In the FCS Huddle: Week 9 Preview

12:32 PM, Oct 25, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Normally, with just four weeks remaining in the 2012 season, much of the attention in the FCS goes to the power conferences. Everyone wants to know which teams from the top conferences will make the postseason or earn a playoff seed.

In Week 9, however, two games taking place in the SWAC and the MEAC also deserve a share of the spotlight.

It's a huge week for black college football with the SWAC's Alabama A&M playing Alabama State in the 71st Magic City Classic and Bethune-Cookman hosting the MEAC's biggest surprise this season, North Carolina Central, with first place up for grabs.

Although the SWAC has been somewhat inconsistent and crazy this season, Alabama A&M and Alabama State have remained constant threats for the Eastern Division title. It seems whenever these teams meet in such a historic HBCU rivalry game, the winner almost always controls its destiny on the way to earning a shot in the SWAC title game.

This year is no different, with Alabama A&M leading the East with a 5-1 record followed by the Hornets at 4-2.

"Two great football teams that are competing as always, for the same thing," Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones said. "A chance to move forward and keep control of their own fate. It's a game that you're excited about, but you're happy to get over with, so this year will be no exception. I expect a very competitive, high energy football game. Both teams are coming off a bye week and a loss and I think both teams have a lot of respect for each other."

As always, the Magic City Classic will be held at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., and fans for both schools never disappoint in terms of attendance and atmosphere of the contest.

Very few people outside HBCU football realize that the SWAC actually leads the FCS in attendance almost every season. In fact, according to the, in 2011, "Among FCS conferences, the Southwestern Athletic Conference enjoyed its 33rd attendance title in 34 years. The 10 SWAC teams averaged 12,944 fans per game and totaled 686,051 spectators." This week's game should draw between 50,000-60,000 spectators alone.

"It's our annual huge, huge game," Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow said. "When we recruit student-athletes, we tell them you're going to have an opportunity to play in front of a lot of folks and have the possibility to play on TV and the possibility to play against some really good talent. This is a game which allows us to make all of that true."

Alabama A&M, like Alabama State, is coming off a loss, but it was the first loss of the season for the Bulldogs. Running back Kaderius Lacey and quarterback Deaunte Mason spearhead the offensive attack. Lacey leads the SWAC in rushing with 99 yards per game and has totaled 694 yards and five touchdowns this season. Mason has been the conference's top signal-caller through seven games, having thrown for 1,359 yards and 12 touchdowns versus two interceptions.

"Sometimes when you're attempting to get a game plan for your opponent you look at their personnel and try to look at what they're doing offensively defensively and special teams," Barlow said. "Obviously, Alabama A&M has some really good athletes, starting with their quarterback, Mason, and running back, Lacey. It's going to be a huge challenge and task for our defense. Our defense ... I wish there was a way we could hide and say, 'Oh everything is good,' but I think our defense and our players all understand we have got to play better."

Both teams lead the SWAC in scoring offense and defense. Alabama State scores 32 points per game and gives up 19 per contest, while Alabama A&M averages 28 points per game and allows 13 per contest.

Jones believes one of the keys will be which team can better handle the outside distractions facing such an exciting matchup.

"Everywhere you go somebody is taking about the Magic City Classic," Jones said. "So it's just a constant reminder. The best word I can use is pressure. Pressure from within, pressure from all about to try to be successful in this game. But as we all know, there's only going to be one winner as far as the scoreboard is concerned. It's a great game that we look forward to, but there are some significant (outside) challenges."

In the MEAC, Saturday's game in Daytona Beach, Fla., features a clash of two undefeated conference teams. Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central share identical (5-2, 4-0 MEAC) records.

Both coaches certainly don't want the game to be about them, but BC-U's Brian Jenkins has become one of the conference's best young coaches and NCCU's second-year coach Henry Frazier has turned the Eagles from a 2-9 campaign last season to a surprising contender for the MEAC title this year.

"Coach Jenkins is really one of those bright, young head coaches," Frazier said. "He's the real deal. For the last three years, Bethune-Cookman has been at the top, so they have been there and done that."

Before taking over for the Eagles, Frazier led Prairie View A&M, where he was credited for setting a solid foundation and turning the program around. He led the Panthers to a 7-3 mark in 2007 - its first winning record since 1976 - and in 2009 he won the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in the FCS, after posting a 9-2 record with a SWAC title.

"We're going to go up against a team that has a veteran coach," Jenkins said. "Coach Frazier is a proven coach, without a doubt. It's no surprise to me that he has his team playing at a high level, they are a very well coached group ... I'm glad to see coach Frazier having success."

"Jenkins and I go back a long ways," Frazier said. "We've known each for a long time. I think there is definitely a mutual respect. He has Terry Sims (Bethune-Cookman's assistant head coach) on his staff, who coached with me at Prairie View."

North Carolina Central's success this season has been related to its rush defense and its players up front on the defensive line. The Eagles lead the MEAC in rushing defense with 109 yards per game and it has forced 16 fumbles, recovering 10 of them on the season. Interestingly, Bethune leads the conference in rushing offense with 229 yards per game.

