Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Last year, the Southland Conference title race was pretty much up for grabs. That was, until a seemingly unnoticed Sam Houston State team opened its conference play with a convincing 31-10 victory over Central Arkansas.
The Bearkats didn't even find themselves ranked in the preseason Top 25, yet the victory over the Bears sent a message to the conference that they were there to stay.
Almost one year later, following a 14-win campaign, a program first No. 1 national ranking and a berth in the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, Sam Houston State has suddenly become the cat's meow of the Southland.
Once again, Sam Houston State opens conference play against Central Arkansas on Saturday, this time in Conway, Ark.
"Obviously, the challenge takes on a different type element this week," Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said. "We've got one of the top teams in the country, certainly the defending conference champions, coming to Conway. They are a very complete football team in all three phases, I'm very impressed with how they played Baylor and you can see the confidence and the swagger sort of to speak, and improvements they're making as a football team, even from last year. And that's what a 14-win season will do for you."
The contest last season was equally important for UCA, which went on to win the rest of its conference games and earn a spot in the FCS playoffs, before losing to Montana in the second round.
While the Bears are certainly aware of the challenge they face this week, even at home on a field deemed "The Stripes" after its purple and gray striped turf and where they are 6-0, SHSU also has some concerns because it has only played two games versus completely different opponents and has yet to face an FCS team.
The Bearkats have played Division II Incarnate Word and FBS Baylor, and both games tested coach Willie Fritz's squad in unique ways. But he thinks this game can be used as a measuring stick.
"They're very much a quality opponent, so were looking forward to this tremendous challenge for us," Fritz said. "It's hard to answer that question this early in the season. We have had two totally different ball games playing a Division II game the first game, and playing an FBS team the second game, so it's pretty difficult to tell. I would assume Coach Conque might say the same thing as me were both going to have a pretty good gauge of our team after this ball game."
Both teams enter the showdown on Saturday with a couple of similarities. Each school led its FBS opponent at halftime before being outplayed in the second half and both SHSU and UCA had a blowout victory over a Division II or NAIA program. Most importantly, both teams have some of the best playmakers in the conference.
"There will certainly be no shortage of major talent on the field on Saturday," Conque said. "There are some young men among the national leaders on both teams, and when you talk about Tim Flanders you're looking at one of the top running backs anywhere in the nation and a favorite for the Payton Award. We've seen what (Richard) Sincere is capable of, and their defense is as tough and physical as we will face."
Central Arkansas junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers looks to be the perfect fit to replace program record-holder Nathan Dick, who graduated this past spring. Smothers is ranked No. 2 in the FCS among quarterbacks in passing efficiency (179.19) and ninth in total offense (301 yards per game), not to mention he is responsible for 22 points per game.
"Their quarterback, I mean, I thought they graduated a great one, and it looks like they've replaced him with a great one," Fritz said. "He is a double threat running and throwing the ball, and they have a very strong group of receivers. ... UCA has got an excellent offense; he (Smothers) can beat you with his feet or with his arm. He's a very accurate passer, one of the tops in the country."
Conque realizes it's only Smothers' fourth career start and while he has been solid through three games, he is still developing. Perhaps the biggest key to success will be how the young signal-caller handles the pressure and maturity of a stacked SHSU defense.
"Wynrick's got a high completion percentage, but he's also escaped some sacks and extended some plays and given us some positive yards in the run game," Conque said. "But, he's still making that first time-starter type of mistakes, once or twice a game and we've got to not just correct that but eliminate that against a team like Sam Houston.
"When you get into conference play and particularly when your playing someone as talented and mature as Sam is, with 18 or 19 starters coming back, every play and every detail, is magnified, good or bad. So, decision-making at the quarterback position is critical in every game, but certainly in these type of games it becomes very magnified."
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network FCS Top 25 and other select games (all times ET):
No. 18 New Hampshire Wildcats (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at No. 5 Old Dominion Monarchs (3-0, 0-0), noon (Comcast Sportsnet: Mid-Atlantic/New England)
Series record: First meeting
Last meeting: None
What to know: Both teams are coming off impressive wins in Week 3. There are a lot of unknowns because Old Dominion and New Hampshire have never met, but one thing is for sure, the defenses will have their hands full trying to slow down two of the best offenses in the CAA.
ODU has looked almost flawless in its first three contests, averaging 57 points and a mind-boggling 618 yards per game, but the competition hasn't been great. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke gets all the press, rightfully so, having already thrown for 1,191 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions. The receiving corps also has been solid, as Blair Roberts, Larry Pinkard and Nick Mayers all have over 200 yards receiving and nine touchdowns collectively.
