Photo: Mike Tobias/The Enterprise / Enterprise File Photo
It’s not usually this complicated atop the Southland Conference football standings.
But a three-way tie for first, a four-way tie for second and an unusual quirk of scheduling are making for one of craziest conference races in recent memory — with two weeks remaining.
In each of the last two seasons, an undefeated conference champion has left no doubt as to which team should receive the Southland’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs. Two years ago, a 9-0 Sam Houston squad won the conference. In 2017, Central Arkansas was the Southland champion with the same conference record.
But thanks to surprise seasons from traditional Southland bottom-dwellers like Lamar and Incarnate Word, this year’s scenarios aren’t quite as straight forward.
Riding a four-game win streak and in the thick of the conference confusion, Lamar (5-4, 4-3) will try to “block out the noise” on Saturday when the Cardinals hosts Houston Baptist at Provost Umphrey Stadium.
“We can’t control any of that,” Lamar coach Mike Schultz said of the conundrum atop the conference. “But you know what we can control? We can control what happens with our preparation for the game and how we play against HBU.
“The only thing I’m worried about right now is beating HBU.”
Schultz loves to point out how he “trusts the process,” but this season, the Southland’s playoff process seems flawed.
On Thursday, the conference released what it called a “clarification” on how it plans to decide a champion in potential tie-breaking situations.
Because the Southland has an odd number of schools, 10 of its 11 football teams play a nine-game schedule, with one school only playing eight. Incarnate Word, which is currently in a first-place tie at 5-2 with McNeese and Nicholls, is that lone school this season.
HBU played an eight-game schedule during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and will do so again next year.
UIW plays its last conference game this week at Central Arkansas, while all other teams have two games remaining. If UIW wins that game, its 6-2 conference record will be counted the same as any potential 7-2 team, according to the conference.
UIW owns a tiebreaker with McNeese. Nicholls beat UIW, but lost to McNeese.
“If Incarnate Word is the only remaining two-loss team at the end of the regular season, it shall be conference champion and the recipient of the NCAA automatic berth,” the release stated. “Further, UIW’s placement in the final standings shall be honored through any tie-breaking procedures necessary to determine the NCAA automatic qualifier.”
The clarification prompted mix reactions from Southland Conference members on Thursday. McNeese fans took to social media expressing their displeasure with the decision, feeling as if the conference virtually awarded UIW an extra win it didn’t earn.
Asked for his opinion, McNeese coach Lance Guidry called the decision inconsequential. He believes wins in each of the next two games would put the Cowboys in the FCS playoffs with an at-large bid even if they aren’t conference champions.
Meanwhile, UIW representatives rejoiced. A win over Central Arkansas on Saturday would guarantee UIW at least a share of the Southland championship. That win, combined with a Nicholls loss in either of the Colonels’ last two games would give the conference to UIW outright.
UIW is currently scheduled to play Big-12 opponent Iowa State in early December, a game that would likely have to be canceled if UIW makes the FCS playoffs.
“Huge announcement!” UIW Deputy Athletic Director Richard Duran trumpeted on Twitter. “Now let’s go beat UCA.”
Stephen F. Austin Athletic Director Ryan Ivey also chimed in on social media, responding to a story posted about the clarification. SFA is out of the conference race with a 2-5 Southland record, but would be a possible replacement opponent for Iowa State if UIW wins the conference.
“A lot of factors go into this situation,” Ivey wrote. “Wish it were as simple as a yes/no answer.”
As for Lamar players, their focus is on attaining a fifth-straight win, something not done at the school in more than four decades. Lamar is still mathematically alive to win the Southland championship, but it would need significant help to do so.
Lamar is one of four teams with a 4-3 conference record, but owns the tiebreaker with all of them.
Lamar beat UIW with a walk-off blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown, but lost to Nicholls the week before. Lamar plays McNeese the last game of the season in Lake Charles.
“We’re definitely conscious of it, but we can’t get sidetracked by any of that,” senior receiver Isaiah Howard said of the possible Southland scenarios. “If we lose focus, it could cost us.”