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In the FCS Huddle: Ranking the conference races

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Updated: 10/30/2013 12:20 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Freaky Friday has nothing on Switch-it- up Saturday.

As our FCS conference rankings suggested this past offseason ( http://tinyurl.com/neass8h), the Missouri Valley Football Conference has done nothing this season to lose its spot as the top FCS conference, and the non- scholarship Pioneer Football League won't be bringing home a national title anytime soon.

But two-time defending national champion North Dakota State is making the Missouri Valley title race a bland affair, and some of the smaller conferences in the FCS, including the PFL, have created the best and most-crowded fields.

November is arriving with a sprint to the finish line, where there will be conference championships and bids to the FCS playoffs. Four weeks remain in the regular season.

So instead of ranking the conferences by strength of teams, let's rank the conference title races, going from the least exciting to the most exciting:

13. Big South: In a conference of only six teams, Coastal Carolina (8-0, 3-0) can basically wrap up the crown with a win at Charleston Southern on Nov. 9. Despite being 8-1, Charleston Southern still has a tough finish to its schedule. The winner of Saturday's Charleston Southern-Presbyterian matchup will pull within a half game of Coastal. Realistically, Presbyterian is a pretender to the throne.

12. Missouri Valley: It's foolish to think undefeated North Dakota State will suffer two losses in conference play, so the title should come down to the Bison or Youngstown State, and they meet in Ohio on Nov. 16. All the other teams have at least two conference losses. NDSU's other two games are home against Illinois State and South Dakota, so it's a much easier haul than Youngstown State's (at South Dakota and Northern Iowa, and home to NDSU and South Dakota State).

11. MEAC: In holding a head-to-head tiebreaker over South Carolina State, it sure seems Bethune-Cookman is cruising to the conference's automatic playoff berth for the third time in four seasons under coach Brian Jenkins. The Wildcats (7-1, 4-0) face a visit to North Carolina Central on Saturday, but they have won 17 straight MEAC games and appear ready to get through this tricky game (South Carolina State certainly did earlier this month). Hampton has come on strong and needs to win at Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 16. Yeah, it should be Bethune-Cookman on top again.

10. Southland: McNeese State (7-1, 3-0) hosts Southeastern Louisiana (6-2, 3-0) on Saturday in a matchup of high-scoring offenses. With a McNeese State win, the Cowboys will be in terrific shape because they also have beaten the next two teams in the conference standings, Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas. Southeastern Louisiana desperately needs to win Saturday because games at UCA and against Sam Houston follow next. So the race is on if SELU pulls the upset over McNeese.

9. SWAC: The East and West division winners will meet in the conference championship game on Dec. 7 in Houston. The three best conference records are in the East with Jackson State (7-2, 7-0), Alabama State (6-2, 6-1) and Alcorn State (7-2, 5-1). Jackson State owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Alabama State and gets to host Alcorn State on Nov. 16. Clearly, advantage Jackson State. In the West, Southern (4-4, 4-2) has an edge on Prairie View A&M (5-4, 4-3) in the standings and holds a double-overtime win over the Panthers. A cross- division matchup of Prairie View at Alcorn State on Nov. 7 is huge for both division races.

8. Ohio Valley: In a conference which has six of its nine teams standing at least two games above .500 overall, first-place Eastern Illinois (7-1, 4-0) has some potential pitfalls ahead, but its head-to-head win over second-place Tennessee State should be huge in the long run. That's because Eastern Kentucky and Murray State, both one game behind EIU, face difficult four-game stretches to wrap up the regular season.

7. Ivy: The co-leaders, Princeton and Penn, square off on Nov. 9 in Philadelphia. For defending champion Penn, that game is sandwiched around tough trips to Brown and Harvard, so beating Princeton is imperative. Saturday's Dartmouth-Harvard matchup is basically a title eliminator. The Ivy champ, of course, doesn't participate in the FCS playoffs.

6. CAA Football: It's hard to believe Maine (7-1, 4-0) won't win at least a share of the title because its next three opponents - Stony Brook, at Albany and Rhode Island - are a combined 3-11 in conference games. Then it's a regular season-ending date at New Hampshire. Towson, Delaware and New Hampshire are only one behind Maine in the loss column, but all three have tough schedules in November. Considering it's a deep conference, an upset could pop up to make it an interesting finish.

