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Battle of conference champions Saturday at UCA
It’s an unusual nonconference matchup of champions at the end of the regular season.
It’s a unofficial playoff game before the NCAA FCS playoffs begin.
Byes and seeding are on the line.
Saturday evening’s game between the University of Central Arkansas and Eastern Illinois is not your usual regular-season finale on Senior Day.
The Bears (8-2) are co-champions of the Southland Conference and will head into the 20-team playoffs as the league champion. The Panthers (7-3) are champions of the Ohio Valley Conference (securing the league’s automatic bid) in their first year under Dino Babers, a former wide receiver and special teams coach at Baylor.
UCA, ranked 10th in both major FCS polls, will likely secure one of 12 first-round byes and a possible home second-round game with a victory. The Panthers are playing for seeding and pride for a conference whose representatives have not advanced past the first round of the FCS playoffs since 2000.
Seedings and pairings will be announced at 12:30 p.m. Sunday with the playoffs set to begin on Thanksgiving Weekend.
“Let’s call it a tie and move on to the playoffs,” Baber said this week during the OVC teleconference. “But our guys like competition, and they look at it as a challenge against a team that hasn’t lost on their home field with the purple and gray stripes.
“I don’t think motivation for an end-of-the-season game will be an issue. It’s a chance, going into the playoffs, to find out where we are against a good football team.”
Things will likely happen fast. Babers has brought the Baylor offense to Eastern Illinois and UCA coach Clint Conque notes that it has played three games in which it has run 120 plays over more.
“They are the fastest-playing team I’ve seen,” Conque said. “They play faster than Ole Miss, Murray State and Stephen F. Austin, the other up-tempo teams we have seen. I’m not sure they don’t play faster than Oregon. I told my players the other day to rest up Friday and eat their Wheaties Saturday morning.”
What effect does that have?
“It’s not that they necessarily get you coming out of the gate but the pace came wear you down,” Conque said. “As the game goes on you get tired and that can cause your eyes to not be in place, to be not as focused to not play as high with tackling. That style of offense can cause separation from you late. The key for us will be to get off the field (on defense) and get on (on offense).”
The Panthers feature the leading receiver in the nation in Erik Lora, who is close to setting an all-time FCS receiving record.
“They are averaging 39 points a game; they are giving up 32,” Conque said, “but what impressed me is they went to Eastern Kentucky, a probable playoff team, and held them to seven points on their homecoming.”
And Conque considers a gaining a first-round bye in the playoffs very important.
“To win a national championship without a bye, you have to win five straight games and that is very difficult,” he said. “It’s important to get as many home playoff games as you can. Both teams that played for the national championship last year (North Dakota State and Sam Houston State) played at home until the championship game at Frisco. To win a title at this level coming off the road is like coming out of the losers bracket of a double-elimination basketball tournament.”
UCA will honor 16 seniors before the game, a group that has now helped UCA to two straight postseason playoff appearances.
By David McCollum, Log Cabin Democrat