STATESBORO, GA (UCASports.com) - The University of Central Arkansas Bears will be making their second consecutive NCAA Division I Playoff appearance on Saturday, and they hope it's the second in a long line of playoff berths to come.
"We're certainly excited about playing in the postseason again this season,' said UCA head coach Clint Conque, the winningest coach in UCA history with 98 victories over 13 seasons. "When we made this transition into FCS Division I, it was always to maintain our goal of playing and competing on a national level. And certainly over the past few years, we've had the teams that have allowed us to do that.
"It's just a really neat deal for our school. We've only been postseason eligible for three years, and we actually lost a close game to Sam Houston late in the 2010 season, or we might possibly have made it three years in a row. We were playing at a national level at Division II before we made the transition, and it was our goal to get back to that level.
"A lot of good players have come through our program over the past six years that have made the last couple of years possible. We're certainly proud of what we've accomplished.'
The eighth-ranked Bears' postseason began with a bye last week and continues with a matchup with perennial power and fifth-seeded Georgia Southern at 1 p.m. (CT) Saturday at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Ga. UCA enters with a 9-2 record as the Southland Conference champion; GSU is 8-3 and winner of the Southern Conference.
UCA is riding a six-game winning streak since losing 42-37 to Stephen F. Austin in Week 5. The only other loss for the Bears was in the season opener in front of a crowd of 50,544 at Ole Miss, an FBS member of the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm very proud of this football team, how they handled the regular season,' Conque said. "We lost to an FBS school and to a good Southland Conference team on the road in a big-time rainstorm. We won some close games on the road, and took care of our business at home. And I like their maturity and approach to the postseason as well.'
The task in front of the Bears now is a big one. Two weeks after playing one of the most prolific passing teams in FCS (Eastern Illinois), the Bears now must tackle one of the best rushing teams in the nation. Georgia Southern has attempted just 65 passes all season compared to 395 for UCA.
"Georgia Southern has an outstanding football team,' said Conque. "They have an outstanding program, outstanding tradition. Since they brought the program back in the early 80's, they've won six national championships, they've made 19 playoff appearances. Just a extremely talented football team coming out of an extremely competitive conference.
"They are the most prolific rushing team in the country, right at 400 yards a game. Very disciplined, very hard-nosed, very physical football team. Just a very talented team that will be tough to contend with in Paulson Stadium.'
The Bears have previously tasted success at Paulson Stadium, winning the regular-season finale in 2006. James Paul kicked a 25-yard field goal in overtime to give UCA the win in its first season at the Division I level.
"We do have a little bit of history at Paulson,' said Conque. "In our first year in FCS, we were very, very fortunate to win an overtime game there. Of course, that was a different staff, a different team at Georgia Southern. And ours team is different as well. But we do know a little bit about what to expect from that kind of environment.'
UCA won its first-round playoff game last year at Tennessee Tech, then traveled to Missoula, Mont., to take on another powerhouse with great tradition, the Montana Grizzlies. UCA was eliminated 41-14.
The Bears had 17 players named to the postseason All-SLC teams, including Offensive Player of the Year (junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers), Offensive Lineman of the Year (senior Corey Howard) and Freshman of the Year (defensive end Jonathan Woodard). Conque earned his second SLC Coach of the Year Award and is a finalist for the national Eddie Robinson Award for the third time.
"I'm very pleased for those young men, proud for their families, and proud for our program,' said Conque. "All those young men, and their teammates played at an extremely high level throughout the season.'
Saturday's winner faces the winner of the Old Dominion-Coastal Carolina winner next weekend in the quarterfinals. Old Dominion is the fourth seed and would be guaranteed to play at home. A UCA-Coastal Carolina matchup would come down to the NCAA bid process to determine the home team.