Football coaches like to stay away from terms such as “must-win” or “elimination game.”

But Samford coach Pat Sullivan came close to acknowledging the stakes in today’s Bulldogs vs. Bulldogs matchup in the Southern Conference, pitting The Citadel against Samford in Birmingham, Ala.

“Whoever loses this game, it will put you behind the eight ball,” said Sullivan, whose club is tied with The Citadel for second place in the SoCon. “Will it eliminate you (from the title race)? I don’t know about that, but it certainly won’t help you.”

Samford (4-1, 2-1) and The Citadel (3-2, 2-1) are two of the unlikeliest teams in the hunt for the SoCon championship, locked with Georgia Southern (3-1, 2-1) in a three-way tie for second behind Wofford (4-0, 2-0). Samford was picked to finish sixth in the leauge, The Citadel eighth.

For either team, history shows that a second loss in league play makes it almost impossible to win or share the Socon championship.

It’s happened only twice since 1933. Furman did it in 1981 with a 5-2 mark, and in 2007, App State and Wofford shared the crown with 5-2 records.

History also shows that the home team doesn’t have a huge advantage in this series, which The Citadel leads, 3-2. The Citadel won 13-12 at Samford’s Seibert Stadium two years ago, and Samford won 19-14 last year at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Samford’s 4-1 start has been keyed by the emergence of quarterback Andy Summerlin, a fifth-year transfer from Memphis. His steady play (62.9 percent completions, five touchdowns) has helped Samford’s talented skill-position players thrive. Summerlin did have a pick returned for a TD by Georgia Southern last week.

Tailback Fabian Truss is averaging 99.6 rushing yards per game, and receiver Kesley Pope has 28 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns; he had 17 catches against the Citadel last year. Receiver Riley Hawkins is a red-zone threat, with three TD catches already in Samford’s balanced, fast-paced spread attack.

Samford’s defense, ranked fourth in the SoCon in total defense (345.4 ypg) and scoring defense (21.2 ppg), is facing an option team for a second straight week. Samford gave up 360 rushing yards in a 35-16 loss at Georgia Southern last week, but did manage to force eight GSU punts. Safety Jaquiski Tartt is one of the SoCon’s top tacklers, and returned a fumble 80 yards for a TD against the Eagles.

The Citadel, meanwhile, is trying to find itself after a thrilling 3-0 start to the season. Since a 52-28 thrashing of App State, The Citadel has crashed to earth with losses of 52-14 at N.C. State and 28-10 at home to Chattanooga.

“We’re taking this as a challenge,” said sophomore linebacker Carson Smith. “To start off the season so well and then have this disappointing loss, I think everyone’s going into practice with a chip on their shoulder.”

The Citadel will have to do it without sophomore linebacker Carl Robinson, the team’s top tackler. He suffered a torn ACL against Chattanooga and is out for the season. Ian Thompson, a sophomore from Stratford High School, will replace Robinson in the starting lineup.