Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Montana State and Montana football programs typically play each other at the end of every season, and for good reason.
An intrastate rivalry, especially one in a state as gung-ho about college football as Montana, draws crowds, sells tickets and gets athletic exposure. Plus, there's just a natural geographic rivalry between two longstanding programs, each with rich history in college sports.
To hold such a meaningful game between Big Sky Conference rivals at the end of the season - the jumping off point into the FCS playoffs - is fitting.
But this weekend, with three weeks to go in the FCS regular season, there is no bigger matchup in the Big Sky, or really the nation, than fourth-ranked Montana State at third-ranked Eastern Washington.
It's perfect. Montana State and Eastern Washington have identical conference and overall records - 5-0 and 7-2 - and neither team has lost a home game this season. Early advantage: Eastern Washington.
With two games remaining on either team's schedule once this weekend is over, the winner out of Cheney has the fast track to the Big Sky title.
"It seems like the path to the championship has gone through this game the last three years at least, so (the rivalry between EWU and MSU) is big in that respect," Montana State coach Rob Ash said. "... They've been great games. We've won two of them, so we've been able to get up there and be on par with them, so that's why it's become a really important game."
It's the first time since 1994 that two Big Sky teams ranked in the top five in national polls will square off. That's saying something, considering the talent and depth of the conference as a whole.
In 2013, there is no shortage of talent on either side. Both teams are quarterback-led, although time of experience is something the two signal callers don't share.
Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams is a sophomore, but playing well beyond his years. The 6-foot passer lept onto the Walter Payton Award Watch List after an astounding Week 1 performance against FBS Oregon State. The Eagles won that game, in case that story line has eluded you.
In Bozeman, Mont., there is no leader more implanted than DeNarius McGhee. The senior quarterback is a four-year starter at Montana State a three-time Walter Payton Award finalist. Spectacular play from the quarterback position is to be expected in this contest. Advantage: no one.
Then there's the skill position players with which, once again, both teams are equipped. Against Idaho State last weekend, Adams was his usual outstanding self. But the improvement of running back Quincy Forte and continuous overwhelming performance of freshman receiver Cooper Kupp has added dimension to the Eagles offense.
"It just appears like Eastern Washington, especially with Cooper Kupp, can just about dictate policy against a team of our caliber," said Idaho State coach Mike Kramer, whose Bengals fell, 55-34, to the Eagles last Saturday. "Now whether they can do that against the boys from Bozeman is worth the price of a ticket on Saturday."
The boys from Bozeman are pretty stacked with talent. Running back Cody Kirk is on a tear, scoring at least one touchdown in six straight games, with a total of 12 in that span. He and junior tailback Shawn Johnson, aptly nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning" for their bruising and exceptionally quick running styles, have turned the Bobcats offense into a run-first scheme.
And with a dangerous receiver like Tanner Bleskin, the Eastern Washington secondary won't be able to cheat up. Advantage: no one.
As defense goes, that area seems to sway slightly in Montana State's favor. A lot of it has to do with a banged-up Eastern Washington secondary, which will be playing without safety Tevin McDonald. Still, players like linebacker Ronnie Hamlin and defensive back T.J. Lee III make the under-discussed Eagles defense a force to be reckoned with.
But the Bobcats, led by defensive lineman Brad Daly, can be a nightmare for opposing offenses.
Daly leads the nation in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (17.5), while as a whole Montana State ranks 22nd in the FCS in scoring defense, allowing just 21.7 points per game to opponents.
"(The Eagles) are very talented and they're very diverse, but we have a lot of confidence in our defense, too. Our guys are solid," Ash said.
Then take into account players like Alex Singleton and Deonte Flowers, who have plenty of experience game planning for star offensive players. Advantage: Montana State.
It's an ideal matchup at an ideal point of the season, especially considering the magnitude and the rivalry that has been developing and growing throughout the years.
"It's so cliche and all that, but you want to treat every game the same," said Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin. "But you're going to have a little more of that, it's just that feeling when you get to November and you know you're playing such a meaningful game. It's that much more exciting. The feeling is great. If anything I've got to make sure these guys aren't peaking too early.
