For the University of Central Arkansas Bears, it’s like stopping to explore some new, verdant territory on the way to their final destination.
In GPS lingo, it’s a "via point."
But it’s a specially marked via point.
The game with Arkansas State has been talked about and enthusiastically awaited by Bear fans since it came about last spring.
Where it occurs for UCA, right after a conference-opening defeat to Sam Houston, gives it the possibility to be both a defining game and a blurry glitch in the big picture.
This game is best examined when extracted from the rest of the schedule. It has a different perspective. The emphasis will be on two Arkansas NCAA Division I football teams playing each other and aired on statewide television. It will attract supporters of each team plus a curious statewide audience that is either unwinding or still winding from the Arkansas-Alabama game earlier that day.
What happens Saturday night can’t be viewed like any other game during the season for UCA. It’s sort of like a bowl game. The game has its own special flavor unlike anything else.
But it can go a long way to determining UCA’s state, mentally and physically, for the rest of the season.
The Bears are coming off a defeat in their conference opener to Sam Houston State, one of the most thorough lickings they’ve had since joining the league. Win or lose, they need to shore up some areas that were weak against Sam Houston, namely tackling on defense and the ability to establish a running game on offense.
If UCA doesn’t tackle better, block better and create a creditable running threat, it won’t be pretty.
But Clint Conque and his staff have a pretty good record in "underdog" games against upper-level teams. The Bears also have the opportunity to showcase themselves as an NCAA FCS program before a statewide audience. The coaches are confident they will compete and compete hard.
UCA also needs it to be a confidence-builder for backup quarterback Wynrick Smothers, who is starting his first collegiate game in place of senior Nathan Dick. The glass-half-full aspect of that is that UCA’s offense and game plans have been specifically geared to the talents of their veteran quarterback. Smothers’ reps in practice and opportunities during game have been primarily with the second unit. Saturday night, the UCA coaches will give in a game plan and tweak the offense in a manner that gives him the best chance to succeed.
But it still will be a challenge.
Part of the mystery is we don’t know how good ASU is. The Red Wolves have competed creditably against Illinois and Virginia Tech, two teams that should be factors in their conference races and go to NCAA FBS bowls. ASU thoroughly trounced Memphis, but the Tigers seem to be one of the worst, if not the worst, teams in NCAA FBS.
The Bears must emerge from the game against the Red Wolves with a degree of confidence and a spark that can carry them through seven straight weeks, six against Southland teams and one against an NCAA FCS independent in Texas State.
And the grade on the incline doesn’t lessen that much. Immediately after ASU, the Bears face two-time defending SLC champion Stephen F. Austin. Two weeks later, it’s perennial power McNeese State.
UCA has to come out of the game with ASU as healthy as possible for the grind the rest of the season, which will no doubt produce its share of strains, bumps and bruises over seven straight weeks.
And there will be pressure. An FCS team needs six NCAA Division I victories to gain the immediate pool of at-large qualifiers (those who don’t gain automatic berths because of conference titles) for postseason play. UCA’s victory over Henderson State doesn’t count.
If UCA does not defeat ASU, the Bears will have to win six of their next seven games to gain the pool of at-large qualifiers. Of course, if they do that, they will also likely seriously contend for a conference title.
The ASU game is big, from psychological and marketing standpoinst and for its ability to energize, a possibly increase, a fan base.
But there is a lot beyond that. And what happens against ASU will determine the perspective of what goes on beyond that.
Yeah, Jonesboro is a via point. But it’s a via point with a benchmark.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)