New Hampshire will be without starting quarterback Sean Goldrich for the third straight game, as he went down with a shoulder injury against Minnesota early in a Week 2 loss. Expect the Wildcats to try to establish their run game, especially after running for 331 yards - the most rushing yards by a UNH team since Sept. 16, 2006 - last week versus Central Connecticut State.
Sophomore Andy Vailas won't put up the numbers which UNH has been accustomed to under center. Plus, he has plenty of capable playmakers such as Nico Steriti, R.J. Harris and Joey Orlando to distribute the ball around.
New Hampshire's secondary will be tested early and often and its special teams has been a major concern. ODU should take advantage of the Wildcats' inconsistent pass defense.
Prediction: Old Dominion 42, New Hampshire 33
No. 6 James Madison Dukes (2-1, 0-0 CAA) at Rhode Island Rams (0-2, 0-1), 1 p.m.
Series record: James Madison leads, 7-3
Last meeting: James Madison 31, Rhode Island 13 (Nov. 12, 2011)
What to know: After jumping out to a 2-0 record to start the season, James Madison was humbled by nationally ranked FBS West Virginia. Make no mistake, very few teams in the FCS could hold the Mountaineers to just 42 points, 35 of which came through the hands of WVU quarterback Geno Smith. The Dukes will get a chance to bounce back versus a developing Rhode Island team.
Last week, the Rams led Villanova at halftime, 10-7, but VU scored 24 unanswered points en route to a 31-10 victory.
Once again, URI looks to be in the rebuilding process. Through two contests, not much has gone well offensively. Rhode Island is totaling 62 rushing yards and 138 passing yards per game, which ranks third-from-last in the FCS.
JMU hopes to get running back Dae'Quan Scott back from an ankle injury sooner than later, because when healthy he is one of the best backs in the CAA. The Dukes had three more starters go down with injuries last week, but should be able to move the ball against Rhody.
Prediction: James Madison 38, Rhode Island 14
Jacksonville Dolphins (2-1, 0-0 PFL) at Dayton Flyers (1-2, 0-0), 1 p.m.
Series record: Tied, 3-3
Last meeting: Jacksonville 34, Dayton 26 (Oct. 8, 2011)
What to know: Although the series is tied at three games apiece, the home team has always come away with a victory. Both Jacksonville and Dayton got smoked in Week 1 versus quality opponents, Georgia Southern and Illinois State, respectively.
Dolphins starting quarterback Kade Bell, the coach's son, had to leave their game last week after taking some rough hits versus Webber and a concussion has left his status unknown. However, backup quarterback Trevius Folston, listed at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, completed 20-of-33 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown in the win.
Jacksonville ranks No. 5 in the FCS in allowing a mere 101 yards per game through the air, while opponents have only scored one touchdown passing.
Dayton enters the game with experienced starters on both sides of the ball, but through three games, the Flyers have struggled offensively, averaging 111 rushing yards and 138 passing yards per game. Dayton is 194-40-2 at Welcome Stadium since moving to the facility in 1974 and the Flyers currently have a four-game win streak in PFL openers.
Prediction: Jacksonville 28, Dayton 24
South Dakota State Jackrabbits (2-1, 0-0 MVFC) at No. 22 Indiana State Sycamores (2-1, 0-0), 2:05 p.m.
Series record: Tied, 2-2
Last meeting: Indiana State 38, South Dakota State 28 (Oct. 1, 2011)
What to know: Statistically speaking, this should be one of the closest games in Week 4, especially when you consider the similarities between both schools. The series is tied, 2-2, and both teams have won two straight games after losing their openers versus FBS foes Kansas (South Dakota State) and Indiana (Indiana State). And both schools rely heavily on the FCS' top-ranked running backs, SDSU's Zach Zenner and ISU's Shakir Bell, for much of their success offensively.
The Jackrabbits pulled out a hard-fought victory versus UC Davis last week, but the story of the game wasn't Zenner's 197 rushing yards and two touchdowns (having topped the 100-yard mark in all three games this season), but SDSU's defense, which limited UC Davis to just 54 yards rushing and 183 yards passing.
Shakir Bell was named The Sports Network National Offensive Player of the Week for his 349 rushing yards against Drake, and is second to Zenner in the FCS, collecting 203 rushing yards per game, with four touchdowns and eight yards per carry.
The running backs will take center stage in this matchup, but it will come down to the play of the quarterbacks. ISU's Mike Perish (470 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) and SDSU's Austin Sumner (500 yards, three touchdowns, six interceptions) must limit turnovers and make big throws because both defenses will be focused on stopping the run.
Prediction: Indiana State 24, South Dakota State 21
Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 14 Montana Grizzlies (2-1, 0-0), 3:30 p.m. (ROOT NW)
Series record: Montana leads, 31-13
Last meeting: Montana 28, Northern Arizona 24 (Oct. 22, 2011)
What to know: Montana has owned the series with NAU for quite some time and hasn't lost since 1997. The Lumberjacks haven't won in Missoula since 1986 and the Griz - who are almost impossible to defeat at home - are 23-1 in conference home games since 2003.