"I know Montana-Montana State has their rivalry, and we have other obviously great teams in this conference, with Cal Poly in the playoffs last year and different teams that create these little rivalries. But us and Montana State, definitely with being somewhat close up here and playing in some big games and meaningful games not just in the last three years - you can go back four or five years - that have had a lot of playoff implications. Whenever you consistently get in those type of games every year, they seem meaningful."
But in a rivalry game as monumental as this, in such a strong conference, it's hard to judge the game before kickoff based on talent alone. Emotion plays a huge role in games such as this, with so much on the line. The adrenaline will be flowing Saturday, as these two great teams meet head-to-head.
Advantage: we'll just have to wait and see.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network FCS Top 25 and other select games (all times ET):
Saturday, Nov. 9
Duquesne (5-3, 3-1 NEC) at Sacred Heart (8-2, 2-2)
What to know: Sacred Heart is currently in the midst of its best season since the team won eight games back in 2008. But, despite the 8-2 record, the Pioneers aren't in the best position to win the Northeast Conference title.
This weekend's matchup against Duquesne could be a great start, though, The Dukes are in first place in a quite-confusing and jumbled NEC race. With a win, the Pioneers would pull even with the Dukes in the standings, and would move ahead of the loser of the Robert Morris-Central Connecticut State matchup Saturday, but fall behind the winner of that game. Let's forget the intricate details for now, they're too difficult to put in writing.
What we know now is that Duquesne's defense did everything it could and more to stop Saint Francis running back and Walter Payton Award nominee Kyle Harbridge. The senior, who is second in the nation with 1,257 rushing yards, was held to just 41 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Duquesne will have to duplicate its efforts this weekend against Keshaudas Spence, who comes in ranked fifth in the FCS with 1,183 rushing yards. Not many teams can say they've faced two top five running backs in consecutive weeks, let alone stopped them. After a relatively quiet week for Pioneers freshman quarterback RJ Noel, going against the seventh-ranked FCS team in total defense, won't yield better results.
Prediction: Duquesne 27, Sacred Heart 20
Princeton (6-1, 4-0 Ivy) at Penn (4-3, 3-1)
What to know: Prior to last weekend's slate of games, this Penn-Princeton matchup had the potential for the Ivy League game of the year. It's certainly still one of the more intriguing matchups in the league considering its placement late in the schedule.
But last weekend's game against Brown was pretty telling for Penn. The Quakers were shut out by the Bears, and allowed running back John Spooney to demoralize their run defense. The senior back gained 232 yards - most of which came on touchdown runs of 93 and 94 yards.
Princeton, on the other hand, has a star under center who's making teams pay week after week. Junior quarterback Quinn Epperly is effective both in the passing and run games, and has helped the Tigers to a first-place standing in the Ivy League.
If Princeton wins, the Ivy League becomes decidedly clear for the Tigers, who would need wins over Dartmouth and Yale for a perfect conference record and the sole Ivy League championship spot. Too bad the Tigers won't try their hand on the playoff level.
Prediction: Princeton 34, Penn 24
Holy Cross (3-7, 1-2 Patriot) at No. 21 Lehigh (6-2, 1-1)
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m.
What to know: Lehigh actually had the most opportune bye week last weekend, after starting quarterback Brandon Bialkowski's season came to an end against Bucknell. Lehigh likely used its bye week to try to figure out its options at the position going forward.
Junior Matt McHale got most of the reps in the team's loss to Bucknell, but freshman signal caller Nick Shafnisky also saw time. Either way, the Mountain Hawks offense won't be the same pass-heavy team everyone is used to seeing. It's a good thing Keith Sherman has proven he's capable of running the ball well when needed.
The loss to Bucknell dropped Lehigh back to third in the Patriot League, behind Lafayette and Colgate. Holy Cross gave unbeaten Fordham all it could handle on Saturday, including a late Peter Pujals passing score that put the Crusaders down by two points in the final two minutes. The Rams hung on for the win.
Holy Cross can play ultimate spoiler this weekend by knocking the Mountain Hawks all but out of the conference race. After the Crusaders, Lehigh faces Colgate and Lafayette to end the season. The Patriot League champion will be decided in the final few weeks.
