Pivotal Saturday for Southland Conference

(STATS) – Either Central Arkansas is about to really separate itself from the pack in the Southland Conference or the title race will be thrown up for grabs.

This Saturday in the Southland is the most important one remaining on the schedule with four of the conference’s top five teams facing each other. The main event sees the fourth-ranked Bears put their perfect league record on the line against No. 20 McNeese, while the undercard has fifth-ranked Sam Houston State visiting Southeastern Louisiana.

Central Arkansas is alone atop the Southland standings at 5-0 and would have a seemingly easy path to the conference crown if it can take care of the Cowboys. The Bears’ final three opponents after this weekend are Lamar, Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian – teams with a combined 4-18 overall record.

“It’s a big week for us, one that we’re really looking forward to,” Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell said.

McNeese coach Lance Guidry is fully aware of how vital Saturday’s showdown is: “If you win that game, you get to keep going and have a chance to win the conference. If we were to win it, it’s not going to decide whether we win conference or not. Of course, we could lose it this week.”

If Guidry’s Cowboys can spoil homecoming at Central Arkansas, the Southland championship is very much up in the air because up to four teams would only have one conference loss. One of those teams should be Nicholls – it visits Incarnate Word on Saturday – and the Colonels have already beaten McNeese.

Only one one-loss team can emerge from the Sam Houston State-Southeastern Louisiana matchup, so that’s a knockout game of sorts with both having already fallen to Central Arkansas.

“It’s a big game this weekend and it’s gonna have a lot of implications for a lot of things,” Bearkats coach K.C. Keeler said.

Keeler’s squad was a heavy favorite to repeat as conference champion but has been unable to recapture the magic of 2016, when it rolled through an 11-0 regular season behind the nation’s highest-scoring offense. After losing 41-30 to the Bears on Sept. 30, the Bearkats were held to 27 points by Stephen F. Austin and needed a late touchdown to win at home over Northwestern State.

Now they must go on the road to face a Southeastern Louisiana team riding a five-game winning streak. The Lions scored at least 49 points in every victory, and all of them were decided by at least 18.

“We’re playing with a lot more confidence, that comes with Ws,” Lions coach Ron Roberts said. “The biggest difference why is our offense has been incredibly explosive.”

That’s happened thanks greatly to the development of sophomore quarterback Lorenzo Nunez in his first season as the starter. He’s made the most of his limited throwing opportunities, totaling 10 touchdown passes in just 101 attempts, and his legs have keyed the winning streak with 228 rushing yards and four TDs on 41 carries.

Nunez, of course, is nowhere near the level of Sam Houston State’s Jeremiah Briscoe, the reigning STATS Walter Payton Award winner. Briscoe is not putting up the video game-type numbers he did last season but does rank third in the FCS in passing yards and touchdowns.

Yet, some would argue Central Arkansas senior Hayden Hildebrand has outplayed Briscoe. In fact, he’s the fourth-rated passer in the FCS – Briscoe is 31st – and has thrown for at least 250 yards in every victory during UCA’s six-game win streak while totaling 16 TD passes.

Facing the McNeese defense will be by far his toughest test in Southland play. The Cowboys have allowed averages of 6.5 points and 160.8 yards over the past four games. They’ve forced 18 turnovers overall, including five last week against Incarnate Word when they matched an NCAA record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns.

“They’ve got a lot of speed at every spot on defense,” Campbell said of McNeese. “They just don’t give up a lot of big plays. … They’re always in the right spot and they’re getting a lot of hats to the football.”

That wasn’t the case last year when McNeese was embarrassed at home in a 35-0 loss to Central Arkansas.

Guidry admitted that the Bears “wanted the game more than us and played harder than us.” That should present extra motivation to his Cowboys, but that might be far from enough to get them over the hump.

“We haven’t played anybody as good as them this year,” Guidry said. “They’re gonna present a bunch of problems for us. We’re not as big as them.”

This weekend should determine whether Central Arkansas is too big to fail in the Southland race.

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