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Upstarts Houston Baptist, Tennessee Tech seek the next step

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - The eerie similarities between Houston Baptist and Tennessee Tech - surely the two most surprising teams in the FCS this season - rise to a higher level Saturday.

Each is set to face its first opponent that was an FCS playoff qualifier last season. Houston Baptist hosts Incarnate Word, which earned a share of the 2018 Southland Conference title. Tennessee Tech plays its third straight road game, this time against No. 23 Southeast Missouri in the Ohio Valley Conference.

HBU and TTU were picked last in their respective conference's preseason poll because they entered the season off back-to-back 1-10 campaigns, but they've doubled the two-year win totals with 4-1 records through September.

The two upstarts have done it in parallel fashion, including one conference win (HBU, Northwestern State; TTU, Eastern Illinois), one over a Missouri Valley opponent (HBU, South Dakota; TTU, Western Illinois) and one over a sub-FCS program (HBU, Texas Wesleyan; TTU, Virginia-Wise). Both have lost only to an FBS opponent (HBU, UTEP; TTU, Miami of Ohio).

Also, each team features an explosive offense led by a quarterback named Bailey. Houston Baptist's pro-style junior Bailey Zappe leads the FCS in a handful of categories, including passing yards (1,817) and touchdown passes (21), and Tennessee Tech's dual-threat sophomore Bailey Fisher, the 2018 OVC freshman of the year, is in the top 25 in total offense (279.4 yards per game) and is responsible for the third-most points nationally (108). Each has claimed a national offensive player of the week award.

Houston Baptist's sixth-year program has matched its school record for wins in a season and it only had 10 overall entering this year's surprising campaign. Last weekend, the Huskies rolled up school records for points (68) and yards (749) against Texas Southern. Defensively, linebacker Caleb Johnson ranks second in the FCS in tackles per game (11.8) and defensive end Andre Walker is second in sacks.

"We're not where we want to be," coach Vic Shealy said, "but our guys are excited about what they've accomplished."

Tennessee Tech hasn't had a winning season since it last captured the OVC title in 2011, but second-year coach Dewayne Alexander has made strides in changing the team's culture. While the offense returned a lot offensively, the Golden Eagles had to replace key players on defense, and the 4-2-5 unit has solidified with 11 takeaways and the play of linebackers Seth Carlisle and Aderick Moore.

"It's my job to kind of look at the big picture of the whole thing," said Alexander, whose team opened the season by beating Samford 59-58 in two overtimes with the largest comeback (23 points) of the FCS season.

"With our football team and what we discuss, we close out a game on Monday morning, go through the things we need to take away from it that are positive, and make sure we continue to do it. Anything we need to correct, we make sure we get focused and take ownership of it … and then we truly start the week 0-0."

Updated October 3, 2019

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