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In the FCS Huddle: November prelude to 2012

When the clocks are turned back early Sunday morning, plenty of disappointing FCS teams won't be able to do the same with their season.

But some of the ones not headed to the playoffs hope to have already taken an important step into the future on Saturday.

Football coaches often talk in November about how a big finish to an otherwise disappointing season can be the stepping-stone for the following year.

In other words, no team should just be playing out the string.

Murray State, a disappointing 4-4 overall and only 2-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference after being picked second in the preseason poll, is mathematically, though not realistically, alive for a playoff berth. Even if the Racers fall short of the playoffs, head coach Chris Hatcher knows what a November to remember would do for 2012.

"I think it's very important," he said. "Just the psyche of your staff is a lot better finishing on a high note as opposed to a low note. And then just the people around the program - your fans and the community - they remember kind of what you did lately, if you will. I think it's very important for us. I know last year we finished strong and we had a lot of excitement building up to the season. This season, we have an opportunity to finish better than we did last year, so I think it's very, very important."

Murray State will lose key seniors such as running back Mike Harris and cornerback/return specialist Dontrell Johnson, but it will return an All- America quarterback in Casey Brockman, so the end of this season (games at Tennessee Tech, against Austin Peay and at Southeast Missouri State) could say a lot about next season.

All of the major FCS conferences have at least one team that failed to live up to its playoff expectation, yet can set a definitive tone in the final weeks of the regular season.

In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, no team is more puzzling than Southern Illinois. The Salukis won at least nine games in seven straight seasons from 2003-09, but, at 2-6, will finish with its second straight losing record (they wrap up at South Dakota State, against Eastern Illinois and at Indiana State)

There's hope for a quick turnaround next year. Sophomore quarterback Kory Faulkner is continuing his development and Iowa State transfer Jewel Hampton might be running toward an NFL career (some compare him to former Salukis running back Brandon Jacobs). Key defensive players such as end Kenneth Boatright, nose tackle Kayon Swanson and linebacker Jayson DiManche also will be back.

"It just makes you feel good at the end, where if you finish on a winning note and do a few things right, it just gives you a little extra energy, a little more confidence in what you're doing." SIU coach Dale Lennon said. "Any team that's going through times, winning the last couple games is big."

The poster child for disappointing teams is 2010 FCS champion Eastern Washington (4-5), which has to win its final two games at Cal Poly and Idaho State to salvage a winning season. There's no way the Eagles will have as many injuries to key players a year from now. They'll have to find a replacement for quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, but whoever it is will benefit from so many returning players at running back and wide receiver.

Few quarterbacks are throwing the ball as much as Mitchell, but sophomore Brady Attaway has at Stephen F. Austin. Coach J.C. Harper's 3-5 team also has to win out (at Lamar, versus Southeastern Louisiana and are Northwestern State) to post a third straight winning season. The return of wide receivers Cordell Roberson and Gralyn Crawford will make Attaway and the Lumberjacks so much better next year.

The team that Eastern Washington beat in last year's national title game was Delaware, which has disappointed this season. The Blue Hens are 5-4, including a win over Division II West Chester, so they won't get to the seven D-I wins that have always been favored by the NCAA playoff selection committee.

If Delaware's bubble bursts - and past history says it has already - then coach K.C. Keeler can start to point toward redemption next season, with the likes of All-CAA running back Andrew Pierce and linebacker Paul Worrilow returning. The Blue Hens wrap up the regular season against Richmond and at Villanova at somewhat of a neutral site, PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

In the Southern Conference, Chattanooga (4-5, 2-4) needs difficult wins at Samford and against Wofford to avoid a losing season. Coach Russ Huesman's squad will lose the B.J. Coleman-to-Joel Bradford passing combination, but return a solid running game with quarterback Terrell Robinson and Marquis Green, and other young talent such as cornerback Kadeem Wise and linebacker Wes Dothard.

LURKING TEAMS

Even if Tennessee Tech had not won at Jacksonville State last Saturday, the OVC race had plenty of life in it. Eastern Kentucky was lurking right behind Jacksonville State. Now it's a title race between all three teams, each 4-1 in conference play.

Usually the front-running team gets much of the attention, but there are plenty of conference races that have a team lurking behind with an upcoming head-to-head meeting that could change the entire picture.

Surging Eastern Kentucky (5-3, 4-1) has the luxury - if you can call it that - of playing at Jacksonville State (5-3, 4-1) on Saturday and against Tennessee Tech (5-2, 4-1) at home on Nov. 12.

