in FCS, a quarterback who has just been put on the Payton Award list (Cameron Higgins), and they go on the read.
The Luau in Utah 44, Bears Don’t Dance 3
No. 21 The Citadel at No. 19 Furman. A must-win for quarterback Jordan Sorrels and the Paladins, they face angry wideout Andre Roberts in their own must-win situation after back-to-back losses to Appalachian State (47-21) and Elon (27-23). Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their big problem is stopping the run: they’re giving up 180.5 yards per game - and that should be music to the ears of Furman runningback Mike Brown (549 yards, 5 TDs).
Purple Horses Not Dark Horses 37, Bopped Bulldogs Not Bullish Bulldogs, 24
Austin Peay at No. 22 Tennessee State. Two teams fresh off the bye week, it’s hard to imagine two teams with different resumes coming into this game. The 0-6 Governors have struggled mightly to score points - averaging only 13 points per game. The 5-1 Tigers are still riding high, thanks to quarterback Antonio Heffer (1,454 yards passing, 12 TDs), wideout/return man JaJuan Spillman (723 all-purpose yards, 3 TDs), and a “bend but don’t break” defense. Although this is ostensibly a trophy game counting towards the “Seargent York Trophy” series, look for Tennessee State to thoroughly dominate this one.
Seargent Spellman and the Tigers 41, The Peay is Shooting Blanks 9
Murray State at No. 23 Jacksonville State. The other OVC teams seem intent on denying Jacksonville State quarterback Ryan Perriloux an easy time to OVC title, and surprising Murray State might be dangerous, even on the road, with runningback Paul McKinnis (409 yards, 4 TDs) leading the charge. With Perriloux’s proclivity to throw interceptions (he’s already thrown 10) and Murray State’s secondary’s ability to pick off passes (they already have 8) - this will be close. It will go Jacksonville State’s way, but it’s going to be close.
Perilous Perriloux 42, ‘I am Innis of the Clan McInnises’ 38
Norfolk State at No. 25 Hampton. It’s not Albany’s schedule, but Norfolk State’s road losses to FBS Kentucky, William & Mary, Bethune Cookman and South Carolina State has to be up there in terms of degree of difficulty. With Hampton closing out the road trip, though, these local rivals will be sleeping at home before the “Battle of the Bay” this weekend. Rivalries aside though, sometimes all you need to see are quarterbacks. Pirate QB Herbert Bynes has a 60% completion percentage and 8 TDs. Spartan QB Dennis Brown has a 40% completion percentage and eight more interceptions (10) than TDs (2). Even a big rivalry can’t close that sort of gap.
60% Old Bay 30, 40% Completion Percentage 10
Five Outside the Top 25
William & Mary at Delaware. As fast as Delaware’s free fall from the Top 25 has been, William & Mary’s ascent to the brink of the Top 25 has been just as fast. Was Tribe quarterback Jake Phillips’ last-second win over New Hampshire a fluke? I don’t know, but I do know that Delaware linebacker Erik Johnson will give William & Mary a tougher time than the Wildcats did.
Smashmouth Hens 17, Toppled Tribe 14
Lehigh at Harvard. The Crimson look to avenge their second loss of the 2007, after losing last year in heartbreaking 20-13 fashion to linebacker Tim Diamond’s strip of quarterback Chris Pizzotti that led to the winning touchdown with under 1 minute to play. They don’t get stripped again, and they get the win this time, too.
Big Crimson 27, Baked Engineers 23
Albany at Sacred Heart. No, really? Sacred Heart 6-0? Sophomore quarterback Dale Fink (1,279 yards passing, 16 TDs) is a good young talent, but then again they haven’t seen anything like Albany runningback David McCarty, either. The Great Danes, still the big dogs of the NEC, break the Pioneers’ perfect record.
