The awkwardness surrounding the 2020 college football season — some schools are in, many are not — would make you think the early-season games would come down to dipping toes in the pool to find a comfort level.
Not so for Austin Peay and Central Arkansas — they'll jump right into the deep end Saturday night at the seventh annual FCS Kickoff. The game is the first during the COVID-19 pandemic as the sport makes its way back to the field. The defending conference co-champs — AP in the Ohio Valley and UCA in the Southland — are two of just 15 FCS programs (127 overall) that will play non-conference games during the fall season.
Central Arkansas, ranked 11th in the Athlon Sports Preseason FCS Top 25, and Austin Peay, which was 13th, don't need to ease their way into the matchup because they know each other well. UCA rallied to a 24-16 win at Austin Peay last September, and many key players return this season.
FCS Kickoff: Austin Peay vs. Central Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Series: Central Arkansas leads, 2-0
Three Things to Watch
1. Lineups Intact?
Central Arkansas returns 18 starters and Austin Peay has 14 back, and both squads earned the most selections on their respective conference's preseason team. If key players are missing from the lineups at kickoff, it could be a sign of the times. Under NCAA protocol, the teams were scheduled to be tested Wednesday for COVID-19 — 72 hours prior to kickoff. One player who will be missing is UCA's standout right tackle, Parker Ray, who recently underwent knee surgery.
2. More than a passing fancy
Both defenses are a 4-2-5 base alignment, and it's a good thing for the secondaries. Austin Peay returns only 26 percent of its rushing yards, so quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in last year's matchup with the Bears, is happy to reunite with DeAngelo Wilson, whose 1,564 receiving yards led the FCS, and a strong No. 2 option in Baniko Harley. Central Arkansas was in the bottom 10 in the FCS in rushing, but that's in part due to signal-caller Breylin Smith setting the school's single-season record for passing yards (3,704) and tying the mark for touchdown passes (32). He will look to good-sized targets in Lujuan Winningham, who caught two fourth-quarter touchdowns in last year's win over the Governors, and Tyler Hudson.
3. Fast start or strong finish?
Austin Peay soared in its first FCS playoff appearance, winning twice by a combined 50 points en route to the national quarterfinals, while Central Arkansas fizzled as the No. 8 seed, losing its first game (second round) at home to Illinois State. However, that doesn't necessarily reflect their overall seasons. AP usually started well, as it led after the first quarter in nine games and trailing only three times. UCA had a roster of closers; the Bears came from behind in the fourth quarter to win their first three games before doing it again later in the season to lead the FCS with four such wins.
Central Arkansas is a four-point favorite in this rematch. NFL draftniks will want to focus on Bears cornerback Robert Rochell (6-2, 195) and Austin Peay's highly productive nickel back Kordell Jackson (an undersized 5-9, 195), but the first game back for football should be reason enough to interest all fans.
The fireworks in last year’s matchup came in the second half – the game's first points were a Central Arkansas field goal to end the first half – but it’s expected the veteran offenses and defenses will go after each other from the start. The quarterbacks have to be on target because neither team figures to run the ball well: Austin Peay has young running backs and Central Arkansas will struggle to solve the Govs’ stout defensive line. Limiting mistakes such as sacks allowed and turnovers are pivotal.
Prediction: Austin Peay 21, Central Arkansas 20
— 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 Central Arkansas Athletics)