In some other races:

Big Sky - OK, it's not like Montana (7-2, 6-1) is the Little Sisters of the Poor when it comes to attention, but the Grizzlies have been trailing rival Montana State (8-1, 6-0) and its steamrolling ways. Still, Montana gets the chance to earn the conference's automatic playoff berth when they meet on Nov. 19.

Big South - Stony Brook (5-3, 3-0) has been holding serve behind Liberty (6-3, 4-0) and hosts the Flames on Nov. 19.

MEAC - Morgan State (5-3, 4-1) sits behind Norfolk State (7-2, 5-1), but the Bears' schedule is tough. They host Norfolk State on Nov. 12 in a game sandwiched between road tests at Bethune-Cookman and Hampton.

Patriot - Georgetown, yes, Georgetown could play spoiler to Lehigh's bid to repeat as league champion. The Hoyas (7-2, 3-1), enjoying their first winning season since 1999, visit Lehigh (7-1, 3-0) on Nov. 12.

Southland - Northwestern State (5-3, 3-1) still visits Sam Houston State (8-0, 5-0) on Nov. 12, though that's in-between home games against surging Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Perhaps the FCS season's most surprising game will occur Saturday when No. 7 Maine (7-1, 5-0), the leader in CAA Football, hosts No. 14 Towson (6-2, 4-1).

In the preseason, the match-up could have been viewed as the one to try to stay out of the conference basement. On Saturday, it's for first place.

"Obviously, the game is huge because of the success that both programs have had to this point and obviously you want to continue on that path you've been on," Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. "I looked back and I looked at a game that we played at the end of last season, us and Towson down at their place (a 28-18 Maine win), and it's almost difficult to imagine those two teams that played that day being in the position that they're in today. It speaks to the growth of both and certainly we've very, very impressed with Towson and what they've done."

Maine sloshed through the snow to rip Villanova for its sixth straight win last Saturday, while Towson was upended by Delaware, falling into a tie with No. 9 New Hampshire (6-2, 4-1) for second place. The Towson-Maine winner will have a clear path to the CAA's automatic playoff bid because both teams still have to play UNH.

"I want to say, as obscure as this sounds, the Delaware game probably helped us," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. "We've been a relative unknown for quite some time and everybody's opinion of us was not very positive and we were, you know, a doormat. And with the inclusion of all the success came distractions. And whether you wanted to believe it or not, they happened. And all these people want to pay attention to us now. Delaware kind of put that in the forefront and the fact that we lost has given our kids a chance to refocus themselves on what got us here in the first place."

WHAT'S LEFT IN THE TANK?

The snow along the East Coast last Saturday helps explain much of this, but six running backs carried the ball at least 38 times. That's more than any player had in the first eight weeks of the season.

Yale's Mordecai Cargill (230 yards) and Bucknell's Tyler Smith of Bucknell (212) led the way with 42 carries, while St. Francis' Kyle Harbridge (187) had 41 carries. Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman (246), Alabama A&M's Kaderius Lacey (189) and Morgan State's Tracy Martin (154) each had 38 carries.

All six backs played for winning teams.

FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...

Once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found at http://www.sportsnetwork.com/fcs/FCS_Bracket.pdf