"We're having some success, but this is going to be an awesome measuring stick for us," Frazier said. "I always say you want to be talked about in November. You want the late press, not the early press."

The Eagles will have their hands full trying to contain BC-U's trio of talented rushers. Isidore Jackson, Rodney Scott and Brodrick Waters have rushed for 1,301 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. The Wildcats rank 12th in the FCS with 229 rushing yards per game.

"Like I said at the conference meetings, if everybody were to go off the predictions, then there is no need play the game," Jenkins said. "Just hand out the trophies and the awards and move onto next year. But I think you see the conference starting to balance out in competition to where you had some teams that were dominant and you're seeing an influx of new coaches who are coming and really establishing their program's right away."

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network FCS Top 25 (all times ET):

No. 12 New Hampshire Wildcats (6-2, 4-1 CAA) at Rhode Island Rams (0-7, 0-4), noon

Series record: New Hampshire leads, 53-27-5

Last meeting: New Hampshire 31, Rhode Island 24 (Oct. 29, 2011)

What to know: New Hampshire heads south to play winless Rhode Island in a game in which the Wildcats should take care of business. However, the last time UNH traveled to Meade Stadium in 2010, the Rams came away with a dramatic 28-25 victory.

Rhody has struggled this season on offense. It ranks last in the FCS in averaging 228 yards per game, and it has scored just eight offensive touchdowns through seven games.

New Hampshire picked up a win at rival Maine last weekend, while quarterback Sean Goldrich started under center for the first time since getting injured in Week 2 versus Minnesota. He won CAA Rookie of the Week honors for his performance versus Maine, throwing for career highs of 283 yards and four touchdowns.

Sophomore receiver R.J. Harris continues to improve each week as a premiere pass-catcher. He leads the CAA in receiving yards per game with 94 and is tied for a league-high eight touchdown receptions. Senior linebacker Matt Evans is the FCS' active leader with 415 career tackles and is 20 tackles away from overtaking Steve Doig (1978-81) as the all-time leader in UNH history.

Expect the 'Cats to try to get off to a fast start with running backs Nico Steriti and Chris Setian. They might have a small quarterback controversy in the remaining weeks, but both Andy Valais and Goldrich have the ability to lead the offense.

Prediction: New Hampshire 38, Rhode Island 17

Eastern Illinois Panthers (4-3, 3-1 OVC) at No. 18 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (6-2, 4-1), noon (Fox College Sports)

Series record: Eastern Kentucky leads 12-7

Last meeting: Eastern Kentucky 48, Eastern Illinois 16 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: Eastern Illinois is coming off its bye week looking to make a big statement with only three conference games remaining. After all, the Panthers are one of four teams in the Ohio valley Conference with one conference loss and their offense has been outstanding. EIU ranks second in the FCS in total offense with 515 yards per game and second in scoring offense with 43 points per game.

With the addition of wide receiver Erik Lora to the Walter Payton Award watch list, very few could have guessed that EIU would have two players up for the FCS' most prestigious award. In every game this season, Lora has passed the 100-yard receiving mark and he is nine receptions away from the all-time conference record for a single season, 92 receptions. The junior leads the FCS in receptions per game (11) and receiving yards per game (161).

Eastern Kentucky's offense also will have something to say when it's all said and done. The Colonels scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Tennessee Tech last week, while running back Matt Denham rushed for 104 yards, marking the 15th time in his career that he has hit the 100- yard plateau. On top of Denham, EKU has experience and talent with quarterback T.J. Pryor and receiver Tyrone Goard. Pryor has thrown for 14 touchdowns and Goard has caught seven touchdowns this season.

EIU has lost every road game in 2012. Plus, EKU is very balanced offensively. The Colonels rush for 201 yards and pass for 220 yards per game.

Prediction: Eastern Kentucky 40, Eastern Illinois 35

No. 20 Delaware Blue Hens (5-2, 2-2 CAA) at No. 6 Old Dominion Monarchs (6-1, 3-1), noon (NBCSN)

Series record: Delaware leads, 1-0

Last meeting: Delaware 27, Old Dominion 17 (Sept. 24, 2011)

What to know: Delaware heads on the road to begin a brutal four-game stretch to end the season as it faces four teams (Old Dominion, Towson, Richmond and Villanova) which are currently ranked in the FCS Top 25.

Coach K.C. Keeler has to be happy with the way his team played last week at Rhode Island in a 47-24 victory. Senior signal-caller Tim Donnelly made his first start of the season, replacing injured starter Trent Hurley. He passed for 191 yards with one touchdown and added a touchdown on the ground. All- America running back Andrew Pierce had one of his best games of the season, rushing for 141 yards while scoring three touchdowns.

Old Dominion got back on track last week at Towson, as the Monarchs led 31-6 at one point of the game, before withstanding a late rally to win, 31-20. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke has come down to earth a little bit after starting the season on a record-setting pace. In the last two games, he has thrown three touchdowns versus two interceptions. ODU still leads all FCS schools in scoring (46) and total offense (575), and it ranks second in passing offense (404).

