Princeton, with senior defensive end Mike Catapano, left, and Southeastern Louisiana, with senior cornerback Robert Alford, have overcome losing seasons last year to lead their respective conference races.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Teams that surprise with early season success can prove to be fleeting.
After a few cupcake wins, people start to say how this season is going to be different. And then there's a crash and burn.
Arrive at the final weekend of October, however, and a surprising FCS team is showing it has staying power.
Such upstarts believe they are right where they should be. And with so many FCS teams competitive in recent seasons, we all probably have to stop subscribing to the perceived pecking order within a conference race and recognize what's happening right in front of our eyes.
With November calling, eight of the 13 FCS conferences have a team sitting in first place that finished with a losing record last year. It's pretty remarkable, reflecting the competitive landscape of college football.
Two of the eight first-place teams coming off losing seasons hold outright leads in their conference races, Princeton in the Ivy League and Southeastern Louisiana in the Southland Conference. It's the first time Princeton can say that since the Clinton Administration's first term.
The Tigers (4-2, 3-0) were 1-9 in each of the last two seasons, but they apparently kept the faith while coach Bob Surace started his tenure in such poor fashion. The defense (Caraun Reid and Mike Catapano up front and Andrew Starks at linebacker) was expected to be fast and punishing this season, but the offense has found its way along, too, with various unheralded players, especially after Chuck Dibilio, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, was lost to a stroke in the offseason.
Southeastern Louisiana (3-4, 3-0) finished 3-8 last season, but has a new attitude under first-year coach Ron Roberts, who has led the Lions to their first 3-0 conference start since 1974 (yes, the Gerald Ford presidency). Their hold on first might be tenuous, though, because their next three games are against the three teams picked highest in the conference's preseason poll (again, it's all perception, not necessarily reality anymore).
It's wild that Southeastern Louisiana has outscored opponents 83-67 in three conference wins yet been outscored 168-33 in four non-conference defeats. The Lions feature an NFL-bound cornerback in Robert Alford, but not many household names even for the Southland Conference. Senior quarterback Nathan Stanley won the top job away from the incumbent and the running game (70.3 yards per game) ranks 116th in the FCS.
The other six "surprise" teams are tied for their conference lead.
In CAA Football, Villanova (6-2, 4-1), which was 2-9 last season, is tied for first with New Hampshire and sparked by a superb running game, emerging quarterback John Robertson and a physical defense.
Southern Illinois (5-3, 4-1) is coming off two straight losing seasons, including 4-7 last year, but being tied with Indiana State for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference would not have seemed so foreign just a couple years ago.
Lafayette (5-2, 2-0) is a similar team from the Patriot League - accustomed to success before suffering through back-to-back losing seasons, including 4-7 last year. The Leopards are tied with Lehigh and Colgate for first place.
UT Martin (6-2, 4-1), only 5-6 last season, was clearly a sleeping giant with veteran quarterback Derek Carr returning this season. The Skyhawks share the Ohio Valley Conference lead with Eastern Kentucky.
Butler (6-2, 5-0) won the 2009 Pioneer Football League title, only to go 4-7 in 2010 and 5-6 last season. The addition of Illinois State transfer quarterback Matt Lancaster reflects how teams can improve quickly, and the Bulldogs have tied defending co-champion Drake atop the standings.
North Carolina Central (5-2, 4-0) is one of the more stunning surprises, playing in only its second season in the MEAC and coming off a 2-9 (1-7 conference) debut. But coach Henry Frazier has turned the Eagles into an explosive group, which is averaging 40 points in its wins.
They are tied with Bethune-Cookman for the MEAC lead and head to Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday thinking more business than pleasure.
Building on the Momentum
FCS teams that have beaten FBS teams in recent years haven't necessarily faired well the rest of the season. This season, all 10 FCS teams that have such victories are enjoying winning seasons:
McNeese State (4-3) - beat Middle Tennessee, 27-21; Eastern Washington (6-1) - beat Idaho, 20-3; Youngstown State (4-3) - beat Pittsburgh, 31-17; UT Martin (6-2) - beat Memphis, 20-17 in OT; North Dakota State (6-1) - beat Colorado State, 22-7; Ilinois State (6-2) - beat Eastern Michigan, 31-14; Sacramento State (5-3) - beat Colorado, 30-28; Northern Arizona (6-1) - beat UNLV, 17-14; Cal Poly (7-0) - beat Wyoming, 24-22; Stony Brook (7-1) - beat Army, 23-3
WHAT WE KNOW, WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
The Sports Network FCS Top 25 can be found at: FCS Top 25
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 FCS Bracket
Additions have been made in the last week to the Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Jerry Rice award watch lists. The FCS Awards section can be found at FCS Awards.
