Arguably three of the USFL's top four teams are in the South division, and only two of them will make the playoffs, so there's already an appreciation of postseason relevance when the Birmingham Stallions (3-1) play host to the Houston Gamblers (2-2) on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
"If you stub your toe and lose a game, you're not out of it like you are in college," said Skip Holtz, coach of the league defending champion Stallions. "We've just got to keep plugging away and find a way to get in the playoffs, and hopefully these guys at that point will be seasoned enough, and we can stay a little bit healthier from here to the end."
Both teams are chasing the New Orleans Breakers (4-0), and all three teams will play each other again in the final four weeks of the regular season. A Houston loss to the Stallions would put them two games out of that second playoff berth with five games to play, while a Birmingham loss would leave them even at 3-2 at the midpoint of the season.
Houston has bounced back nicely from an 0-2 start, and a big reason is running back Mark Thompson, who missed the first two games with injury but has rushed for 214 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games.
"They're running the ball and playing turnover-free football, executing really well on offense and scoring a lot of points, but their defense is playing its tail off right now," Holtz said of the Gamblers. "They're playing well, so it'll be a great challenge for us."
Birmingham has been hit hard by injuries, with as many as seven starters sidelined, including four on offense lost for the season. Defensive end Joe Jackson and safety JoJo Tillery are still out with injuries, and linebacker Scooby Wright returned last week only to aggravate a calf injury, leaving his status uncertain for Saturday.
"We're stuffing straw in the scarecrow right now, trying to fill spots," Holtz said. "But their attitudes are good, they're working really hard, and hopefully we can find a way to patch it together and keep this thing afloat this weekend."
Quarterback Alex McGough is the league's highest-rated passer, throwing for 764 yards with eight touchdowns against three interceptions, and the Stallions have found a spark on special teams in returner Deon Cain, who has the USFL's only two kickoff-return touchdowns this season.
Houston quarterback Kenji Bahar is second behind McGough with seven touchdown passes in four games, but he's also thrown a league-high six interceptions, so minimizing turnovers will be a must if they're going to outlast the Stallions. In addition to Thompson, the Gamblers have a second solid rusher in T.J. Pledger (179 yards, 3 TDs) so Birmingham's focus will be trying to limit that run game and force Houston to throw the ball more.
However this weekend shakes out, the three South teams all have rematches ahead — the Stallions will have a chance to avenge their only loss to the Breakers in Week 7, Birmingham and Houston meet again in Week 9, and the Breakers and Gamblers go head-to-head in Week 10, potentially with a playoff berth hanging in the balance.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.