There’s been a college football playoff in Division I-AA—now known as the FCS—for more than forty years. This past May, a Texas team won it all for the first time, with Sam Houston claiming the COVID-delayed 2020 national championship. In addition to the Bearkats, in-state schools like Stephen F. Austin, Lamar University, Incarnate Word, and Texas State have made it to the FCS postseason, and the championship game is also played in Texas every year, having moved to Frisco in 2010.
But until now, two Texas schools have never faced each other in a playoff game. That changes on Saturday, when fifteenth-ranked Incarnate Word (9–2) plays host to nineteenth-ranked Stephen F. Austin (8–3) in a first-round matchup at San Antonio’s Benson Stadium.
Unlike with last spring’s pandemic-postponed season, FCS is not the only game in town—with schedules back to (mostly) normal, this first FCS playoff weekend is also the last week of the FBS regular season. On Friday, the University of Texas at Austin (trying to avoid a 4–7 record), TCU (trying to make a bowl at 6–6), and UTEP (looking to go 8–4 for the first time since 2005) have games, with a full slate of college football coming Saturday. But in between Texas Tech–Baylor (in which the Bears have a possible Big 12 championship game berth at stake) and UTSA–North Texas (the Roadrunners—meep-meep!—have an undefeated season on the line), you can also catch the Lumberjacks and Cardinals on ESPN+ at 2 p.m.
Granted, if you follow only FBS—or, specifically, the Texas SEC and Big 12 teams—there might be something unfamiliar about the Incarnate Word–Stephen F. Austin tilt: two winning teams in an actual college football playoff, playing in front of a small but happy crowd of students and alumni. So why not join the fun? Here are five quick things to know about the game.
It’s something of a David and Goliath matchup.
As the Southland Conference champion, UIW is both the higher seed and the home team. Stephen F. earned an at-large playoff berth out of the Western Athletic Conference, where it finished 4–1 in conference play behind Sam Houston (5–0). But the ‘Jacks represent a state school with some 11,000 students and have made the FCS playoffs four times since 2009. Incarnate Word is a smaller, private school that didn’t even have a football team until 2009, and was in Division II during its first four years.
The game also has a biblical undertone: Incarnate Word was founded by the Catholic order Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and while Stephen F. Austin is a secular school, head coach and West Texas native Colby Carthel is a man of faith.
It’s an explosive offense (the Cardinals) versus steady defense (Stephen F.) matchup that will also be a referendum on the Southland versus the WAC (and we’re about to get to that).
This used to be a conference game.
As recently as seven months ago, Incarnate Word and Stephen F. Austin were both still members of the Southland, long the dominant FCS conference in Texas. (Historically black colleges and universities Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern belong to the Southwestern Athletic Conference and don’t participate in the playoffs.)
But during last year’s delayed season, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian, and Lamar announced they’d be decamping for the newly re-formed WAC, along with Tarleton State (which just started playing FCS football last year). That left Incarnate Word in a shrunken, six-team Southland, with a schedule that included repeat contests with Houston Baptist, Nicholls, and McNeese. (There are also only six teams in the WAC, but they played more out-of-conference games.)
So although SFA–Incarnate Word feels like an in-state rivalry game between schools that know each other well—SFA leads the series 5 to 1—the ‘Jacks and Cardinals didn’t play this year, or in 2020. (Stephen F. was one of 15 FCS schools—out of 127—to play in the fall instead of the spring.)
And of course, the conference shake-ups aren’t done. The news that Texas and Oklahoma were moving to the SEC set off a chain reaction that reached all the way to FCS and Huntsville, as the shuffling of Texas teams to the Big 12 (Houston) and American Athletic Conference (UTSA, North Texas, and Rice) also finds Sam Houston planning to move up to FBS and Conference USA.
Replacing the Bearkats in the WAC? None other than Incarnate Word.
UIW has arrived.
Pretty good year for college football in the 210, huh? The largest Catholic university in Texas, and the only Catholic university in the South that plays Division I sports, Incarnate Word has actually been playing football longer than UT–San Antonio, which didn’t start its program until 2011 (and then moved to FBS in 2012).
