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Harding, Ouachita Baptist University picked for 28-team playoff

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Photographs by KAREN E. SEGRAVE

Ouachita Baptist University Head coach Todd Knight

The NCAA Division II Football Committee announced Sunday that it had selected Ouachita Baptist University and Harding University to its 28-team playoff, which begins Saturday.

It's the third time the Great American Conference has sent two teams to the D-II playoffs since the conference was formed in 2011, and OBU and Harding both went the last time it happened in 2014.

That year, Harding was a No. 6 seed and lost 59-42 in the first round to No. 3 Pittsburg State, and OBU was a No. 1 seed and lost 48-45 to No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth after receiving a bye in the first round.

This year, OBU (9-2) is a No. 5 seed and will play No. 4 Ferris State (9-1) in Big Rapids, Mich., at 11 a.m. Central.

Harding (8-3) is a No. 7 seed and will play at No. 2 Indianapolis at noon.

The Arkansas programs are on the same side of the playoff bracket and would play each other in the quarterfinals if they each won their first two games.

OBU, which was voted the No. 25 team in the AFCA Division II Coaches Poll on Monday, earned its playoff berth after beating Henderson State 49-42 on Saturday. The victory also gave the Tigers their first GAC title since 2014.

The conference lead changed hands throughout this season -- from teams like Arkansas Tech to Southeastern Oklahoma State -- until OBU and Tech were tied going into the final week of the season.

Tech's 24-17 loss to Harding eliminated it from a playoff berth and a share of the conference title.

"Honestly, we'll probably take as much pride in the conference title as anything else," OBU Coach Todd Knight said. "Winning it is our most important goal. Second goal is the playoffs. Third is winning the championship. Now, we're going to Number Two, representing a conference where the teams are so even."

This will be OBU's second playoff appearance in program history.

"We gained a lot of confidence playing with the best in the country," Knight said. "Felt we were as good as any. I think we look back to that and know we 've got a shot."

Harding produced the largest turnaround in its football program's history, when it started the season 0-3 and won its final eight games to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

The Bisons went three rounds deep last year, losing 35-0 to eventual champion Northwest Missouri State after the Bisons finished the regular season undefeated to win the program's first GAC title.

After the season, Harding Coach Paul Simmons was promoted from defensive coordinator when Ronnie Huckeba retired after 10 seasons.

The Bisons lost 18 starters to expired eligibility, leaving Simmons to entrust the Triple-option offense to first-year starter and junior quarterback Terrence Dingle.

Harding committed eight total turnovers in its first three games, losing to Henderson 28-20, Southern Arkansas 35-24, and Southern Nazarene 28-27.

"I didn't deal with it very well," Simmons said. "It was a struggle. I couldn't sleep. It was probably the toughest time of my life. I certainly wouldn't lie to you and say that I had confidence that the season would turn around like it did. I had confidence the kids wouldn't give in. But I didn't know that we would end up in the win column as much as we did."

The Tuesday after the Southern Nazarene loss, Simmons said, the team stepped outside for practice into 95-degree weather that was going to let them "know who was in and who would throw in the towel."

"That day, we had such a good practice," he said. "Everyone was making the same statement: We're not giving in. We're going to keep on fighting. That really was the day where I knew it was going to be all right."

Harding now has the top rushing offense in the nation (356.5 yards per game) and the defense is tied with Carson-Newman for the nation's 27th-ranked scoring defense (19.3 points per game).

Simmons said the team realized that it had an outside shot of making the playoffs when the NCAA D-II committee ranked them No. 8 in Super Region Three going into its regular season finale against Arkansas Tech, which was ranked No. 7.

Only the top seven from each super region make the playoffs, and Simmons said Harding was not ready for its season to end.

"Our goal was not to beat Tech," he said. "Our goal was not to win the [GAC] trophy. It was let's play one more week together. They don't want it to end, and I don't want it to end."

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Harding Coach Paul Simmons + Enlarge

Sports on 11/14/2017

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