The best title race in the Football Championship Subdivision that you haven't heard of is in the Pioneer Football League.
The PFL and its non-scholarship teams tend to be overlooked on a national scale. But that will change next year when the league grows to the second- largest among the 13 FCS conferences and its champion will gain an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs for the first time.
Considering how tight this year's title race has been while leading up to a dramatic conclusion, the PFL has demonstrated it deserves more attention.
"It's really good and it's wide open," said Butler seventh-year coach Jeff Voris, who guides the upstart team in the race.
"That's why we're just trying to focus (on the current day). In this league, if you don't take care of business during the week and compete for 60 minutes and do all those things, you're going to get beat."
Butler was a PFL co-champion in 2009, but dropped off the last two seasons with losing records. The Bulldogs (7-2) lead this year's title race with a 6-0 league record. Drake (6-2), a co-champion last year, follows closely at 5-0, while Jacksonville (6-2), a 2010 co-champion, and San Diego (5-3), the other 2011 co-champion, are both 4-1.
The race is too close to call.
And what makes it particularly exciting is the schedule in the season's final three weeks:
Butler will wrap up its season by hosting Jacksonville (the Dolphins own a 7-0 all-time series lead) on Saturday and visiting Drake on Nov. 10.
Drake will go to rival Dayton, which sits in fifth place and has won the most titles in PFL history with 11, on Saturday, then host Butler on Nov. 10 and visit Jacksonville on Nov. 17.
Jacksonville visits Butler on Saturday and hosts Drake on Nov. 17, sandwiched around a Nov. 10 home game against Campbell.
San Diego will try to win out and hope for losses by both Butler and Drake while it plays three teams with a combined 4-11 conference mark: at Marist on Saturday, against Morehead State on Nov. 10 and at Davidson on Nov. 17.
"I think somebody a long time ago said September's for pretenders, October is for contenders and November is for champions," Drake coach Chris Creighton said. "We're one day away from November and our league is strong. I think there are four teams who are playing for a conference championship right now going into this last stretch. We're thankful to be in that mix. It's a good league."
Butler, which has only seven seniors, has been the surprising team in the title race. It won a combined five league games in the 2010 and '11 seasons.
PFL foes probably didn't see it coming, either, because the Bulldogs had to replace a three-year starter at quarterback, which it has done remarkably with Illinois State transfer Matt Lancaster (23 total touchdowns against two interceptions). Junior running back Trae Heeter, the league's rushing and scoring leader with 1,078 yards and 11 TDs, respectively, is the other key cog in the Bulldogs' league-leading offense.
"We're probably not doing anything different than a lot of people around the country in the spread offense," Voris said. "Our line has played well, we've been able to stay relatively healthy. (It's) just the combination of a dual- threat quarterback that is capable and consistent in the pass game - we're making 'em defend all 54 yards across the field - and Trae is one of those guys that can make you miss and can extend plays.
"It's been a group that's done the little detail things during the week to get ready."
Drake, the other unbeaten team in the race, has the same Bulldogs nickname. The 'Dawgs have won nine straight PFL games dating to last season and are led by the league's 2011 offensive player of the year, quarterback Mike Piatkowski, and outside senior linebacker Tyler Moorehead, one of the league's more dominant defensive players.
"This is the first group that we got to recruit," said Creighton, who is in his fifth season at Drake, "and I think they feel that, too, that we've kind of all been through this transition together."
The exciting PFL is a league which this season also returned its 2011 defensive player of the year (San Diego defensive end Blake Oliaro) and two rookies of the year (San Diego wide receiver Brandon White and Drake linebacker Travis Merritt) as well as some of its better quarterbacks in San Diego's Mason Mills, Morehead State's Zach Lewis and Davidson's Jonathan Carkhuff.
In recent years, PFL programs have attempted to improve their national stature by upgrading non-league schedules, including against nationally ranked opponents. Earlier this season, Drake played Montana State and Indiana State, Jacksonville played Georgia Southern, Dayton played Illinois State, Campbell played Old Dominion, Morehead State played Eastern Kentucky, San Diego played Cal Poly and Harvard, and Valparaiso played Youngstown State.
The PFL, which is spread across the country, will grow by two members to 12 next year with start-up programs at Mercer and Stetson (http://tinyurl.com/bmelyw8). Only the 13-member Big Sky Conference will be bigger, and the 12-team PFL will send its champion to the FCS playoffs, which will expand from 20 to 24 teams.
But there's no reason to wait until next year to follow the PFL title race. This year is going to have a November to remember.
