GAC Postseason Preview Week Three

November 30th, 2023 10:00am

GAC Postseason Preview Week Three

It was a happy Thanksgiving for the Great American Conference last week, as Harding knocked off Central Missouri for the league’s first postseason win in 2023.

The Bisons will take on Grand Valley State in the Super Region Three Final on Saturday in Searcy, but they are just one of three teams in the conference playing this weekend. In addition to the Bisons’ playoff game, Southern Arkansas and Southern Nazarene will be taking on MIAA opponents in bowl games. 

In the Live United Bowl in Texarkana, the Muleriders will be facing Missouri Western while the Crimson Storm will take on Emporia State in the Heritage Bowl in Corsicana, Texas. 

It’s an action-packed weekend in the GAC and we’re breaking it all down for you right here.


Super Region Three Final: Grand Valley State (11-1) at Harding (12-0)

What a matchup we have here as the Bisons try to get to the national semifinals for the first time since 2017. Grand Valley State has one of the best programs in all of Division II, so this is a huge opportunity for the Bisons and the GAC to gain some more clout in the D2 landscape. 

Scouting the Lakers

The Lakers are one of the best for a reason. They’re balanced on both sides of the ball with very few weaknesses. They average 47 points per game on 7.2 yards per play and run and throw for over 200 yards per game. The defense has limited opponents to just 17 points per game, a measly 60 yards per game on the ground and just 4.3 yards per play. Individually, it’s a collective effort on offense, as six individuals have rushed for at least 200 yards this season, led by Tariq Reid’s 752 yards and 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Cade Peterson has thrown for just shy of 2,000 yards this season with 20 touchdowns and a 63 percent completion percentage. Four players have at least 20 receptions, led by Cody Tierney’s 631 yards and six touchdowns. 

Defensively, the Lakers have racked up a nation-best 51 sacks and 93 tackles for loss, which ranks seventh in the country. Three players have at least 10 TFLs this year, led by Christian McCarroll with 15. Niles King leads the team with 10 sacks. As a team, GVSU has forced 25 turnovers this year, but has also forced 20 fumbles. The Lakers recovered 10 of those. 

Key Matchup

Obviously, this game will be decided by the Grand Valley State defense. If they’re able to contain the Bisons rushing attack, then it’s likely the Lakers will be able to scoot out of Searcy with the win. However, let’s shed some context on the situation. The GLIAC has exactly two schools who rushed for more than 165 yards per game this season—GVSU and Ferris State. So it’s not like the Lakers are shutting down the 1927 Yankees of rushing offenses to the tune of 2.1 yards per carry. The Bisons lead the nation in rushing offense, yards per carry and are second in yards per play. This is a different situation than any the Lakers have found themselves in so far this year. No question, yards will be hard to come by for Harding and they certainly won’t be rushing for their season average in this one. But if they’re able to scratch out a few drives, that might be enough. 

Defensive Slugfest

I’d anticipate this one to be a low-scoring affair. Just as folks are going to ding the Bisons’ dominance as a product of GAC competition, based on the numbers, the same could be said for the Lakers, minus a few games. Last week, against Pitt State, the Lakers had just 257 yards of offense. They forced four turnovers which was literally the difference in the game. Against the best teams GVSU has played, the margins have been close, sans the regular season matchup with Ferris State. Obviously, the same can be said for the Bisons, but I make this point to dispel any notion the Lakers are equipped to come in and just smother the Bisons. I see nothing in the numbers to suggest this. On the other side, the Bisons definitely gave up their fair share of yards and points against Central Missouri last week, but those were still some of the lowest the Mules put up all year long. 


Like I said, I’d anticipate a low-scoring game defined by the defenses. The Bisons certainly have a bit of an advantage playing this one at home because of the weather and crowd size. Frankly speaking, I think the Bisons are really well-equipped for playoff football, where momentum is huge. Last week Harding had three touchdown drives of at least eight minutes which kept UCM from getting in any rhythm. The Lakers also will be looking to play ball control offense, so that will approach for Harding is going to be effective in a different way against GVSU. At the end of the day, I just think the Bisons are really good and don’t see any convincing reason to think they won’t advance on Saturday. 

Harding 28, Grand Valley State 24


Live United Bowl: Southern Arkansas (9-2) vs. Missouri Western (8-3)

The Muleriders were left out of the playoffs in favor of a 9-2 Henderson State team they defeated. However, there’s no controversy here. While obviously a contender, the Muleriders were blown out in their other two big games against Ouachita and Harding. Can’t do that and expect to make it in. Missouri Western on the other hand came into the final week of the season seemingly in good shape for the playoffs after knocking off Pitt State in the second-to-last game of the regular season, but fell in their season finale to Missouri Southern in double overtime, allowing the Reddies to slip into that final spot. 

The Griffons are the best rushing offense in the MIAA, averaging just over 200 yards per game on the ground. They’re the only school in the league to accomplish that. The Griffons are also stout against the run, ranking third in the league giving up 101.5 yards per game and just 3.2 yards per carry. It’s a well-balanced offense, averaging 422 yards per game and over six yards per play. Individually, Seth Cromwell (125 carries, 716 yards), Brandon Hall (89 carries, 547 yards) and Jared Scott (84 carries, 481 yards) all contribute significantly in the backfield for the Griffons. Cromwell is the bell cow, racking up 16 touchdowns this year. Quarterback Armani Edden threw for 2,193 yards this year, but just 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Jonas Bennett leads the receivers with 54 catches for 725 yards and five touchdowns. Defensively, Dakari Streeter is the star with 14 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks this season. 

