Beyond the Scoreboard: 34-year playoff drought could end for Western Carolina football

Beyond the Scoreboard: 

It’s been 34 years and 378 games since Western Carolina football last competed in the playoffs.

But that long drought could come to an end if the Catamounts (7-3, 5-2) can close its Southern Conference schedule Saturday with a home win vs. Mercer (4-5, 3-4) in a 2 pm kickoff.

Though the FCS Selection Committee won’t announce the 24-team field until Nov. 19 and WCU still has another regular-season game (Nov. 18 at North Carolina), there are indications that a win on Saturday could allow the football program to make its first postseason appearance since the 1983 team reached the 1-AA national championship game.

WCU coach Mark Speir, who has seen his team fail to reach the playoffs after seven-win seasons in 2014 and ’15, was blunt in his assessment of his team’s chances this season.

“I’m pretty confident we will (make the playoffs) if we beat Mercer, and have little confidence we will get in if we lose,” said Speir.

“This is like a playoff game for us. Game 7 of the World Series, backs against the wall, win or go home kind of game.”

In 2014, WCU finished 7-4, 5-2 and in third place in the SoCon, and failed to get a postseason invite.

Ditto in 2015, when the Cats were 7-5, 5-2 and tied for second in the league.

In a very competitive SoCon regular season, the Cats this season are alone in third place, just below the two teams that have beaten them in league play, Wofford (8-1, 6-1) and Furman (6-3, 5-1).

Several projections from various sources have WCU in the field, along with Wofford, Furman and fourth-place Samford (6-3, 4-2).

No. 8 Wofford, No. 14 Samford, No. 25 WCU and No. 28 Furman are all ranked in the FCS Coaches’ poll.

The No. 1 team and defending national champion is James Madison (9-0), winners of 21 straight and coached by Franklin native and former Roberson High coach Mike Houston.

The SoCon has a history of getting multiple teams into the FCS playoffs, including four teams last year.

“It’s definitely a team goal to get in the playoffs, that and winning the (regular season) conference, just like every year,” said sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams, who is playing through a meniscus tear in his right knee for a second straight year.

If the Cats defeat Mercer, which has been competitive and lost by one point to Wofford and seven points to Furman, a 6-2 finish in a strong league will be to its advantage when the FCS picks at-large teams.

A close loss to Wofford (35-28 in overtime) and a quality win against Samford (38-34) will help, and – if the Cats lose in Chapel Hill – two Division I defeats shouldn’t hurt their chances. And with Furman playing at Samford on Nov. 18, the loss by either team could help WCU’s chances.

“Right now, we have to focus on Mercer, beating them on Senior Day,” said Adams. “Last home game, last conference game. We have to win that and then see what happens.”

Playoff history

In 83 previous years of playing football, WCU has reached postseason play just three times.

** The 1949 team won the North State Conference championship and played in the Smoky Mountain Bowl in Bristol, Va., losing to West Liberty State 20-0 to cap an 8-3 season.

** The 1974 squad, playing for the first time in brand new Whitmire Stadium under coach Bob Waters, made the NCAA Division II playoffs after winning nine straight games to close the regular season. Ranked eighth in the College Division Poll, the Catamounts lost 10-7 to Louisiana Tech in the first round of the playoffs to finish 9-2.

** In 1983, coach Waters’ squad didn’t lose for 12 straight games after starting 0-2. After winning three I-AA playoff games, the Cats lost 43-7 to Southern Illinois in the national championship game.