By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA - If you look at the College Sporting News' Gridiron Power Index, this week, there are two undefeated teams that are not a total surprise in the list.
No. 1 on the list, 7-0 Appalachian State - you've probably heard of them, the poster kids for a "little" FCS team upsetting FBS teams, not to mention their perennial FCS playoff appearances and national championships.
Coming in at No. 4 is 8-0 Jacksonville State - another team that has become accustomed to splashy headlines as well, first by becoming the home of LSU QB Ryan Perrilloux and then by winning an epic game against an FBS team eariler this year in their 49-48 double-overtime win against the Rebels. Ole Miss hasn't exactly been SEC royalty this year, coming in at a weak 3-4 so far, but the Gamecocks' win - and undefeated record, with their SEC victory - has given them the accolades. Point is: if you follow FCS, you know something about this team from Alabama.
But in Florida, there's a third undefeated team that hasn't gotten the same level of exposure nationally.
To those following the MEAC, the Wildcats were best known for their flamboyant coach, Alvin B. Wyatt - former member of the Oakland Raiders and big believer in the "Wyattbone" offense that delivered a lot of wins in the early Noughties for Bethune-Cookman - and a MEAC championship, and a berth in the FCS playoffs, in 2002.
But a 5-6 record in 2009 - and their fourth straight loss to Florida A&M in the "Florida Classic", by an embarrassing 42-6 score - meant the Wyatt show would be run out of Daytona Beach for the first time in 13 years.
The Wildcats turned to a longtime assistant at Rutgers, Brian Jenkins, to turn things around. And boy, has he done so.
Few heads were turned when Jenkins installed a spread offense at Bethune Cookman, replacing the conservative wishbone attack of Wyatt. And when the Wildcats coasted to an early 3-0 record - scoring big points against lightweights such as 0-8 Savannah State and 1-7 NAIA Edward Waters College, all at home - not many folks outside the MEAC took much notice.
Folks around the MEAC definitely started to take notice, however, when the Wildcats took their show on the road and walloped perennial MEAC title contender Morgan State 69-32.
In that game, QB Matt Johnson connected with WR Eddie Poole on a 70-yard pass play to start the game. At halftime, the scoreboard read Wildcats 42, Bears 26 - and it just continued to get more ugly from there.
"We tried to come out and show this was our game," Johnson said after his huge performance. "This would be the tempo we would play at. We established that early and often."
Soon after their 69 point outburst - and a 47 point effort against Delaware State - the Wildcats stood at 5-0. However, with four of those five wins coming at home and no opponent of theirs anywhere was anywhere close to a winning record at that time, plenty of doubts persisted nationally as they traveled to Orangeburg to take on nationally ranked - and undefeated in FCS play - South Carolina State. The consensus pick to repeat as MEAC champions. The best defense they had faced up until that point. The team with the 21 game winning streak in the MEAC on the line. The big Bulldogs - literally - of the MEAC.
In this game, it wouldn't be Johnson's offense that would feature, but instead highlight a Wildcat defense, led by LB Ryan Lewis' 2 interceptions, that would blank the Bulldogs 14-0. LB Reggie Sandilands, who would lead the team in tackles, and DE Ryan Davis chasing Bulldog QB Malcolm Long all afternoon, would highlight an impressive effort in limiting South Carolina State to 264 yards of total offense.
At their place.
We kept swinging, said Jenkins after the game in David Coulson's postgame report on College Sporting News. We tabbed this game a heavyweight fight and we said we were taking it 15 rounds, and if it would go 15, wed be going toe-to-toe.
"I need to first take my hat off to Coach Jenkins and his crew. We were not effective enough on offense," Bulldog head coach Buddy Pough said after the game. "I thought they did a marvelous job against us and defenively, they really did a great job in putting some pressure and just generally just defending us in the best way that we've been defended in a very long time. And their offense was effective enough to continue to give them a chance to score enough points to beat us.
"Coach Jenkins has really done a fantastic job," Pough said before their matchup. "You look at these guys on film and you see that you better get yourself ready, or they'll beat the starch out of you. They seem to be real confident in what they're doing. Any time you're playing a hot team like this, it's tough to get ready for them. I think you do practice a little differently, but at the same time you've got be relaxed and confident in your own ability."
