With Stephen F. Austin cracking the FCS top 25 this week, Saturday’s “Battle of the Piney Woods” showdown between the Jacks and the Bearkats now marks the 17th time in the past 28 years that one or both of the teams involved has been nationally ranked.

The 27-17 victory over defending league champion Southeastern Louisiana Saturday threw the Southland Conference race into disarray.

Now five teams (Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas, McNeese State, Sam Houston and SFA) have only one loss in league play.

Four of the past five seasons, the winner of the “Piney Woods” battle has gone on to win the Southland championship. Each of the last five years, the SHSU-SFA victor has earned an FCS post-season playoff berth. In their 27 years in the Southland, the Kats and the Jacks have combined to win nine league titles.

Head coach K. C. Keeler is certain his players know the magnitude of Saturday’s contest at NRG Stadium in Houston (the home of the NFL Texans).

“There is no reason to even mention this is a rivalry game to the team because they all know,” Keeler said. “Except for our freshmen or transfers, our guys have all played down there and know what it means.”

With the Southland Conference not playing a complete round robin schedule this fall, the matchups for the contenders are different.

Central Arkansas defeated Stephen F. Austin, lost to Southeastern Louisiana and finishes the season at Sam Houston. UCA does not play McNeese. The Cowboys lost to Sam Houston, still must face Stephen F. Austin and Southeastern Louisiana.

Southeastern Louisiana defeated UCA and lost to SFA and still must face McNeese. But the Lions and Bearkats do not meet this year. The Lumberjacks take on SHSU this weekend and travel to Lake Charles the following week.

“The team is not looking beyond this weekend,” Keeler said. “The players are focused on Stephen F. Austin.”

McNeese State, now No. 9 nationally, is the Southland’s highest ranked team. Southeastern Louisiana fell to No. 15 in the poll this week.

Under former UCA head coach Clint Conque, Stephen F. Austin fields a much more balanced attack then in the past several years. Running back Gus Johnson leads SFA in rushing with 138 carries for 1,102 yards. Quarterback Zach Conque has completed 141 of 231 passes for 1,658 yards.

Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin have battled at NRG Stadium, the home of the NFL Houston Texans, before record crowds each of the past four seasons. The game has gotten bigger with 24,685 fans in 2010, 25,145 in 2011, 26,185 in 2012 and 26,213 last year.

The masses of orange or purple clad fanatics have thrilled to games that have featured a combined total of 313 points and 3,799 yards total offense. Those figures break down to 78 points and 949.8 yards per game by the two squads. Stephen F. Austin won 31-28 in 2010. The Sam Houston State won 45-10 in 2011, 51-43 in 2012 and 56-49 last season.

In the 17 meetings where one or both of the two teams were nationally-ranked, the lower ranked (or unranked) squad has won three times.

Tickets for the 89th “Battle of the Piney Woods” are available now online at www.gobearkats.com and at the SHSU athletic ticket office (936) 294-1729.