Prediction: Lehigh 28, Holy Cross 24
No. 22 James Madison (6-3, 3-2 CAA) at No. 25 New Hampshire (4-4, 3-2)
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m.
What to know: New Hampshire is hanging on for dear life, not only in the Top 25 poll, but in the FCS playoff hunt as well.
The Wildcats dropped their last contest to William & Mary, 17-0 - the first time New Hampshire was shut out since the 1995 season. Credit William & Mary's exceptional defensive play. Now the Wildcats return home to face James Madison, a team coming off a win over Villanova.
The Dukes offense was clicking on all cylinders Saturday as quarterback Michael Birdsong and running back Dae'Quan Scott both had productive days. And the Dukes defense didn't allow John Robertson to go over 100 yards or score a touchdown rushing, which, considering the sophomore quarterback's previous three games, is monumental.
New Hampshire has enjoyed the confines of Cowell Stadium this year, posting a 3-0 record and outscoring its opponents 141-70. Still clinging to life this season, the Wildcats could use something to play for and the home crowd to get them fired up.
Prediction: New Hampshire 34, James Madison 27
Bucknell (4-4) at No. 7 Fordham (9-0)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
What to know: It seems odd saying this, but Bucknell is actually one of the nation's hottest teams. With wins over Dartmouth, Lehigh and Colgate in the last three weeks, the Bison are sitting in third in the Patriot League title race.
The good news for the Bison is that this matchup with Fordham won't count against their Patriot League record, but the bad news is they only have one league game remaining this season. So if they're hoping for a Patriot championship this season, they'll be crossing their fingers for upsets beyond their control.
The Rams got a bit of a scare from Holy Cross as week ago, winning, 32-30, after the Crusaders scored a late-game touchdown to pull within two points. The Fordham offense was clicking, but defensively the Rams have given up 30-plus points in each of their last two games, and in three of their last four played. Cause for concern? Probably not. But with the Patriot League leaders up shortly on the Rams' schedule, this game will be one to keep an eye on this weekend.
Prediction: Fordham 45, Bucknell 28
No. 2 Eastern Illinois (8-1, 5-0 OVC) at Murray State (5-4, 3-2)
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
What to know: The last three games of the season for Eastern Illinois will really define this team, starting with Murray State.
The Racers are 3-2 in Ohio Valley Conference play this season, while Eastern Illinois is unbeaten at 5-0. There isn't really much of a chance at all for the Racers in terms of the playoffs, but they can shake things up with a win at home against the nation's No. 2 team.
The only problem is that Eastern Illinois isn't just extremely good, the Panthers are darn near unbeatable in OVC play. In five conference games this season, the Panthers are averaging 50 points per game while giving up an average of 16.8 to OVC opponents. Eastern Illinois won last year's contest, 50-49, but teams are finding it so difficult to cover both Erik Lora and Keiondre Gober, not to mention the presence of Adam Drake and Jeff LePak. Jimmy Garoppolo has too many offensive weapons for the Racers, or really any team, to handle.
Prediction: Eastern Illinois 47, Murray State 21
No. 20 Samford (6-3, 4-1 Southern) at Furman (4-5, 3-2)
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m.
What to know: After beating Georgia Southern last weekend, Furman can officially be tossed right back into the thick of Southern Conference playoff discussion. Why not, right?
Samford, Wofford and Chattanooga are the three one-loss teams in conference play and their schedules all intertwine somehow in the final three weeks of the season. Samford hits the road for the fourth straight game and takes on Furman, a team that outgained the Eagles offensively last weekend.
The Bulldogs were outlasted by The Citadel a week ago for their first SoCon loss of the season. The disturbing part was that Samford was held to just 65 rushing yards, which is unusual for this typically well-balanced offense led by senior back Fabian Truss. That shouldn't carry over this weekend because the Paladins rank 78th in the country in rushing defense.
Bulldogs quarterback Andy Summerlin will be one of the best signal callers the Paladins have faced this season. Against a defense allowing 390.7 total yards to opponents, the senior should get his Samford team back on track.
