Three weeks ago, notions of a conference championship and playoff berth for The Citadel seemed like the kind of happy talk all teams engage in before opening kickoff.
After all, the Bulldogs have accomplished neither since 1992, and entered this season projected to finish eighth in the nine-team Southern Conference.
But after wins over top 10 teams Georgia Southern and Appalachian State — widely considered national championship contenders when the football season started — suddenly no goal seems out of reach for the 3-0 Bulldogs.
The Citadel cracked the top 10 itself on Monday, ranking No. 10 in The Sports Network’s media poll and No. 14 in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches’ poll.
And after facing ACC foe North Carolina State (2-1) on Saturday, the Bulldogs — playing to their current form — could be favored in every game left on their schedule, with the exception of an Oct. 27 showdown at No. 6 Wofford. The 3-0 Terriers have won 13 straight over The Citadel.
Predictably, Bulldogs coach Kevin Higgins said he didn’t even mention championship rings or playoff berths in his meeting with the players Sunday night, 24 hours after The Citadel’s stunning 52-28 win at App State.
“There’s a fine line in talking about team goals,” Higgins said at his weekly news conference Monday. “It’s still a little bit too early for that right now. This game against N.C. State is in a different category, because it doesn’t really affect a lot of other things. It’s kind of a separate entity to itself.”
Still, a victory over an FBS foe such as N.C. State would definitely boost the Bulldogs’ chances at making the 20-team playoff field, and offer further validation of their status as a SoCon contender. The last Citadel team to make the playoffs and win the SoCon, in 1992, defeated FBS squads Arkansas and Army.
“To beat an FBS team, you have to be on your ‘A’ game,” Citadel quarterback Ben Dupree said. “I don’t think winning this game would validate us, but it would get us some more national attention. We’re hoping to win this game and be a top 5 team.”
Of course, The Citadel has blown its chance of sneaking up on N.C. State by piling up 618 yards and a 45-7 lead against App State.
“The whole world turned upside down,” stunned App State coach Jerry Moore said after the game. “We couldn’t stop them.”
After N.C. State, the Bulldogs have home games left with SoCon foes Chattanooga (1-2), Western Carolina (1-2) and Elon (2-1 with wins over North Carolina Central and West Virginia State). Road games include trips to Samford (3-0), Wofford, VMI (1-2, with a 24-17 win over Chowan) and Furman (0-3).
Higgins said one reason the Bulldogs are 3-0 is their ability to ignore outside distractions, whether they are low preseason expectations or high praise after two upset wins.
“After the Georgia Southern game, our guys did a great job of handling that, and even after the App State game,” Higgins said. “These guys haven’t experienced season-long success here, and they know that’s what they’d like to get.
“And they know that to experience that at the end of the season, they have to make sure they are doing it every week.”
Citadel quarterback Ben Dupree and linebacker Carson Smith were named SoCon players of the week on Monday, giving the Bulldogs four award winners in three weeks. Dupree ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns against App State, and Smith had seven tackles and an interception, and returned a block punt eight yards for a TD.
The Bulldogs’ No. 10 ranking in The Sports Network media poll is their highest since they were No. 1 in 1992.
Saturday’s game at North Carolina State can be viewed on espn3.com. The Wolfpack is 4-0 against The Citadel, the last win 45-0 in 1983.