NAU running back Zach Bauman should not be overlooked by any team in the Big Sky, as he is very capable of putting up big numbers on the ground. The junior rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown in a four-point home loss last season to the Griz. Montana needed a 46-yard run with nearly four minutes left to survive with a victory.
Under center, the Lumberjacks have stuck with Chance Cartwright, who replaced the injured Cary Grossart. Cartwright has played decently, but is completing only 46 percent of his passes and needs to get better in order for NAU to decrease the burden on Bauman.
The Grizzlies may not pass for big yards every game, but who needs to throw the ball when you average 230 yards on the ground and have signal-caller Trent McKinney and running back Dan Moore taking part in almost every snap?
Prediction: Montana 38, Northern Arizona 24
Prairie View A&M Panthers (0-3) at No. 1 North Dakota State Bison (2-0), 4 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: First meeting
Last meeting: None
What to know: The timing couldn't have been better for the FCS' No. 1-ranked North Dakota State Bison, who had a bye week after its dominating victory over FBS Colorado State. With nearly two weeks to prepare for Prairie View A&M, NDSU must move forward without safety Colten Heagle for the season, while other key players, including cornerback Marcus Williams and backup running back Derrick Lang, who will miss some action with various injuries.
Although the Bison have played only two contests, their defense has looked virtually unstoppable. Opponents are gaining just 165 yards per game, 47 rushing and 118 passing. NDSU has allowed just 20 points in its last five contests, dating back to a 24-0 shutout victory over Lehigh in the 2011 FCS playoffs.
Prairie View A&M, from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, will face its toughest game of the season, having dropped three straight games to open the year. The bad news for the Panthers? Opponents are scoring 39 points per game, while racking up 465 yards of total offense.
This should be a final tune-up for the Bison, before they face the most difficult stretch of games on their schedule in conference play.
Prediction: North Dakota State 48, Prairie View A&M 10
No. 3 Sam Houston State Bearkats (1-1, 0-0 Southland) at Central Arkansas Bears (2-1, 0-0), 4 p.m. (Southland TV)
Series record: Tied, 3-3
Last meeting: Sam Houston State 31, Central Arkansas 10 (Sept. 17, 2011)
What to know: Sam Houston State begins its Southland Conference title defense against a very difficult opponent in Central Arkansas. After the Bearkats defeated the Bears, 31-10, in 2011, neither team lost again during the regular season and both teams punched a ticket to the FCS playoffs.
Sam Houston snuck up on many conference foes early last year before teams realized just how talented the Bearkats were. Now, the target has grown and being ranked No. 3 in the FCS Top 25 won't help their cause on the road - not to mention on UCA's purple-and-gray striped turf - where the Bears have yet to lose a game.
UCA quarterback Wynrick Smothers has exceeded expectations in taking over an offense which has the ability to put up some big numbers. The Bears are averaging 46.3 points per game.
This is Sam Houston State's first FCS game of 2012. SHSU led Baylor, 20-10 at halftime last week, but fell apart in the second half, losing, 48-23. Brian Bell threw three interceptions, while the offense only rushed for 126 yards. Of course, it's tough to judge Sam Houston after playing a Division II school (Incarnate Word) in Week 1 and an athletic Baylor team in Week 3.
SHSU has a wealth of talent and experience on both sides of the ball and will look to get off to a fast start in a hostile environment. UCA's weakness is its secondary and it could prove to be the difference this week in such a vital conference test.
Prediction: Sam Houston State 38, Central Arkansas 24
No. 15 Illinois State Redbirds (3-0, 0-0 MVFC) at Western Illinois Leathernecks (2-1, 0-0), 4 p.m.
Series record: Western Illinois leads, 50-40-3
Last meeting: Illinois State 31, Western Illinois 7
What to know: It took two overtime periods and almost four hours, but Illinois State took down rival Eastern Illinois in a memorable offensive battle. The Redbirds find themselves with a record of 3-0 for first time since 1991 and are in good position to start 4-0, with the start of conference play against Western Illinois.
WIU won't be taken lightly due to the dynamic backfield led by Nikko Watson (255 yards, one touchdown) and Caulton Ray (228 yards, two touchdowns). The Leathernecks are 2-1, with wins over Butler and Indianapolis and a loss versus Iowa State. Coach Mark Hendrickson's squad looks to be improved, having turned the ball over only two times and is tied for second in the FCS with seven interceptions.
The Redbirds have been lights out on offense through their first three games. Senior Matt Brown has been efficient - completing 69 percent of his passes - and solid, throwing nine touchdowns to five different receivers while totaling 830 yards. Last week, he set Illinois State single-game records for completions (42) and passing yards (473) and tied his career high with five touchdown passes. He also rushed for two touchdowns.