AROUND THE NATION
This week's key games impacting the other 12 FCS conference title races:
Big Sky: The best matchup of the week, No. 16 Cal Poly (7-1) at No. 7 Eastern Washington (6-2), doesn't count toward the conference standings because both teams have eight other scheduled conference games. The winner of the Montana State (7-1, 4-1) at Sacramento State (6-3, 4-2) matchup will move to seven Division I wins and basically become playoff-eligible. MSU has won won straight meetings. Front-running Northern Arizona (7-1, 5-0) goes to last-place Idaho State.
Big South: Mostly, this week's games will set up the rest of the season. First-place Stony Brook (8-1, 4-0) will hold serve against VMI, a week before its huge game at Liberty. Coastal Carolina (4-4, 2-1), upstart Charleston Southern (4-4, 2-1) and Liberty (3-5, 2-1) are still alive if Stony Brook stumbles in at least one of its final two games. On Saturday, CSU goes to Liberty and Coastal Carolina has a tough game at Gardner-Webb. Each of the last five games between Coastal and Gardner-Webb has been decided by five points or less.
CAA: New Hampshire (7-2, 5-1) has come back from a loss in its conference opener to grab first place, and it has a home game, and likely win, against William & Mary. With fifth-ranked Old Dominion ineligible for the conference title, James Madison (6-2, 4-1) has the best chance to catch UNH, but its difficult season-ending stretch includes a visit to Maine on Saturday. The Towson (4-4, 3-2) at Delaware (5-3, 2-3) game can be considered a playoff eliminator because of Towson's four losses and Delaware's poor non-conference strength of schedule.
Ivy: Princeton's loss at Cornell last Saturday opened the door to an exciting finish. Princeton (4-3, 3-1) will host Penn (3-4, 3-1) in a pivotal game, while the other first-place team, Harvard (6-1, 3-1), should be safe at home against Columbia. Harvard visits Penn on Nov. 10; Princeton has defeated Harvard already.
MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (6-2, 5-0) is in the driver's seat heading into its game at Morgan State, but the front-running Panthers have to avoid an emotional letdown after winning a first-place showdown against North Carolina Central. If Bethune-Cookman triumphs, the winner of Delaware State (5-3, 4-1) at North Carolina Central (5-3, 4-1) will remain in the picture realistically. But, obviously, B-C owns the tie-breaker over North Carolina Central for the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, and B-C and Delaware State don't play each other in the unbalanced scheduling.
Missouri Valley: Despite its lead in the title race, Indiana State (7-2, 5-1) still needs to beat Illinois State at home Saturday or Youngstown State on Nov. 17 to get to seven Division I wins (one of the Sycamores' wins is against Division II Quincy). Considering Illinois State (7-2, 4-2) has to play the Sycamores and North Dakota State, it really makes Saturday's ISU-ISU tilt important for playoff purposes as well as the title race. An Illinois State win could open the door for North Dakota State (7-1, 4-1), which visits Missouri State, and South Dakota State (6-2, 4-1), which goes to Southern Illinois, to move back into first place.
NEC: Conference-leading Albany (7-1, 5-0) can clinch a share of the title by defeating second-place Wagner (5-3, 5-1) at home, but that's easier said than done considering the Seahawks will come to town on a five-game winning streak. Duquesne (5-3, 3-2), which visits Steel City rival Robert Morris, needs a Wagner win because it could work back to first place in the final two weeks by playing Albany and Wagner.
OVC: Perhaps no FCS title race is better with Tennessee State (8-1), UT Martin (6-2) and Eastern Illinois (5-3) all 4-1 in conference games, and Eastern Kentucky (6-3) and Jacksonville State (5-3) both 4-2. Among the front-runners, Tennessee State goes on the road to Murray State and Eastern Illinois visits slumping Tennessee Tech, while UT Martin hosts Jacksonville State off a bye. That Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois aren't facing each other and playing only seven of the possible eight conference games is a disappointing factor in the title race.
Patriot: If Colgate (5-3, 3-0) wins at home against Lafayette (5-3, 2-1), and Lehigh (8-0, 2-0), which is on a 17-game winning streak against Patriot teams, triumphs at Holy Cross (1-7, 1-2), then the Colgate-Lehigh game on Nov. 10 will decide the league's automatic playoff bid. But it's doubtful the two unbeaten league teams will get ahead of themselves because Saturday's opponents are dangerous.
