Bears look ahead after falling just short






University of Central Arkansas football Coach Nathan Brown turned the page to the offseason Monday at the weekly Bear Backers luncheon. He spoke of the transfer portal, high school and junior college recruiting and his players’ professional prospects. But Brown and the boosters in the room had hoped to be talking about a team like Villanova. Or Furman. Or Idaho. Or any of the teams competing in the FCS Playoff would suffice as long as it meant the Bears had at least one more game to prepare for. But with a 14-12 loss to Austin Peay on Saturday, UCA did not secure the United Athletic Conference’s automatic qualifier into the playoff, and it was not selected for an at-large bid. “I’m proud. I’m pleased. I mean, you look at you look at this team and look at the difficulty of this schedule, to be playing for a conference championship in the last weekend and an automatic bid to the playoffs is impressive,” Brown said. “We just came up short. And that’s no question.” UCA finished its season with four losses: a narrow season-opener defeat to an Oklahoma State team headed toward the Big 12 championship game, a two-score loss at perennial power North Dakota State and two twopoint conference losses to Austin Peay and Tarleton State. But the losses started earlier than normal for the Bears this season. Back in June, UCA learned that the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff had pulled out of a scheduled Sept. 9 game in Conway to play Tennessee State in the Southern Heritage Classic. In UAPB’s place, UCA scheduled Texas College, an NAIA program. The Bears won that game 70-2, as they should have. But at the FCS level, non-Division I wins don’t count for much when deciding at-large bids. “It’s unfortunate, it really is,” Brown said. “I’m not saying that you go win that game, you never know, but you like your odds in a game like that. “You lose the opportunity at a Division I win with that one, and it hurts us when it’s all said and done.” UCA finished six points shy of an undefeated conference slate. It fell to Tarleton State on Oct. 28, 25-23, and Austin Peay by two points. The margins in the inaugural season of the UAC were tight. Austin Peay, the undefeated conference champion, won its six conference games by a total of 22 points. Four of UCA’s six conference games were decided by three points or less. “This league is really good,” Brown said. “Every game is close. There’s overtime games every week in the UAC. We’re all very similarly talented teams.” Brown will begin exit interviews with players later this week, with one-on-one staff meetings happening sporadically throughout November and early December ahead of the Early Signing Period. “That’s the way you improve,” he said. “I mean you look at the growth you made or things that you were maybe deficient at that you were better at in years past, and you try to get a plan in place that’s going to make us better. And that’s your job as the boss or the head coach to evaluate every aspect of the program and what you can do to make this team go from a seven-win team to a nine-win team.” The first step of that process will be keeping the bulk of the team that finished 7-4 and six points away from a national seed. “I told our coaches that priority number 1 is our own guys,” Brown said. “That may not have been the case five years ago because you didn’t have the threat of kids leaving. You had some graduate opportunities where they could leave, but not like it is now. So we had a staff meeting on Sunday, and the first thing we talked about was loving on our own.”