5. Big Sky: It's the biggest conference at 13 teams, but this feels like a two- team race between third-ranked Eastern Washington (6-2, 4-0) and fifth-ranked Montana State (6-2, 4-0), who meet on Nov. 9 in Cheney, Wash. But Northern Arizona, a half-game off the pace, is waiting in the wings with an easy finish to its schedule, so another tie for the title is possible this year. Montana hopes to have a say in the race with its season-ending game at Montana State, but it probably would be in a spoiler's role.

4. Southern: The chips have fallen favorably for conference officials because departing members Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon are not anywhere near the conference title. It's Samford's title to win or lose, and probably win because the Bulldogs (6-2, 4-0) own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Wofford (5-3, 4-1), while second-place Tennessee at Chattanooga (6-2, 4-1) has to weather the upcoming storm of Appalachian State (road), Wofford (home) and Samford (road). Samford, though, must not look past road games at The Citadel and Furman over the next two Saturdays as they work their way to a Nov. 16 meeting against Chattanooga.

3. Pioneer: The league's first automatic bid to the FCS playoffs has a great title race to go with it. Dayton, Butler, Marist and San Diego are all 4-1, Mercer is 3-1, while Drake, Jacksonville and Morehead State are all 3-2. With winnable games at Valparaiso and Morehead State and a home finale against Drake, San Diego has a favorable schedule. Plus, the Toreros own tiebreakers over Marist and Butler. Saturday's Butler at Dayton game could boot the loser from the mix.

2. Patriot: Colgate and Lafayette are a combined 1-10 in non-league action, but they lead the title race at 2-0 each. Lehigh is still very much alive at 1-1 in league play, although it's been forced to move ahead without injured quarterback Brandon Bialkowski. The winning formula is easier said than done: win out. Each of the top three teams has three Patriot games remaining, including against the other two. Fordham is the league's best team, but is ineligible for the league title this season, so the Rams' games against Lafayette and Colgate don't count toward the standings. But this is a strong race to the finish because of the rivalries, especially Colgate-Lehigh and Lafayette-Lehigh.

1. Northeast: The NEC should stand for Nobody's Excluded Conference. OK, defending champion Wagner, which is 1-3 in conference, is out of the mix. But the other six teams are all within one-half game of each other. Bryant and Duquesne lead the way at 2-1 each, with Bryant holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Dukes. Central Connecticut and Saint Francis (Pa.) still have to play both of those teams, while the third 1-1 team, Robert Morris, has coach Joe Walton's impending retirement as a motivating factor. Ironically, Sacred Heart (7-2, 2-2) has three - yes, three - more wins than any other team, yet needs help because it has only two conference games remaining. There are so many key games ahead. Surely, this weekend's action will sort out some of the teams in this great race.

AROUND THE NATION

The NCAA is recognizing the canceled game between Grambling State and Jackson State on Oct. 19 as a no contest, not with a win and a loss. After Grambling State's players refused to travel to the game during a six-day player walkout recently, the Southwestern Athletic Conference then declared the game a forfeit. The SWAC is allowed to give Jackson State a win and Grambling State a loss in its conference standings, but it can't count the game toward the teams' overall records. Jackson State is considered 6-2 overall and Grambling State 0-8. ... To keep pace in the SoCon race, Chattanooga (6-2, 4-1) will try to end an eight-game losing streak to Appalachian State, which notched an impressive win over Georgia Southern last weekend. Fifth-year Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman has at least one win over every SoCon opponent except ASU. ... Southern Illinois redshirt freshman Ryan West will make his first career start at Western Illinois with Kory Faulkner sidelined by a broken finger. Faulkner has started the last 26 games. ... Houston's Reliant Stadium will play host to the Sam Houston State-Stephen F. Austin "Battle of the Piney Woods" for the fourth straight year. The crowd size has grown with each season to 26,185 a year ago. ... Princeton will honor its 1951 Heisman Trophy winner, Dick Kazmaier, at halftime of Saturday's game against Cornell. Kazmaier, whose retired No. 42 appears on the Princeton Stadium turf, died Aug. 1. ... Talk about productivity. Yale sophomore safety Cole Champion has a combined eight interceptions, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles in six games. ... Mason Mills surpassing 10,000 career passing yards at San Diego made him the fifth Pioneer Football League quarterback to reach the milestone since the 2011 season. Mills (10,204) and Davidson's Jonathan Carkhuff (10,246) can build on their totals alongside past PFL greats Josh McGregor (11,230) of Jacksonville, Zach Lewis (10,251) of Morehead State and Mike Piatrowski (10,200) of Drake. ... Speaking of 10,000 passing yards, 2012 Walter Payton Award winner Taylor Heinicke of FBS transitioning Old Dominion has surpassed the total in only 29 career games. The junior is up to 10,186 yards. ... FCS independent Monmouth finishes its season with four straight games against teams from its former Northeast Conference. Coach Kevin Callahan's Hawks (4-4) are 1-1 against the NEC this season as they head to Sacred Heart on Saturday. ... CAA Football features a pair of playoff survivor games in New Hampshire (4-3) at William & Mary (5-3) and Villanova (4-4) at James Madison (5-3). ... Lafayette freshman quarterback Drew Reed's big game against Holy Cross is another indication of how the first scholarship class in the Patriot League is making an impact. In his first career start, Reed completed 21-of-22 passes (including his final 20) for 283 yards, five touchdowns and a 278.5 passing efficiency rating. ... Sixth-ranked Coastal Carolina has scored 45 of the 47 times it has reached an opponent's red zone (40 touchdowns, five field goals). ... Big Sky punters are getting their kicks this season. The top 10 punters are averaging at least 42.1 yards per punt, led by Kyle Loomis's FCS-best 47.3 at Portland State. ... Living dangerously: No. 22 Lehigh (6-2), Jackson State (6-2) and UT Martin (5-3) are having winning seasons despite ranking among the eight-worst turnover margins in the FCS. ... The Cleveland Browns have signed former Appalachian State great Armanti Edwards, the only two-time winner of the Walter Payton Award.