While last week's win over North Carolina Central - a "sloppy" 23-10 victory, in the words of coach Jenkins - Lewis' 67 yard pick six headlined an opportunistic defense that leads FCS in turnover margin. In seven games, they've forced an amazing 23 takeaways, while only coughing up the ball five times. That's a margin of 2.57 - almost a full turnover ahead of Jacksonville, who sits second in that category with 1.63.
"All week I heard about that play (that he took back fot the interception)," Lewis said. "The coaches told me it was going to be there and I just had to make it. I got a couple of blocks from my teammates that helped me. That's the best part about it."
Still, don't talk to stoic, no-nonsense coach Jenkins about statistics or polls. After the effort from his team, coach Jenkins was none too pleased. His "play in the moment" philosophy - after the South Carolina State victory - seemed to make this game more of a contest than coach Jenkins would have liked.
"We didn't play our best and North Carolina Central played better," he said. "They played harder and my hat goes off to them. We didn't play Wildcat football today. Thank God for our defense. My hat goes off to North Carolina Central. They played a tough physical football game, which I knew they would."
Next up for coach Jenkins and the Wildcats? A short week and a Thursday home date with 1-7 North Carolina A&T. Oh yeah, it's also going to be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.
Will the short week be a disruption to Bethune Cookman? Not if you listen to coach Jenkins, whose disciplined style is sounding more and more like a very strong potential Eddie Robinson award candidate.
"No disruption. Practice as always. Ready," Jenkins said Monday. "We're getting prepared for the game and will be ready to play. We'll go to class as always and do our regular routine. That's all. It's still football. You still have to play on a 100-yard field between the white lines."
"If people are still wondering how good we are now, that's somewhat a problem," offensive lineman Natiel Curry said a few weeks ago. "You shouldn't be wondering how good we are right now. You've seen what we've produced. You see what we do on Saturdays. And this is once again another Saturday to see what we can do."
Nobody's wondering anymore. And this Thursday, folks around the country will be able to see exactly how good this Wildcat team actually is.
Picking the Sports Network Top 25
No. 12 Bethune-Cookman 42, North Carolina A&T 6 - In 2006, the Wildcats pounded the Aggies 70-7 on ESPNU. This one won't be that lopsided, but it will still be a rout for Bethune-Cookman.
Stony Brook 35, Charleston Southern 13 - The Seawolves, quietly at 2-0 in Big South play, should have little trouble going to 3-0 as their rematch with Liberty looms.
Southern Utah 31, UC Davis 13 - The Thunderbirds clinch the Great West title - which will not make the folks at Cal Poly happy at all. Will the NCAA committee look kindly on a Mustang team that goes 8-3 but doesn't clinch their conference title?
Dartmouth 27, Harvard 24 - The surprising Big Green - who are a couple plays away from being undefeated - face their biggest October game in at least a decade against the Crimson this weekend. An extra-hungry Dartmouth team - who have lost six straight against Harvard - finally exact sweet revenge.
Old Dominion 27, Hampton 13 - The Pirates' inability to score will trump Old Dominion's ability to score anytime, anywhere. They'll slow down the Monarchs, but not enough to win.
South Dakota State 35, Indiana State 6 - Yes, Virginia, Indiana State is currently undefeated at home in October. It won't last.
Robert Morris 30, Duquesne 23 - It's developed into a surprisingly good Western Pennsylvania rivalry game, but it shouldn't slow the Colonials' march to the NEC title and their first-ever playoff appearance.
Lehigh 23, Colgate 21 - This big Patriot League rivalry could determine the Patriot League champion. It will either put Colgate back on track to win the title or will re-establish Lehigh as the team to beat. At home, give the ever-so-slight edge to the Mountain Hawks.
Dayton 27, Davidson 0 - While the Dolphins are getting all the Top 25 votes, that "other" Pioneer League team is awful close to their own 10-1 record as well - and they've beaten a top team, too, in Robert Morris.
Sam Houston State 27, Northwestern State 6 - Watch out for these Bearkats, who have brought something new to the Southland: defense.