AROUND THE NATION

Saturday's eighth annual National College Football Day honors the first intercollegiate football day, when Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, on Nov. 6, 1869, in Piscataway, N.J. ... Jacksonville has won a record 16 straight Pioneer Football League games, but it's never won at Drake in four attempts. On Saturday, the Dolphins (6-2, 5-0) will try again in Des Moines, Iowa, with first place at stake against the Bulldogs (7-2, 5-1). Like Jacksonville, San Diego (6-2, 4-1) is a rested team coming off a bye, and it almost surely needs to win at Dayton (6-3, 4-2) to stay alive in the PFL race ... With a victory at winless Columbia, Harvard's Tim Murphy will become the all-time winningest coach in school history. His 117 wins with the Crimson tie him with his predecessor, Joe Restic ... It takes a thief: Bucknell senior Bryce Robertson leads the FCS with 10 interceptions through nine games. It's a Patriot League record. The FCS single season record is 14, set by Bethune-Cookman's Rashean Mathis during his 2002 Buck Buchanan Award-winning season ... Having been benched for subpar play at Alcorn State earlier this season, it's no surprise sophomore quarterback Brandon Bridge left the team to try to catch on at another school. As a freshman in 2010, he passed for 2,086 yards and rushed for another 601 ... Wide receiver Elvis Akpla of No. 2 Montana State has caught a touchdown in eight straight games. The Bobcats can clinch at least a share of a second straight Big Sky title Saturday at Weber State, which gets back quarterback Mike Hoke after he missed one game due to a separated shoulder ... Idaho State has a bye on Saturday. Junior wide receiver Rodrick Rumble leads the FCS with 98 receptions and needs 25 in the Bengals' final two games to match the FCS single-season record (Elon's Terrell Hudgins, 123 in 2009) ... Eleven of Connor Dixon's 29 receptions have scored touchdowns for Duquesne ... Cal Poly (5-3), which still has hopes of an FCS at-large playoff bid, hopes to complete a 4-0 championship season in the Great West Conference by beating rival UC Davis on the road Saturday ... Coastal Carolina will play the 100th game in program history by hosting Presbyterian. Head coach David Bennett, who is 60-39 in nine seasons, has guided the only two Big South teams to make the FCS playoffs (2006 and 2010). Either Liberty or Stony Brook figure to change that fact in three weeks ... No. 4 Sam Houston State leads the FCS with a plus-2.63 margin per game (or plus-21 overall). Not surprisingly, the FCS' other unbeaten team, top-ranked North Dakota State (8-0), is tied for fourth nationally at plus-1.63 per game (plus-13) ... No. 6 Northern Iowa remains guarded about the right ankle injury to quarterback Tirrell Rennie. Redshirt freshman Jared Lanpher would start against Youngstown State if Rennie is unavailable ... Retiring coach Bob Spoo of Eastern Illinois will coach in his last OVC and home game on Saturday when the Panthers host Tennessee State ... UT Martin (5-3) will step up in class with a visit to Mississippi State (4-4). The Skyhawks are 0-12 all-time versus FBS opponents ... As we head toward the FCS playoffs, note that the NCAA selection show will be aired at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20 on ESPNU.

JUST THE PICKS

Last Week's Record: 35-25 (.583)

Season Record: 446-148 (.751)

X-Predicted Winner

All Times EST

Thursday, Nov. 3

Virginia State (5-4) at X-Gardner-Webb (3-5), 6 p.m.

Mississippi Valley State (1-8) at X-South Alabama (5-3), 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 5

No. 13 James Madison (5-3, 3-2 CAA) at X-No. 9 New Hampshire (6-2, 4-1), noon

X-Robert Morris (2-6, 2-3 NEC) at Central Connecticut State (2-7, 1-5), noon

Valparaiso (0-8, 0-5 Pioneer) at X-Marist (3-6, 2-4), noon

Davidson (2-6, 0-5 Pioneer) at X-Butler (4-4, 2-3), noon

Brown (6-1, 3-1 Ivy) at X-Yale (4-3, 3-1), noon

Holy Cross (4-4, 2-1 Patriot) at X-No. 8 Lehigh (7-1, 3-0), 12:30 p.m.

No. 14 Towson (6-2, 4-1 CAA) at X-No. 7 Maine (7-1, 5-0), 12:30 p.m.

X-No. 23 Harvard (6-1, 4-0 Ivy) at Columbia (0-7, 0-4), 12:30 p.m.

X-Sacred Heart (5-3, 3-2 NEC) at Wagner (1-7, 1-4), 1 p.m.

Howard (4-5, 3-3 MEAC) at X-Hampton (5-3, 3-2), 1 p.m.

Morehead State (2-6, 1-4 Pioneer) at X-Campbell (5-3, 4-2), 1 p.m.

Fordham (1-7) at X-Georgetown (7-2), 1 p.m.

X-San Diego (6-2, 4-1 Pioneer) at Dayton (6-3, 4-2), 1 p.m.

Bryant (5-3, 3-2 NEC) at X-Albany (6-2, 5-0), 1 p.m.

X-Monmouth (4-4, 3-2 NEC) at St. Francis, Pa. (2-7, 1-5), 1 p.m.

Princeton (1-6, 1-3 Ivy) at X-Penn (4-3, 3-1), 1 p.m.

St. Francis, Ill. (7-2) at X-Georgia State (2-6), 1 p.m.

X-North Carolina Central (1-7, 0-5 MEAC) at Delaware State (2-6, 0-5), 1 p.m.

X-No. 19 William & Mary (4-4, 2-3 CAA) at Rhode Island (3-5, 0-5), 1 p.m.

X-No. 3 Appalachian State (6-2, 4-1 SoCon) at Furman (5-3, 4-2), 1:30 p.m.