The biggest concern for the Monarchs is their inconsistent running game. Heinicke leads the team with just 48 yards per game and he has scored a team- high five rushing touchdowns. UD's rush defense ranks first the CAA, allowing just 114 yards per game.

The Blue Hens offense has been slow at times this season and only averages 339 yards per game, which ranks No. 75 in the FCS and eighth in the conference.

Prediction: Old Dominion 38, Delaware 33

No. 24 Albany Great Danes (6-1, 4-0 NEC) at Sacred Heart Pioneers (2-5, 1-3), 1 p.m.

Series record: Albany leads, 12-2

Last meeting: Albany 31, Sacred Heart 21 (Nov. 19, 2011)

What to know: For the first time since 2006, Albany finds itself ranked in the FCS Top 25. The Great Danes have been solid this season and picked up good early season wins over Colgate and Maine, with a lone loss by seven points at Youngstown State in Week 3. Albany still has to play Wagner and Duquesne in the next two weeks, which will ultimately decide which team wins the Northeast Conference and its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

Few people know the name Drew Smith, who just happens to be Albany's stud running back. Smith leads the FCS in total touchdowns with 15, (14 rushing, one receiving) and he has been a work horse on offense. Quarterback Will Fiacchi won't put up huge numbers, but he's done a great job controlling the offense. The sophomore has thrown for 1,476 yards and seven touchdowns and he has only thrown three interceptions through the first seven games.

Sacred Heart has struggled with inconsistency this year, while the defense actually is much improved. The Pioneers almost allow a perfect balance of yards per game - 162 rushing and 163 passing per contest - good for No. 24 at 326 total yards.

Smith can play quarterback, run the Wildcat formation and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. In each of the last three games alone, he has scored three touchdowns.

Prediction: Albany 35, Sacred Heart 14

No. 10 Stony Brook Seawolves (7-1, 3-0 Big South) at Presbyterian Blue Hose (2-6, 0-3), 1 p.m. (

Series record: Stony Brook leads, 3-0

Last meeting: Stony Brook 42, Presbyterian 24 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: In the all-time series, which Stony Brook leads 3-0, the Seawolves have outscored Presbyterian 131-45.

PC has struggled this season, having won two games overall, but only one has come against a Division I opponent. Running back Demarcus Rouse only averages 49 yards per game and has totaled 348 yards on the season, but he has scored nine touchdowns. Take away his touchdowns and the Blue Hose have scored only seven other offensive touchdowns this year.

Stony Brook only has three games remaining on its schedule and if coach Chuck Priore can keep his team focused, the matchup at Liberty on Nov. 10 will have large implications, not only for the Big South, but for many "bubble" teams across the FCS as well.

Running back Miguel Maysonet is the real deal. He is second in the FCS in rushing with 161 yards per game and he has 12 touchdowns on the season. As mentioned in previous weeks, when the run game needs a break, quarterback Kyle Essington can always count on receiver Kevin Norrell. He leads the Seawolves in receiving (and has every game this season) and is 41 yards shy of breaking Lynell Suggs' SBU season record of 962 yards.

Stony Brook has outscored its opponents 100-14 in the first quarter this season and the defense gives up 317 yards per contest, good for No. 19 in the FCS.

Prediction: Stony Brook 45, Presbyterian 20

The Citadel Bulldogs (4-3, 3-2 SoCon) at No. 7 Wofford Terriers (6-1, 4-1), 1:30 p.m. (

Series record: The Citadel leads, 40-23-1

Last meeting: Wofford 43, The Citadel 14 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: Wofford enters the game with the FCS' No. 1-ranked rushing offense at 408 yards per game, compared to The Citadel, which ranks No. 4 with 305 rushing yards per game.

The Terriers picked up a huge 38-28 win at Appalachian State last week, while fullback Eric Breitenstein and quarterbacks Brian Kass and Michael Weimer accounted for 271 of the team's 393 rushing yards. Obviously, it's an interesting matchup this week because of the nature of both teams' triple option attack.

Wofford has drawn comparisons to Cal Poly (or vice versa), because it's offense isn't exactly the stereotypical under center "grind it out" option- oriented run scheme. Coach Mike Ayers has opened up the playbook and the team primarily runs out of a pistol or semi-shotgun formation, thereby spreading the defense out a little bit more.

The Citadel might not run the same type of option offense, but you can expect its defense to have a better idea of Wofford's tendencies and assignments, because of the familiarity of the offensive system. Wofford is the third Top 10 team the Bulldogs have faced this season and a win would could give them three Top 10 victories for the first time ever.

The good news for The Citadel is that it has had over a week to prepare for the Terriers, but the bad news is that the Bulldogs have lost 13 straight games in the series by an average margin of over 20 points per contest. Their last win in the series came on the road in 1998.

Prediction: Wofford 38, The Citadel 27

Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (2-5, 0-4 OVC) at No. 21 Tennessee State Tigers (7-1, 3-1), 2 p.m.

Series record: Tennessee State leads, 15-10

Last meeting: Tennessee State 42, Tennessee Tech 40 (Nov. 19, 2011)

What to know: Tennessee State fell for the first time last week, 31-28 to Jacksonville State, after missing two field goals - one at the end of regulation, the other in overtime. It was an important loss in the big picture of the OVC because four teams now have only one conference loss, with four weekends left in the season.

