WILLIAMSBURG — Jimmye Laycock would prefer to have a cushion. He'd like for his William and Mary football team to be locked into the Championship Subdivision playoffs, regardless of how it fares in Saturday's regular-season finale at Richmond.
But the Tribe has no such luxury. Beat the Spiders, and the season likely continues. Lose, and the season definitely ends.
And given the team's course in 2013, Laycock is fine with that challenge. Indeed, he considers it appropriate.
"I think it's pretty neat for us after last year," Laycock said, "having so many close losses. Obviously preseason we were picked way down and … had some unproven guys. And that's what I've talked to the players about.
"We haven't had anything given to us so far as ranking or anything like that. We've had to earn it ourselves. We started way, way at the bottom, and we've had to work our way slowly up, and I give our players a lot of credit for hanging with it."
Last year's 2-9 record matches the worst of Laycock's 34 seasons, but six of those setbacks were by a touchdown or less, four by a field goal or less. Still, a preseason poll of Colonial Athletic Association head coaches and sports information directors picked William and Mary ninth in the 11-team league.
When last month's 24-10 loss at eventual CAA champion Maine dropped the Tribe to 1-2 in the conference, another discouraging season certainly was plausible, if only because the remaining schedule was tougher than Jonny Gomes' beard. But courtesy of the nation's top scoring defense, William and Mary defeated the nationally ranked trio of James Madison, New Hampshire and Delaware before stumbling last week against No. 10 Towson, 15-9.
So here W&M (7-4, 4-3 CAA) sits, ranked a precarious 19th with Selection Sunday for the 24-team playoff field at hand. But if anyone at Tribe Football's World HQ is parsing the credentials of other postseason contenders such as Southern Utah and South Dakota State, they're advised to do so when The Boss is elsewhere.
"I don't think guys on my staff have any time to be doing that," Laycock said. "I think they have their hands full right now (preparing for Richmond). We've been in this scenario (and) that does you no good. You basically get ready to play and go from there."
Laycock works on matters "I have a semblance of control (over). … Obviously if we don't win the game, we have no chance. I think if we win the game, we have a very good chance. I've been there and done it before, so you never know what can happen. … I wish I had all the answers, but I don't."
Fitting for an annual rivalry that dates to 1898 — no, that wasn't Laycock's freshman year at the College — William and Mary-Richmond often carries playoff implications for one or both combatants.
In 2008, each faced win-and-you're-in pressure. The Tribe erased a 20-0 deficit before falling in overtime, 23-20, and the victory propelled the Spiders and rookie head coach Mike London on a path to the national championship.
One year later, William and Mary and Richmond entered the game 9-1 and assured of postseason, but with seeding and the CAA title at stake. Again, the Spiders prevailed by three, but the Tribe advanced further in the playoffs, losing by a point in the semifinals to eventual champ Villanova.
William and Mary ended a five-year losing streak against Richmond in 2010, and the 41-3 rout gave the Tribe its third conference title in a decade and an automatic playoff bid.
The Spiders (5-6, 3-4) harbor no postseason hopes this year, but they've won three straight, and quarterback Michael Strauss passed for a school-record 543 yards in last week's upset of Delaware. So the Tribe goes from defending the CAA's top rushing attack in Towson to the league's best passing offense in Richmond.
"It's a dramatic difference," Laycock said. "I don't know if we've had to make that big a change from one week to the next this year in so far as defending one team compared to another."
Senior defensive tackle George Beerhalter, a team captain, acknowledges Strauss' strengths but believes Saturday is all about William and Mary and its season-long quest.
"We're not done," Beerhalter said. "We don't want it to be over yet."