Central Arkansas (9-2) at No. 5 seed Georgia Southern (8-3) — Paulson Stadium, 2 p.m.
The Georgia Southern Eagles
National Titles: 6
The Victims: Furman (1985), Arkansas State (1986), Stephen F. Austin (1989), Nevada (1990), Youngstown State (1999), Montana (2000)
National Title Appearances: 8
All-Time Playoff Record: 43-12
First Round Playoff Record: 32-3
The University of Central Arkansas is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to the FCS playoffs.
Georgia Southern (8-3) has won a record six national championships, is making its 19th appearance in the playoffs, and is 32-3 at Paulson Stadium in playoff games.
However, don’t look for the Bears to be intimidated when they meet the Eagles at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Paulson Stadium in the second round of the 20-team tournament.
The winner of the game will meet the winner of the Coastal Carolina at Old Dominion in the quarterfinals. If fourth-seeded and favored ODU wins the game will be played next Saturday in Norfolk, Va.
Central Arkansas (9-2) became eligible for the playoffs three years ago after making the transition from Division II, a journey which began in 2005 under Coach Clint Conque who is in his 13th season as head coach at the Conway, Ark., school.
“Since we made the transition it has been our goal to play at the national level. The last two years we’ve been able to do that. This is a pretty big deal for our school,” said Conque, whose record at UCA is 98-53. “But, when we were Division II we played at the national level, too. We were highly competitive there.”
Georgia Southern got a taste of just how competitive the Bears were as a D-II team in 2006 when Central Arkansas, in its first transition year, beat the Eagles, 34-31, in overtime at Paulson Stadium.
That win came in the final game of a forgettable 3-8 season under the equally forgettable coach Brian VanGorder who left after only one season.
However, for those who witnessed the game, Central Arkansas left a lasting impression with the quality of its athletes, and as a well-coached team that played hard-nosed football.
That, Georgia Southern Coach Jeff Monken said, has not changed.
“They may be the best team in the tournament,” Monken said. “They had Ole Miss down at the half (20-14 in a 49-27 loss) and lost to Stephen F. Austin (42-37) in a monsoon. It rained so hard you couldn’t see the players on the film.”
The loss to SFA also came the week following the Bears’ then upset win (24-20) win over Sam Houston State.
The Bears got their first bid to the playoffs last year as an at-large team out of the Southland Conference which saw its champion, Sam Houston State, reach the championship game where it lost to North Dakota State.
UCA is back this year as the co-champion of the Southland, earning the conference’s automatic bid due to a regular season win over the Bearkats.
While Georgia Southern, co-champion of the Southern Conference, had only five players chosen to the SoCon’s offensive and defensive all-conference first and second teams, the Bears dominated honors in the Southland.
Conque, a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award, was selected Coach of the Year while quarterback Wynrick Smothers was the SLC’s offensive player of the year, Corey Howard was offensive lineman of the year, and freshman defensive lineman Jonathan Woodard was named freshman of the year.
“Smothers is a first year starter and he really developed during the season,” Conque said. “Howard was one of two returning starters on the line, and he helped a young line mature.
“The sky is the limit for Woodard. There’s just no ceiling for him if he makes the commitment. He’s a long (6-6, 290) athletic guy.”
All told the Bears had 13 all-conference picks, 10 of them named to the first team.
“They’re an athletic, fast, productive, well-coached team,” Monken said. “They’re similar to Appalachian State. They throw the ball effectively, and have a host of receivers.”
Smothers completed 67 per cent of his passes (261-of-386) for 2,852 yards for 31 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He has added 370 yards rushing, and threw four touchdown passes in each of his last two games.
Wide receivers Jesse Grandy and Dominique Croom were all-conference picks with Grandy also picking up first-team honors as both a kick return and punt return
“Grandy is a dynamic player,” Monken said of the Ole Miss transfer. “He’s dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball.”
The Bears had three receivers with 50 or more catches: Grandy had 56 for 744 yards while Croom and Dezmin Lewis had 52 each. Tailback Jackie Hinton had 566 yards rushing.
The UCA attack will present a strong test for an Eagle defense which in its last three games has given up 383 yards and three touchdowns to Appalachian State, 259 and a touchdown to Howard and 354 and five touchdowns to Georgia.