CONWAY — The afternoon after completing an impressive – if not surprising – late-season rally to earn a share of the Big South Conference championship and claim the league’s automatic playoff berth, the Coastal Carolina football team formally learned its postseason fate Sunday.
Players, coaches and supporters filled the large team room on the third floor of Adkins Field House to watch the live selection show, and they didn’t have to wait long to see Coastal’s name unveiled on the screen along with the next obstacle in what has become one of the more memorable seasons in program history.
The Chanticleers (7-4) will play at Bethune-Cookman (9-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the first-round of the NCAA FCS playoffs while making the program’s third playoff appearance ever and second in the last three seasons.
The Chants, who won their final five regular-season games all by 21 points or more, are one of eight teams in the 20-team bracket with a first-round game, while the other 12 teams receive byes. The winner of this game will advance to play No. 4-seeded Old Dominion the following week.
“We’ve been saying from the beginning our one goal was to put a team on the field that all of Coastal is going to be proud of,” first-year coach Joe Moglia said. “Hopefully, Coastal feels very, very good about this and is proud of the effort that we’ve put in all season because that’s what we’ve done to be able to get here.”
As the story has been well recited over the last couple weeks, the Chants were sitting at 2-4 five weeks ago on the heels of the first four-game losing streak in program history and had already lost to a Stony Brook team many expected to roll through the rest of the conference schedule.
Instead, Liberty upset Stony Brook two weekends ago and Coastal reeled off those five straight lopsided wins to make this all possible, finishing in a three-way tie with the Flames and Seawolves at 5-1 in conference play while winning the tiebreaker of best road record in league play to clinch the Big South’s automatic playoff spot.
“It’s huge, going down there to Florida and getting a chance to play in the first round of the playoffs,” senior quarterback Aramis Hillary said. “It’s huge for us, something we’ve been looking to and grinding for these last eight, nine months since coach Moglia got here. For me and those other seniors, what a great way to go out. Things just happened to fall our way and we’ve got an opportunity to extend our season and we’re going to try to make the best of it.”
Hillary mentioned that the players had heard rumors and talk that they would draw Bethune-Cookman, but he said he didn’t put much stock in it at the time. Not that it mattered much to the Chants who they would play – or where.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” senior defensive end Quinton Davis said. “A football game’s a football game. The field’s the same size, different fans. We just go out there and play, do the same thing you do every week.”
Coastal had made what athletic director Hunter Yurachek felt was an aggressive bid to host the game, just as they did two seasons ago when a higher-ranked Western Illinois team opened the playoffs against Coastal at Brooks Stadium. Teams looking to host are required to bid a financial guarantee, and Coastal’s bid was above the minimum required, Yurachek said earlier this week.
But instead the Chants will head on the road to play a Bethune-Cookman team that has won seven straight and is ranked No. 22 in this week’s national FCS poll from The Sports Network. The Wildcats won the MEAC championship while going 8-0 in conference play and are making their fourth playoff appearance in program history.
Bethune-Cookman ranks 10th among all FCS teams in rushing offense, averaging 247.5 yards per game on the ground. The Wildcats are led by junior Isidore Jackson, who has rushed for 992 yards and 10 touchdowns while three other Wildcats have all rushed for at least 449 yards as well. Conversely, the team ranks 111th out of 121 FCS teams in passing offense at 138.5 yards per game.
Coastal is averaging 46.2 points over the last five games, but the Chants will face one of their toughest tests in this one as the Wildcats rank fifth in the country in total defense, holding teams to 294.1 yards per game.
The teams had one common opponent this year in North Carolina A&T, which Coastal defeated 29-13 in the season opener and Bethune-Cookman downed 28-12 five weeks later.
“We know Bethune-Cookman’s a very, very good team. They’re 9-2,” Moglia said. “We’re not going to be able to get a chance, I think, to look at the film until probably late tonight or early tomorrow, so for us, it’s going to be go back to business as usual. We’ve got to be able to focus on what we can do and start to adapt and adjust to what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
In the midst of the most dominant five-game stretch in program history, the Chants will just see if they can “keep this train going,” as Davis put it.
“We could do a lot of things,” he said of the playoff outlook. “From my feeling, I feel like we still haven’t even reached the potential of what we can do yet.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.