McNeese State head coach Matt Viator. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 6:03 PM
When McNeese State looks into the mirror, it could easily see a reflection of Northern Iowa staring back.
In many ways, the programs are the same thing in different parts of the country, making today’s 4 p.m. showdown between the No. 9 Cowboys (4-0) and No. 5 Panthers (3-0) at the UNI-Dome all the more intriguing.
The similarities are almost uncanny.
Both teams are off to their best starts since 2007 — the same year McNeese head coach Matt Viator finished third behind UNI coach Mark Farley in the voting for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year. The unbeaten starts include wins over Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifiers in Week 1, with McNeese trouncing South Florida and UNI topping Iowa State.
Both coaches are true to their schools. Viator is a 1986 McNeese graduate. Farley received his degree from UNI one year later.
The Panthers have made 16 Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) playoff appearances; the Cowboys 14.
Both have reached the national championship game — McNeese in 1997 and 2002, UNI in 2005 — but haven’t won it.
The past two seasons, both have watched a conference rival make it to the national title game.
Both are among the top 25 in FCS attendance on a yearly basis.
And that’s just the background information.
Though his team is built on speed and UNI is built on power, Viator said they share similar philosophies on both sides of the ball.
“What we do offensively is very similar,” Viator said. “And, from a defensive standpoint, it’s pretty similar, too. They’re an attacking style of defense that prides itself on sacks and turnovers. That’s kind of what makes them go, and it’s very similar to what we do.”
This is indisputably a big game for both teams — the Cowboys are in a regular-season game with both teams ranked in the top 10 for the first time since playing Georgia Southern in 2003 — but both have tough challenges directly ahead. No. 1 North Dakota State awaits the Panthers next week, while McNeese visits defending Southland champion Central Arkansas.
“It’s something you get excited about. But you have to get excited about every game,” said Cowboys wide receiver Ernest Celestie. “It’s not the outside noise we live for. We live for the moments inside the game, so we have to be ready no matter whether it’s top 10 or how many people are there. You have to be mentally ready no matter what.”
Neither team is looking ahead to its conference opener or beyond, for this figures to be as close to an FCS playoff atmosphere as one can find in September.
“The excitement of the game is the biggest implication,” Farley said. “It’s so early in the season I don’t know how it will play out (for playoff purposes). I do think Southland Conference versus Missouri Valley Conference is an implication in this process.”