Prairie View 28, Jackson State 27 - A fascinating matchup between the Tigers, who boast one of the most potent pass offenses in all of FCS, and the Panthers, who are thinking playoffs - potentially - if they can get to 8-3 and only have losses to Alabama State, nationally-ranked Grambling State and FBS Southern Miss on their resume.
Picking the Sports Network Top 25
No. 25 Northern Arizona 41, Sacramento State 34 - In a wild Big Sky conference race, one thing has remains the same for the last seven years: the Hornets can't win in the Walkup Skydome. Make it eight.
No. 24 Jacksonville 5, Morehead State 16 - Head coach Kerwin Bell's strategy this year seems to involve running up the score on inferior league opponents. They'll continue to do so here.
No. 23 Grambling State 35, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 23 - The Frank Warren express will continue to roll right through Pine Bluff.
No. 22 Cal Poly 35, St. Francis (PA) 6 - The Mustangs will be doing a lot of scoreboard-watching to see if Southern Utah loses. If they do, and sweep the rest of the way, Great West co-champions with an 8-3 record will probably be enough to make the playoffs.
No. 21 Penn 37, Brown 6 - They're both undefeated in Ivy League play, but the Quakers will demonstrate their award-winning ways this weekend at home when they dispose of the injury-ridden Bears.
No. 20 Chattanooga 47, Elon 42 - Both of these teams can score. A lot. But Elon, who has had problems stopping other teams in the SoCon, will cry "Uncle!" first.
No. 19 Northern Iowa 28, Youngstown State 14 - Never go against the Panthers when they play the Penguins. A little-known FCS game-picking rule I have.
No. 15 James Madison 21, No. 18 UMass 6 - In essence an elimination game for the playoffs, it's a matter of which offense is struggling less? Edge: Dukes.
No. 17 South Carolina State 28, Delaware State 0 - The Bulldogs have had problems scoring. That changes this weekend against the hapless Hornets.
No. 16 Liberty 56, Presbyterian 13 - The Blue Hose broke a 20 game D-I losing streak when they surprised Gardner-Webb 26-24 last weekend. The win streak will without question stop at one.
No. 5 Villanova 19, Richmond 3 - A fourth-string QB will not beat Villanova's defense, no matter how banged up the Wildcats are.
No. 13 Montana State 45, Idaho State 10 - Bengal Balm will sooth Bobcat fans' fears about QB Denarius McGhee's foot.
No. 11 Southeast Missouri State 40, UT Martin 37 - It's the type of game that the Carrier Pigeons seems to excel at pulling the upset, but you can't get me off the Redhawk bandwagon now. Oh by the way, if SEMO wins this weekend, the game in two weeks vs. Jacksonville State will be the OVC championship game, with the loser being an at-large team in the playoffs. Book it.
No. 9 Wofford 40, The Citadel 3 - If Georgia Southern can put up 20 on the Bulldogs...
Portland State 40, No. 8 Eastern Washington 28 - I think the Vikings have the offense to really shake things up in the Big Sky...
Weber State 35, No. 7 Montana 21 - ...as do the Wildcats. Seriously, admit it, you forgot about them, too, right? Seriously, if everything falls just right, Weber State could still be Big Sky champions and get the autobid.
No. 4 Stephen F. Austin 56, Texas State 3 - Curiously for a team that has pretensions on playing FBS football in the WAC someday, the Bobcats seem to have given up this year. That's sweet honey for QB Jeremy Moses and the Lumberjacks.
North Carolina (FBS) 35, No. 3 William & Mary 34 - You can't find a hotter team in FCS than the Tribe right now. But if there's not a APB from the ACC league office about CAA teams by now, after James Madison's embarrassment of Virginia Tech, there never will be. The Tribe make it a game, but the Tar Heels nip them in the end.
No. 1 Appalachian State 31, Furman 28 - It's funny: as many championships as Appalachian State wins, or as many injuries as Furman gets, this rivalry game is always a dandy. But in the end, the Mountaineers have a near-unstoppable offense that can score anytime, anyplace, anywhere. They will, and they'll win the game as a result.