SoCon: Second-ranked Georgia Southern (7-1, 6-1) is hosting Appalachian State on Saturday in its final SoCon game, and will clinch a second straight conference championship, and its automatic bid to the playoffs, by defeating the rival Mountaineers. If GSU loses the showdown, then the Wofford at Samford game is quite important, with the visiting Terriers (7-1, 5-1) hoping to get back to first place.
Southland: Here's the smoothest title scenario in the FCS this weekend (is saying that the kiss of death?): Central Arkansas (7-2, 5-1) will clinch a share of the title and the automatic playoff bid by winning at home against Northwestern State. It would be UCA's first Southland championship since joining the conference in 2006. Defending champion Sam Houston State (6-2, 4-1) is still trying to become playoff-eligible and hosts the other one-loss team in conference play, Southeastern Louisiana (3-5, 3-1). Both of those teams have losses against Central Arkansas.
SWAC: No playoff bids are at stake, just spots in the conference championship game on Dec. 8. In the East Division, Alabama State (5-3, 5-2) has the upper hand on Alabama A&M (6-2, 5-2) due to a head-to-head win, but Jackson State (4-4, 4-2) lurks behind both of them. On Saturday, ASU travels to Prairie View A&M, Alabama A&M hosts Southern and Jackson State goes to Grambling State. With Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6-2, 5-1) holding a two-game lead in the West Division race, a title berth appears inevitable. The Golden Lions visit Texas Southern on Saturday.
Extra Point: Saturday's ninth annual National College Football Day, commemorating the first intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers on Nov. 6, 1869, is raising money to support the fight against prostate cancer. To learn more or to make a donation, go to www.nationalcollegefootballday.com.
WHAT WE KNOW, WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
The Sports Network FCS Top 25 can be found at http://tinyurl.com/88q2k7t.
Also, 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.
Last Week's Record: 39-17 (.696)
Season Record: 432-139 (.757)
All Times ET
Saturday, Nov. 3
Jacksonville (6-2, 4-1 Pioneer) at X-Butler (7-2, 6-0), noon
No. 19 Towson (4-4, 3-2 CAA) at X-No. 23 Delaware (5-3, 2-3), noon
William & Mary (2-6, 1-4 CAA) at X-No. 11 New Hampshire (7-2, 5-1), noon
X-No. 18 Tennessee State (8-1, 4-1 OVC) at Murray State (3-5, 2-3), noon
X-No. 8 Lehigh (8-0, 2-0 Patriot) at Holy Cross (1-7, 1-2), 12:30 p.m.
Dartmouth (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) at X-Cornell (4-3, 2-2), 12:30 p.m.
Yale (2-5, 1-3 Ivy) at X-Brown (4-3, 1-3), 12:30 p.m.
Fordham (5-3) at X-Bucknell (1-7), 1 p.m.
Lafayette (5-3, 2-1 Patriot) at X-Colgate (5-3, 3-0), 1 p.m.
X-Drake (6-2, 5-0 Pioneer)) at Dayton (4-5, 3-3), 1 p.m.
Davidson (1-7, 1-4 Pioneer) at X-Morehead State (2-6, 1-4), 1 p.m.
Sacred Heart (2-6, 1-4 NEC) at X-Bryant (2-6, 2-4), 1 p.m.
Valparaiso (0-8, 0-5 Pioneer) at X-Campbell (1-7, 0-5), 1 p.m.
Central Connecticut State (2-6, 2-3 NEC) at Monmouth (4-4, 3-2), postponed, Hurricane Sandy
Columbia (2-5, 1-3 Ivy) at X-Harvard (6-1, 3-1), 1 p.m.
Penn (3-4, 3-1 Ivy) at X-Princeton (4-3, 3-1), 1 p.m.
Hampton (2-5, 2-3 MEAC) at X-Howard (5-3, 4-2), 1 p.m.
X-Bethune-Cookman (6-2, 5-0 MEAC) at Morgan State (3-5, 2-3), 1 p.m.
Wagner (5-3, 5-1 NEC) at X-No. 20 Albany (7-1, 5-0), 1 p.m.
Jacksonville State (5-3, 4-2 OVC) at X-UT Martin (6-2, 4-1), 1 p.m.
X-Coastal Carolina (4-4, 2-1 Big South) at Gardner-Webb (2-6, 1-2), 1:30 p.m.
Florida A&M (3-5, 3-2 MEAC) at X-North Carolina A&T (4-4, 2-3), 1:30 p.m.
Southern Utah (4-5, 3-3 Big Sky) at X-North Dakota (4-5, 2-4), 2 p.m.
Alcorn State (3-5, 3-3 SWAC) at X-Mississippi Valley State (2-6, 2-4), 2 p.m.