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, updated most Sundays, 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.

WEEK 10 PICKS

Week 9 Record: 49-12 (.803)

Season Record: 451-143 (.759)

Friday, Nov. 1

X-Southern (4-4, 4-2 SWAC) at Texas Southern (2-6, 2-5), 9 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 1

Columbia (0-6, 0-3 Ivy) at X-Yale (3-3, 1-2), noon

X-Bryant (4-4, 2-1 NEC) at Robert Morris (3-4, 1-1), noon

X-No. 13 Bethune-Cookman (7-1, 4-0 MEAC) at North Carolina Central (4-4, 2-2), noon

Penn (4-2, 3-0 Ivy) at X-Brown (4-2, 1-2), 12:30 p.m.

Stony Brook (3-4, 1-3 CAA) at X-No. 10 Maine (7-1, 4-0), 12:30 p.m.

Cornell (1-5, 0-3 Ivy) at X-Princeton (5-1, 3-0), 1 p.m.

X-Hampton (3-5, 3-1 MEAC) at Morgan State (2-6, 2-2), 1 p.m.

Bucknell (3-4, 1-2 Patriot) at X-Colgate (3-5, 2-0), 1 p.m.

X-Monmouth (4-4) at Sacred Heart (7-2), 1 p.m.

Furman (3-5, 2-2 Southern) at X-Georgia Southern (4-3, 2-3), 1 p.m.

Central Connecticut State (3-5, 1-1 NEC) at X-Wagner (2-6, 1-3), 1 p.m.

Holy Cross (3-6) at X-No. 9 Fordham (8-0), 1 p.m.

X-Lafayette (2-5, 2-0 Patriot) at Georgetown (1-7, 0-2), 1 p.m.

X-Mercer (7-1, 3-1 Pioneer) at Davidson (0-8, 0-5), 1 p.m.

X-Campbell (1-7, 0-5 Pioneer) at Stetson (1-6, 0-4), 1 p.m.

Jacksonville (4-4, 3-2 Pioneer) at X-Marist (5-3, 4-1), 1 p.m.

X-No. 23 Tennessee State (7-2, 4-1 OVC) at Eastern Kentucky (5-3, 3-1), 1 p.m.

X-San Diego (5-3, 4-1 Pioneer) at Valparaiso (1-7, 1-4), 1 p.m.

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

Tennessee Tech (3-6, 0-5 OVC) at X-No. 2 Eastern Illinois (7-1, 4-0), 1 p.m.

Virginia-Lynchburg at X-North Carolina A&T (4-3), 1 p.m.

Warner (0-9) at X-Gardner-Webb (4-4), 1:30 p.m.

No. 16 New Hampshire (4-3, 3-1 CAA) at X-William & Mary (5-3, 2-2), 1:30 p.m.