Tennessee State is led by running back Trabis Ward, who is the FCS' sixth- leading rusher with 134 yards per game. He has totaled 1,076 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Michael German threw two costly interceptions last week, but his numbers have been solid through eight games, having thrown for 1,829 yards and 12 touchdowns as well as seven interceptions.

Tennessee Tech fell to Eastern Kentucky, 42-28 last week. The Eagles allowed 22 unanswered points in the final 9:22 to drop their fifth straight game. Against EKU, Tech rushed for a mere 15 yards, but the Eagles' passing game can hurt teams. Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers is a dangerous playmaker who can stretch the field vertically. He ranks No. 9 in the FCS with 102 receiving yards per game and has eight touchdowns.

TSU is 1-0 in Sgt. York games this season and the Tigers have a lot to play for even versus an inner-state rival which has struggled this year.

Prediction: Tennessee State 38, Tennessee Tech 24

South Dakota Coyotes (1-6, 0-4 MVFC) at No. 15 Indiana State Sycamores (6-2, 4-1), 2:05 p.m. (

Series record: First meeting

Last meeting: None

What to know: It couldn't have been a much worse outing last week for South Dakota. The Coyotes totaled 76 yards of offense and only four first downs in a 54-0 loss. In fact, the longest drive for SD was its opening possession, in which the team gained 23 yards. On the other hand, Indiana State improved to 6-2 for the first time since 1996, with a 23-7 win over Western Illinois. The victory over the Leathernecks snapped a seven-game road losing streak against WIU, dating back to 1996.

Indiana State has played so well this season thanks greatly to defense, but also because of its effort in the second half. The Sycamores have outscored their opponents 89-49 in the final two quarters of play and are 6-0 this season when leading the game heading into the fourth quarter.

Indiana State ranks No. 5 in the FCS in giving up 289 yards per game and linebacker Aaron Archie has reached double-digit tackles every game this season. He leads the MVFC with nearly 11.9 tackles per game. To put some things in perspective, ISU's 4-1 conference mark is its first in program history and the Sycamores have never won five MVFC games in a season. A win keeps ISU's conference title dreams alive before facing Illinois State and Youngstown State to end the season.

Prediction: Indiana State 33, South Dakota 15

No. 22 Youngstown State Penguins (4-3, 1-3 MVFC) at South Dakota State Jackrabbits (5-2, 3-1), 3 p.m. (

Series record: South Dakota State leads, 8-5

Last meeting: South Dakota State 35, Youngstown State 28 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: The month of October has not been kind to Youngstown State. The Penguins entered Week 5 undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the Top 25, but they have now dropped three games in a row and could desperately use a win. Last week against Southern Illinois, YSU built a 21-10 lead in the second quarter before giving up 28 consecutive points for the second straight week in a tough loss.

South Dakota State's five-game winning streak came to an end, by losing 27-6 at Northern Iowa last week. Sensational sophomore running back Zach Zenner had a season-low 112 rushing yards, but he has still has managed 1,360 yards on 176 carries in seven contests and leads the FCS in averaging a ridiculous 194 yards per game.

YSU junior quarterback Kurt Hess needs four touchdown passes to become the all-time leader in program history. However, in the last three games Hess has thrown two touchdowns versus four interceptions and the Penguins haven't looked like the team which started the season with such promise. Coach Eric Wolford's defense played well last week despite the loss and gave up just 71 rushing yards. It will need the same type of performance this week versus a run-heavy Jackrabbits squad.

Youngstown has never defeated SDSU since it joined the MVFC. Expect Mr. All- Purpose (YSU running back Andre Stubbs), who returns kicks, catches passes and is effective running the ball, to have another big game.

Prediction: Youngstown State 24, South Dakota State 22

No. 1 Eastern Washington Eagles (6-1, 5-0 Big Sky) at Southern Utah Thunderbirds (3-5, 2-3), 3 p.m.

Series record: Eastern Washington leads, 4-1

Last meeting: Eastern Washington 31, Southern Utah 24 (Nov. 13, 2010)

What to know: Eastern Washington plays its fourth and final game in the month of October, which is important because the Eagles are 20-1 in games after Oct. 1 since 2010.

Obviously, EWU is now playing with a large target on its back due to its No. 1 ranking in the FCS Top 25. Coach Beau Baldwin decided to play both quarterbacks in a 31-28 victory over Sacramento State last week. Vernon Adams and Kyle Padron combined for 342 yards and three touchdowns, and added 62 rushing yards collectively.

Everybody in the Big Sky knows about the Eastern's offense and talented group of receivers, but EWU's defense has been the key this season. The Eagles lead the Big Sky in scoring defense, allowing only 21 points per game, good for No. 32 in FCS.

Southern Utah is led by senior signal-caller Brad Sorensen, who is completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Thunderbirds have played decently at home this season, with close losses versus Montana State, Sacramento State and Weber State last week. SUU has some talented young defenders like Zak Browning and Miles Killebrew, who have had to learn quickly in their early careers. As a freshman, Browning leads the Big Sky in tackles with 81 and he has forced four fumbles.

