Credit the SoCon schedule makers. They got the penultimate weekend of the regular season exactly right.
The top four football teams in the Southern Conference will pair off on a showdown Saturday. League championship hopes and FCS playoff chances are on the line as No. 7-ranked Furman plays at No. 20 Wofford, and The Citadel travels to Chattanooga.
The Bulldogs need two victories to keep alive their chances for a third SoCon title in five years: A Citadel win over Chattanooga, and a Wofford triumph over Furman. Those results would set up another showdown when Wofford comes to The Citadel on Nov. 23 with a piece of the SoCon title on the line.
It's all that Citadel coach Brent Thompson and the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-2) could wish for after starting 0-2 in the regular season and 0-2 in their SoCon slate.
"All we could really hope for was to have a very important, meaningful football game this late in November," said Thompson, whose team has won four straight games. "With two games left, this is a really big football game for us, and we are excited about it."
The matchup with the Mocs (5-5, 4-2) promises to be a tight one, with little statistical edge to either team. The last four games between the teams have been decided by an average of 5.75 points, each team winning twice, including Chattanooga's 29-28 overtime win at Johnson Hagood Stadium last season.
Against common foes this season, both teams have beaten Western Carolina, Mercer and ETSU. Chattanooga beat Samford, which defeated The Citadel in four overtimes. But the Bulldogs handled Furman, which beat the Mocs by two touchdowns.
Chattanooga's toughest loss of the season was a 35-34 overtime loss at Wofford on Oct. 26; a Mocs receiver dropped a pass in the end zone on a potentially game-winning 2-point try.
The Mocs are in their first season under 1996 Chattanooga graduate Rusty Wright, with former South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward running the defense.
"I think it's the most improved defense that you'll see throughout the course of the year," Thompson said of the Mocs, who allow 29.6 points and 206 rushing yards per game, ranking fifth in the SoCon in both categories. "It's a new staff and they are starting to get their guys in the right places, and you've seen them improve quite a bit from week one to where they are now."
The Mocs run a balanced offense, averaging 200 rushing yards and 180 passing yards per game. Quarterback Nick Tiano has hit 55.2 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns, but does have nine interceptions. Tiano ran for 100 yards in a 35-27 win over Samford last week, and the Mocs have allowed only eight sacks all season.
Citadel defensive backs must mark junior receiver Bryce Nunnelly. The Mocs' leading pass-catcher torched the Bulldogs for 10 catches, 268 yards and two scores last year.
Standout freshman running back Ailym Ford from West Florence injured a knee against Samford and likely won't play against The Citadel. But graduate transfer Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 137 yards and two scores against Samford.
Chattanooga also has a shot at a share of the SoCon title, with a win over The Citadel and at VMI next week, and also needs Wofford to beat Furman.
"We'll have to be another physical football team to play The Citadel," Wright said. "They're rolling, 4-0 in their last four games. They have a Power Five win; that doesn't happen a lot at our level. They're feeling pretty good and had a week off, so we'll face some new wrinkles, and it'll be a challenge for us on Saturday to perform well and get things done."
For The Citadel, receiver Ryan McCarty and linebacker Phil Davis should return after sitting out against ETSU. Linebacker Marquise Blount is likely done for the season.