(STATS) – The Southland Conference continues to make a strong case for a record haul of FCS playoff teams.
On Monday, all four teams in contention were ranked in the STATS FCS Top 25. Central Arkansas, which has clinched a share of the conference title, trailed only unanimous No. 1 James Madison and Jacksonville State in the national media poll. Add in Sam Houston State (5), McNeese (19) and Nicholls (25), which was in the poll for the first time in over 10 years, and the Southland tied for the second-most ranked teams.
The Southland has never had more than three teams in the playoffs. There’s one final push this week before the 24-team field is announced Sunday morning.
Central Arkansas (9-1) hasn’t locked down the Southland’s automatic bid to the playoffs just yet, but the quickest route for the Bears is to win Saturday at home against struggling Abilene Christian. They’ve won nine straight games since a season-opening loss to Kansas State.
“Southland Conference champions, that does have a good little ring to it,” coach Steve Campbell said after a 56-10 rout of Incarnate Word last Saturday. “I told the guys, you sewed up a ring tonight. Now, what’s that ring gonna say? It can either say 8-1 or it can say 9-0. Let’s make sure it says 9-0.”
Sam Houston State (9-1), which has lost only to Central Arkansas, appears in excellent shape for an at-large bid to the playoffs. McNeese (8-2) and Nicholls (8-2), which last appeared in the poll during the 2007 season, also are in the mix. While Nicholls won the head-to-head meeting, it has a tougher assignment with a quick turnaround Thursday night at Southeastern Louisiana. McNeese visits struggling Lamar on Saturday.
Every FCS team in the rankings is looking up to James Madison (10-0). The defending FCS champion slipped past rival Richmond 20-13 on Saturday for its 22nd straight win and then retained No. 1 with all 163 first-place votes. To have an unbeaten regular season, the Dukes must beat No. 11 Elon on Saturday.
Second-ranked Jacksonville State (9-1) hosts Tennessee State on Thursday night with the chance to complete a fourth straight unbeaten season in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Gamecocks extended their conference winning streak to 31 with a 14-7 win at UT Martin.
After Central Arkansas, North Dakota State (9-1) moved up one spot to No. 4 as one of six ranked teams from the Missouri Valley. The Bison were followed by Sam Houston State, South Dakota State (8-2), Wofford (9-1), North Carolina A&T (10-0), Western Illinois (7-3) and Stony Brook (8-2).
Elon (8-2) led the way among the second 10. Then it was No. 12 Weber State (8-2), Grambling State (9-1), Southern Utah (8-2), South Dakota (7-3), New Hampshire (7-3), Samford (7-3), Eastern Washington (6-4), McNeese and Furman (7-3).
Rounding out the Top 25 were Illinois State (6-4), Kennesaw State (9-1), Northern Arizona (7-3), Northern Iowa (6-4) and Nicholls. With Nicholls moving into the rankings, Western Carolina fell out.
A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. A first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.
The next Top 25 will be released Sunday morning prior to the announcement of the playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.