(Stats Perform) - The way Central Arkansas led FCS college football in fourth-quarter comeback wins with four last season was a prelude to the Bears rallying through the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
"Hard times don't break us," senior All-America cornerback Robert Rochell says.
Pulled off the practice fields during spring practices - like so many programs during college shutdowns - the Bears join Austin Peay as the first ones back when they square off Saturday night in the seventh annual FCS Kickoff at the historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama (9, ESPN).
Central Arkansas, a 2019 Southland Conference co-champ and the preseason favorite this season, will begin a nine-game schedule that is the largest among 15 FCS programs (from 127 overall) that are playing nonconference games this fall. Conferences seasons will be held in the spring, if health conditions allow for them.
To date, UCA has been successful with showing how it can be done, balancing an athletics season with keeping the health and safety of the campus community as a top priority.
"To now getting the opportunity through the adversity that this country went through and obviously the decision-making of a lot of schools and universities and conferences to not play football or maybe choose to play a limited schedule in the fall, it's just really surreal to be looking at game week right in the middle of it," third-year coach Nathan Brown said Tuesday. "An exciting time here in Conway, Arkansas - our young men have worked very hard for this moment.
"We're representing football players and football coaches across the country right now and this weekend."
Brown considers the year to be a roller coaster ride, which the Bears' 2019 season also was like. Record-setting quarterback Breylin Smith's two fourth-quarter touchdown passes rallied them to a 24-16 road win at Austin Peay last September, and they also came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Western Kentucky, Abilene Christian and Sam Houston State. But they also suffered blowout losses to the other two Southland playoff teams, co-champ Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana, and fell at home to Illinois State in their only playoff game, finishing 9-4.
The Bears return an eye-catching 18 starters this season, and Brown, a former UCA quarterback, hasn't been shy about his confidence in his team. He likes how the school's administration has been upfront with students about the pandemic - there's been mask-wearing and social distancing measures as well as the all-important temperature checks and coronavirus testing. Athletic director Dr. Brad Teague met with players to answer their tough questions before the team moved forward with a fall schedule.
It starts with college football's lone Week 0 game. From there, the Bears will head to Birmingham, Alabama, instead of back to Conway because they play again next Thursday night at UAB and it would cut down on long bus trips. It's the first of three FBS opponents and the Bears just added an Oct. 3 trip to FCS champion North Dakota State - the biggest FCS game of the fall season.
Rochell, whose interception in the final minute helped clinch last year's win at Austin Peay, called the FCS Kickoff "a great opportunity for both teams to be able to show what they stand for, their school names and their brand. Just a big game for both teams."
Central Arkansas' on-the-fly schedule would take it out of the Southland mix in the spring, but Brown believes there's uncertainty with a season coming off, including the problem of a fall 2021 campaign riding on its heels.
This fall doesn't offer much certainty, either. with playing a schedule more gut instinct because adversity remains everywhere. Yet like those fourth-quarter deficits last season, the Bears like how they've been reacting to it.
"Seeing different players and different universities opt out," Brown said, "I think that developed very uneasiness across the nation and inside our program as well. But again, it was something that we looked about, it was something that we were open about with our young men.
"We've committed to this fall season, we're not going to look back. No matter what happens, whether it's fall, whether it's spring, there's going to be an asterisk next to this season. It's just the way it's going to be."