EWU survived last week at home and should be focused enough to get the job done on the road before it plays a huge non-conference matchup versus Cal Poly next week.

Prediction: Eastern Washington 33, Southern Utah 19

No. 23 Towson Tigers (3-4, 2-2 CAA) at No. 19 Villanova Wildcats (6-2, 4-1), 3:30 p.m. (Comcast SportsNet)

Series record: Villanova leads, 5-3

Last meeting: Towson 31, Villanova 10 (Sept. 10, 2011)

What to know: It's hard to imagine that after eight weeks of the 2012 season, Towson would have an overall record of 3-4. Of course, the Tigers have had played a tough schedule - including two FBS games - which could ultimately keep them out of the FCS playoffs.

Following a 31-20 home loss versus Old Dominion, the program has had to deal with some unneeded off-the-field attention. Former Towson linebacker Trevor Walker, who left the team last week, accused head coach Rob Ambrose exceeded the team's practice limit as well as accusing Ambrose and defensive coordinator Matt Hachmann of verbally mistreating team members. TU athletic director Mike Waddell refuted the practice limit accusation.

The Tigers' leading rusher, Terrance West, was held out of the game after missing practice time last week because of a death in his family. In the loss versus ODU, senior quarterback Grant Enders led the Tigers' running game, rushing for 94 yards on seven carries and scoring a touchdown.

Villanova convincingly defeated Georgia State, 49-24, last week. The Wildcats lead the CAA in rushing and rank No. 7 in the FCS at 269 yards per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback John Robertson gets the press because of his running ability, but through eight games, running back Kevin Monangai leads the conference in rushing with 791 yards, nine touchdowns and 98 yards per game on the ground.

Towson's defense has recorded just one interception in 2012, which didn't occur until last week, and the Tigers can't afford to stumble with four games remaining if they want any shot at an at-large playoff spot.

Prediction: Towson 28, Villanova 25

No. 16 Appalachian State Mountaineers (5-3, 3-2 SoCon) at Western Carolina Catamounts (1-7, 0-6), 3:30 p.m. (Catamount Sports Net)

Series record: Appalachian State leads, 57-18-1

Last meeting: Appalachian State 46, Western Carolina 14 (Nov. 12, 2011)

What to know: In the battle for the Old Mountain Jug, Appalachian State heads to Western Carolina hoping to gain back some momentum before two huge games to end its season. In the 77th all-time meeting, App State looks to obtain the Jug for the seventh straight time. The Mountaineers also have won 25 of the last 27 matchups.

It hasn't really been a true rivalry for quite some time. However, the story line becomes interesting because this offseason Western Carolina hired Mark Speir as its new head coach. He spent the previous nine seasons (2003-11) as an assistant coach at Appalachian State and added a handful of former ASU coaches or players to help him rebuild WCU's program.

The Mountaineers are coming off a 38-28 home loss versus Wofford in which they led by four points going into the fourth quarter, but the Terriers scored 14 points in a 70-second span to steal a win in Boone, N.C. Quarterback Jamal Jackson didn't have his best game, throwing for 257 yards and one interception. App State's top three receivers were held in check, catching seven passes each, while Tony Washington led the way with 75 receiving yards.

Coach Speir will certainly understand ASU's game plan and its tendencies, but his defense gives up 513 yards per game - which ranks third from last in the FCS - and has been torched this season.

The loss versus Wofford was the first since a 2009 national semifinal defeat against Montana when Appalachian held a lead through three quarters. Expect the Mountaineers to retain the Old Mountain Jug yet again.

Prediction: Appalachian State 44, Western Carolina 21

Southern Illinois Salukis (5-3, 4-1 MVFC) at No. 3 North Dakota State Bison (6-1, 3-1), 3:30 p.m. (Fox College Sports)

Series record: Tied, 3-3

Last meeting: North Dakota State 9, Southern Illinois 3 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: Southern Illinois might just be the hottest team in the Missouri Valley Conference entering a big-time matchup at No. 3 North Dakota State. The Salukis began the month of October with a 2-3 record, but have since reeled off three straight wins over Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Youngstown State.

SIU's offense hasn't been that special and only averages 309 yards per game, which ranks 96th in the FCS. The defense and special teams, on the other hand, have been outstanding. NDSU better have a solid punt protection unit because the Salukis have blocked punts in three straight games. The turnovers and timely plays have come during the team's most crucial moments of each game over its win streak.

It might be getting old to talk about just how impressive the Bison's defense has been this season, but after last week's performance versus South Dakota, there's no question NDSU has the FCS' top defense. Coach Craig Bohl's squad responded just about as well as a team could after a disappointing loss, limiting South Dakota to four first downs, 17 rushing yards, 59 passing yards and 76 yards of total offense in a 54-0 rout.

NDSU will have its guard up, not down, mainly because it's playing at home and SIU's defense is tied for first in the FCS with 13 fumble recoveries and tied for third in the FCS with 21 forced turnovers. The Bison will probably have to look to quarterback Brock Jensen a little bit more this week because the Salukis only allow 123 rushing yards per game.