Cornell (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) at X-Dartmouth (2-5, 1-3), 1:30 p.m.

X-Stony Brook (5-3, 3-0 Big South) at Charleston Southern (0-8, 0-3), 1:30 p.m.

Sioux Falls (5-3) at X-North Dakota (5-3), 2 p.m.

The Citadel (4-4, 2-4 SoCon) at X-No. 5 Georgia Southern (7-1, 5-1), 2 p.m.

Richmond (3-5, 0-5 CAA) at X-No. 12 Old Dominion (7-2, 4-2), 2 p.m.

Central Methodist (5-3) at X-Southeast Missouri State (2-6), 2 p.m.

Central State (0-8) at X-Austin Peay (2-6), 2 p.m.

X-Jacksonville (6-2, 5-0 Pioneer) at Drake (7-2, 5-1), 2 p.m.

Western Illinois (2-6, 1-4 MVFC) at X-No. 17 Illinois State (6-3, 4-2), 2 p.m.

X-No. 1 North Dakota State (8-0, 5-0 MVFC) at No. 21 Indiana State (5-3, 3-2), 2:05 p.m.

Murray State (4-4, 2-3 OVC) at X-No. 20 Tennessee Tech (5-2, 4-1), 2:30 p.m.

Tennessee State (3-5, 2-3 OVC) at X-Eastern Illinois (2-7, 1-6), 2:30 p.m.

X-No. 11 Wofford (6-2, 4-1 SoCon) at Western Carolina (1-7, 0-6), 3 p.m.

X-Alabama A&M (6-2, 5-1 SWAC) at Alcorn State (2-5, 1-5), 3 p.m.

Grambling State (4-4, 3-3 SWAC) at X-No. 15 Jackson State (7-1. 5-1), 3 p.m.

Nicholls State (1-7, 0-4 Southland) at X-McNeese State (3-5, 2-3), 3 p.m.

Southern Illinois (2-6, 1-5 MVFC) at X-South Dakota State (3-6, 2-4), 3 p.m.

Western Oregon (6-3) at X-No. 10 Montana (7-2), 3:05 p.m.

Villanova (1-8) at X-Massachusetts (5-3), 3:30 p.m.

X-Alabama State (6-2, 6-1 SWAC) at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-4, 3-3), 3:30 p.m.

VMI (1-7, 1-2 Big South) at X-No. 22 Liberty (6-3, 4-0), 3:30 p.m.

X-No. 2 Montana State (8-1, 6-0 Big Sky) at Weber State (3-5, 3-2), 3:35 p.m.

Eastern Kentucky (5-3, 4-1 OVC) at X-No. 18 Jacksonville State (5-3, 4-1), 4 p.m.

Morgan State (5-3, 4-1 MEAC) at X-Bethune-Cookman (5-3, 3-2), 4 p.m.

No. 25 Central Arkansas (6-3, 5-1 Southland) at X-Northwestern State (5-3, 3-1), 4 p.m.

Prairie View A&M (4-4) at X-Texas State (5-4), 4 p.m.

Sacramento State (3-5, 2-4 Big Sky) at X-Portland State (5-3, 3-2), 4:05 p.m.

X-No. 4 Sam Houston State (8-0, 5-0 Southland) at Southeastern Louisiana (2-6, 0-4), 4:30 p.m.

X-Norfolk State (7-2, 5-1 MEAC) at Savannah State (1-7, 1-4), 5 p.m.

X-Cal Poly (5-3, 3-0 Great West) at UC Davis (2-6, 0-2), 5:05 p.m.

X-Youngstown State (5-3, 3-2 MVFC) at No. 6 Northern Iowa (6-2, 5-1), 5:05 p.m.

Presbyterian (2-6, 1-2 Big South) at X-Coastal Carolina (4-4, 1-3), 6 p.m.

North Carolina A&T (4-4, 3-2 MEAC) at X-Florida A&M (5-3, 3-2), 6 p.m.

X-Colgate (4-5, 1-3 Patriot) at Lafayette (3-5, 1-2), 6 p.m.

Northern Colorado (0-9, 0-6) at X-Northern Arizona (3-5, 2-4), 6:05 p.m.

X-Stephen F. Austin (3-5, 2-2 Southland) at Lamar (3-5, 1-3), 7 p.m.

Southern (3-5, 3-3 SWAC) at X-Texas Southern (3-5, 1-5), 7 p.m.

UT Martin (5-3) at X-Mississippi State (4-4), 7:30 p.m.