Co-Game of the Week: No. 15 Appalachian State (6-3, 4-2 SoCon) at X-No. 2 Georgia Southern (7-1, 6-1), 2 p.m. This rivalry is so impressive that in the 2010 and '11 games the losing team happened to be ranked No. 1 in the FCS. Sorry, GSU just missed being No. 1 going into this meeting, but the Eagles will punch a playoff ticket with a win.
X-Northern Iowa (2-6, 1-4 Missouri Valley) at Western Illinois (3-5, 1-4), 2 p.m.
South Dakota (1-7, 0-5 Missouri Valley) at X-Youngstown State (4-4, 1-4), 2 p.m.
Southern (3-5, 2-4 SWAC) at X-Alabama A&M (6-2. 5-2), 2 p.m.
Culver-Stockton (1-8) at X-Austin Peay (0-8), 2 p.m.
X-No. 1 North Dakota State (7-1, 4-1 Missouri Valley) at Missouri State (3-6, 3-3), 2 p.m.
X-Alabama State (5-3, 5-2 SWAC) at Prairie View A&M (3-5, 3-3), 2 p.m.
Elon (3-5, 1-4 SoCon) at X-The Citadel (4-4, 3-3), 2 p.m.
Delaware State (5-3, 4-1 MEAC) at X-North Carolina Central (5-3, 4-1), 2 p.m.
Savannah State (1-7, 0-5) at X-Norfolk State (2-7, 0-6), 2 p.m.
X-No. 25 Eastern Kentucky (6-3, 4-2 OVC) at Southeast Missouri State (3-5, 2-3), 2 p.m.
Co-Game of Week: No. 17 Illinois State (7-2, 4-2 Missouri Valley) at X-No. 14 Indiana State (7-2, 5-1), 2:05 p.m. The winner will lock up at least an at- large playoff spot; the loser will feel a bit uncomfortable heading into its final game.
X-Eastern Illinois (5-3, 4-1 OVC) at Tennessee Tech (2-6, 0-5), 2:30 p.m.
Southeastern Louisiana (3-5, 3-1 Southland) at X-No. 4 Sam Houston State (6-2, 4-1), 3 p.m.
X-Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6-2, 5-1 SWAC) at Texas Southern (2-6, 2-4), 3 p.m.
X-Jackson State (4-4, 4-2 SWAC) at Grambling State (1-7, 0-6), 3 p.m.
X-No. 6 Wofford (7-1, 5-1 SoCon) at Samford (5-3, 3-3), 3 p.m.
No. 21 South Dakota State (6-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley) at X-Southern Illinois (5-4, 4-2), 3 p.m.
X-Montana (4-5, 2-4 Big Sky) at Weber State (1-7, 1-4), 3:30 p.m.
No. 10 James Madison (6-2, 4-1 CAA) at X-Maine (3-5, 2-3), 3:30 p.m.
X-Duquesne (5-3, 3-2 NEC) at Robert Morris (2-6, 1-4), 3:30 p.m.
Charleston Southern (4-4, 2-1 Big South) at X-Liberty (3-5, 2-1), 3:30 p.m.
X-No. 5 Old Dominion (7-1, 4-1 CAA) at Georgia State (1-8), 3:30 p.m.
X-Chattanooga (4-4, 3-2 SoCon) at Western Carolina (1-8, 0-7), 3:30 p.m.
X-San Diego (5-3, 4-1 Pioneer) at Marist (3-5, 2-3), postponed, Hurricane Sandy
X-McNeese State (5-3, 2-3 Southland) at Nicholls (1-6, 0-4), 4 p.m.
Northern Colorado (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky) at X-Portland State (3-5, 2-3), 4:05 p.m.
No. 16 Cal Poly (7-1) at X-No. 7 Eastern Washington (6-2), 4:35 p.m.
Rhode Island (0-8, 0-5 CAA) at X-No. 22 Richmond (5-3, 3-2), 6 p.m.
X-No. 12 Northern Arizona (7-1, 5-0 Big Sky) at Idaho State (1-7, 0-5), 6 p.m.
VMI (2-6, 1-3 Big South) at X-No. 9 Stony Brook (8-1, 4-0), 6 p.m.
Lamar (3-6, 0-4 Southland) at X-Stephen F. Austin (3-5, 2-2), 7 p.m.
X-No. 3 Montana State (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) at Sacramento State (6-3, 4-2), 7:05 p.m.
Northwestern State (4-4, 2-2 Southland) at X-No. 13 Central Arkansas (7-2, 5-1), 8 p.m.