In the FCS Huddle: Gap closing between conferences is evident

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Updated: 9/29/2013 10:52 am

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Who's in the race to finish second to North Dakota State in the FCS again this season? You might need a long list.

On second thought, let's just wait to see who's left standing in Frisco, Texas. Even the Bison could lose their hall pass.

Saturday's terrific day of matchups across the FCS suggested how top teams will keep knocking each other off on a weekly basis, although the top-ranked, two-time defending national champion Bison's pounding of South Dakota State brought on the feeling they could go unscathed in the regular season.

But as good as NDSU, Sam Houston State, Northern Iowa and Eastern Illinois looked on Saturday, the vulnerability of Towson (in a win), South Dakota State, Montana and McNeese State also was evident in the Top 10, which will change quite a bit on Monday.

The presence of NDSU and Northern Iowa, who meet next weekend in Fargo, N.D., keeps Missouri Valley Football first in the pecking order of FCS conferences, but the dividing lines have been a bit blurred this season. It must be like the way South Dakota State and running back Zach Zenner feel after meeting the Bison defense.

The Big South's tormenting of the Southern Conference this season - six wins, including two more on Saturday, Coastal Carolina over Elon and Charleston Southern over Appalachian State - has helped tighten the gap nationally.

In fact, the Big South (Coastal and Gardner-Webb) joins the Ohio Valley Conference (Eastern Illinois and UT Martin) and the Patriot League (Fordham and Lehigh) with two teams in the national rankings. The MEAC (Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina A&T) is getting close to having two ranked teams and the Ivy League is enjoying a good start to its season.

Clearly, the top conferences may have to look in their rear-view mirrors.

The Big Sky has the most teams, and the most depth along with CAA Football, but its potential two best teams - Montana State and Eastern Washington - have been run out of Texas by the Southland Conference over the last two weeks.

And even if Southland power Sam Houston State, the national runner-up each of the past two seasons, staked its claim to being No. 2 behind North Dakota State by beating Eastern Washington, McNeese State ran into a roadblock at Northern Iowa. Central Arkansas also has an FCS loss at UT Martin this season.

The CAA is hanging its hat on Towson, Villanova (loss to Fordham), Delaware (easy schedule) and Maine, but that's countered a bit by three disappointing teams, Richmond, New Hampshire and Stony Brook.

And speak of disappointing, the Southern Conference may place only one team in the FCS playoffs because of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State - the nation's most disappointing team under first-year coach Scott Satterfield - being ineligible for the playoffs.

Hah, who knows, maybe playing some SEC teams down the road will be easier for the SoCon than facing the Big South. The SoCon's automatic qualifier (Wofford, Samford, Chattanooga?) could have three or four losses.

But you know what, all of this could be a good thing for the FCS. There's parity behind a dominating force (North Dakota State). And just when it could seem the Bison willl cruise to a third straight national title, they could find themselves playing in Upset City.

FCS-style.

TOP 25 SCOREBOARD

A roundup of games in The Sports Network FCS Top 25 can be found at http://tinyurl.com/n4rpuya.

STOCK RISING, STOCK FALLING

Rising: Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo strengthened his stock as a Walter Payton Award favorite, increasing his FCS-best passing totals to 2,053 yards and 23 touchdowns as the Panthers made easy work of Eastern Kentucky. He also become the Ohio Valley Conference's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. Running backs Timothy Flanders of Sam Houston State and Terrance West of Towson kept pace, too, this weekend.

Falling: New Hampshire's 34-27 loss at Lehigh was particularly disappointing for the Wildcats (1-2) as they try to continue their streak of nine straight playoff appearances - the longest active run in the FCS. The defensively challenged team, which probably didn't deserve an at-large playoff bid last season, next visit third-ranked Towson to open its CAA Football schedule.

ROAD WARRIORS

Top-ranked North Dakota State's 20-0 shutout at No. 6 South Dakota State was its 14th straight win away from home (three at neutral sites), dating to the 2010 FCS quarterfinals.

Towson has the second-longest road winning streak at nine after rallying past Stony Brook, 35-21.

AROUND THE NATION

Big Sky: Last weekend's loss at Stephen F. Austin certainly brought urgency to Montana State's season as quarterback DeNarius McGhee returned early from a separated shoulder and helped the Bobcats to a 62-20 conference win at North Dakota on Saturday. ... Southern Utah (4-1, 1-0) has done well in transitioning to new quarterback Aaron Cantu (from Brad Sorensen) and now looks to build on their best five-game start since 1997 with winnable home games against UC Davis and Portland State.

Big South: Charleston Southern is 5-0 with a school-record four road wins, including its most impressive one of the season on Saturday, 27-24 over Appalachian State. The Buccaneers, under first-year coach Jamey Chadwell, controlled the ball for 42 minutes, 4 seconds, with running back Christian Reyes (167 yards) leading the way.

CAA Football: Maine (4-1, 1-0) has three at home in its next four games to build on its excellent start to the season. Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski continues to play with great confidence, leading Saturday's 28-21 victory at Richmond (2-3, 0-1). ... West has scored an FCS-leading 12 touchdowns and 72 points at Towson.

