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More title pretenders than contenders

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Bethlehem, PA (Sports Network) - The wind blowing across your favorite Football Championship Subdivision stadium signals more than the arrival of November.

Conference title races are shifting as quickly as the wind.

Pretty unpredictable stuff.

Only four, perhaps five, teams that were favorites in the 14 conference preseason polls are in the driver's seat of their respective title race (The Sports Network predictions are slightly better with one more team in good standing).

The way Lehigh blew away Colgate's bid in the Patriot League race on Saturday underscored the troubles of preseason favorites.

Following is the harsh reality of contenders-turned-perhaps-to-pretenders to their conference throne:

Big Sky: On Saturday, recent nailbiters caught up to Montana (6-3, 5-2), which was run over by Weber State running back Vaingamalie Tafuna (129 yards, four touchdowns) in a 30-21 loss. Front-running Eastern Washington (7-2, 6-1) holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Montana for the conference's automatic FCS playoff berth and second-place Montana State (7-2, 5-1) will roll into Missoula for the Nov. 20 finale. Not good for the Grizzlies.

Big South: Liberty (6-2, 3-0) remains in excellent shape because it hosts co- leader Stony Brook (4-4, 3-0) on Nov. 20, likely with the conference's first- ever playoff berth at stake. But the Flames lost to Stony Brook a year ago, so quarterback Mike Brown has to keep the FCS' No. 16 squad on track.

CAA Football: Defending FCS champion Villanova (6-2, 4-1) isn't in the driver's seat, but William & Mary, which beat the Wildcats, still must visit New Hampshire and James Madison, and host Richmond. If the Tribe stumble, it could open a championship door to the Villanova-Delaware winner on Nov. 20. Villanova might need star receiver Matt Szczur (high ankle sprain) back in the lineup by the time New Hampshire visits on Nov. 13.
Southern Utah is the season's first conference champion.


Great West: All hail Southern Utah (5-4, 4-0), the season's first conference champion. TSN called it right in the preseason, while Great West coaches picked UC Davis (3-5, 1-1) in a title repeat. But coach Ed Lamb's Thunderbirds finished off a sweep of conference foes by routing UC Davis, 55-24, as quarterback Brad Sorensen threw for 397 yards and five touchdowns, including three to Tysson Poots.

Ivy: Harvard (5-2, 3-1) can at least tie for the title by winning out, but the Crimson will have to get that done on the road against Penn (6-1, 4-0), which has won 12 straight league games. Their showdown is Nov. 13.

MEAC: A playoff berth is still possible for South Carolina State (6-2, 4-1) by winning out, but surprising Bethune-Cookman (8-0, 5-0) coming off a 67-17 thrashing of North Carolina AT&T on Thursday, has an unbeaten regular season within its sight.

Missouri Valley: Preseason Top 10 Southern Illinois (3-5, 2-3) will go down as one of the FCS' more disappointing teams. Ironically, first-place Northern Iowa (5-3, 4-1) still has to play the three teams that are one loss behind - Indiana State, Missouri State and Western Illinois. November should be fun.

Northeast: Defending champion Central Connecticut State (6-2, 5-0) will have to win at Robert Morris (7-1, 6-0) next Saturday. The conference's first-ever automatic bid to the playoffs is surely on the line.

Ohio Valley: Jacksonville State (8-0, 5-0) had the best record, but didn't win last year's title because of Academic Progress Rate penalties. The Gamecocks still have some work to get done, but they will host surprising Southeast Missouri State (8-1, 7-0) on Nov. 13 in a likely title game. The Gamecocks, off a bye this weekend, must avoid stumbling at Eastern Kentucky next weekend.

Patriot League: Losses to Holy Cross and Lehigh have left preseason favorite Colgate (4-4, 1-2) staggering. It's a three-team race between Lehigh (6-2, 2-0), which is on a four-game winning streak, Holy Cross (4-4, 1-1) and Lafayette (2-6, 1-1).

Pioneer: Dayton (8-1, 6-0) appears on its way to a 10-1 record, but Jacksonville (8-1, 6-0) is doing it even more convincingly in a league that doesn't have an automatic playoff berth. PFL teams play all but one league opponent, and, unfortunately, the co-leaders aren't scheduled to meet each other. If neither team gains an at-large playoff bid, how about they get together for a championship tussle?

Southern: Appalachian State (8-0, 6-0) has the No. 1 national ranking, but it must be even happier to be playing fast-charging Wofford (7-1, 5-0) at home on Nov. 13.

Southland: Recent results suggest Stephen F. Austin (6-2, 3-1) had no business losing at home to Texas State on Saturday, but the Lumberjacks still have a clear path to the league's automatic playoff bid. It's Northwestern State (4-4, 3-1) that seemingly has to keep holding serve until its Nov. 20 finale at SFA. McNeese State (4-4, 3-1) also is tied for first place, but SFA owns the tie- breaker, having won the head-to-head meeting.

SWAC: It appeared in the preseason that senior-laden Prairie View A&M (5-4, 4-3) could go undefeated in conference play. The Panthers have lost to both East Division leader Jackson State and West Division leader Grambling State.

VILLANOVA WINS CHAMPIONS' BATTLE

OK, so there isn't a "d" in "Villanova". But there is in "Wildcats," and the Villanova Wildcats have put their defense on display at home this season.

