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Turnarounds change everything

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys just may want to pay attention to what some Football Championship Subdivision teams have been doing since their poor starts to the season.

Tony Romo, Miles Austin, yeah, you know a thing or two about the FCS.

With a few tweaks, a team others may have wanted to be playing early in the season can become one that nobody wants a part of later in the season.

Coaches like to say their teams improve the most from the first game of a season to the second game. Sometimes the message is a little delayed.

Chattanooga, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota State and Southern Utah are prime examples that a subpar September doesn't necessarily prevent an outstanding October.

Here's why:

Chattanooga

First things first: Chattanooga's September really wasn't subpar. Nearly every team in the nation would have been 0-2 if it started with the Mocs' schedule. The Mocs actually came out of it looking strong with a one-point loss to Appalachian State and a four-point loss to Jacksonville State - teams that entered the weekend ranked No. 1 and 3 in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25.

B.J. Coleman has led Chattanooga to five-straight wins.
Still, it might have been easy to think Chattanooga's season wasn't going far considering it was only 6-5 last season, preceded by a combined six wins over the 2006, '07 and '08 seasons.

Give credit to Russ Huesman, the second-year head coach who was the defensive coordinator of Richmond's FCS championship squad in 2008. He kept his team focused on fast improvement.

The Mocs (5-2) have since run off their first five-game winning streak since Huesman was a junior defensive back on the 1980 squad. On Saturday, they went on the road and ended a 15-game losing streak against Furman, and remained a legitimate factor in the Southern Conference race.

If you want to know how impressed I have been with the likes of quarterback B.J. Coleman, receiver Joel Bradford and linebacker Ryan Consiglio - all juniors - and the rest of the Mocs, the nation's No. 24-ranked squad was No. 8 on my ballot last Monday. They'll remain there on my ballot this week.

Montana

Grizzlies fans were ready to hit the panic button when their favorite team lost two of their first three games under first-year head coach Robin Pflugrad. The Griz's loss at Eastern Washington even put their 12-year streak of winning at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title in jeopardy.

A lot has changed since they were seeing red on Eastern Washington's new turf that Sept. 18 evening. The national runners-up of the past two seasons has put together a five-game winning streak to move to 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky, which is good for a first-place tie with those same EWU Eagles (with Montana State in hot pursuit)

The Grizzlies have had a flair for the dramatic - a 28-25 win over Sacramento State, a 23-21 win over Portland State on Brody McKnight's game-ending field goal and, on Saturday, a 24-21 win over Northern Arizona on Justin Roper's 1- yard touchdown pass to C.J. Atkins with five seconds left.

The surging Grizzlies were ranked No. 7 in last week's poll.

New Hampshire

The Wildcats didn't even fall out of the Top 25 during a 2-3 start, which included a pair of three-point road losses to lower-tier teams in CAA Football, Rhode Island and Maine.

The Wildcats have come back to validate why voters kept faith in them. They have beaten three straight CAA teams that at the time were ranked no worse than No. 12. As a result, the Wildcats are 5-3 overall and 4-2 in the CAA.

Most impressive was Saturday's 39-13 trouncing of Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. It gave them a huge lift toward becoming a possible fourth playoff team from the CAA.

That's familiar terrain for coach Sean McDonnell's program, but to get back to the playoffs they surely will have to beat either William & Mary or Villanova, who met in last year's national semifinals before 'Nova went on to win the national title.

Senior quarterback R.J. Toman was maligned during his first two seasons as a starter, but the Wildcats have followed his lead this season.

In last week's poll, UNH rightfully was No. 10.

South Dakota State

Indeed, get out of the way of the Jackrabbits.

They entered the season in the Top 10, proceeded to lose four straight games against a schedule that was ridiculously tough and have come back with three straight Missouri Valley Football Conference games to find themselves right back in the thick of a crazy title race.

Coach John Stiegelmeier's 3-4 squad is only a half-game behind Northern Iowa, although the Jackrabbits will need some help considering one of their losses occurred against the first-place squad.

There's little reason to doubt South Dakota State can win out and get to 7-4, and perhaps qualify to the FCS playoffs. Running back Kyle Minett has come on strong, including 185 rushing yards in a win over Youngstown State on Saturday, and linebacker Derek Domino has been there all season.

