Nationally-ranked Sam Houston State, Incarnate Word playing for the Southland Conference title & coveted automatic bid into the NCAA DI FCS postseason tournament
With two games remaining in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) spring season, the Southland Conference appears to be on the verge of producing a winner-take-all showdown in the regular season finale.
Playing for the coveted automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, 10 spots in the postseason tournament will be awarded to conference champions. But with the playoff field reduced to 16 from 24 teams, only six at-large bids will be up for grabs.
Fourth-ranked Sam Houston State (4-0) maintained control of its own destiny with a hard-fought 24-16 road win in Louisiana over winless Northwestern State (0-5) last Saturday. By climbing to No. 4 on the NCAA FCS committee’s midseason rankings, the Bearkats have moved into a favorable path in the FCS Playoffs.
The Bearkats have put together a tremendously dominant season so far in SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler’s seventh season in Huntsville. Winning by an average of 28 points per game, Sam Houston State made a statement with an overwhelming 71-17 win over seventh-ranked Nicholls State.
In the meantime, what appeared to be a three-team race dissolved when McNeese State (2-3) shocked 18th-ranked Nicholls State, 43-31. For the sixth consecutive time, the Cowboys knocked off the Colonels at home to effectively knock Nicholls State (3-2) out of the SLC title race.
And then there were two as 19th-ranked Incarnate Word (3-1) remains the only team that could knock the Bearkats out of the conference’s automatic bid. Coming off a bye week, the Cardinals have the advantage of hosting their final two regular season games of the spring. Incarnate Word hosts Northwestern State at 7 p.m. Saturday, and a win over the Demons would set up a winner-take-automatic bid showdown against Sam Houston State.
On the other hand, the Bearkats meet upset-minded McNeese State at 4 p.m. Saturday in Huntsville hoping to claim the SLC title outright with a win in its final two games, while Incarnate Word could secure at least a share of its second conference title in the last three years by winning its final two games.
Of course, it remains entirely possible that the Southland Conference could receive at least on of the at-large bids to the FCS playoffs.
Although both teams appear on the outside looking in, Nicholls State will travel to Thibodaux to take on the 23rd-ranked Southeastern Louisiana Lions (3-2) in the River Bell Classic with a shot at one of the six at-large bids on the line.
Last season’s game turned out to be an all-time classic as Nicholls State fell behind 14-0 in the first half before scoring the next three touchdowns for a 21-14 lead heading into the fourth. SLU rallied for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, with the last coming with just over two minutes remaining.
But the Lions missed the extra point and it allowed Nicholls to go back up front, 28-27, after Dai’Jean Dixon caught a 57-yard touchdown pass with 90 seconds to go. SLU rallied and moved all the way to the two-yard line before fumbling at the goal line in the final seconds.
The final FCS Playoff bracket will be revealed at 10:30 a.m. April 18 on ESPNU. The national championship game will take place on May 16 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco.
Photos courtesy of SAM HOUSTON STATE ATHLETICS, NICHOLLS STATE ATHLETICS & INCARNATE WORD ATHLETICS
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