Big Dogs 34, Pioneer Pups 17
Florida A&M at Southern. The Tallahassee Democrat asked the question this week: Are the 4-2 Rattlers playing over their heads? At 4-2 in Joe Taylor’s first year as Rattler head coach, his rebuilding project has taken a lot less time than people thought, including a huge win over nationally-ranked Tennessee State (28-21). Return man LeRoy Vann overnight has made Rattler special teams into a force (with his amazing 683 punt and kickoff return yards and an amazing 3 returns for touchdowns). But this time, they face an old rival in Southern, who at 4-2 may very well be the class of the SWAC this year. Quarterback Bryant Lee (1,532 yards passing, 16 TDs) is a steadying influence on the Jaguars. Add to that the last time FAMU came to Baton Rouge to play the Jaguars - a heartbreaking 50-49 game in 2000 - and you have plenty of motivation this week. It will be a big battle - with the Jaguars, just, coming out on top.
Not Exactly Just Bryant Lee 37, Not Exactly Over Their heads 33
Dayton at Davidson. In the Pioneer Football League, it always seems to boil down to San Diego and Dayton. This week, runningback Ben Shappie (386 yards, 9 TDs) finally leave welcome Welcome stadium and travel to North Carolina to face Davidson. Could we see an upset brewing - with the Flyers finally playing on the road, and facing a decent secondary (led by defensive back Brandon Giles and his 3 interceptions)? I think it absolutely could happen here - but I think Dayton finds a way to grit out a close victory here. Dayton wins on the road - but it will be close.
Shappie’s Chappies 23, Curry-Free Wildcats 20
Game of the Week
No. 12 McNeese State at Sam Houston State
There are games featuring higher-ranked opponents. There are more emotional battles this week between old-time rivals. There are a lot of good games: some of them involving do-or-die battles, too.
But when this game comes to an end, there will be an awfully good Southland team sitting at 0-2 that will be out of the playoff race.
But which team will it be?
While 3-2 McNeese State boasts the offensive prowess of wideout Stephen Whitehead and quarterback Derrick Fourroux, two of their three wins came against sub-D-I competition. Their one FCS win, however, came against South Dakota State in a 46-44 thriller that some have called the game of the year so far in FCS. They’ve been putting up plenty of points: 52 on D-II Delta State, 63 on NAIA Central Virginia, 46 on South Dakota State, 42 on Texas State.
But more troubling has been their porous pass defense. The Cowboys have been giving up 251 passing yards on average per game, including 335 last week to Texas State. Defensive back Jeremy Haynes does have 2 interceptions, but this group has struggled.
And that could be bad news against the Bearkats.
Contrary to popular belief, the Sam Houston State offense is not quarterback Rhett Bomar (1,239 yards passing, 129 yards rushing, 16 TDs). There’s a stable of receivers, led by wideout Justin Wells (333 yards, 2 TDs) that are doing a great job catching the ball.
Yet Sam Houston’s schedule also gives an incomplete picture as to how good the Bearkats really are. They lost a heartbreaker last week to powerful Central Arkansas, 46-44. Their last home game was in August, a 58-14 throttling of sub-D-I “East Central". Bomar had a monster game on the road against 2-4 Gardner-Webb 49-33 - but there’s not much more to point towards as to how good this team is.
Like McNeese, Sam Houston has struggled defensively and specifically against the pass. They’ve let up a whopping 298.50 yards per game through the air on defense, and have only nabbed three interceptions on the year.
Every sign points to a thrilling Southland shootout. The question is, does McNeese have enough to pull this off? Or will Sam Houston, playing at home, score early enough and often enough to stay alive in the Southland race?
These teams are about as evenly matched as I can figure. Both have great quarterbacks. Both spread the ball around. But McNeese has that tiny edge in special teams - Blake Bercegeay’s punting and kicking, and Stephen Whitehead’s return game - that will give this huge conference win and keep their season alive. I wouldn’t be surprised who whine here - but it’s a big special teams play that gives this to the Cowboys.
McNeese State 62, Sam Houston State 59