October 12th, 2023 7:00am
Welcome to Week Seven in the Great American Conference. And what a massive week it is, too. This week, the top four teams in the conference all face off against each other. These games could go a long way toward deciding who will wear the crown at the end of the season.
This is our first really big week of the season, so we’ll do it justice in our preview below, but first, let’s take a look at the GAC Players of the Week from last week’s games.
Offensive Player of the Week- Andrew Edwards, QB, Henderson State
-9-of-16 passing, 196 yards, three touchdowns, one interception
-Two rushing touchdowns
Offensive Player of the Week- Marquis Gray, WR, Southeastern OSU
-11 receptions, 145 receiving yards, three touchdowns
-Game-winning touchdown reception as time expired
Defensive Player of the Week- RJ Powell, DE, Southwestern OSU
-11 tackles, 2.5 sacks
-One forced fumble
Special Teams Player of the Week- Aaron Winn, P, Arkansas Tech
-Four punts, 41.5 average, long of 54
Game of the Week 1: No. 5 Ouachita Baptist (6-0) at No. 9 Harding (6-0)
The first of our two massive games takes place in Searcy, where the Bisons will look to assert control of the GAC against the Tigers. These two have been the class of the conference for the past half decade, but the Tigers have won three of the last four matchups, including last year’s matchup in Arkadelphia. However, the teams have split the last four matchups in Searcy.
The Tigers have always done a good job containing the Harding flexbone attack, or at the very least, have made it a lot more difficult for Harding than other defenses. That should be the case again this week, as the Tigers have a very deep and experienced defense that ranks second in total and scoring defense and third in rushing defense, giving up just 105.5 yards per game. This will be the toughest defense the Bisons have faced thus far, and kicks off four-game stretch where they’ll face the league’s No. 3, No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 run defenses in consecutive weeks. The Bisons are loaded in the backfield, though, and lead the nation in rushing at over 380 yards per game. Even a slow day for the Bisons can be a big number on the ground.
The more intriguing matchup will be the Bisons defense against the Ouachita offense. The Bisons defense has been nothing short of outstanding so far this year, ranking first across the board in the GAC, including a measly 55.7 rushing yards per game allowed. This is where the Tigers might struggle. Ouachita is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 206 rushing yards per game. However, the Tigers have rushed for under four yards per carry twice this season and just barely eclipsed that mark (4.1 per carry) last week against East Central. The loss of TJ Cole and, probably more importantly, the majority of the offensive line from 2022 has proven more difficult to replace than expected. I don’t like the Tigers’ chances of establishing the run. The bigger problem, though, is Harding has racked up a nation-best 13 interceptions so far this season. Ouachita quarterback Riley Harms is really good, second in the nation in passing efficiency with just a single interception on his ledger. He and his receivers will be tested in a big way against the Bisons. It won’t be as simple for the Tigers as moving to a more pass-heavy approach with the run game seemingly not the best option on Saturday.
Since the Tigers have won three of the last four meetings, there’s been a lot of talk of waiting to give Harding the edge until they’ve actually won the game. But that would ignore six games’ worth of evidence that the Bisons have clearly been the superior team so far this season. Will the Tigers make it difficult on Harding this week? Absolutely. The Tigers are still a really good team. But I can’t ignore how both teams have performed this season, and expect the Bisons to come out on top. Comfortably.
Harding 35, Ouachita Baptist 17
Game of the Week 2: Southern Arkansas (5-1) at No. 18 Henderson State (5-1)
In Arkadelphia, we have an elimination game of sorts, as the loser of this one is all but out of the conference title race with four games to go. This one should be a doozy as well, and it’s nice this one and the Harding-Ouachita game are at different times, so as to enjoy both without conflict.
The Muleriders have been the best version of themselves so far this season, a high-powered, up-tempo offense that can run the ball down your throat or throw on you, with a much-improved defense that stuffs the run. The Muleriders moved the ball well in their loss to Ouachita Baptist earlier this year, but just couldn’t finish drives. They’ll have to be improved there to get the road win at Henderson on Saturday. The Reddies’ defense is plenty good to limit the Muleriders ground attack, which has been outstanding the last three weeks, averaging 379 yards per game in that stretch. HSU gives up just 145 on the ground per game, so something has to give. Southern Arkansas has been so great on the ground, though, and seem to be playing with a new level of confidence. All things are clicking together right now, so this is a huge opportunity for SAU. The key for the Reddies’ defense will be simply getting the Muleriders off the field. SAU averages a nation’s best 81 plays per game, so some of the effectiveness of the run game is simply a byproduct of wearing teams down. If the Reddies can keep the number of plays low and make SAU throw the ball to a rather underwhelming group of receivers, things become much easier. The Reddies have also racked up 21 sacks this season and should have plenty of opportunities to force quarterback OB Jones into poor decisions.
On the other side, we’ll get another opportunity to see how much the Muleriders’ defense has improved this year. SAU is second in the conference in run defense, allowing just a smidge under 100 yards per game. The Reddies rushed for 300 yards against SNU last week, their best performance on the ground this season, so things could be clicking into place for a unit that’s dealt with a lot of injuries along the offensive line this year. Quarterback Andrew Edwards will be key, of course, but specifically how he utilizes his legs. The Muleriders have racked up 15 sacks this season, so Edwards’ escapability will be important for the Reddies to keep drives alive. How Henderson State’s receivers perform will be a key as well. Last week, the Reddies receivers dropped several deep passes that Edwards dropped right on them. That can’t happen again and HSU expect to come out with a win.
