Western Carolina has been the fastest riser at this point in the FCS football season. It went from not even in the “Others Receiving Votes” section in the Stats Perform preseason media poll to No. 11 this week. At 4-1 overall and 4-0 vs. the FCS, multiple ballots and rankings had the Catamounts in the Top 10 before this week.
They are riding a huge wave of momentum. But that momentum will be put to the test this weekend against arguably its toughest FCS opponent to date — at No. 24 Chattanooga.
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Now, one reason WCU came onto so many national radars is because it beat Samford 30-7 in Week 2. Samford was ranked No. 8 at the time. Samford, it turns out, hasn’t been too strong so far this season with a 2-3 record. One of those losses was a 47-24 game vs. Chattanooga.
That does take some shine off of WCU’s victory, but WCU has still proven to be deserving of a high ranking since then. The Catamounts won at Eastern Kentucky 27-24 a week later, a team that is receiving Top 25 votes. It then stomped Charleston Southern 77-21 a week after then-No. 5 William & Mary defeated CSU 15-7. Last week, WCU won at The Citadel 49-14.
Sure, the last two opponents aren’t necessarily needle-movers. But WCU took care of them with ease like a good FCS team should, and we’ve seen many close games if not upsets when it comes to ranked vs. unranked matchups this season.
WCU is playing great ball, led by two early Walter Payton Award candidates. Quarterback Cole Gonzales is completing 73% of his passes for 1,256 yards, 11 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Running back Desmond Reid is continuing his elite play from last season when he was a HERO Sports Freshman All-American. He has rushed for 636 yards and 10 scores already this fall, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
WCU is scoring 39.2 points per game, which ranks No. 6 in the FCS.
The defense is much-improved, allowing 24.4 points per game compared to 31.2 PPG last season. Against FCS opponents, they are allowing 16.5 PPG. Linebacker Va Lealaimatafao leads the way with 22 tackles. And Andreas Keaton is a special talent at safety and has 19 tackles.
This is uncharted territory for WCU, who hasn’t made the FCS playoffs since 1983 (a run to the national championship game that ended with a loss to Southern Illinois).
There is a mix of big-time believers among the national poll voters and those who are more cautious about hyping WCU up too much.
A loss at Chattanooga by no means derails the season. Not at all. Losing to the Mocs wouldn’t be some terrible loss. They are 4-1 vs. the FCS and on a four-game winning streak. But many voters who were slow to build a non-brand name like WCU up would be quick to drop them.
And with a game still to come vs. Furman, another highly-ranked SoCon team, getting this win would be massive in playoff positioning. WCU could lose a close one to Furman and still earn a Top 8 playoff seed at 9-2 overall and 9-1 vs. the FCS. Running the table, which is tough to do in the competitive SoCon, puts WCU in position for a higher playoff seed.
From not making the playoffs in decades to being talked about as a high playoff seed? That’s a dramatic jump for WCU. But the Catamounts have legitimately put themselves in that conversation at this point in the season. A win this weekend, on the road, vs. a ranked opponent further builds the hype around WCU.