Running back Darrelynn Dunn has found the end zone five times and averages 102 yards per game on the ground.
Prediction: Illinois State 40, Western Illinois 18
Tennessee State Tigers (3-0) at Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (2-1), 4 p.m.
Series record: Tennessee State leads, 5-1
Last meeting: Bethune-Cookman 16, Tennessee State 13 (1987)
What to know: This is one of the most interesting out-of-conference matchups in Week 4, not only because it's between two teams which could make a run for their conference title, but also because of the friendship between both coaches. Bethune-Cookman's Brian Jenkins and Tennessee State's Rod Reed were named head football coaches at their respective universities around the same time in 2009. Both coaches talked about playing each other and now it has worked out.
Tennessee State has been a bit of a surprise, winning three games, including two big wins over Florida A&M and Jackson State. The Tigers defense has been strong, allowing only one rushing touchdown, 93 yards per game through the ground and 13 points per game. Under center, Michael German has done well, accounting for five touchdowns and 718 yards through the air.
Bethune-Cookman is coming off its first setback of the year, losing at Miami (Fla.), 38-10. Isidore Jackson and Rodney Scott are as dangerous as any two backs who Tennessee State will face this season. The two have accounted for 92 carries, 513 yards and four touchdowns.
Jenkins has used quarterbacks Jackie Wilson and Brodrick Waters to lead his offenseI t hasn't hurt the team as Wilson is a better passer, while Waters is a better runner.
The good news for both teams? A loss wouldn't be the worst-case scenario, but a win could help build a resume for the playoffs.
Prediction: Bethune-Cookman 33, Tennessee State 30 (OT)
Northern Colorado Bears (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at No. 2 Montana State Bobcats (3-0, 0-0), 4:05 p.m.
Series record: Montana State leads, 16-10-1
Last meeting: Montana State 31, Northern Colorado 21 (Oct. 22, 2011)
What to know: Montana State finds itself ranked at No. 2 in the FCS Top 25 and is 3-0 for the first time since 1999. Many programs would be happy with such a start, but it's the way in which the Bobcats have had to battle in the last two weeks to earn victories which has been a little surprising.
MSU's defense has had no problem stopping the run game whereas the secondary seems to be the issue, giving up 254 yards per game through the air and opposing quarterbacks have taken advantage of it. In their defense (no pun intended), the Bobcats' defensive line is riddled with injuries.
Quarterback DeNarius McGhee has done a good job of leading the offense, while he seems to have found a new favorite target in Tanner Bleskin (22 receptions, 304 yards, two touchdowns).
Northern Colorado has been competitive versus the Bobcats in recent years, losing by 10 points last year. The Bears lost to Sacramento State one week ago, but they racked up 399 yards of offense.
Dominic Gunn can pretty much do it all for NC and is a dangerous return man/wide receiver. Junior linebacker Clarence Bumpas is one of the most underrated defenders in the nation, but the Bears won't be able to get much going on offense.
Montana State leads the Big Sky in rush defense, allowing 71 yards per game, while Northern Colorado ranks last in the Big Sky in rushing offense with 88 yards per game.
Prediction: Montana State 42, Northern Colorado 16
Harvard Crimson (1-0, 0-0 Ivy) at Brown Bears (1-0, 0-0), 4:30 p.m. (NBCSN)
Series record: Harvard leads, 79-30-2
Last meeting: Harvard 24, Brown 7 (Sept. 23, 2011)
What to know: Harvard and Brown meet for the 112th time in a series which dates back to 1893. The Crimson have won 10 of their last 12 games versus the Bears, but this year's Ivy League opener has a little bit more meaning because both teams are searching for their identity.
Harvard is coming off a 28-13 victory over San Diego in which Colton Chapple completed 16-of-29 pass attempts for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Treavor Scales scored two touchdowns and ran for a career-high 173 yards on 19 carries. Harvard recorded seven sacks in the game and held San Diego to just two yards on 24 carries.
Brown coach Phil Estes played senior Patrick Donnelly under center for his first collegiate start and it paid off. Donnelly rallied Brown from a 21-10 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Holy Cross, 24-21. The biggest surprise was the influence of senior Spiro Theodhosi, who returned after missing two full seasons due to knee injuries. He rushed for 120 yards on 20 carries.
Brown could pull one out at home, but the Crimson defense will make it hard for Donnelly to get comfortable.
Prediction: Harvard 28, Brown 17
No. 17 Appalachian State Mountaineers (1-2. 0-1 SoCon) at Chattanooga Mocs (1-2, 0-1), 6 p.m.
