It’s October, which means the only thing on the line in every game is the entire season.
“These next three weeks is technically a playoff game for us,” said McNeese State wide receiver Darius Carey. “We win each of these next three, we’ll definitely be in the hunt for a conference championship.”
Things went south on McNeese last October. The Cowboys lost all four of their games and needed to win out in November just to salvage a winning record.
The No. 19 Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 Southland) will try to wipe away the taste of last year’s Dead October in a crucial matchup with No. 21 Central Arkansas (4-2, 2-1) tonight at Cowboy Stadium.
“I feel we’re in better position than last year,” said right tackle Alec Savoie. “Just having the week of rest helped some guys get back on their feet. Some guys who might not have been able to play last week we’ve got back.”
McNeese is coming off its bye, while UCA has yet to have one. The Cowboys bye was in Week 2 last season.
“I’m sure our training room looks a little more crowded than theirs, you would think,” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “We’ve played six very physical games without a chance to breathe.”
The stakes are high for both teams. The only team to win a Southland title with more than one loss was Texas State in 2008, and that was on a technicality because one-loss UCA was ineligible for the crown as it transitioned from Division II.
The loser will likely see its championship hopes vanish and may need to win the rest of its games for a shot at an at-large FCS playoff berth, though a season-opening win over Middle Tennessee State could give McNeese slightly more at-large breathing room than the Bears.
It’s a game our program really embraces. We have great respect for that program,” Conque said. “They’re kind of the gold standard of the conference regardless of who is playing well for a period of time. You have to go through McNeese to get a conference championship and I think this year is no different.”
On top of that, there’s a trophy to battle for in the Red Beans and Rice Bowl.
“We’ve got to go get our trophy back,” said McNeese safety Terence Cahee.
Based on recent results, the game is poised to live up to the billing of a battle between nationally ranked teams.
The last three meetings between the Cowboys and Bears have been decided by less than a touchdown, with UCA winning the last two games in Conway, Ark.
“They’ve been really competitive games,” said McNeese coach Matt Viator. “Any time that happens, you develop a really good rivalry.”
Turnovers, or the lack thereof, may be the deciding factor tonight.
McNeese turned it over five times in last year’s 21-18 loss, including a Marcus Wiltz fumble near the goal line that was returned 98 yards for a Bear touchdown.
The Cowboys and Bears boast the best turnover margins in the Southland, with McNeese at plus-8 and UCA at plus-7. Viator has expressed the importance of ball security in the two weeks McNeese has had to prepare since its 30-22 win over Northwestern State.
“It’s going to be huge. Obviously that cost us last year,” Viator said. “We had turnovers at bad times... We keep stressing you’ve got to finish the play.”
NOTE: Viator is going for his 50th career win. If McNeese wins, he will become the second-fastest Cowboy coach to reach that milestone, trailing only Les DeVall (1957-65).