Prediction: Samford 27, Furman 19
No. 5 Coastal Carolina (9-0, 3-0 Big South) at No. 18 Charleston Southern (9-1, 2-0)
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m.
What to know: If someone circled this game on his or her Big South calendar before the season started and marked it as the game to potentially decide the conference champion, that person is A) a visionary, or B) a liar.
But that's the truth in this game. Coastal Carolina, not surprisingly, has the conference in a choke hold at the moment, but Charleston Southern isn't about to tap out and surrender the title. The Buccaneers have as many wins as the Chanticleers and are a half-game back of them in the conference standings.
The Bucs are a run-savvy team led by Christian Reyes, but haven't exactly played the toughest of opponents this season. Unless you count a win over Appalachian State as a "big" victory, the Bucs have handed losses to FCS teams all with current losing records. Their only loss was to FBS Colorado in a week that was meant to be a bye originally.
Coastal Carolina has the nation's top scoring offense (47.7 points per game) led by one of the best running backs in the FCS in Lorenzo Taliaferro. The senior bruiser is second in the nation in rushing touchdowns (21) and third in rushing yards (1,251). If Charleston Southern is in fact a legitimate contender, the team can prove it this weekend by stopping Taliaferro and the Chanticleers.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina 48, Charleston Southern 26
No. 17 Wofford (5-3, 4-1 Southern) at No. 24 Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1)
Kickoff: 2 p.m.
What to know: Wofford had last weekend off, which didn't help straighten anything out in the Southern Conference playoff hunt. Chattanooga did jump ahead, though, and leads the SoCon by a half game over Wofford and Samford.
The winner of this game essentially gets the upper hand in the conference temporarily. Sure, the extra week off probably helped the Terriers get healthy and game plan a bit more for their game with the Mocs. But, after five straight wins including last week's triumph over Appalachian State, the Mocs are riding a wave of momentum which hasn't been interrupted.
Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman was dominant in the game against Appalachian State, combining for 259 yards on the ground and through the air, with four total touchdowns. But the Mocs defense is still the strong point for this team.
Wofford will have its hands full against the 16th-ranked total defense in the nation. Two weeks ago against Samford, the Terriers couldn't get much going from its passing game (which, in a triple option attack, doesn't hurt too much), and Donovan Johnson didn't find the end zone. The triple option offense will face its toughest test against the Chattanooga defensive line and linebackers.
Prediction: Chattanooga 28, Wofford 20
No. 10 Montana (7-2) at South Dakota (4-5)
Kickoff: 2 p.m.
What to know: What an interesting out-of-conference matchup this late in the season, but a big game for the Grizzlies as they make their charge toward the playoff hunt.
Montana is 1 1/2 games back in the Big Sky Conference standings with three games left to play (two in the conference). With Eastern Washington and Montana State squaring off against each other this weekend, that guarantees one of the two conference leaders will be two games ahead of the Grizzlies in the Big Sky standings at weekend's end with two weeks remaining.
So that makes every game even more vital to Montana in the fight for an at- large playoff bid. The selection committee would take a win over a Missouri Valley Conference squad very serious, so the Griz should be coming into this contest with a full head of steam.
South Dakota is on a two-game losing streak, which isn't all that bad when you consider the difficulty of the Coyotes' schedule. South Dakota is a young, up- and-coming team coached by former Montana leader Joe Glenn. The Coyotes will have their day soon, but for now the Grizzlies are just too strong on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Montana 35, South Dakota 25
No. 23 William & Mary (6-3, 3-2 CAA) at No. 15 Delaware (7-2, 4-1)
Kickoff: 3 p.m.
What to know: Last week, the task for Delaware was to put up points against Towson, which, as the recent history of this season showed, wasn't too tall of a task for the Blue Hens. The Towson defense had been prone to giving up large chunks of points to decent offenses this season.
The Blue Hens went out and scored enough to hand the Tigers their second loss this year. But now things get a little more difficult, believe it or not, against William & Mary.
The Tribe boast the nation's top scoring defense (12.4 points per game allowed) after last weekend's shutout of New Hampshire. That's a feat no team has accomplished since, well, the William & Mary team in 1995. That defense will have to be just as stout in order to contain the high-powered Delaware offense, ranked second in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Regular starting quarterback Trent Hurley missed last week with an injury, but backup Trevor Sasek filled in nicely and defeated the Tigers. Whichever quarterback goes this weekend will have his hands full, but has proven he can get the job done.