Series record: Appalachian State leads, 25-10
Last meeting: Appalachian State 14, Chattanooga 12 (Sept. 24, 2011)
What to know: This is an absolutely critical contest for two teams which expected better results to start the 2012 season. Appalachian State has defeated Chattanooga seven straight games, while the last two have been barn- burners decided by a total of three points.
Appalachian State finds itself with a nice win over Montana, but it has dropped two games, one versus FBS Eastern Carolina, the second in the Southern Conference opener last week versus The Citadel. The Bulldogs stunned ASU, totaling 618 yards of offense and scoring on their first five possessions en route to their 52-28 rout.
The Mocs need a win just as bad as ASU. They still don't have an FCS victory, but they defeated Division II Glenville State 35-0, in their home opener last week. No one knows for sure what's going to happen at the quarterback position, but redshirt freshman quarterback Jacob Huesman, the son of UTC head coach Russ Huesman, has done well. He leads Chattanooga in both rushing (213 yards, one touchdown) and passing (478 yards, four touchdowns).
Sophomore Terrell Robinson is back on with the Mocs after quitting the team just two weeks ago. He can play receiver and signal-caller and could be used as a spark for the offense.
Appalachian has not lost consecutive Southern Conference games since 2002. The previous two times the Mountaineers dropped two of their first three games, they won the SoCon title. That might not happen this season, but if UTC's defense can continue to step up its play, this one could come down to special teams.
Prediction: Appalachian State 28, Chattanooga 25
Albany Great Danes (2-1) at No. 23 Maine Black Bears (1-1), 6 p.m.
Series record: Albany leads, 3-2
Last meeting: Maine 35, Albany 15 (Sept. 17, 2011)
What to know: Albany plays in its third consecutive away game of over 400 miles and faces its second straight ranked opponent after falling on the road versus Youngstown State by seven points last week. The Great Danes actually lead the overall series, 3-2, having taken down the Black Bears in 2009 and 2010. In fact, UAlbany looks to capture its first win over a ranked opponent since its win in 2009.
The Great Danes are led by senior running back Drew Smith, but they also can air it out with the encouraging play of sophomore Will Fiacchi, who has thrown for a conference-best 579 passing yards and 69.1 completion percentage.
Maine plays its first home game of 2012, after bouncing back against a struggling Bryant team last week, winning in a laugher, 51-7. David Hood and Rickey Stevens each rushed for over 100 yards and the Black Bears returned two interceptions for touchdowns to improve to 1-1.
Albany's program is certainly improving - just in time for entering CAA play in 2013 - but it's not truly ready to compete on a weekly basis just yet.
Prediction: Maine 35, Albany 21
No. 24 Jacksonville State Gamecocks (1-1, 0-0 OVC) at No. 21 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (2-1, 0-0), 6 p.m.
Series record: Eastern Kentucky leads, 5-4
Last meeting: Eastern Kentucky 52, Jacksonville State 48 (Nov. 5, 2011)
What to know: Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky meet in a pivotal early season conference matchup that could greatly impact the Ohio Valley Conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs further down the road.
The good news for JSU? It has had nearly two weeks to prepare for the Colonels after beating Chattanooga on a game-winning kick by Griffen Thomas as time expired in Week 2. On top of that, running back Washaun Ealey, recently suspended after his arrest on misdemeanor drug possession charges, will make his way back in the lineup. The senior returns, but other running backs, DaMarcus James and Troymaine Pope have stepped up their play for the Gamecocks.
First and foremost, JSU must stop running back Matt Denham, who leads the OVC in rushing with 111 yards per game. Quarterback T.J. Pryor and receiver Tyrone Goard have a history of making big plays versus the Gamecocks, connecting on the game-winning score - a 37-yard touchdown catch with 1:24 left in the game - to seal the win in 2011.
Since 2003, the Colonels are 55-16 (.775), while the Gamecocks are right behind at 54-17 (.760). No other teams in the OVC have had better winning percentages. Both coaches should have no problem motivating their players due to the importance of this contest.
Prediction: Eastern Kentucky 30, Jacksonville State 27
Elon Phoenix (2-1, 0-0 SoCon) at No. 11 Georgia Southern Eagles (1-1, 0-1), 6 p.m.
Series record: Georgia Southern leads, 9-3
Last meeting: Georgia Southern 41, Elon 14 (Oct. 1, 2011)
What to know: Believe it or not, a bye week was just what Georgia Southern needed after falling to The Citadel in Week 2 as the then-No. 3 team in the FCS.
It would not be wise to consider the Eagles out of the SoCon race, or out of the national spotlight for that matter. Sophomore quarterback Ezayi Youyoute, sophomore B-back Dominique Swope and plenty of other talented parts of GSU still have room for improvement with their triple option offense. That's pretty remarkable considering the Eagles are rushing for 432 yards per game.
