FCS Preview: Southland vs. The Big Sky

Montana State's Everett Gilbert runs the ball against Chadron State's Bryce Huebner during the first half of their football game at Bobcat Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 30 in Bozeman.

By Lance Berndt
FCS Columnist
College Sports Journal

Southland vs. Big Sky.  It seems this is a guarantee to at least happen once every year the time comes for the FCS playoffs.  In fact, only twice since 2001 has there been a playoffs without at least one Southland/Big Sky match-up. 

One might think that these two conferences have had quite the rivalries built up away from the playoffs as well through home and home traditions.  However, regular season battles don’t happen quite as often, especially uncommon in the past five seasons.

This weekend is bucking the recent trend and displaying two cross conference battles.  McNeese State will travel to Weber State and Stephen F. Austin is playing at Montana State. 

McNeese State @ Weber State

Lifetime fans of either school might be able to remember a two game “home and home” back in the early 90’s.  It is the only these two have faced off before and their series is tied 1-1 with each team winning on the road.

That could be good karma for McNeese as they make the trip up to Ogden for this key non-conference game. 

Non-conference battles among the top tier of FCS conferences are rarities, but when they happen, a win is huge for the playoff resume. 

It is very possible that this game could come down as a “play-in” game for these two schools. 

For those who don’t know, to reach the FCS playoffs, there is an unsaid rule that a team needs 7 FCS wins.  With only 8 conference games on most teams’ schedules, non-conference FCS games are key for reaching that total. 

The Cowboys of McNeese State comes into this weekend with a 2-0 record.  They started off the season with an impressive win over FBS Middle Tennessee State, and followed it up by throttling Division II McMurry 69-7.

With a favorable conference schedule ahead – home games against both Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin – McNeese State could use a win as momentum into a very strong season and possibly contend for the Southland conference title along with a potential playoff seed. 

Headlining the Cowboys on offense will be their “BMW Backfield” in Champlain Babin, Javaris Murray, and Marcus Wiltz. The trio torched Middle Tennessee State for a combined total of 280 yards of offense, which was nearly 2/3 of McNeese State’s offensive production. 

On the defensive side the Cowboys have already forced 7 turnovers on the season.  They’re led by senior safety Chris Raggett who recorded two interception returns for touchdowns against McMurry. 

Weber State has not been as successful this season with their record standing at 0-2.  However, both losses are to FBS opponents in Fresno State and BYU. 

A win this week would be a major lift for Weber State before they begin their Big Sky conference schedule.  A loss would mean Weber State would essentially need to win 7 of their last 8 to have a chance at reaching the playoffs. 

The Wildcats also boast a very strong rushing attack led by C.J. Tuckett who finished 2011 with 467 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns in just two games. 

Weber State has a major advantage on special teams in punter Tony Epperson who averaged 50.2 yards per punt over 10 punts against BYU.  His solid performance included a booming 74 yard punt. 

Prediction: McNeese State over Weber State 31-24. 

Stephen F. Austin @ Montana State

Coming into the season fans of both schools had high hopes for 2012 football.

Montana State is coming off a disappointing end to their 2011 season, but they return an incredible amount of talent.   

Stephen F. Austin started last season 1-5, but finished with 5 straight dominating wins and hoped to carry that momentum into this season. 

Montana State holds a 3-1 lead in the series.  They last faced off in 2005 in Bozeman which resulted in a 42-6 Bobcats win. 

The Bobcats come into this game with a chip on their shoulder after two comparatively disappointing games to start the season.  They have a 33-6 win over D-II Chadron State and a 34-24 road win over Drake. 

MSU was torched for 311 yards through the air in their most recent game against Drake. 

The offense is led by annual All-American candidate Denarius McGhee at quarterback, and Cody Kirk at running back.  The stout Bobcat offense can put points on the board in a hurry. 

Their defense was a major part of their struggles at the end of 2011 allowing Montana and Sam Houston State to score a combined 85 points. 

The Montana State defense hopes to shut down Stephen F. Austin’s high powered offense this weekend.  They will be led by Jody Owens, who was the Big Sky’s preseason defensive MVP selection.  He has already logged 19 tackles this season. 

Much like many FCS teams at this point in the season, it’s hard to gauge Stephen F. Austin’s play so far as they’ve faced a D-II school and a strong FBS school.  SFA is 1-1 in those games with a dominating win and a blowout loss. 

The Lumberjacks hope to rebound from an embarrassing 10 turnover performance against an underrated FBS team in SMU. 

Sophomore quarterback Brady Attaway will be at the helm for the Lumberjacks and will hope to have the same success that Mike Piatkowski of Drake had last week against the Bobcat pass defense. 

Senior Josh Aubrey had arguably the best performance for SFA last weekend with two sacks and three tackles for loss.  He will hope to keep the electrifying Bobcat offense intact. 

Prediction:  Montana State over Stephen F. Austin 42-31.