The first college football game at Globe Life Park, the Texas Rangers' former stadium in Arlington, holds another distinction: Abilene Christian versus Stephen F. Austin is the fall's only matchup in the FCS between two schools from the same conference.
It came as a surprise after all 13 FCS conference postponed league competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the intent of shifting the season to the spring semester, but both Southland Conference members are sticking to fall-only in this academic year and decided to meet into what amounts to a non-conference game.
Both teams are playing an FCS opponent for the first time this season, and it would be thrilling if this year's game can match the excitement of last year's meeting when Abilene Christian won 31-24 in double overtime to extend its series lead to 11-9. Abilene (0-2) hasn't played since Oct. 3, while Stephen F. Austin (2-3) has won its last two games against Division II opponents.
Abilene Christian vs. Stephen F. Austin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Globe Life Park (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Abilene Christian -2.5
When Abilene Christian Has the Ball
The Wildcats canceled their Oct. 17 game against West Texas A&M due to COVID-19 cases, which has caused the three-week layoff. During the time off, No. 2 quarterback Sema'J Davis was critically injured in a car accident.
Fourth-year coach Adam Dorrel hopes his team will respond emotionally against Stephen F. Austin. The Wildcats have converted just 3-of-22 third-down attempts (13.6 percent) into first downs, but the offense figures to be stronger if key players are in action. Iowa transfer quarterback Peyton Mansell connected with All-Southland preseason tight end Branden Hohenstein for a 61-yard touchdown pass against Army, and Kobe Clark, who set the school record with 87 receptions last year, caught two touchdowns after missing the first game against UTEP. Lionell McConnell (14 receptions for 145 yards) has been a go-to receiver, and his 59 rushing yards on two carries are tied for the team-high with Tyrese White.
Running back Billy McCrary, who was expected to be the top offensive weapon alongside Clark, didn't play in either of the first two games. His absence has contributed greatly to a porous rushing attack.
When Stephen F. Austin Has the Ball
In last Saturday's 31-12 win over Angelo State, assistant coach Don Carthel stepped in for his son and Lumberjacks second-year coach Colby Carthel, who was in quarantine, but it was more about sophomore Xavier Gipson stepping up his play. Gipson scored on a 90-yard screen pass and a 76-yard bomb from quarterback Trae Self as well as on a 37-yard punt return.
Self passed for 318 yards and a career-best three touchdowns in last year's loss at Abilene Christian, including two to Gipson, but he's also thrown 17 interceptions to 18 touchdown passes in 17 career games, and he'll surely want to avoid ACU linebacker Jack Gibbens, who was outstanding in last year's matchup. The passing lanes will open up if Texas Tech transfer Da'Leon Ward, who has rushed for 242 yards and three touchdowns in four games, runs effectively.
Colby Carthel rejoined the team on Thursday and is expected to be on the sideline Saturday. He has connections to both programs, having begun his collegiate coaching career in 2000 as Abilene Christian’s recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach.
Consider this matchup the undercard to World Series Game 4, which will be held a few hours later next door at Globe Life Field (not to be confused with Globe Life Park).
Abilene Christian has to shake off the rust, but anything short of a tight game in the fourth quarter would be disappointing. Both defenses have been reworked since last season, so the offensive skills position players should do what they do best.
"This is one I think a lot of people look at to measure (the two teams). It's still kind of hard this season," Carthel said.
Prediction: Stephen F. Austin 24, Abilene Christian 23
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of Stephen F. Austin Athletics)