AROUND THE NATION
Big Sky: All three unbeaten teams in conference play are on the road: No. 1 Eastern Washington at Southern Utah, No. 11 Cal Poly at Sacramento State and No. 13 Northern Arizona at Northern Colorado ... Love that mountain air: Big Sky kickers have combined to make 111-of-143 field goal attempts for a 77.6-percent success rate, which edges the Missouri Valley Conference (77 percent) for the FCS lead ... The conference's best kicker, Portland State All-America kicker Zack Brown, returned to action last weekend after missing five games due to a knee injury ... Northern Colorado standout linebacker Clarence Bumpas is done for the remainder of the season after having surgery Monday on a ruptured pectoral muscle.
Big South: Liberty (3-4, 2-0) hopes to complete a perfect month when it visits stubborn Coastal Carolina. The Flames have won 17 straight October games dating to an Oct. 18, 2006 loss to Lafayette. Their last conference loss in October was in 2006 ... It's been a difficult season for Gardner-Webb against an overly ambitious schedule, but junior linebacker Tanner Burch leads the conference in tackles per game (12.9). He is 10 stops shy of 100.
CAA Football: Amid plenty of off-the-field turmoil, Towson (3-4, 2-2) begins a difficult four-game stretch at Villanova on Saturday. The defending conference champion Tigers have to win four straight games to be playoff-eligible ... James Madison coach Mickey Matthews has called quarterback Justin Thorpe the best in his 14 seasons, but he benched the redshirt junior for true freshman Michael Birdsong. The Dukes host Georgia State on Saturday ... Delaware could still be without linebacker and leading tackler Paul Worrilow (knee injury) against Old Dominion in a key conference game for both ranked teams.
Ivy: When Jeff Jack (1,007) went over 1,000 career rushing yards, it made Penn the third team with three active players in the century club, joining Brandon Colavita (1,416) and Billy Ragone (1,312). James Madison and The Citadel are the other two teams ... The Harvard at Dartmouth game could be an elimination game in the league title race. Both teams are 2-1, along with Penn, as they trail Princeton.
MEAC: The MEAC is the only FCS conference with more interceptions thrown (82) than touchdown passes (80). And this despite Florida A&M's Damien Fleming throwing for 15 touchdowns with only four interceptions ... Defending champion Norfolk State has dropped six straight games after opening the season with two wins, including one at Liberty. Scoring has been the problem (16.9 ppg) as the Spartans still lead the conference in total defense (292.1 ypg).
Missouri Valley: Co-leader Indiana State, on a four-game win streak, has never been in first place this late in a conference season. A home game against struggling South Dakota suggests the Sycamores will keep it going ... No Missouri Valley team had ever scored 100-yard touchdowns in consecutive weeks until Southern Illinois' Bryan Presume had a 100-yard fumble recovery against Northern Iowa on Oct. 13 and Anthony Thompson returned an interception 100 yards at Youngstown State last Saturday. The opportunistic team also has returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in three straight games ... Illinois State heads to Northern Iowa for a crucial game regarding its playoff chances. Quarterback Matt Brown will seek to build on his new MVFC-record 9.232 career passing yards.
Northeast: Saturday's difficult home game against Monmouth is huge for Duquesne (5-2, 3-1), which has to at least keep pace with Albany and Wagner before meeting each one next month ... The big play waiting to happen? Albany star running back Drew Smith threw four passes last season and each went for a touchdown, but this season the FCS' leading scorer (15 TDs) has yet to throw an option pass ... Six running backs in the league are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons.