The Cardinals moved up from Division II to FCS in 2013, then began getting good under former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who became UIW’s head coach before the 2018 season. Morris led the Cardinals to a Southland cochampionship and FCS playoff appearance his rookie year, and he’s already the school’s all-time-winningest head coach with a record of 22–17.
This year, UIW topped six wins for the first time. The Cardinals went 5–1 in the round-robin portion of the Southland schedule (losing only on the road at McNeese), and boosted their playoff resume with a nonconference schedule that included both a quality road loss (in overtime to longtime FCS power Youngstown State) and a big-time road upset (over Texas State, the program’s first win against an FBS team). The Cardinals also hammered Prairie View (which went on to win the SWAC Western Division) 40–9, and became the conference favorite with a thrilling, 55–52 win against Southeastern Louisiana, which was then ranked number six in the country.
In that game, quarterback Cameron Ward threw for an astounding 610 yards, including seven touchdowns. The sophomore from West Columbia, Texas (and a relative of former UT-Austin players and NFLers Quandre Diggs and Quentin Jammer), won the Jerry Rice Award as the best freshman in FCS last year, and was the fourth-leading passer in FCS this season (did we mention that Morris came from Texas Tech?).
Linebacker Kelechi Anyalebechi led the defense with 101 tackles.
Stephen F. has come out of the wilderness.
And I don’t just mean the Piney Woods. A top team in the late eighties and early nineties, and then again in the late aughts, the Lumberjacks have been to the FCS playoffs seven times, but this is their first trip since 2014. They also hadn’t had a winning season since that year—not that it really matters, as in 2020 the school accepted NCAA sanctions that cost it 29 football wins between 2013 and 2019 because of ineligible athletes.
But now, under third-year head coach Carthel, you might even say Stephen F. Austin is back. The team is definitely something of a sleeper, partly because it didn’t play last spring. Instead, the ’Jacks spent the 2020 season getting beaten, often badly, by four FBS teams—UTEP, UTSA, SMU, and Memphis—then went 6–0 against a schedule heavy on Division II teams. It was essentially an exhibition season, which left the ’Jacks ready and rested for the current campaign (Sam Houston, by contrast, had just a few months off between its “2020” championship game and the 2021 opener).
Balanced on offense—SFA’s star wide receiver Xavier Gipson, a sophomore, already has more than three thousand career receiving yards, with quarterback Trae Self and tailback Miles Reed also shouldering the load—the ’Jacks will test their fourteenth-best scoring defense against UIW’s attack.
“That defensive line is phenomenal,” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler, who has already seen the ’Jacks in regular season play, said this week. “They play great defense, the quarterback’s a really good player, they have one of the best wide receivers in the country, [and] I think their offensive line keeps on getting better and better.”
History will be made again next week.
What happens after the first-ever FCS playoff game between Texas teams? How about the second-ever FCS playoff game between Texas teams? Awaiting Saturday’s winner is number one–ranked and top-seeded Sam Houston.
Only the top eight teams in the FCS playoffs—the ones who get a bye week—are seeded, with the rest of the bracket taking shape around the goal of managing travel costs (be that for the teams or for the fans). There aren’t many gimmes in the second round, but at least last year the Bearkats drew a team (Big South champion Monmouth University) that had to travel 1,600 miles. This year, the defending champions will either have to face their rivals, SFA, in a Battle of the Piney Woods rematch (albeit at home instead of at Houston’s NRG Stadium) or they’ll have to host Incarnate Word, their former rival that happens to be champion of the conference Sam Houston just ditched.
“We’re playing one of the best teams in the country if we get Stephen F. Austin,” Keeler said (he also said it was harder for him to comment on Incarnate Word, since he didn’t get to see them play this season). “I think it’s good for Texas football, I think it’s good for both institutions, and if it ends up that way, let’s go!”
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to fix two spellings: it’s Quandre Diggs, not Qandre, and Quentin Jammer, not Quintin.