I’d expect this matchup to be a little more big-play oriented than the Ouachita-Harding matchup. The fact this game is in Arkadelphia can’t be ignored and certainly helps the Reddies here. The last three games and five of the last seven in the series have been decided by a single possession. I think this one is going to come down to the intangibles—turnovers, field position, big plays. Whichever team does a better job in those areas is going to stay in the conference title race. I think it’ll be Southern Arkansas.
Southern Arkansas 38, Henderson State 35
Oklahoma Baptist (3-3) at Southwestern OSU (0-6)
The Bulldogs are still searching for their first win of the year as they welcome Oklahoma Baptist to town on Saturday. OBU comes in on a two-game losing streak, including last week’s destruction at the hands of Southern Arkansas. The Bulldogs defense, despite all the struggles for the team as a whole, continues to be a threat. The numbers definitely don’t tell the whole story here, but one does: 16 sacks accumulated by the SWOSU defense this year. The Bison might be with a backup quarterback once again, so moving the ball could be more difficult than you’d expect against a winless opponent.
Even though the Bison offense might struggle some, the Bison defense should feast on a miserable SWOSU offense. The Bulldogs average 10 points and 153 yards per game and just 3.1 yards per play. It’s been tough to watch and there are definitely no answers on the roster right now, or at least, none that have stepped up. The Bison defense has racked up 16 sacks of their own and are second in the conference in pass defense, allowing just over 150 yards per game.
If the Bison have quarterback Aidan Thompson back this week, this one will be a much wider margin. We’re operating with the assumption he is out once again, but it’ll still be an OBU victory.
Oklahoma Baptist 28, Southwestern OSU 10
Southeastern OSU (2-4) at Southern Nazarene (3-3)
The Crimson Storm are back at home, looking to snap a two-game losing streak against the Savage Storm, who pulled off a dramatic comeback win last week against Arkansas-Monticello. SNU is entering the portion of the schedule that will show just how improved they are as a program. They’ve lost to the top three teams they’ve played and now have four of their last five games against teams in the middle of the league. How they fare over this last month of the year will reveal a lot.
The Crimson Storm will have their hands full with an SEOSU defense that has been a pleasant surprise this year. The Savage Storm lost a lot of pieces, particularly in the back half of the defense, but young players have stepped up, along with a veteran defensive line to help the unit be fourth in total and rushing defense through six games. SNU has been dealing with some injuries along the offensive line and with a few of their skill position players, so they’ll need all hands on deck on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how things have changed from last year, when SNU went to Durant and rolled up 451 yards on the ground, the first of six 300+ rushing performances last season. I’d expect SNU to be able to move the ball well, but they’ll have to cut down on turnovers, of which they have 15 this year.
Southeastern on offense has been pretty erratic all season, but seems to have settled on sophomore Weston Conaway at quarterback. Conaway has the opportunity to be the guy in Durant for the next few years, so he is in the audition process right now. The SNU defense has been pushed around on the ground the past two weeks, but that is a major struggle for the Savage Storm, who average just 102 yards per game on the ground. SEOSU has also given up 18 sacks this season, so this could be an opportunity for SNU to make a lot of plays in the backfield. They’ll have to account for Marquis Gray and the deep Savage Storm receiving corps, but SNU is third in the conference in pass defense this year. Conaway will have to work hard to take advantage of any opportunities the Crimson Storm present.
Oddly, SNU is just 2-6 at home the past two years, but they’ll get the home win this week.
Southern Nazarene 34, Southeastern OSU 24
East Central (2-4) at Northwestern OSU (0-6)
I don’t think there’s a whole lot here to look at. The Rangers have been really bad on both sides of the ball and have dealt with a lot of injuries on offense that have severely limited their potential there. That plus a solid ECU defense means it’ll be another small number on the Rangers’ side of the scoreboard on Saturday. The Tigers played well against Ouachita Baptist last week, but weren’t able to put the ball in the end zone enough. That shouldn’t be an issue against the Rangers. I’d expect Miles Davis to have a big day and the Tigers to have a great showing offensively.
East Central 37, Northwestern OSU 7
Arkansas-Monticello (2-4) at Arkansas Tech (2-4)
A bit of a fascinating matchup here, albeit between two not very good teams. The Weevils continue to be without quarterback Demilon Brown, so we’ll see backup Buddy Taylor once again in Russellville. He played well against Southeastern last week, so there’s optimism for the UAM offense against a Tech defense that hasn’t been great this year. Strangely, the Wonder Boys have given up almost 400 yards per game this year, but are holding opponents to just 27.5 points per game. Part of that is a pass defense that ranks fifth in the league at 173 yards per game. However, the run defense has been abysmal, so perhaps the Weevils can take advantage there.
The UAM defense is smack in the middle of the pack in the GAC, so it won’t be easy for the Wonder Boys to move the ball. Quarterback Taye Gatewood has been really good this year, but still has no run game to help him out, as Tech is averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground this season. The Weevils sit right above the Wonder Boys in passing defense, so they’ll be prepared for Gatewood to put the ball in the air and try to make life difficult. One thing working against Tech and Gatewood is the fact the Wonder Boys have given up 21 sacks so far this season.
Typically, you’d go with the team with their starting quarterback, but I don’t know if Gatewood has enough around him to get the job done on Saturday. I like the Weevils to pick up the road win.
Arkasnas-Monticello 27, Arkansas Tech 21