On multiple occasions this fall, University of Central Arkansas Coach Nathan Brown said his current team reminds him of the 2019 squad, his second as head coach.
That team went 9-3 in the regular season, shared the Southland Conference regular-season title with Nicholls State at 7-2 and was the last UCA squad to make the FCS playoffs, losing to Illinois State in Conway.
This year's group has everything left to play for -- a conference championship, a FCS playoff berth, the team's first winning record since 2020. It's all on the table for the Bears (5-2, 2-0 United Athletic Conference) as they put the bye week behind them.
UCA, the No. 18-ranked team in FCS, will likely be favored in all four of its remaining games. The Bears have in front of them the chance to do something no team has since 2016 -- make and win a playoff game.
"We've got an opportunity to play two of our last four [games] at home, we're sitting in a good spot. This team has the pedigree and make-up to go make a run at this," Brown said Monday during his visit to the Little Rock Touchdown Club.
But first, UCA must take care of business. And today, that's the Tarleton State Texans.
Tarleton (5-3, 1-2) is coming off a dominant 42-0 win over Morehead State. Prior to that, the Texans lost back-to-back United Athletic Conference games against Eastern Kentucky (41-35) and Southern Utah (27-26).
On offense, Tarleton is led by the running back duo of Kayvon Britten and Derrel Kelley III. The pair has averaged 1164.8 rushing yards per game with 13 total touchdowns. At wide receiver, the Texans feature three receivers with more than 300 yards in Benjamin Omayebu (376), Darius Cooper (352) and Keylan Johnson (313).
This will be UCA's second meeting with Tarleton. The Bears fell 24-3 in their 2021 season-finale without quarterback Breylin Smith and wide receiver Lujuan Winningham.
UCA is putting its 4-0 home record to the test today at Estes Stadium. The Bears have won four games in a row for the first time since that 2019 team from Oct. 12-Nov. 2.
The Bears feature the No. 11 scoring offense in FCS, averaging 36.7 points per game. Running back ShunDerrick Powell is fourth in FCS with 155.6 all-purpose yards per game to lead a UCA offense that is No. 11 in the country in rushing yards (220.3 YPG) and No. 7 in total offense (455.6 YPG).
After last season's bye week, UCA put together its most dominant game of the season with a 64-29 win over North Alabama, including Powell on the opposing sideline. In that game, Powell rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns on the Bears' defense, but he was outdueled by Darius Hale's career-high 255 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Kylin James added 113 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries.
But the Bears faltered as the season wound down. They lost two of their final three games by a combined 51 points to miss out on an outright conference title, playoff berth and winning record.
A win today would guarantee a winning record and put UCA that much closer to returning to the postseason for the first time in four years.