FCS PLAYOFFS | Now the hard part for unbeaten, top-ranked but fifth-seeded SHSU

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No. 1-ranked Sam Houston State clinched the Southland Conference championship and undefeated regular season Saturday night with a 59-23 victory against Central Arkansas.

But it wasn’t enough to earn the No. 1 seed in the FCS playoffs.

The Bearkats, who finished 11-0 for the second time in school history, were seeded fifth in the 24-team field, it was announced Sunday. Their strength of schedule — or lack of strength — dropped the Bearkats. They beat only two teams that finished above .500.

“This is the best team we’ve had,” said SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler. “We just took apart the No. 6 or No. 7 ranked team in the country. Our kids won’t have a bracket. If we don’t win the first one, the season is over. You cannot think of looking beyond that. We’re excited to still be playing.”

They are behind five-time defending national champion North Dakota State (1), Eastern Washington (2), Jacksonville State (3), James Madison (4) and ahead of The Citadel (6). As the No. 5 seed, Sam Houston State hopes to win its first national championship and end the Bison’s five-year title run.

Conference champions Charleston Southern (Big South) and Lehigh (Patriot) earned automatic bids. Central Arkansas, Chattanooga, New Hampshire, Richmond, Samford, Villanova and Wofford earned at-large berths. All nine teams play Saturday in first-round games.

The Bearkats open against the Chattanooga-Weber State winner on Dec. 3 at home. SHSU has reached the FCS semifinals in four of the past five years and the national championship game twice. North Dakota State ended their season three times — 17-6 in the 2011 FCS championship, 39-13 in the 2012 FCS championship and 35-3 in the 2014 semifinals. Last year, they lost 62-10 to Jacksonville State in the semis.

“A national championship is the only thing missing from our resume,” Keeler said. “That’s the goal. We’ve come within a game of the championship finals each of the last two years. That’s the foundation our seniors have built. The disappointment of the loss at JSU will only motivate everyone connected with this program to work even harder next year.”

North Dakota State beat Jacksonville State 37-10 in last season’s FCS championship game. The Gamecocks (10-1) became the first team since Eastern Kentucky in 1982-84 to win three consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships.

“I don’t know what the selection committee will do for us or where they will seed us,” said JSU head coach John Grass, whose team was ranked No. 1 in the selection committee rankings two weeks ago. “We’re not in control of that. We’ll take home-field advantage as long as we can get it.”

The Gamecocks open Dec. 3 at home against Saturday’s Samford-Youngstown State winner. That game features Bulldogs quarterback Devlin Hodges, the third-leading passer in the FBS, and Youngstown State running back Martin Ruiz, one of 21 FCS running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards to go along with 10 touchdowns.

An intriguing quarterfinal matchup could be SHSU (54.2 points per game) and James Madison (47.7), the two highest-scoring offenses in FCS. The Duke opens Dec. 3 at home against Saturday’s New Hampshire-Lehigh winner.

JMU (10-1, 8-0 CAA Football) was one of four CAA schools to make the field of 24, joined by Villanova (8-3, 6-2), New Hampshire (7-4, 6-2) and Richmond (8-3, 5-3). JMU beat all three on the road en route to the championship.

The bracket:

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Above: Sam Houston State is ranked No. 1 in the FCS, but the Bearkat’s No. 1 priority is winning their first NCAA national championship. (Courtesy SHSU Athletics)

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.