Prediction: North Dakota State 33, Southern Illinois 18

Alabama A&M Bulldogs (6-1, 5-1 SWAC) vs. Alabama State Hornets (4-3, 4-2), 3:30 p.m. (Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.) (ESPNU)

Series record: Alabama State leads, 37-35-3

Last meeting: Alabama A&M 20, Alabama State 19 (Oct. 29, 2011)

What to know: In the 71st Magic City Classic, Alabama A&M takes on Alabama State in a game which will have major SWAC implications. Alabama State is coming off a 37-34 loss versus Jackson State in Week 7 and Alabama A&M is coming off its first loss of the season, a surprising 21-20 defeat versus Alcorn State, also in Week 7.

Many fans across the FCS don't realize this game usually provides the season's single-game attendance mark. In 2011, the attendance was a whopping 66,473.

The Hornets and the Bulldogs lead the SWAC in scoring with 31 and 28 points per game, respectively. A win for Alabama A&M would set itself up nicely for a spot in the SWAC title game, but a win for Alabama State would keep its own title dreams alive.

The Bulldogs have a wealth of talent on offense and have utilized the conference's leading rusher, Kaderius Lacey (694 yards, five touchdowns), and the conference's leader in total offense, quarterback Deaunte Mason (227 yards per game).

Alabama State has a talented running back as well with former Georgia Bulldog Isaiah Crowell, who has rushed for 555 yards and scored 10 touchdowns this season.

Expect A&M's defense to step up because it has played well all season. The Bulldogs allow 288 yards per game, while opponents have scored just 11 total touchdowns through seven games.

Prediction: Alabama A&M 28, Alabama State 23

Georgia State Panthers (1-7, 0-0 CAA) at No. 9 James Madison Dukes (5-2, 3-1) 3:30 p.m.

Series record: First meeting

Last meeting: None

What to know: Georgia State heads to Harrisonburg, Va., to play its third ranked foe in the last four weeks. As if a 49-24 loss at home versus Villanova last week wasn't bad enough, the team's top rusher, Donald Russell, sprained his knee early in the contest and will likely miss the remainder of the season.

Like GSU, James Madison also is trying to make a statement after climbing to No. 2 in the FCS before losing at Richmond, 35-29. The Dukes are certainly in good shape with just two losses overall, but the road to the postseason gets tougher after this week's contest. JMU has to travel to Maine and Villanova before ending the season with Old Dominion at home.

Signal-caller Justin Thorpe, who had been the starter all season, was replaced by true freshman Michael Birdsong last week. Birdsong sparked a late-game comeback and threw for 159 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 73 yards and one touchdown. This week, coach Mickey Matthews will start Birdsong, hoping his offense can get back on track.

Georgia State has been inconsistent - especially at the quarterback position - for most of the season and that will hurt the Panthers versus an experienced JMU defense.

Prediction: James Madison 42, Georgia State 17

No. 13 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (6-1, 4-0 Big Sky) at Northern Colorado Bears (2-5, 1-3), 3:35 p.m.

Series record: Northern Arizona leads, 10-2

Last meeting: Northern Arizona 34, Northern Colorado 14 (Nov. 5, 2011)

What to know: Northern Colorado finally was on the other end of a thumping, after it took down Idaho State last week, 52-14. It was a nice win for a program which is still in the rebuilding process.

The task becomes more difficult this week versus a Northern Arizona squad which has Big Sky title aspirations. The Lumberjacks have owned the all-time series, having won all six meetings since Northern Colorado joined the conference. The Bears haven't won in the series since 1978.

NAU's talented junior running back, Zach Bauman, is second in the Big Sky and eighth in the FCS in averaging 127 rushing yards per game. He needs 116 more yards to reach 1,000 on the season. The Lumberjacks have allowed just six passing touchdowns through their first seven games and opponents have not had success on third down, converting 32 percent of the time.

NC has nothing to lose, except to play spoiler. Running back Tromaine Dennis and quarterback Seth Lobato had career games last week, while the Bears' 52 points were the highest total since they have been in the Big Sky.

Prediction: Northern Arizona 38, Northern Colorado 24

No. 5 Sam Houston State Bearkats (5-2, 3-1 Southland) at Lamar Cardinals (3-5, 0-3), 4 p.m. (Southland TV)

Series record: Sam Houston State leads, 23-9-1

Last meeting: Sam Houston State 66, Lamar 0 (Oct. 29, 2011)

What to know: In recent weeks, Sam Houston State has looked a lot like it did toward the end of last season. Its defense and offense is clicking on all cylinders and, more importantly, the team has a chance to finish strong before a very difficult season-ending contest at Texas A&M.

In only the second home game this season, SHSU convincingly took down McNeese State, 45-10 last week. It was the largest margin of victory in the series and the first time Sam Houston defeated the Cowboys in back-to-back calendar years.

The running game has thrived in recent weeks, with Timothy Flanders leading the way with 96 rushing yards per game. He now ranks as the ninth all-time leading rusher in Southland history with 3,264 career yards. Likewise, safety Darnell Taylor needs just 10 tackles to become Sam Houston's all-time leader at 215.

