It’s been a little more than a week since Southeastern coach Ron Roberts was lifted onto the shoulders of his players as they celebrated clinching at least a share of the Southland Conference title in the final regular season game of the year at Nicholls State.
A few days later, Sam Houston State defeated Central Arkansas 38-31 to claim its stake of the Southland trophy as well.
It seemed as if there would be no answer to who the one, true champion would be.
That is, until the Football Championship Subdivision announced its playoff bracket.
The Lions (9-3) and Bearkats (8-4) are set for an unofficial conference championship at 1 p.m. Saturday as the two co-champions meet in the first round of the FCS playoffs in Huntsville, Texas.
The winner will move on to the second round to play at No. 3 Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. Dec. 6.
Immediately following the watch party, Roberts said he was “shocked” his program didn’t earn a home game for at least the first round of the playoffs, saying he thought there was a possibility the Lions could have squeaked into the top eight seeds.
Since then, however, Roberts has moved on to the mindset that he doesn’t care where his team plays as long as they have the opportunity to compete for a trip to Frisco, Texas, for a shot at the FCS National Championship.
“Once you get to the playoffs, who cares where you play?” Roberts said. “You’d love to play at home, but you’re just grateful to be in it and grateful for the opportunity to continue to play.”
While this will be the first time Southeastern travels for a postseason game since the program’s return in 2003, this won’t be the first time the two Southland giants have met in a win-or-go-home environment.
In the second round of last season’s FCS playoffs, Southeastern quarterback Bryan Bennett led the Lions on an impressive six-play, 85-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, nicknamed “The Drive to Stay Alive,” to give Southeastern a 30-29 victory against Sam Houston. It was the second time that season the Lions took down the Bearkats.
But this time around, Roberts might have to find someone other than Bennett to carry the load for the offense.
Bennett has suffered from a mid-foot sprain since injuring it during the Houston Baptist game a few weeks ago. Both Bennett and Roberts said the senior transfer from Oregon will be ready to go by game time, but with a question of how healthy he’ll actually be.
“He’s not 100-percent healthy, but he’s definitely good enough to go,” Roberts said.
If Bennett can’t go, the Lions will have to put the ball in the hands of backup Jordan Barnett.
Barnett led Southeastern to wins against Houston Baptist, which included a school-record, 800-yard offensive output, and Nicholls, a 62-point outing in its own right, while Bennett went to the locker room due to injury.
“Luckily (Barnett and third-string quarterback D’Shaie Landor) already had some playing experience the past couple of weeks,” Roberts said. “That’s the way it goes, and hopefully they play well.”
Defensively, the Lions won’t be able to rely much on their experience from last season as Sam Houston has a new coach in K.C. Keeler and with him, a new spread offense.
The Bearkats are the only Southland team to produce more yards on the ground than Southeastern this season, out gaining the Lions 3,213 to 2,927. Both teams have registered 39 rushing touchdowns each.
Sam Houston running back Keyshawn Hill and quarterback Jared Johnson are two of the conference’s top rushers. Hill is No. 3 in the Southland with 1,001 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Johnson is No. 6 with 753 yards and five touchdowns.
“They have a good running back and that quarterback is obviously a dual-threat guy, very effective at running the football,” Roberts said.
“We’re going to have to play really great up front in the defensive line and linebackers. You have to be able to stop the run.”