Against The Citadel, it was clear the offense - which relies so much on timing, execution and trust - had some kinks to work out, fumbling five times and losing two of them.
Elon's top playmaker, wide receiver Aaron Mellette, has gotten off to a slow start, but his numbers should improve. Last week, he eclipsed the 3,000-yard career receiving mark, finishing with nine catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Senior signal-caller Thomas Wilson has the ability to make some plays with his arm and could give GSU some trouble.
The Eagles have won 11 straight games at Paulson Stadium dating back to 2010 and are hungry to prove they belong at the top of the FCS.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 42, Elon 24
No. 10 The Citadel Bulldogs (3-0) at North Carolina State Wolfpack (2-1), 6 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: North Carolina State leads, 5-0
Last meeting: North Carolina State 45, The Citadel 0 (1983)
What to know: Although it is only Week 4 of the 2012 season, The Citadel has had one of the most impressive resumes after just three games. The Bulldogs find themselves at 3-0 overall, and 2-0 in the SoCon for the first time since 1992. They have already defeated two Top 10 teams in Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, and were rewarded with a No. 10 ranking in the FCS Top 25.
All of that could change this weekend when The Citadel faces FBS foe North Carolina State on the road. Of course, very few could have predicted the Bulldogs could start their season with three wins leading up to a game that really won't effect their season in the large scheme of things.
There's no question it will be a tough test versus an ACC member which is 2-1 on the season. It helps that the Wolfpack are only averaging 101 rushing yards per game and they have probably had to spend a little more time than normal preparing for a triple option attack. But the environment in Carter-Finley Stadium and athleticism of N.C. State will be extremely hard for coach Kevin Higgins' squad to overcome here.
The last time the Bulldogs defeated an FBS opponent was in 1992, taking down Arkansas and Army. This contests will be close early on, but the Wolfpack should take care of business at home. It won't get any easier down the road, as the Bulldogs face Chattanooga and Samford in upcoming weeks, but the confidence already built will benefit a team which is unaccustomed to the limelight.
Prediction: North Carolina State 35, The Citadel 21
Colgate Raiders (1-2) at No. 20 Stony Brook Seawolves (2-1), 6 p.m.
Series record: Tied, 1-1
Last meeting: Colgate 23, Stony Brook 13 (Sept. 12, 2009)
What to know: Colgate picked up its first win of the season last week, defeating Sacred Heart, 35-14. The Raiders were a completely different team in the second half, scoring three times in the third quarter to pull away from a 14-14 tie. Colgate shut down the Sacred Heart offense, outgaining the Pioneers 292-17 in the second half.
The Raiders opened the year with losses at Albany and South Dakota, but, along the way, running back Jordan McCord has put up superb numbers - leading the Patriot League in rushing with 80 carries for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
Stony Brook will have to stop McCord and quarterback Gavin McCarney on the ground before it focuses on anything else.
The Seawolves put a scare in Syracuse last week before falling, 28-17. The rushing duo of Miguel Maysonet and Marcus Coker has combined for 597 rushing yards and seven touchdowns through three games. Receiver Kevin Norrell leads the Big South with 290 receiving yards on just seven catches and averages an amazing 41 yards per catch.
SBU wants to get back the momentum it had before its first loss. However, if the Seawolves get caught looking ahead to the matchup next week at Army, Colgate could sneak away with a win.
Prediction: Stony Brook 42, Colgate 28
No. 12 Delaware Blue Hens (3-0, 0-0 CAA) at William & Mary Tribe (0-3, 0-1), 7 p.m. (Comcast Sports Net)
Series record: Delaware leads, 21-15
Last meeting: Delaware 21, William & Mary 0 (Oct. 8, 2011)
What to know: Coach Jimmye Laycock's squad enters this game with an 0-3 record, but all losses have come by a combined seven points. The Tribe are averaging only 228 yards per game, while receiver Tre McBride (13 receptions, 227 yards, two touchdowns) has been one of the few sparks on offense. Sophomore quarterback Raphael Ortiz played better in W&M's three-point loss at Towson and seems to be the leader under center moving forward.
Delaware faces its first test of the season after playing three non- conference home games versus fairly moderate opponents. The Blue Hens have relied heavily on the run, utilizing running back Andrew Pierce (66 carries, 282 yards, 94 yards per game). The passing attack has strengthened as Trent Hurley has become more comfortable. He won't hurt an opponent with the deep ball, but he will be very effective spreading the ball around.
This could be a trap game for UD because it has yet to face a defense with the Tribe's talent. Laycock will have some tricks up his sleeve, especially because no one in the program considered being 0-4 after four games.
Prediction: William & Mary 24, Delaware 21 (OT)
St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (2-1) at No. 13 Towson Tigers (1-1), 7 p.m.