Lamar is in need of its first conference win of 2012, but it played better in a 24-14 loss at Central Arkansas last week. Signal-caller Caleb Berry started for the third straight week and has thrown five touchdowns versus three interceptions this season.

Lamar's defense actually leads the Southland in total defense and gives up 313 yards per game. Offensively, however, the Cardinals only gain 283 yards per contest, good for 110th in the FCS.

Prediction: Sam Houston State 45, Lamar 21

North Carolina Central Eagles (5-2, 4-0 MEAC) at Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (5-2, 4-0), 4 p.m.

Series record: Bethune-Cookman leads, 2-1

Last meeting: Bethune-Cookman 34, North Carolina Central 6 (Oct. 29, 2011)

What to know: North Carolina Central and Bethune-Cookman meet in a pivotal MEAC matchup. The Eagles have been a bit of a surprise, coming into the game with a 5-2 overall record and a 4-0 conference record, which ties with B-CU for first place.

On paper, it's an intriguing matchup because the game features the MEAC's top two scoring offenses and the conference's top run defense (NCCU) versus its top rushing offense in Bethune.

NCCU defeated Hampton last week, 37-20. It ended an eight-game losing streak versus the Pirates and the Eagles picked up a win in the series for the first time since 1983. NCCU is averaging 33 points per game, while giving up a mere 109 yards per game on the ground.

Bethune-Cookman handily defeated Norfolk State last week, 48-3, and its only losses have come against FBS Miami (Fla.) and Tennessee State. Quarterback Quentin Williams will be the go-to guy under center moving forward and he has played well. He is completing 63 percent of his passes and has thrown for 529 yards and five touchdowns in five games this season.

The key to the game will be NCCU's talented defensive line versus BC-U's running back corps, led by Isidore Jackson, Rodney Scott and Brodrick Waters. Collectively, they have rushed for 1,301 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. The Wildcats rush for an impressive 229 yards per game - good for 12th in the FCS.

Although the visiting team has won each contest in the three-game series, Bethune-Cookman plays well at home and has too much talent in its backfield.

Prediction: Bethune-Cookman 30, North Carolina Central 21

North Dakota (4-4, 2-3 Big Sky) at No. 4 Montana State Bobcats (6-1, 3-1), 4:05 p.m. (Max Media)

Series record: Montana State leads, 14-13

Last meeting: North Dakota 21, Montana State 3 (1983)

What to know: Montana State has had nearly two weeks to regroup after a disappointing home loss versus Eastern Washington. The Bobcats didn't play poorly versus the Eagles, but they gave up key plays which cost them an important Big Sky victory.

On the other hand, North Dakota picked up a huge home win last week over Montana. Quarterback Braden Hanson threw for a Big Sky single-game record 660 yards, while his favorite target, receiver Greg Hardin, scored three touchdowns for 333 yards.

The biggest problem for coach Chris Mussman's squad this season has being able to produce week in and week out. UND's offense can cause nightmares for a lot of teams. After all, it averages 472 yards per game.

MSU signal-caller DeNarius McGhee set a school record with 61 touchdown passes in his career against Eastern Washington, but it was overshadowed by two interceptions - including one brutal pick-six - while both turnovers led to 10 points for the visitors. Interestingly, the Bobcats haven't found the type of success with their run game that was expected before the season. Running back Cody Kirk still isn't 100 percent healthy and other players have had to fill in.

Montana State's defense is first the conference, allowing 300 yards per game, and has allowed just 10 touchdown passes on the season. Both statistics will factor in this weekend against a North Dakota team which has thrown 25 touchdown passes through eight games.

Coach Rob Ash knows his team still has a lot of football left and still has a chance at winning the Big Sky. The key this week will be defending third down because opponents have converted just 27.5 percent on third down against MSU this season.

Prediction: Montana State 40, North Dakota 32

No. 17 Illinois State Redbirds (6-2, 3-2 MVFC) at Northern Iowa Panthers (2-5, 1-3), 5 p.m. (CSN Chicago)

Series record: Northern Iowa leads, 19-9

Last meeting: Northern Iowa 23-20, (Nov. 19, 2011)

What to know: Last year, Illinois State entered the final week of regular- season play with a 7-3 record. The Redbirds hosted Northern Iowa and needed a win to earn a shot in the FCS playoffs. The Panthers wound up winning, 23-20, in double overtime, which ended the season for ISU. Needless to say, the Redbirds haven't forgotten last year's meeting.

Perhaps even a bigger story line is the fact coach Brock Spack's team has now dropped two of its last three contests after opening the year with a 5-0 record. Last week, quarterback Matt Brown became the Missouri Valley Football Conference's all-time leading passer with 204 yards against Missouri State. He now has 9,232 passing yards in his career. However, the Redbirds couldn't withstand a late rally in which the Bears scored 15 fourth-quarter points to steal a victory.

Northern Iowa picked up a great win versus previously ranked South Dakota State last week. The Panthers held the FCS' leading rusher, Zach Zenner, to a season-low 112 yards, and running back David Johnson scored a touchdown, adding to a seven-game touchdown streak this season.

