Playoffs start now

Simple formula: win

Northwestern State won’t be hosting any actual college football playoff games this season.

But in the eyes of the McNeese State football team, Turpin Stadium in Natchitoches might as well be the start of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

With a 5-2 Southland Conference record, McNeese sits tied for first-place with Incarnate Word and Nicholls State. The good news for the Cowboys is that they have the simplest path to winning the SLC: win their last two games. UIW plays eight conference games so it can’t win the SLC unless it defeats Central Arkansas in its conference finale, and both Nicholls and McNeese lose at least one more game. Meanwhile, Nicholls has to either win out and hope McNeese loses once, or win once and hope the Cowboys lose out.

There are a lot of scenarios, including one for McNeese winning the conference even if it loses on Saturday. But the simple thing is, win and they’re in.

“Our backs are against the wall,” senior linebacker B.J. Blunt said after Tuesday’s practice. “We put ourselves in a tough situation. So we’ve got to turn into a playoff atmosphere to win. We need to win every game.”

The team may be focused on the next game, but each of the next two games present issues for the Cowboys.

Northwestern State has its Senior Night against McNeese. And despite the Demons’ 3-6 record, the Cowboys have had trouble on the road regardless of who they’ve played. And when they come back home to The Hole, they will play a Lamar team that is arguably the hottest team in the SLC, having won four games in a row. The Cardinals will be favored in their final home game against Houston Baptist on Saturday. And no matter what happens, the Cardinals will come into Lake Charles trying to spoil their rival’s playoff chances.

“It’s just us shooting ourselves in the foot,” running back Ryan Ross said about the road woes. “And missing too many opportunities out there. Nobody can beat us but ourselves, and when you go out and drop passes and miss blocks and running backs don’t hit the right holes, things like that happen.”

One good thing in the Cowboys’ favor is how they play the week after a loss. The Cowboys have not lost consecutive games going back to the 2016 season. But McNeese has never followed up a loss this season with a road game the next week.

Another factor that should add to McNeese’s urgency is the possibility that the SLC will be a single-bid league for the FCSƒ playoffs. With eight teams separated by 11⁄2 games, the conference has beaten up on each other. If McNeese does not get the automatic playoff berth, it may be left on the outside looking in for the second consecutive season.

“It’s wild,” head coach Lance Guidry said. “Especially with going 9-2 last year, you got too many teams with too good a record. Now you got so many teams with not good enough records because there’s parity. We got to do what we can do and that’s try to win this thing out. You guarantee yourself in the playoffs if you do that. That’s what we’re preaching, that’s what we need to do.”

In most of the Cowboys’ games, they have kept it close for the majority of the game, in both wins and losses. The Cowboys have a chance to make a statement, even against a team with a below-average record, that they can play dominant.

“I want to get the guys to understand, every game ain’t got to be a dogfight,” Blunt said. “We got to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Saturday 6 p.m.

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Former McNeese head football coach, Lance Guidry

Rick Hickman