Ohio Valley: As the national leader in average yards and points per game per team (413 yards and 30.2 points), the OVC is rightfully calling itself the Offensive Valley Conference ... Coming off a bye, Eastern Illinois (4-3, 3-1) and its passing attack should be exceptionally dangerous for co-leading Eastern Kentucky (6-2, 4-1). EIU, though, is 0-3 on the road ... With 8,932 career passing yards, Murray State senior quarterback Casey Brockman is 97 yards shy of passing former Morehead State signal-caller Chris Swartz as the OVC's all-time leader.
Patriot: No. 8 Lehigh has a bye this weekend. The Mountain Hawks share the longest winning streak in the FCS at eight with Cal Poly and have won 17 straight regular-season games. If they win their final three games - at Holy Cross, versus Colgate and at Lafayette - they will break the league record for consecutive league wins (Holy Cross, 19 from 1988-92) ... Georgetown cornerback Jeremy Moore is tied for the FCS lead with five interceptions and leads in interceptions per game (0.71). Last year's national leader was from the Patriot League, Bucknell's Bryce Robertson, who had 13 picks.
Pioneer: Morehead State's Zach Lewis is the program's new all-time passing yards leader (9,122). In contrast, the Eagles will face a running-style quarterback on Saturday in Campbell's Dakota Wolf, who has 401 rushing yards in five games ... In four league games, Marist senior Mike Rios is averaging 29.3 yards on 16 receptions, including five touchdowns.
SoCon: Chattanooga's hope for a playoff berth is basically on the line against No. 2 Georgia Southern. The Mocs (4-3, 3-1) have come on strong under coach Russ Huesman with three straight wins, but they probably need to win out and take the conference title because one of their wins is against Division II Glenville State and another loss would leave them at six Division I wins at best ... The battle for the Old Mountain Jug is hardly a heated rivalry as Appalachian State is looking to retain it against Western Carolina for the 26th time in the last 28 seasons. Of course, WCU's cause is helped by the fact first-year head coach Mark Speir and four of his assistants played or coached at ASU under Jerry Moore.
Southland: No 5 Sam Houston State has three of the conference's top five in passes defended, cornerback Dax Swanson and safeties Darnell Taylor and Robert Shaw ... Nicholls went eight straight seasons without a 1,000-yard passer, but under second-year coach Charlie Stubbs, the Colonels have done it in two straight seasons, including Landry Klann (1,090) this season ... The conference imposed one-game suspensions this weekend for Sam Houston State linebacker Darius Taylor and Southeastern Louisiana defensive back Kevin Roberts for illegal hits in their teams' games Oct. 13.
SWAC: The 75th annual Magic City Classic could be decided on the ground as Alabama A&M's Kaderius Lacey and Alabama State's Isaiah Crowell rank 1-2 in the conference in rushing. Crowell also has rushed for 10 touchdowns to lead the conference ... Arkansas-Pine Bluff doesn't just have a comfortable two- game lead in the West Division, it finishes the season against the four SWAC teams with the worst records - a combined 6-22. Brandon Thurmond has fueled the defense with an FCS-high 9.5 sacks ... Senior defensive tackle Robert Simpson's 15 tackles for loss have helped Mississippi Valley State to a stunning No. 3 national ranking in total defense (282.6 ypg).
Extra Point: Defending FCS champion North Dakota State is well on its way to leading the nation in scoring defense for a second straight season, but the Bison also rank third in scoring offense at 41.3 points per game. Impressive all around.
Last Week's Record: 39-17 (.696)
Season Record: 393-122 (.763)
All Times ET
Thursday, Oct. 25
X-Delaware State (4-3, 3-1 MEAC) at Morgan State (3-4, 2-2), 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 27
X-Butler (6-2, 5-0 Pioneer) at Davidson (1-6, 1-3), noon
No. 20 Delaware (5-2, 2-2 CAA) at X-No. 6 Old Dominion (6-1, 3-1), noon
X-Monmouth (3-4, 2-2 NEC) at Duquesne (5-2, 3-1), noon
X-No. 12 New Hampshire (6-2, 4-1 CAA) at Rhode Island (0-7, 0-4), noon
Samuel G. Freedman's "Breaking The Line" vividly recreates the world of black college football in the civil rights era with a gripping chronicle of the 1967 season for coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State and Alonzo S. "Jake" Gaither at Florida A&M.