Illinois State needs to get back on track and can't afford to slip up, especially when you consider the team plays at Indiana State and home versus North Dakota State to end the season after this week's game in the UNI-Dome.

Illinois State is the fifth ranked foe Northern Iowa has faced this season and the Panthers would love nothing more then to impact the MVFC race in their favor.

Prediction: Illinois State 36, Northern Iowa 33

No. 2 Georgia Southern Eagles (6-1, 5-1 SoCon) at Chattanooga Mocs (4-3, 3-1), 6 p.m.

Series record: Georgia Southern leads, 21-4

Last meeting: Georgia Southern 28, Chattanooga 27 (Oct. 8, 2011)

What to know: Georgia Southern heads north to face an improving Chattanooga squad in a game which could have major Southern Conference title implications. Whichever teams wins the rest of their remaining conference games will win the SoCon title. That's easier said than done.

The Mocs might not blow you away offensively, but since losing to Appalachian State in Week 4, UTC has won three straight games and set itself up nicely for a tough finish in conference play. Quarterback Jacob Huesman is the team's leading passer (1,040 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions) and rusher (427 yards, two touchdowns). Recently, former quarterback Terrell Robinson has turned into a decent receiver and caught 20 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns on the season.

Georgia Southern enters the contest playing all-around great football. The Eagles rank No. 2 in the FCS in rushing offense and total defense, and they rush for 389 yards per game and allow just 274 yards per game. GSU runs a traditional triple option attack, and sophomore Dominique Swope has had a surprisingly overlooked season. He has scored a rushing touchdown in eight straight games and averages 104 yards per game on the ground, good for 17th in the FCS.

Stud defensive tackle Brent Russell is meaner than a copperhead snake and needs one sack and seven tackles for loss to become GSU's all-time leader in both categories.

Defensively, UTC is no slouch. The Mocs have allowed six rushing touchdowns and seven passing touchdowns on the season and 293 yards per game - good for No. 7 in the FCS. Wes Dothard and D.J. Kay will have their hands full trying to slow down the explosive smash-mouth Eagles run game.

The last time GSU played at Findlay Stadium in 2010, the Mocs played spoiler, winning, 35-27. If the Eagles fall behind early, expect Chattanooga to have a legitimate chance.

Prediction: Georgia Southern 28, Chattanooga 27

No. 14 Central Arkansas Bears (6-2, 4-1 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana Lions (3-4, 3-0), 8 p.m.

Series record: Central Arkansas leads, 4-1

Last meeting: Central Arkansas 55, Southeastern Louisiana (29 Oct. 29, 2011)

What to know: This is a huge game for both Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana. Not only because first place is up for grabs in the Southland race, but because UCA has only two conference games left and SLU still has to play some of the toughest teams on its schedule this season.

The Bears won last week versus Lamar, 24-14. It wasn't the prettiest of wins, but quarterback Wynrick Smothers showed why he has been one of the most accurate passers in the conference. He completed 20-of-27 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. UCA's defense held Lamar to just 79 yards in the first half and the Bears didn't turn the ball over for the first time this year.

The Lions find themselves in an interesting situation. They lead the Southland with a 3-0 record, but their overall record is 3-4. There's no doubt SLU has been a surprise, but the team will truly know just how good it is after this week and the games that follow. It's the first time in the program which the school has opened up with three straight conference wins since 1974, when Southeastern competed at the Division II level.

The Lions give up 374 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the conference and they allow 206 yards per contest through the air. Both statistics will certainly be tested this week.

If the Bears can win their final two conference games, they have a great chance at gaining the conference's auto-bid. SLU is last in the Southland in rushing offense with a mere 70 yards per game, which is sixth from last in the FCS.

Prediction: Central Arkansas 34, Southeastern Louisiana 20

No. 11 Cal Poly Mustangs (7-0, 5-0 Big Sky) at Sacramento State Hornets (5-3, 3-2), 9:05 p.m.

Series record: Cal Poly leads, 16-15

Last meeting: Cal Poly 38, Sacramento State 19 (Sept. 12, 2009)

What to know: Cal Poly enters the game with a lot of momentum after picking up a 35-27 win last week versus Portland State. The Mustangs are one of just two teams which remain undefeated in the FCS, the other being Lehigh.

The teams haven't met since 2009, but the Mustangs have won the last five games against Sacramento State. Clearly, the key to the game for the Hornets will be trying to stop the dangerous triple option attack of coach Tim Walsh's squad. Cal Poly ranks No. 3 in the FCS with 314 rushing yards per game. However, Sac State ranks third in the Big Sky, allowing just 111 rushing yards per contest.

After winning three straight games, Sacramento State lost a tough three-point road contest last week versus No. 1 EWU. The Hornets have an excellent opportunity to take down a ranked foe and it could pay dividends for a team unaccustomed to consistency.

Ultimately, Cal Poly's unconventional spread option attack should prove to be too much for Sac State, even though its defense has improved. CP slotback Deonte Williams needs just 74 yards to reach 1,000 on the season and he leads the conference in rushing with 132 yards per game.

Prediction: Cal Poly 35, Sacramento State 24

Last Week's Record: 16-9 (.640)

Season Record: 131-42 (.757)

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