4 p.m. update with comments from Coach Clint Conque:
After his current team received an extension of its season Sunday, University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque said his thoughts returned to an earlier team that didn’t get a chance to move on.
The Bears (8-3) were selected for the 2011 20-team NCAA Division I FCS playoff field and become the first team to make an NCAA championship field since the university moved to NCAA Division I in 2006.
UCA, the second-place team from the Southland Conference, will play Saturday afternoon at Cookeville, Tenn., against Tennessee Tech (7-3) and the co-champion of the Ohio Valley Conference. The winner will play at the University of Montana, the No. 4 seed, on Dec. 3.
UCA, which closed the season with seven straight victories, lost only in SLC play to Sam Houston State, the league champion and the only unbeaten team remaining in FCS, Sam Houston received the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye.
The Bears made the playoffs in their second year of eligibility.
“There are a lot of schools that have a longer tradition in Division I and more total Division I victories than we do that are not in the field,” Conque said. “We need to all appreciate this and what this means to our university, our community and to be able represent our conference, which has been a one-bid league for several years.”
But Conque said his mind kept going back to that 2006 team, which had a solid nucleus from a team that had won a Gulf South Conference championship and reached the NCAA Division I quarterfinals the year before, but competed as a Division I independent even with membership in the Southland (the Bears played only two SLC teams in the schedule transition) and were ineligible for any championship or postseason berth.
“It was kind of a nomadic season as we played a schedule from coast to coast,” Conque said. “But that team finished 8-3 and with a season victory over Georgia Southern, a national power. I think about what that team did to lay the foundation for what happened today (Sunday). That was a good team with good players. They had nothing tangible to play for and knew that once we became a Division I member. But knowing all that, no kids transferred, no coaches started looking for other jobs. That team could have just blanked out. But they stayed together, had a good season and laid a foundation.”
UCA was one of 10 at-large teams to make the field. The Bears’ three losses were to Lousiana Tech, the Western Athletic Conference champion; Sam Houston, the Southland champion; and Arkansas State, the Sun Belt champion.
“We scored the most points (an overtime loss) on Lousiana Tech of any team since they have played us,” Conque said. “We played Sam Houston as close as anybody in our conference and we scored more points on ASU than anybody has in the Sun Belt. And considering the injuries we had, the toughness of our September schedule and the tightrope we have walked the last two months (the Bears pretty much had to win seven in a row to make the postseason), it’s a honor and a great achievement and a tribute to the resiliency for what these players and assistant coaches have shown to be selected.”
Tennessee Tech, which is situated between Nashville and Knoxville on I-40, is coached by veteran coach Watson Brown, who has previously coached at Vanderbilt, Rice and Alabama-Birmingham. He is a brother of University of Texas coach Mack Brown. Tech has been a Division I member since 1978 but, like UCA, is also making its first appearance in the playoffs.
“From what I’ve seen, they are a balanced, straight-forward team that doesn’t make many mistakes, makes the most out of yours and is very sound in the kicking game,” said Conque, noting Tennessee Tech defeated Jacksonville State on the road when it was ranked 13th in the country and defeated Eastern Kentucky on the road when it was ranked 25th.
In the final Sports Network poll of the season, UCA was ranked 15th and Tennessee Tech 21st.
Conque gave everyone in his program Friday and Saturday off. The Bears gathered for a team meeting Sunday night, will take Monday off, pratice Tuesday and Wednesday and fly via charter aircraft to Cookeville on Friday morning.
“Until this weekend, several players in our program hadn’t been home since July,” Conque said. “With preseason camp and having to play 11 straight weeks without a bye week made it difficult. These players needed some physical and mental relief. When they come back, we’ve got to re-establish that mental focus and rhythm we have had for seven straight weeks. I don’t think that will be a problem once they look at Tennessee Tech on film and see how hard that team plays.”