Prediction: Delaware 27, William & Mary 20
Nicholls (4-5, 1-3 Southland) at No. 6 Sam Houston State (7-2, 3-1)
Kickoff: 3 p.m.
What to know: An extremely successful group of Sam Houston State seniors will be playing their last regular season game at Bowers Stadium.
With three games remaining - the last two on the road - the Bearkats will face Nicholls this weekend, looking to extend the nation's longest home winning streak (20 games). And it's crunch time for the Bearkats.
Sam Houston State trails both Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State (via a tie-breaker) in the Southland Standings, but is ranked ahead of both in the national poll. To win the conference, Sam Houston will need some help, and a matchup next weekend with SLU will be huge for the conference shakeup.
The Colonels have had an up-and-down season with wins over not-so-significant programs. They're on a three-game skid, with three extremely tough Southland opponents to end the season. The Bearkats should be able to handle this matchup easily.
Prediction: Sam Houston State 45, Nicholls 24
Indiana State (1-8, 0-5 Missouri Valley) at No. 19 South Dakota State (5-4, 2-3)
Kickoff: 3 p.m.
What to know: It's been a really tough season in Terre Haute, where the Sycamores' only win came against Division II Quincy. The Sycamores also lost star running back Shakir Bell for the season to a foot injury he suffered back in October.
It gets worse. Indiana State hasn't scored an offensive touchdown since its matchup with Illinois State back on Oct. 19. That doesn't bode well against a South Dakota State team that at one point led the nation in passes intercepted.
South Dakota State is coming off a bye week which, after losing four of its last six games, was much-needed. The Jackrabbits haven't been getting the same production out of junior running back Zach Zenner they were accustomed to early this season. Maybe their team had become too one-dimensional offensively.
With three games remaining against Missouri Valley Conference foes, the Jackrabbits will look to remain in the hunt, at least for an at-large postseason bid. A game against the basement dwellers of the conference should get the wheels turning again.
Prediction: South Dakota State 32, Indiana State 14
No. 4 Montana State (7-2, 5-0 Big Sky) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (7-2, 5-0)
Kickoff: 3:10 p.m.
What to know: There is no understating the importance of this game from a Big Sky Conference standpoint. The winner will have sole possession of the conference lead with two weeks of the regular season remaining.
There are so many things each team does well, especially on offense. The Bobcats have turned into a run-first team with Cody Kirk and Shawn Johnson dominating touches and scores from the line of scrimmage. And since his return from a shoulder injury, senior quarterback DeNarius McGhee has been efficient. Not great, but efficient.
The Eagles counter with Walter Payton Award candidate Vernon Adams under center. Adams has enjoyed a monster sophomore season, and is coming off a five-touchdown performance against Idaho State. He, receiver Cooper Kupp and running back Quincy Forte make up the three-headed monster of the Eastern Washington offensive attack.
Neither team is likely to make a costly mistake in this contest, and this could be a preview of things to come in the postseason. Give the edge in this one to the slightly more high-powered offense and the team used to playing on the burning red turf.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 36, Montana State 32
Colgate (3-6, 2-1 Patriot) at Lafayette (3-5, 3-0)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
What to know: Lafayette has won two games in a row for the first time this season, and is in control of the Patriot League standings for the time being. Indeed, it seems odd not to be mentioning Lehigh when talking about the first- and second-place Patriot teams in the home stretch of the regular season.
Lafayette and Colgate are ranked one-two in the conference at this point. A win for the Leopards would put them at 4-0 in Patriot League play for the first time 2009, and would guarantee them at least a share of the conference title for the first time since 2006.
Leopards freshman quarterback Drew Reed has been stellar in the past two weeks, throwing nine touchdown passes with zero interceptions. Who would've thought a freshman signal caller would have the hot hand in a matchup with Colgate senior quarterback Gavin McCarney. Last season, Colgate's offense racked up 755 total yards against the Leopards, who lost six of their last eight games.