Southern Arkansas evolved as the season went along this year, especially on offense. The Muleriders ran at least 80 plays in five of their first six games, but in the final five games topped 65 plays just once. One big reason for that was time of possession, as the Muleriders held the ball for more than 28 minutes just once in the last five games. SAU finished the regular season third in the GAC averaging 281 yards per game on the ground, something that will be tested immensely against the Griffons’ run defense. The Muleriders didn’t throw the ball as much later in the year, finishing eighth in the league in passing offense at 188 yards per game. Defensively, SAU is much-improved from last year, giving up 5.4 yards per play and 159 yards on the ground. In the run-heavy GAC, that’s a strong number, but it remains to be seen how that will translate against the Griffons. 

The key in the game will obviously be the ground game. The most rushing yards Missouri Western gave up in a game this season was 177 against Washburn, and just six opponents crossed the century mark in rushing yards. On the flip side, the Griffons were under 150 yards themselves just three times and over 200 yards five times. Southern Arkansas meanwhile was under 200 rushing yards once and allowed just six opponents to rush for more than 100 yards (let’s just ignore Harding’s 631 rushing yards in that matchup). Whichever team controls the ground game is going to win the game. Both teams have quarterbacks who are good, but not ones that are going to really air it out 50 times, either. Defensively, the Muleriders are considerably better against the pass than the Griffons, who ranked next to last in yards allowed and tied for last in yards per attempt. 

Overall, on paper this looks like a pretty even matchup. Ironically, it’s also the first postseason trip for each school since 2019 as well. So this really should be a fun game that could go either way. However, I’m a little scared by those pass defense numbers for Missouri Western. While SAU didn’t air it out in the second half of the season this year, that was by choice, not by lack of skill. I like the Muleriders to get that 10th win.

Southern Arkansas 34, Missouri Western 30


Heritage Bowl: Southern Nazarene (6-5) vs. Emporia State (8-3)

The Crimson Storm’s historic 2023 season was rewarded with the program’s first-ever bowl trip. What that means is that we get to see quarterback Gage Porter take the field one final time for SNU and see how the Crimson Storm stack up against a really good MIAA team in the Hornets. 

The thing that stands out immediately in this matchup is Emporia State’s passing attack. The Hornets boast the nation’s No. 2 passing attack, led by quarterback Braden Gleason, who threw for the fourth-most yards (3,773) in the nation this season along with 41 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He also leads the nation in completion percentage, connecting on 74 percent of his throws. Gleason throws to the two-headed monster of Tyler Kahmann (90 receptions, 1,116 yards, 18 touchdowns) and Jaylen Varner (90 receptions, 1,008 yards, 12 touchdowns), making pass coverage exceptionally difficult for opponents. The Crimson Storm were eighth in the GAC in pass defense, but 10th in yards per completion and accumulated just 14 sacks this year. The Storm did pick off 12 passes, good for second in the league.

On the flip side, the Hornets will have to deal with Porter, the nation’s leader with 1,739 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Porter is also second nationally, averaging 7.34 yards per carry this season. As a team, the Crimson Storm racked up 290 yards per game on the ground on a 6.7 yards per carry clip, both of which were second only to Harding nationally. SNU can gash you on the perimeter or up the middle, depending on what the defense gives them. 

The first key will be how the Crimson Storm handles the moment. It’s a big stage for SNU against an Emporia State team that only lost to fellow bowl participant Missouri Western and playoff participants Central Missouri and Pittsburgh State this year. SNU hasn’t always started well against the more physical teams in the GAC, so they’ll need to avoid that on Saturday against the Hornets.

The second key will be if the Crimson Storm can limit the Hornets aerial assault. Emporia doesn’t run the ball super effectively, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and 131.7 yards per game, so SNU should be able to keep that in check where they can focus on slowing down Kahmann and Varner. The Crimson Storm were effective in their blitzes this season affecting the quarterback, but they’ll have to get more consistent pressure from their defensive linemen to have maximum coverage options. Or they could choose to be a bit more risky and blitz a lot to keep the Hornets off rhythm. 

Lastly, I’ll be interested to see if the Crimson Storm can take advantage of the ESU defense. The Hornets gave up 445.7 yards per game and 6.3 yards per play, 10th and ninth in the MIAA, respectively. SNU runs a very unique scheme, one that takes time to adjust to if you’ve never seen it before. It’s very much like Harding in that way, but less straight forward. Emporia might be a little more physically gifted, but SNU has reads for every situation and based on the numbers, Emporia is clearly not going to just manhandle SNU across the board on defense. 

I’d expect a high-scoring affair in this one. SNU was pretty consistent throughout the season while the Hornets got off to a 4-0 start, dropped three of four in the middle of the year before finishing with three straight wins. Honestly, this could look a lot like the Harding-Central Missouri game from last week where SNU holds on to the ball as much as possible to keep the Hornets offense on the sideline. As for the victor, I'm gonna be an unabashed homer. 

Southern Nazarene 42, Emporia State 38