Series record: Towson leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Towson 54, St. Francis 14 (1996)
What to know: After its season-opening loss to James Madison, St. Francis (Pa.) learned it would be without All-America running back Kyle Harbridge thanks to a knee injury. Since the devastating news, SFU's run offense has exploded, rushing for 339 yards against Bryant and 457 yards on the ground versus Morehead State. Of course, this week, the run game will most likely take a hit. The Red Flash face their second CAA Football program in Towson, which will be another daunting task.
The Tigers opened their defense of the CAA championship with a 20-17 win versus William & Mary. Towson has only played two games, but after an uncharacteristic performance in Week 1 against Kent State, the Tigers picked up where they left off, rushing for 247 yards versus a good Tribe defense. Terrance West gained 153 yards and averaged five yards per carry and found his groove after being held in check versus the Golden Flash.
There is no question Towson wants to jump out to an early lead and play smash- mouth football. The Tigers can only hope they escape injury-free before their game against LSU in Baton Rouge La., next weekend.
Prediction: Towson 45, St. Francis 17
No. 16 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (3-0) at Liberty Flames (0-3), 7 p.m. (Flames Sports Network; Lehigh TV, Fox College Sports Atlantic)
Series record: Lehigh leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Lehigh 27, Liberty 24 (Sept. 24, 2011)
What to know: For the third straight week, Liberty takes on a nationally ranked opponent. The Flames haven't started off the Turner Gill era in the best fashion, but the schedule has put them in a tough spot. Just twice in program history have the Flames started a season 0-4, occurring in back-to- back years in 1981 and '82.
Not many quarterbacks making their first collegiate start could throw for 322 yards on the road in Missoula like freshman Josh Woodrum did in Liberty's 34-14 loss versus Montana. The Flames offense outgained the Griz, 342 yards to 296, but only totaled 21 rushing yards on 27 attempts.
Lehigh squeaked out a three-point win over Princeton, moving to 3-0 for the first time since 2003. Mountain Hawks signal-caller Mike Colvin didn't throw for a touchdown, but passed for 276 yards and is the key to success on offense. Wide receiver Ryan Spadola got back on track, catching seven passes for 102 yards, and now has 14 100-yard receiving games in his career.
The biggest concern for coach Andy Coen? His team has yet to put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. Still, Lehigh is an ideal situation leading to its toughest test in 2012.
Liberty desperately needs a win and it will help that this game is at home in Lynchburg, Va. Defense has not really been the problem for Gill's squad, which is only giving up 127 yards through the air. Linebacker Nick Sigmon looked great returning to the lineup after suffering a concussion against Wake Forest in Week 1.
Lehigh won last year's contest by three points, but this year, both teams are completely different.
Prediction: Liberty 17, Lehigh 16 (OT)
No. 8 Northern Iowa Panthers (1-2, 0-0 MVFC) at No. 4 Youngstown State Penguins (3-0, 0-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: Northern Iowa leads, 20-6
Last meeting: Northern Iowa 21, Youngstown State 17 (Nov. 5, 2011)
What to know: Northern Iowa has won the last 11 contests versus Youngstown State since 2001. Coach Mark Farley seems to know the Penguins better than any other opponent, as he has never lost to Youngstown while at UNI.
Perhaps the biggest difference this year, other than the fact that each team opens Missouri Valley Conference play ranked in the Top 10 is that Northern Iowa has yet to face an FCS foe this season.
Its only losses have been at the hands of Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Iowa - however, the Panthers were very competitive in both games - and its only win came against Division II Central State.
YSU has improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2005 and comes into the game averaging 250 yards per game on the ground. Quarterback Kurt Hess doesn't have explosive numbers, but he does a great job managing the offense. Jamaine Cook, Torrian Pace and Amdre Stubbs give the Penguins dangerous depth in the backfield. The defense is no slouch, either, allowing only 13 points per game.
A night game in the Ice Castle spells trouble for the Panthers, even though they have had no problem taking care of YSU in past years. The quality of competition helps Youngstown more than Northern Iowa.
Prediction: Youngstown State 33, Northern Iowa 31
No. 19 McNeese State Cowboys (3-0, 0-0 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana Lions (0-3, 0-0), 8 p.m.
Series record: McNeese leads, 22-15
Last meeting: McNeese 48, Southeastern Louisiana 27 (Sept. 24, 2011)
What to know: McNeese State has looked solid after starting out 3-0, with impressive road wins versus Middle Tennessee State and Weber State. The Cowboys somewhat unexpected success has been related to its effective run game, which includes four players who have already rushed for over 100 yards. Cody Stroud has completed 66 percent of his passes and does not turn the ball over under center.