There's a lot at stake in this specific contest for Lafayette, and with matchups coming up against Fordham and at Lehigh to close out the season, the Leopards will be looking to clinch a share of the conference title at home against the Raiders.
Prediction: Lafayette 29, Colgate 23
Illinois State (5-4, 4-2 Missouri Valley) at No. 1 North Dakota State (8-0, 5-0)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
What to know: Don't look now, but Illinois State is right back in the Missouri Valley Football Conference race. After going 2-4 in the first seven weeks of the season, the Redbirds have won three straight and travel to face the nation's top team.
But North Dakota State is coming off a bye week, and has won its last nine games coming off an idle week. The last time the Bison lost after an off week was back in 2005 - a 20-14 home loss to UC Davis.
With three games remaining against MVFC squads, the Bison are absolutely eying a conference championship and a perfect season. But Illinois State is no pushover, especially as of late.
The Redbirds haven't given up more than 14 points to opponents in their last three wins. But they also haven't won a game on the road this season, and the Fargodome isn't exactly the easiest place to play. The nation's best total defense after a week of rest seems like a bad combo for the Birds.
Prediction: North Dakota State 30, Illinois State 18
No. 8 Maine (8-1, 5-0 CAA) at Albany (1-8, 0-5)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
What to know: With three games remaining, the CAA is Maine's conference to lose. The Black Bears' matchup with Albany this weekend shouldn't really be considered a "trap" game because the Bears are very aware of what each game means from here on out.
Albany, Rhode Island and New Hampshire stand in the way of a perfect CAA record and an automatic bid to the FCS postseason. Although Albany isn't very much of a threat, the depth of CAA Football is something for Maine to focus upon.
The Great Danes have only won one game in their first CAA season - a Week 2 triumph over Colgate. Since then, it's been a mess both offensively and defensively. Omar Osbourne has provided some spark from his running back spot, and quarterback Will Fiacchi, to his credit, hasn't performed poorly in leading his team through a tough conference. It's been a defensive struggle for Albany, which has only held an opponent under 20 points once this season - a 19-13 overtime loss to Rhode Island.
Maine is too well-rounded to drop this game, unless something completely unforeseen occurs. With Albany and Rhode Island relatively easy contests, expect the Bears to have their eyes set on border rival New Hampshire and the Brice Cowell Musket to end the season.
Prediction: Maine 35, Albany 18
Norfolk State (2-7, 2-3 MEAC) at No. 12 Bethune-Cookman (8-1, 5-0)
Kickoff: 4 p.m.
What to know: The Wildcats are easily in the driver's seat of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and host Norfolk State as the team goes for its 19th consecutive conference win dating back to the 2011 season.
Bethune-Cookman supports itself on a run-first offense, but prides itself on defense. The Wildcats sport the nation's third-best scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 14.9 points per game. It gets better, though. The Wildcats are second in the country in total defense, giving up 249.3 yards per game.
For Norfolk State, a team that ranks 119th in the country in total offense (averaging 259.7 yards per game), this matchup doesn't appear on paper to be favorable. The Spartans managed only six points against Florida A&M and just 217 offensive yards.
The Wildcats are just too dominant in the MEAC, and with Norfolk State, Hampton and Florida A&M remaining this season, it would appear Bethune-Cookman will run the table in the conference for the second consecutive year, barring any unforeseen setbacks.
Prediction: Bethune-Cookman 32, Norfolk State 12
No. 11 McNeese State (7-2, 3-1 Southland) at Stephen F. Austin (3-6, 1-3)
Kickoff: 4 p.m.
What to know: The Cowboys weren't just beat by Southeastern Louisiana last weekend, they were torched. And because of that trouncing (the Lions won, 41-7), McNeese State is no longer the frontrunner in the Southland Conference.
It seems, at least superficially, that Stephen F. Austin isn't a very formidable opponent. But the record may confuse you.
The Lumberjacks are 13th in the nation in scoring, averaging 39.1 points per game. They're one of only two teams with a losing record in the country to be ranked in the top 25 in scoring offense. Senior quarterback Brady Attaway has been an offense-producing machine this season.