X-Howard (3-5, 2-3 MEAC) at Delaware State (3-5, 3-2), 2 p.m.

Florida A&M (2-6, 1-3 MEAC) at X-Norfolk State (2-6, 2-2), 2 p.m.

X-South Carolina State (5-3, 3-1 MEAC) at Savannah State (1-8, 0-5), 2 p.m.

X-No. 15 Samford (6-2, 4-0 Southern) at The Citadel (2-6, 2-4), 2 p.m.

Indiana State (1-7, 0-4 Missouri Valley) at X-Missouri State (3-6, 3-2), 2 p.m.

Rhode Island (3-6) at X-Old Dominion (5-3), 2 p.m.

X-No. 24 Charleston Southern (8-1, 1-0 Big South) at Presbyterian (3-4, 1-0), 2 p.m.

Urbana (6-2) at X-Southeast Missouri State (1-7), 2 p.m.

X-Northern Iowa (4-4, 0-4 Missouri Valley) at Illinois State (4-4, 3-2), 2 p.m.

Murray State (5-3, 3-1 OVC) at X-UT Martin (5-3, 3-2), 2 p.m.

X-Southern Illinois (4-4, 2-2 Missouri Valley) at Western Illinois (3-6, 1-4), 2 p.m.

X-No. 11 Youngstown State (7-1, 4-0 Missouri Valley) at South Dakota (4-4, 3-2), 2 p.m.

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

X-No. 20 Villanova (4-4, 3-2 CAA) at James Madison (5-3, 2-2), 2:30 p.m.

Charlotte (4-4) at X-No. 6 Coastal Carolina (8-0), 3 p.m.

X-Incarnate Word (4-4) at McMurry (1-7), 3 p.m.

Mississippi Valley State (1-7, 1-5 SWAC) at X-Grambling State (0-8, 0-6), 3 p.m.

Chattanooga (6-2, 4-1 Southern) at X-Appalachian State (2-6, 2-3), 3:30 p.m.

VMI (1-7, 0-3 Big South) at X-Liberty (4-4, 1-1), 3:30 p.m.

X-No. 5 Montana State (6-2, 4-0 Big Sky) at Northern Colorado (1-7, 0-4), 3:40 p.m.

Albany (1-7, 0-4 CAA) at X-Richmond (2-6, 0-4), 4 p.m.

Stephen F. Austin (3-5, 1-2 Southland) vs. X-No. 8 Sam Houston State (6-2, 2-1) at Reliant Stadium in Houston, 4 p.m.

Weber State (1-7, 0-4 Big Sky) at X-Portland State (4-4, 1-3), 4:05 p.m.

X-No. 12 Montana (6-2, 3-2 Big Sky) at Sacramento State (4-4, 3-1), 4:05 p.m.

X-Dartmouth (3-3, 2-1 Ivy) at Harvard (5-1, 2-1), 5 p.m.

X-Jacksonville State (6-2, 2-2 OVC) at Austin Peay (0-8, 0-4), 5 p.m.

Alabama A&M (2-6, 2-4) at X-Alcorn State (7-2, 5-1), 5 p.m.

X-No. 3 Eastern Washington (6-2, 4-0 Big Sky) at Idaho State (3-5, 1-4), 5:05 p.m.

Saint Francis (Pa.) (3-4, 1-1 NEC) at X-Duquesne (4-3, 2-1), 6:10 p.m.

No. 21 Delaware (6-2, 3-1 CAA) at X-No. 7 Towson (8-1, 4-1), 7 p.m.

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

North Dakota (2-6, 1-4 Big Sky) at X-No. 14 Northern Arizona (6-2, 4-1), 7 p.m.

X-Cal Poly (3-5, 2-2 Big Sky) at UC Davis (3-6, 3-2), 7 p.m.

Alabama State (6-2) at X-Kentucky (1-6), 7:30 p.m.

X-No. 18 Central Arkansas (5-3, 2-1 Southland) at Northwestern State (3-5, 0-3), 8 p.m.

Game of the Week: No. 25 Southeastern Louisiana (6-2, 3-0 Southland) at X-No. 4 McNeese State (7-1, 3-0), 8 p.m. Save the best for last - the Southland's first-place showdown. The visiting Lions have won five straight games, and have averaged nearly 44 points in their victories this season. But if any team knows scoring, it's the Cowboys, whose 43.6 points per game (which is down because of a 41-6 loss to Northern Iowa) is fourth-best in the FCS.

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