Bears compete for 1st UAC title

Central Arkansas Coach Nathan Brown said the result of last week’s win against Eastern Kentucky made this week’s regular-season finale against Austin Peay sweeter. The winner of today’s game between the Bears and Governors will win the United Athletic Conference championship and the league’s automatic bid in the FCS playoffs. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Most of the 2023 University of Central Arkansas football team remembers the sting of last season's ending.

The Bears finished 5-6, losing two of their last three games, to sit on the outside looking into the FCS Playoff.

With a transfer here and an injury replacement there, this season's team is largely composed of the same players. Eighteen of UCA's 22 starters were in that spot in last season's finale, a 40-17 loss to Jacksonville State, leaving a sour taste on an otherwise forgetful season.

The Bears (7-3, 4-1 United Athletic Conference) may have already done enough to rectify that ending and find themselves in the postseason regardless of what happens today. Last week's win over Eastern Kentucky made this game matter. It gave UCA the chance to play in a winner-take-all game against Austin Peay (8-2, 5-0) with the United Athletic Conference's first-ever conference championship and an automatic bid on the line.

"What the result of that win equals is what makes this week even sweeter," Brown said. "What it equals is a championship week. It equals a week-long preparation and opportunity that we talked about in our team meeting... everything that you've prepped for, everything that you do 365 days a year, 24 hours a day throughout the year as a student-athlete leads up to this week.

"I kept telling them, this week is why, this week is why. This week is why you do early morning workouts, this week is why you set records in the weight room, this week is why you do the Defend the Stripes run around campus.

"So it's really neat that this week and the scheduling worked out like it did. We couldn't anticipate us having this kind of year, or Austin Peay to be having the year they are having. But it equals a great showcase for the UAC. It gives the United Athletic Conference a true, premiere final weekend game for our conference. And I think that's really neat how that worked out."

The experience of this UCA team has come into play on numerous occasions this season. The comeback win from down 30-6 over Southeast Missouri State, the Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Eastern Kentucky, one-score wins over Stephen F. Austin and Southern Utah -- the Bears have answered nearly every call this season.

But none of that secures them a spot in the playoff. Only a win over the Governors in Clarksville, Tenn., can do that for sure.

"I think that's why they've had a little a lot of motivation this year because a lot of [our team] is back, and they saw what could have been last year," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "But the result didn't follow that.

"Maturity and overall experience is what this team has that last year's may not have had. That's good to see that we've grown. That's good to see that our program and culture has continued to work through our guys because that's what matters."

UCA's roster features 14 seniors. While some of them will return for next season, like quarterback Will McElvain, others may play their last game as a Bear today.

"I think a lot of these guys recognize that this is their last chance," Brown said. "... And what you're seeing is an older group of guys that I think are putting in the work on the weekly basis, not just on Saturdays, on a weekly basis to be prepared to win games. I think that's one thing that this team has proven over the year is that [if] you give us a chance in four quarters ... our guys are gonna come through most of the time."