The Lumberjacks have defeated Montana State and held tough against Sam Houston State last weekend. But it's hard to envision this Cowboys team losing in back-to-back weeks, especially when the Southland title is still up in the air.
Prediction: McNeese State 46, Stephen F. Austin 35
Eastern Kentucky (6-3, 4-1 OVC) at Jacksonville State (7-2, 3-2)
Kickoff: 4 p.m.
What to know: After Sept. 28, when Eastern Kentucky was blown out by Ohio Valley Conference leader Eastern Illinois, many had written off the Colonels as a 2013 contender. And while Eastern Illinois inches closer and closer to the conference title, Eastern Kentucky isn't finished just yet.
The Colonels have rattled off four straight OVC wins and are 4-1 in conference play - right behind EIU. With three crucial games remaining, all the Colonels need is a Panthers slip up and they're right back up at the top. Don't hold your breath for a Panthers collapse, though.
This weekend's matchup with Jacksonville State will prove to be huge for Eastern Kentucky in a conference with just three teams below the .500 mark overall. Offensively, the Gamecocks are led by a beast of a running back in DaMarcus James, who scored five rushing touchdowns a week ago.
But the more impressive feat from last weekend was Eastern's blanking of Tennessee State, a team with one of the best scoring defenses in the nation. The Colonels posted 44 points against a Tigers team that, despite surrendering 44 points, is still averaging below 20 per game to opponents. With that huge victory, the Colonels are still climbing the rungs and haven't given up yet on the quest for the OVC top.
Prediction: Eastern Kentucky 33, Jacksonville State 28
No. 9 Youngstown State (8-1, 5-0 Missouri Valley) at Northern Iowa (4-5, 0-5)
Kickoff: 5 p.m.
What to know: The Penguins and Panthers are on opposite spectrums at the moment in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. While Youngstown State is riding a six-game winning streak and has an unbeaten conference record, Northern Iowa is slumping with five straight losses.
To make matters worse for the Panthers, they could be without offensive stars Sawyer Kollmorgen and David Johnson this weekend. Kollmorgen suffered his second concussion of the year and Johnson a left ankle injury in the team's loss to Illinois State last Saturday.
In the past, this series has belonged to Northern Iowa. The Panthers hold a 20-7 lead all-time, although the Penguins won at home last year. That's UNI coach Mark Farley's lone career loss to Youngstown State - he's 11-1 against the Penguins.
Youngstown State barely escaped South Dakota on a Martin Ruiz rushing score with 14 seconds left. That touchdown saved the Penguins' unbeaten MVFC record. These next three games will define Youngstown's season - Northern Iowa, North Dakota State and South Dakota State consecutively. Since the Panthers offense is on the decline (just three points against Illinois State), Youngstown State should be able to take this one.
Prediction: Youngstown State 28, Northern Iowa 22
No. 16 Southeastern Louisiana (7-2, 4-0 Southland) at Central Arkansas (5-4, 2-2)
Kickoff: 8 p.m.
What to know: Just when Central Arkansas was receiving praise for rallying to wins over Lamar and Stephen F. Austin without injured quarterback Wynrick Smothers, the Bears go and drop a three-point contest to Northwestern State. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a buzzkill.
Now sitting on a 2-2 Southland record, the Bears face conference leader Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday and Sam Houston State to close out the regular season on Nov. 23. Hope is hard to find in Central Arkansas.
But for the Lions, momentum is a sensation the players, coaches and fans can cut with a knife in Hammond. After dismantling McNeese State, 41-7, SLU has now won six games in a row after beginning the season 1-2. Oregon transfer quarterback Bryan Bennett has turned into not just a star, but a true leader under center for the Lions. In the game against the Cowboys, Bennett passed for 155 yards and two touchdowns and added two rushing scores. And a strong Lions defensive secondary forced McNeese quarterback Cody Stroud to throw two interceptions.
This very well-rounded SLU team simply doesn't want to open the door on the Southland Conference race again.
Prediction: Southeastern Louisiana 37, Central Arkansas 24
No. 13 Towson (8-2)
No. 14 Northern Arizona (7-2)
Last Week's Record: 14-8 (.636)
Season Record: 166-65 (.719)