Eastern Kentucky may not be competing in the post-season on Saturday like some of their commonwealth colleagues, but the Colonels could join the fun next week.
While Cumberlands, Union and Thomas More are playing first-round games, Eastern and host UT Martin will decide the Ohio Valley Conference representative to the Championship Subdivision playoffs. It's winner take all starting with the kickoff at 1 p.m.
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The Skyhawks are the ranked team (18th), but the Colonels are 18-0 in the series. Until recently, the teams were in opposite ends of the OVC standings with Eastern at the top. But Martin is 27-18 and 20-10 in the league over the last four seasons and shared its only OVC title with Eastern Illinois in 2006.
The Colonels, secure with their 31st consecutive winning season, have 19 OVC championships but endured a decade of no titles and no post-season until winning the league last year.
The teams specialize on different sides of the line of scrimmage. The Skyhawks lead the OVC in scoring offense (37.9 points a game); The Colonels lead in scoring defense (20.6).
The EKU defense has caused at least two turnovers in the last five games and has a plus-12 turnover ratio. Zach Denton has an interception in four of the last five games.
The Colonels (7-3, 6-1) are led offensively by quarterback Allan Holland. Eastern's running game is improving. The Skyhawks (8-3, 6-1) are led by Cade Thompson, who has an OVC-best 22 touchdown passes and leads the league (and is 13th nationally) in passing efficiency.
In 1998, Murray State defeated Tennessee State 46-44 in the last head-to-head game to decide the league champion on the final weekend.
No. 12 Shorter at No. 8 Cumberlands: The host Patriots (9-1) got a home game after winning the Mid-South Conference East. Shorter (9-2) received the West's automatic bid with the highest rating in the final poll.
"Our themes of 'I Will' and 'The Next Level' are indicative of what our players are doing to take this team to the next level in all phases of their lives," Cumberlands Coach John Bland said.
The Patriots lost their opener at Mars Hill and then reeled off nine consecutive victories behind a ground game that averages 286 yards. Ricky Walker leads the running attack.
The Hawks opened 0-2 and are on a nine-game winning streak. They average an NAIA-leading 321 rushing yards a game and are led by A.J. Cooley with 21 touchdowns and a 136-yard average.
No. 11 Union at No. 3 St. Francis: The host Cougars have the longest consecutive playoff streak with 10, and they have a 50-game home winning streak.
St. Francis is coached by Kevin Donley, who directed Georgetown to its first national title in 1991 and started the Cougars program in Fort Wayne, Ind. Donley is 7-0 against the Bulldogs.
Union is making its first playoff appearance after struggling to build a winning program for more than a decade.
Union (9-2) got off to a 5-0 start, more wins than the Bulldogs had since 1995. They lost to Cumberlands but defeated Virginia-Wise in a key game.
"We've had so many different guys step up for us," said Coach Tommy Reid, who led Union's turnaround. "And the big thing is that players haven't cared who's getting the credit as long as we're winning."
Terence Pollock set a season school record with 1,235 rushing yards. The junior needs 247 yards to set the career record. Quarterback Mike Brinkley has a Union record of 32 touchdown passes. Linebacker Willie Williams broke the tackles record with 144.
St. Francis (10-0) averages 457 yards and 49 points a game. The Cougars have allowed 251 yards and 12 points a game. They have defeated four ranked teams.
NCAA Division III
Thomas More at No. 2 North Central: The Saints (8-2) won the Presidents' Athletic Conference to qualify for their third trip to the playoffs.
North Central (10-0) is averaging 35 points and 396 total yards. The Cardinals surrender 16 points and 298 yards a game. They have a plus-18 turnover ratio.
Aaron Fanthorpe directs the offense, passing for 1,591 yards and 18 touchdowns. Dominic Sulo is the leading rusher with 881 yards. Linebacker Matt Wenger has 119 tackles.
Thomas More averages 30 points and 410 total yards while allowing an average of 17 points and 299 yards.
Thomas More's Trevor Stellman has passed for 1,572 yards and 10 scores and run for 462 yards. Anthony Knott has 770 rushing yards. Linebackers Brad Steinmetz (85 tackles) and Matt Clark (82) lead the Saints defense.