by Mike Potter
PEARSON CAFETERIA/DURHAM N.C. Central football coach Mose Rison can say it with a straight face for the first time this week.
Every remaining game on the Eagles' schedule is winnable.
But then again, none of them are likely to be gift-wrapped.
The 0-6 Eagles, who have player arguably the toughest schedule in the country among Division I Championship Subdivision teams, will return home on Saturday at 1:30 to host Central Methodist University from Fayette, Mo.
It will apparently be the first time in the history of college football that the Central Eagles have played the Central Eagles.
When the schedule was first released, a rational observer could have said NCCU would be a big favorite. But not now. The Eagles may be a mild favorite in some minds, but Alan Dykens' CMU squad (5-1) is ranked No. 20 in the latest NAIA poll.
While NCCU's opposition so far this season may have been on average at least 40 points better than CMU's, the Missourians have learned how to win football games while Rison's club is still working on that.
Rison said at his weekly press event today that NCCU has played its best football against the three best teams on the schedule - cross-town rival Duke and FCS powers Appalachian State and Liberty - than against beatable opponents Hampton, Morehead State and North Carolina A&T. The Eagles had left the impression at halftime that they were still in games against the Blue Devils, Mountaineers and Flames before the hosts dominated the fourth quarter, while they lost at Hampton by a touchdown and the other two games in overtime.
"When you look at the Liberty game and the Duke game and the Appalachian State game, there's no question we played our best football," Rison said. "I keep stressing that there's a transition period and it's a process. (But weaker performances against weaker opposition) is very frustrating. I can't pinpoint why, but no doubt it's there."
NCCU led 14-7 early before losing 55-21 on Saturday at Appalachian, and got a nice game out of quarterback Michael Johnson after he had struggled so mightily against A&T the week before. Johnson completed 16 of 23 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns, and the Eagles never committed a turnover.
"It's not the end of the season yet," Johnson said. "I remember last year even in the last game (at home against Savannah State) we weren't playing for a championship or even a winning season (NCCU finished 4-7), but we were still playing just as hard. We have some real competitive guys on this football team."
One of those is linebacker Calvin Hillie, who had an interception and a fumble recovery to set up NCCU's first two touchdowns against ASU.
"Those games were good learning experiences," Hillie said of the high-profile opposition. "We know now we shouldn't be intimidated when we play teams of that caliber. We were playing up to our opponents. Now we need to play that kind of games against teams that don't get as much recognition."