In Saturday's meeting of the last two FCS champions, Villanova took a first- quarter lead and didn't relent in a 28-7 victory over Richmond in CAA Football action. The 2009 champion Wildcats have allowed only one touchdown in each of their four home games this season.

Linebacker Marquis Kirkland, part of the team's strong senior class, led the way with 11 tackles, including two for losses, and a fumble recovery. The Wildcats forced four turnovers and didn't commit any.

SHELDON MAKES DEBUT

Brett Sheldon, who was born with short arms and three fingers on each hand, got into an Indiana State game for the first time Saturday, kicking an extra point in Indiana State's 41-30 win over visiting South Dakota State in Missouri Valley Football Conference action.

The PAT occurred in the second quarter and give the Sycamores (5-3, 3-2) a 20-3 lead.

The inspiring Sheldon, a junior, hadn't made a kick in an organized game since his freshman year at Franklin College.

The game's offensive star was ISU's Darrius Gates, who rushed for 154 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. Not be outdone was the game's defensive star, Sycamores freshman defensive back Calvin Burnett, who had 10 tackles (eight solos), an interception and five pass breakups.

THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER ...

The biggest crown of the FCS season - 61,879 - was on hand Saturday for Alabama State's 31-10 win over Alabama A&M at the 69th Annual Magic City Classic at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. ... The Stephen F. Austin fans who left Saturday's game against Texas State after three quarters must have thought it was a safe proposition. The No. 4 Lumberjacks had a 24-0 lead on slumping Texas State. Well, in one of the best finishing efforts of the season, the Bobcats scored four touchdowns in the final 9:21 to steal a win. The game-winning score was quarterback Tim Hawkins' 28-yard TD pass to Darren Dillard with 1:10 left to play ... Myles Russ became Robert Morris' all-time leading rusher in the Colonials' 34-11 win over Pittsburgh rival Duquesne. Russ rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 30 attempts, surpassing RMU running backs coach Sam Dorsett's school record for yards. He has 3,868 yards heading into next Saturday's showdown against Central Connecticut State ... Western Illinois quarterback Matt Barr threw for a school-record six touchdowns and 452 yards, and rushed for a touchdown, in a 65-38 rout of Illinois State. He completed 22- of-25 passes, and his 452 yards - his second straight game over 400 - were third-most in conference history ... This year's dominant offensive players in the Big Sky were at it again. Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns in only one half of action in the Eagles' 50-17 win at Portland State. Montana State freshman quarterback Denarius McGhee had his second straight 400-yard game by passing for 402 yards in the Bobcats' 23-20 overtime win over Idaho State. McGhee's 25-yard TD run in overtime ended the game ... North Carolina Central won for the first time under interim head coach Darryl Bullock, 20-7 over Edward Waters ... In a 34-24 win over Presbyerian, Liberty junior Matt Bevins kicked his 44th field goal to become the Flames' all-time leader ... No. 24 Jacksonville (8-1) trailed for the first time since its loss to Appalachian State in Week 2 before junior quarterback Josh McGregor threw for a school-record seven touchdowns in a 61-17 win over Morehead State. Coach Kerwin Bell's Dolphins have scored 203 points in their last three games ... Fordham's Darryl Whiting had the third-highest rushing performance of the FCS season with 251 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries as the Rams stopped Georgetown, 24-19 ... No. 1 Appalachian State reached 8-0 for the second time in school history, stopping Furman, 37-26, behind Travaris Cadet's 108 rushing yards and three touchdowns. App State quarterback DeAndre Presley threw his first interception of the season ... Can any secondary stop Arkansas-Pine Bluff senior wide receiver Raymond Webber? His 243 receiving yards against Grambling State pushed him to 1,019 through eight games ... Cal Poly's 41-33 Homecoming win over St. Francis (Pa.) featured the return of 13 survivors of the 1960 plane crash in Toledo, Ohio, which claimed the lives of 16 Mustangs players, the team manager and a team booster.

SNEAK PEEK

The biggest game next Saturday is in the NEC in Moon Township, Pa. Central Connecticut State (6-2, 5-0) visits Robert Morris (7-1, 6-0), which has won 11 straight NEC's games, with the conference's first-ever automatic playoff bid likely at stake.

Weber State (5-3, 3-2) is back in the playoff picture, but it will have to win at Montana State (7-2, 5-1) in an interesting Big Sky game.

Other big games are Lehigh (6-2, 2-0) at Holy Cross (4-4, 1-1) in the Patriot League, Bethune-Cookman (8-0, 5-0) at Hampton (5-3, 4-1) in the MEAC, Jacksonville State (8-0, 5-0) at Eastern Kentucky (3-5, 2-2) in the OVC, Jackson State (6-2, 3-2) at Alabama State (5-3, 4-3) in the SWAC, Appalachian State (8-0, 6-0) at Georgia Southern (4-4, 2-3) in the SoCon, and Jacksonville (8-1, 6-0) at defending PFL champion Butler (4-5, 2-4).

The SEC is coming up for air as three teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision's top conference will host FCS teams: Idaho State (1-7) is at Georgia; Charleston Southern (2-6) visits Kentucky; and Chattanooga (5-3) goes to Auburn.

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


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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