Southern Utah

The Thunderbirds (you have to love the nickname) didn't exactly take it easy early in the season with losses to two Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Wyoming and San Jose State, at Texas State and against Northern Arizona. It was part of a 1-4 start to a season which began with high hopes.

Well, the Thunderbirds are cruising now. They had never won three Great West games in any of their first six seasons in the conference, and now have done so in a 15-day span - all by double digits. It includes a Colin Pretlow-led defensive effort against South Dakota on Saturday (31-13).

The Thunderbirds stand a road win over UC Davis next weekend from sweeping their way to the conference title.

Plus, with two wins in its final three games, coach Ed Lamb's squad would post its first winning season since going 6-5 in 2004.

Honorable Mention

Central Connecticut State's 1-2 start was expected. It's just that the defending Northeast Conference champion was hammered by a 30-point loss to New Hampshire and a 39-point loss to Youngstown State.

But coach Jeff McInerney's squad has bounced back with four straight conference wins to go to 5-2 and stay on pace for a championship game at Robert Morris on Nov. 6. The Blue Devils overcame a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter on Friday to win at Albany, 30-27 in overtime.

The NEC champion will receive an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs for the first time this season.

Prairie View A&M's season basically crumbled with a 1-3 start, which included Southwestern Athletic Conference losses to Alabama State and Grambling State. But coach Henry Frazier has demonstrated again why he was the 2009 Eddie Robinson Award winner by not letting his squad wallow in defeat.

The Panthers have reeled off four straight wins to improve to 5-3 and need only one more to clinch a fourth straight winning season.

Not what they originally had in mind, but not too shabby, either.

PEAKING EARLY

It's hard not to consider a win over an FBS squad as the highlight of any FCS team's season. Seven FCS squads have enjoyed such fortune this season.

But have you noticed some of those teams' up-and-down play, and in some cases struggles, since the upsets?

OK, take Jacksonville State (7-0) out of the equation. The Gamecocks' pulsating, 49-48 double-overtime win at Ole Miss on the first Saturday of the season remains vivid, and coach Jack Crowe's squad has even raised its play in recent weeks.

But James Madison, which stunned Virginia Tech, is starting to unravel in the CAA with two straight losses, which drops it to 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the conference. South Dakota is 2-4 since winning at Minnesota, and fellow Great West member UC Davis, which beat San Jose State, just lost at home to a start- up program (though unbeaten), South Alabama.

North Dakota State opened the season with a win at Kansas, but is only 4-3 since then. Liberty followed up a win over Ball State with two straight losses, but has steadied the ship with three straight wins. Meanwhile, fellow Big South member Gardner-Webb, which topped Akron a mere hours before Liberty's FCS scalp, has gone on to lose four of its last five games.

Frank Warren is 49 yards shy Walter Payton for fifth place on the Southwestern Athletic Conference's all-time chart.
CAN'T TOUCH THIS

Grambling State senior running back Frank Warren has earned the nickname "Sweet Feet Frank". He's about to pass the man known as "Sweetness"

With 209 rushing yards on Saturday against Mississippi Valley State - his third 200-yard game of the season - Warren moved within 49 yards of passing the late Walter Payton for fifth place on the Southwestern Athletic Conference's all-time chart.

Plenty of school and perhaps conference records will fall to the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Warren in his final four games. He is second in the FCS in rushing yards per game (163.1).

THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER ...