Ivy: Yale quarterback Henry Furman outperformed Cornell's Jeff Mathews in the surprising Bulldogs' 38-23 win. Furman completed 29-of-36 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns, all three going to Deon Randall, and rushed for the game's opening score. Randall also rushed for a fourth TD. ... Speaking of quarterbacks, Princeton's Quinn Epperley scored touchdowns on four of his five carries, including a 59-yarder, in the Tigers' 50-22 win over Georgetown. All of the points came in the first three quarters as the Tigers had their highest output in nearly 13 years.

Independents: Surging Old Dominion has scored at least 59 points in three straight wins. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the Monarchs shredded Albany, 66-10. ... First-year program Charlotte earned its first win over an FCS scholarship team, 45-21, on the road at Presbyterian. Matt Johnson tossed three touchdowns.

MEAC: The slump of Hampton in recent seasons continues to haunt coach Donovan Rose's future with the Pirates. They fell to 0-5 with a 30-6 loss to South Carolina State, scoring less than 10 points for the third time against an FCS opponent. They are 3-12 since the start of the 2012 season.

Missouri Valley: Coach Bob Nielson's first conference win at Western Illinois came on his 54th birthday, 24-10 over South Dakota. .... Indiana State tailback Shakir Bell returned from a separated shoulder to rush for 201 yards and go over 4,000 for his career, and score two touchdowns, but the Sycamores fell at Tennessee Tech, 38-37.

Northeast: Bryant took down defending champion Wagner, 47-28, as Paul Canevari rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns. The Bulldogs forced four turnovers. ... J.D. Roussel intercepted three passes and surprising Sacred Heart (5-0) forced three other turnovers in a 16-0 win at Bucknell - the Pioneers' first shutout since 2002.

Ohio Valley: Murray State (3-2) was successful on a two-point conversion to end the first overtime and knock off unbeaten Jacksonville State, 35-34. QB Maikhail Miller rushed for two touchdowns and threw for one. ... In Tennessee Tech's 38-37 win over Indiana State, the Golden Eagles (3-2) prevailed despite totaling less than half the total offense of the Sycamores, 554 to 264 yards.

Patriot: Holy Cross liked what it found in true freshman quarterback Pete Pujals' first start. He accounted for 415 yards of total offense and four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in a 31-28 win at Dartmouth. ... Lehigh (4-0) has been tied or trailed in the fourth quarter of each win this season.

Pioneer: The 72 years between games is agreeing with Mercer (4-0), which pulled off its most impressive win since returning to football, a 31-17 win over two-time defending champion Drake. Quarterback John Russ threw for a touchdown and rushed for two more, and the Bears forced seven turnovers. Said coach Bobby Lamb: "It was just a wonderful effort by our kids. They're learning every day and the amazing thing is they think they can beat anybody." ... Valparaiso's last four wins since 2008 have come against Campbell, including 49-42 in overtime on Saturday. ... Butler posted a pivotal 45-27 win at Jacksonville, overcoming Steven Hughes' 509 passing yards for the Dolphins.

Southern: Samford senior quarterback Andy Summerlin remained red-hot by throwing for 327 yards and a career-high four touchdowns as the Bulldogs routed Western Carolina, 62-23, to tie the most points of the Pat Sullivan era. ... Georgia Southern has won a game without completing a pass in two straight seasons.

Southland: Nicholls State improved to 3-2 with a 44-34 win over Arkansas Tech. Quarterback Tuskani Figaro, making his first career start, rushed for a school-record 281 yards and two touchdowns and threw for three more in a dominating effort. The Colonels clung to a 37-34 lead when Figaro broke an 88- yard touchdown run with 1:16 remaining.

SWAC: In a battle of teams unbeaten in conference play, Jackson State (3-2, 3-0) held off Southern, 19-14, by stopping the Jaguars inside its 10-yard line with a minute left. ... Alabama State dealt Alcorn State its first SWAC loss, 49-30, after it was 42-7, as Isaiah Crowell rushed for 136 yards and four touchdowns.

Extra Point: It was some quarterback duel in Nacogdoches, Texas, Saturday night. Stephen F. Austin senior quarterback Brady Attaway threw for a school-record 662 yards, but the Lumberjacks actually lost to visiting Prairie View A&M, 56-48. Prairie View QB Jerry Lovelock held his own in the victory, accounting for seven touchdowns. He threw for four scores and ran for another three, totaling 406 yards of total offense. The two teams combined for 1,409 yards.

A LOOK AHEAD

No rest for the Missouri Valley elite. After both had Top 10 wins, Northern Iowa will travel to North Dakota State for a Week 6 showdown.

There are plenty of key conference matchups, including: Big Sky, Portland State-Montana, Northern Arizona-Montana State and Weber State-Eastern Washington; CAA, New Hampshire-Towson, William & Mary-Villanova and Delaware- Maine; Ivy League, Penn-Dartmouth; MEAC, North Carolina Central-Howard and North Carolina A&T-South Carolina State in the Georgia Dome; Missouri Valley, Southern Illinois-South Dakota State and Youngstown State-Indiana State; Northeast, Wagner-Sacred Heart; Ohio Valley, Jacksonville State-UT Martin; Pioneer, Jacksonville-Drake; Southern, Georgia Southern-Samford; Southland, McNeese State-Central Arkansas; and SWAC, Arkansas-Pine Bluff-Jackson State.

The Lehigh-Fordham game won't count toward the Patriot League standings because of Fordham's ineligibility for the league championship. Liberty-Old Dominion is a strong non-conference matchup.

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