COLUMBIA, S.C. - Just two years ago, Coastal Carolina was practicing wherever - tennis courts, a driving range, a field with massive fire ant mounds. Now the Chanticleers are contending for a conference championship.
Coastal Carolina (6-1, 2-0) can earn at least a share of the Big South Conference title with a win over Gardner-Webb (3-4, 1-1) on Saturday. It's the most important game in school history - though the Chanticleers are in only their second season.
Coastal already has as many wins as all of last season, and this week received 33 votes in the Division I-AA poll. The Chanticleers weren't even close to cracking the Top 25, but just to be mentioned among the elite should be an honor, but not for Coastal coach David Bennett.
"That'd be like Ralph Nader getting a couple of votes," Bennett said. "He ain't gonna win."
But Bennett, who spent seven years as head coach at Division II Catawba, knows it's too early to start talking about national rankings and championships.
Coastal first must face the two-time defending conference champions in Boiling, Springs, N.C., where the Bulldogs have won 17 of their last 18 games, the lone loss coming to sixth-ranked Furman earlier this season.
But if - and that's a big if - Coastal can win Saturday and remain unbeaten the rest of the season, do the Chanticleers deserve an at-large bid to the playoffs?
"No doubt," Bennett said.
In other games Saturday, South Carolina State travels to Delaware State, The Citadel is at Wofford and Charleston Southern is at Liberty. Furman has the week off.
Also, Mars Hill heads to Newberry, Wingate is at Presbyterian, Miles is at Benedict and Barber Scotia is at North Greenville.
In Dover, Del., South Carolina State must beat Delaware State (2-6, 2-2) to stay in the hunt for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. The Bulldogs (5-2, 2-1) suffered a disappointing 52-36 loss to Hampton last week, a defeat coach Buddy Pough blamed partly on over excitement.
"Maybe we just didn't handle it well," said Pough, whose team lasted just one week in the Top 25. "If we win out, we would at least be co-champions. We really would like to be part of the conference championship."
In Spartanburg, Wofford (5-2, 3-2 Southern Conference) can push its home winning streak to 12 games with a victory over The Citadel (1-5, 0-3), which hasn't beaten the Terriers since a 20-14 win in 1998.
Wofford, the defending SoCon champions, dropped to No. 11 in the poll this week after a 38-17 loss to Appalachian State, and the Terriers fell to fourth in the league.
Wofford coach Mike Ayers said his team is beat up. There's 28 players that are either unable to practice, doubtful or out for the season.
"We've got some work to do," Ayers said. "The way I see it is, it's a great opportunity for some guys that haven't played."
There's a similar philosophy at The Citadel, but for a different reason. The Bulldogs are suffering through a dismal season, and first-year Citadel coach John Zernhelt is calling more on his youth. Freshman quarterback Duran Lawson has started the past two games against Furman and Georgia Southern, and freshman tailback Montrell Lee gained a career-high 123 yards on 21 carries in the loss to the Eagles. Lee was named SoCon freshman of the week.
"Lee is a bright spot for us in the program," Zernhelt said. "He's a little guy that runs hard. He's got some strong legs, which enables him to come up through people and move defenders."
In Lynchburg, Va., Charleston Southern (4-2, 1-0 Big South Conference) might be on its way to a winning season after going 1-11 last year. Buccaneers quarterback Collin Drafts became the school's passing leader last week with 3,404 yards, just one of several school records he has set in his career.
However, Charleston Southern has struggled against Liberty (2-5, 1-1), winning just once in eleven tries. The last victory was in 2000.
In Clinton, Presbyterian (5-4, 3-2 South Atlantic Conference) could remain in the cluttered race for the league title with a victory over surprising Wingate (8-1, 4-1), which has a chance to set a school record for wins with a victory over the Blue Hose.
In Newberry, the Indians (3-5, 0-5 South Atlantic Conference) are searching for answers against Mars Hill (5-3, 2-3). The Indians began the season 3-0, but they've lost five straight.