NCAA Division I FCS playoffs
First round, Nov. 26
Albany at Stony Brook
Central Arkansas at Tennessee Tech
Norfolk State at Old Dominion
James Madison at Eastern Kentucky
Second round, Dec. 3
Albany/Stony Brook winner at (1) Sam Houston State
New Hampshire at Montana State
Wofford at (5) Northern Iowa
Central Arkansas/Tennessee Tech winner at (4) Montana
Norfolk State/Old Dominion at (3) Georgia Southern
Maine @ Appalachian State
Lehigh @ Towson
James Madison/Eastern Kentucky winner at (2) North Dakota State
Earlier report follows:
For their historic appearance in the NCAA FCS football playoffs, the University of Central Arkansas Bears will head to Tennessee with a possible journey to Montana on the horizon.
The Bears (8-3) were among 20 teams selected for the NCAA Division I FCS football playoffs Sunday and were matched against Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Tech (7-3) in one of four first-round games Saturday. Game time at Cookeville, Tenn., will be determined later.
UCA, the second place team in the Southland Conference, makes the playoffs in its second season of elibility. One of the Bears' losses was to Sam Houston State, which is the only undefeated team left in FCS and drew the top seed in the playoffs.
The winner of the UCA-Tennessee Tech game will play at the University of Montana, the fourth seed in the playoffs that drew a first-round bye, Saturday, Dec. 3.
The UCA football team becomes the first team at the university to be selected for an NCAA championship playoff event.
UCA hasn't been in a playoff situation since 2005 and its NCAA Division II days. The Bears finished first in the SLC standings in 2008 but were ineligible to be declared either the official SLC champions or to gain postseason play because of their provisional status in the transition to Division I.
“It was awesome news for our football team, for our program and for our university,’ said UCA head coach Clint Conque, who took the Bears to two postseason appearances at the Division II level in 2001 and 2005. “It’s very special to be the first program in our athletic department to go to the NCAA championships.
“Certainly this team has shown a lot of resolve and resiliency throughout this season to make that happen. They have great leadership, great belief and faith in each other and the coaches. Just very proud of our team and our coaches."
UCA’s last postseason appearance was in the 2005 NCAA Division II Playoffs, where it reached the quarterfinals with two road victories. The Bears were not eligible for postseason play until last season after moving up to Division I in 2006.
he Bears finished with a 6-1 record and in second place in the Southland Conference behind Sam Houston State. UCA’s only three losses this season were to No. 1-ranked Sam Houston and two FBS programs, at Louisiana Tech in overtime and at Arkansas State. Those three schools are a combined 27-6 overall and 19-1 in their respective conferences. ASU won the Sun Belt Conference and Louisiana Tech won the Western Athletic Conference.
Sam Houston State and UCA making the playoffs mark the 17th time that the Southlland Conference has received multiple bids to the football playoffs.
The other seeds were No. 2 North Dakota State (10-1), No. 3 Georgia Southern (9-2), No. 4 Montana (9-2) and No. 5 Northern Iowa (9-2). All five seedsm as well as the seven next-best teams, according to the 11-member NCAA selection committee earned byes to the second round. ???
The 10 automatic qualifiers were all conference champions: Albany (Northeast); Georgia Southern (Southern); Lehigh (Patriot); Montana (Big Sky); Norfolk State (Mid-Eastern Athletic); North Dakota State (Missouri Valley); Sam Houston State (Southland); Stony Brook (Big South); Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley); and Towson (CAA Football). ??The 10 at-large bids went to Appalachian State (Southern), Central Arkansas (Southland), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), James Madison (CAA), Maine (CAA), Montana State (Big Sky), New Hampshire (CAA), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), Old Dominion (CAA) and Wofford (Southern).
??"It's so hard when you're comparing," selection committee chair Jim O'Day told The Sports Network, "because a lot of teams and leagues don't play each other. So it's hard to compare conferences in many ways. We would certainly like at some point to look at an RPI-type system, but that's not in place at the current time. So you have a lot of schools who have either seven Division I wins or maybe some that have six Division I wins that have some very quality victories in that.
The national championship game will be held on Saturday, Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. ??Other teams earning their first-ever FCS bids were Albany, Norfolk State, Old Dominion, Stony Brook, Tennessee Tech and Towson.
??Teams who failed to receive a bid were Illinois State, Delaware, Liberty and Jacksonville State, which were all 7-4. O'Day said six teams were under consideration for the final two at-large bids.
(UCA Sports Information Director Steve East contributed to this report)