No team has enjoyed Gardner-Webb's aforementioned slide quite like Presbyterian. On Saturday, the Big South squad (1-6) snapped the FCS' longest losing streak at 20 games by beating Gardner-Webb, 26-24. It gave second-year head coach Harold Nichols his first career victory. Quarterback Myron Gary rushed for two touchdowns and defensive tackle Brian Davis collected three sacks and a fourth tackle for loss to fuel the triumph ... Also getting into the win column after 10 straight losses was North Carolina AT&T, which stopped Howard, 52-32, in the MEAC. George Hines threw three touchdowns for the Aggies (1-7), whose previous win came against Howard last season ... The good hands people of the week were on the Georgia Southern defense. The Eagles forced nine turnovers in a 20-0 shutout of The Citadel, with outside linebacker E.J. Webb recovering two fumbles and cornerback Laron Scott picking off two passes. GSU starting quarterback Jaybo Shaw was injured after two plays, but freshman Jerick McKinnon came in and rushed for 182 yards and one touchdown on 35 carries ... Quarterback DeAndre Presley of No. 1 Appalachian State remains without an interception through 172 pass attempts this season. The junior has passed for 14 touchdowns and rushed for 10 more ... McNeese State won at the buzzer as Josh Lewis drilled a 52-yard field goal for a 13-10 win over Southeastern Louisiana. "It was incredible," Cowboys coach Matt Viator said ... On a day in which all four Big Sky Conference games were decided by four points or less, quarterback Michael Herrick didn't play in Northern Arizona's 24-21 loss to Montana because of injury ... Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins tied the Big Sky record with his 98th career touchdown pass, but backfield mate Bo Bolen stole the show with 333 all-purpose yards (rushing for 156 yards and two TDs) in a 44-41 win over Portland State ... Lehigh has surged to the front of the Patriot League picture with three straight wins, but the Mountain Hawks (5-2, 1-0) have a difficult schedule ahead. Preseason favorite Colgate visits Bethlehem, Pa., next weekend, and then the Mountain Hawks go to defending champion Holy Cross, play at Georgetown and then head back to the road again to face rival Lafayette ... Harvard coach Tim Murphy had announced before the season that incumbent quarterback Collier Winters would not play this season because of a lower body injury, but Winters relieved ineffective starter Andrew Hatch to start the second half against Princeton, led the Crimson to 24 points and was 8 of 11 for 91 yards and two touchdown passes to tight end Kyle Juszczyk in a 45-28 win. Safety Collin Zych was impressive with 10 solos among his game-high 15 tackles ... Northern Iowa took sole possession of the bunched Missouri Valley Football race with a 42-14 pasting of Illinois State. Quarterback Tirrell Rennie rushed for 153 yards and four touchdowns, and threw for another score. The Panthers (4-3, 3-1) play three of their final four games on the road ... The Jacksonville offensive onslaught continued with a school- record 433 rushing yards in a 56-14 win over Marist. J.J. Laster needed a mere 11 carries for 177 yards and two touchdowns, and Rudell Small added 168 yards and three TDs on 21 carries, as the two became the Dolphins' first pair of 100- yard rushers in the same game since 2004. The Dolphins are 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Pioneer Football League ... Fellow PFL leader Dayton (7-1, 5-0) matched Jacksonville with a 41-23 win over Campbell. Justin Watkins became the Flyers' all-time leading receiver with 2,165 yards ... Stephen F. Austin (6-1, 3-0) won its first-place showdown with Sam Houston State in the Southland Conference, 31-28 before a Battle of the Piney Woods crowd of 24,685 at Houston's Reliant Stadium. Lumberjacks quarterback Jeremy Moses became the conference's all-time leader in total offense in the first quarter and went on to complete 30 passes for 418 yards ... The FCS' longest win streak is Jacksonville State at 12 and the longest losing streak is Valparaiso at 17

SNEAK PEEK

Want big games? They will be all over the FCS next weekend.

It's probably not the biggest, but the CAA showdown of Richmond (4-3, 2-2) at Villanova (5-2, 3-1) is a battle of the last two national champions.

Among the big ones impacting conference title races are Southern Utah (4-4, 3-0) at UC Davis (3-4, 1-0), where the visiting Thunderbirds could wrap up the Great West title against the defending conference champion, and Brown (4-2, 3-0) at defending champion Penn (5-1, 3-0) in the Ivy League.

Other big games include Montana (6-2, 5-1) at Weber State (4-3, 3-2) in the Big Sky, Furman (4-3, 2-2) at No. 1 Appalachian State (7-0, 5-0) in the Southern Conference, UT Martin (4-4, 3-2) at Southeast Missouri State (7-1, 6-0) in the Ohio Valley Conference, Colgate (4-3, 1-1) at Lehigh (5-2, 1-0) in the Patriot League, and Grambling State (6-1, 6-0) at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-3, 3-2) in the SWAC.

William & Mary (6-1) won't just step out of conference, it will step out of the FCS with a visit to the University of North Carolina. Tribe quarterback Mike Paulus, who might have lost the top job to Mike Callahan on Saturday, spent three years, including a redshirt year, as a Tar Heel.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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