Against Weber State last week, McNeese racked up a season-high 557 yards of total offense, including 301 rushing yards. It was the fifth straight contest dating back to 2011 in which the Cowboys have rushed for 200 yards or more. Not surprisingly, all have resulted in a win.
One could make the argument that Southeastern Louisiana has played one of the toughest schedules in the Southland to open its season. The Lions (0-3) lost to Missouri, South Dakota State and UT Martin, and they still have to play UAB in three weeks. It took UT Martin until the fourth quarter to pull away with a 23-6 win last week, in which it had to score 16 unanswered points.
The Lions average a mere 28 yards per game on the ground and have yet to score a rushing touchdown.
McNeese State, which has lost star safety Malcolm Bronson to a season-ending knee injury, has too much to lose to mess around before its schedule gets a lot more difficult in the weeks to come.
Prediction: McNeese State 45, Southeastern Louisiana 13
No. 9 Eastern Washington Eagles (1-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at Weber State Wildcats (0-3, 0-0), 8 p.m.
Series record: Eastern Washington leads, 16-14
Last meeting: Eastern Washington 27, Weber State 21 (Oct. 1, 2011)
What to know: Weber State coach Jody Sears and Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin worked together as assistants at Eastern Washington from 2003-06.
Sears is 0-3 in his first season at Weber, while the Wildcats have faced three brutal opponents to start the year. This includes FBS foes Fresno State and Brigham Young and the Wildcats finished their non-conference slate with McNeese State. On a positive note, signal-caller Mike Hoke has the ability to keep Weber State in games and punter Tony Epperson leads the FCS in punting with an average of 48 yards per punt.
Similarly, after two games against FBS schools - Idaho and Washington State - EWU finds itself with a 1-1 record. Last year's contest proved to be a turning point for the Eagles, picking up their first win of the year after a surprising 0-4 start.
Everyone in the Big Sky knows about Eastern Washington's dangerous receiver corps, led by Brandon Kaufman (10 catches for 290 yards and two touchdowns) and its heralded quarterback Kyle Padron (639 passing yards and three touchdowns), but the SMU transfer is completing just 44.9 percent of his passes.
EWU is coming off of a bye week, which will help, and it has played well on both sides of the ball. Padron has plenty of room for improvement (which is scary) and WSU has been outscored 49-3 in the first quarter.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 40, Weber State 24
UC Davis (1-2, 0-0 Big Sky) at Cal Poly Mustangs (2-0,0-0), 9:05 p.m.
Series record: UC Davis leads 18-16-2
Last meeting: UC Davis 24, Cal Poly 17 (Nov. 5, 2011)
What to know: In the renewal of The Horseshoe Classic, this is an important game for both schools playing in their first-ever Big Sky Conference contest. Cal Poly looks to have the edge after remaining unbeaten with the FCS' ninth victory over an FBS foe last week versus Wyoming.
The option-oriented Mustangs certainly have made a case for a spot in the FCS Top 25, but they have not cracked the rankings yet. Quarterback Andre Broadous is a dual-threat nightmare for opponents, as he has directed an offense which averages 324 yards per game on the ground. Senior slotback Deonte Williams is coming off a monster performance last week, rushing for 187 yards and one touchdown.
UC Davis is playing its third straight road game and struggled to get anything going offensively last week versus South Dakota State. The Aggies' only points of the game came off of an interception returned for a touchdown and a two- point conversion. UC Davis was held to 54 yards rushing and 183 yards passing and managed to convert just 3-of-13 on third-down attempts.
One of the reasons both teams joined the Big Sky was to be able to keep rivalry games like this alive. Each team has a lot to gain and a lot to lose as conference play begins.
Prediction: Cal Poly 35, UC Davis 17
North Dakota (2-1, 0-0 Big Sky) at Sacramento State Hornets (2-1, 0-0), 9:05 p.m.
Series record: North Dakota leads, 1-0
Last meeting: North Dakota 31, Sacramento State 0, (1979)
What to know: North Dakota is arguably one of the FCS' hottest teams coming into its first Big Sky contest. UND's offense ranks No. 5 in the FCS, averaging 514 yards per game and has some dangerous unknown weapons.
Junior receiver Greg Hardin has had back-to-back three touchdown games and already amassed 435 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior quarterback Marcus Hendrickson (who stepped in as a starter in Week 2) turned in his second straight outstanding performance in North Dakota's 49-41 loss at FBS San Diego State last week, passing for 434 yards and four touchdowns.
Sacramento State came off a dramatic upset win at Colorado by defeating Northern Colorado in a hard-fought, 28-17 victory. Sophomore signal-caller Garret Safron also has been impressive, throwing for 802 yards and six touchdowns on the year.
UND has plenty of concerns on defense, but it's been hard to keep up with its explosive offense and Sac State is still developing.
Prediction: North Dakota 42, Sacramento State 33