SOUTHLAND CON­FER­ENCE pre­sea­son poll anal­y­sis.

(Vot­ing done by league coaches and sports in­for­ma­tion di­rec­tors)

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - — Com­piled by Brooks Kubena

1. SAM HOUS­TON STATE (200 POINTS, 20 FIRST-PLACE VOTES)

The Bear­kats re­turn se­nior quar­ter­back and 2016 FCS Wal­ter Pay­ton Award win­ner Jeremiah Briscoe, who threw for an FCS record 57 touch­downs in 2016. Se­nior 6-1, 310-pound de­fen­sive end P.J. Hall was the run­ner-up for the 2016 FCS De­fen­sive Player of the Year award. Sam Hous­ton has won the Southland Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship six times and reached the FCS na­tional cham­pi­onship in 2011 and 2012.

2. CEN­TRAL ARKANSAS (177 POINTS, 2 FIRST-PLACE VOTES)

The Bears have fin­ished sec­ond in the Southland Con­fer­ence in three con­sec­u­tive sea­sons. Last sea­son, the pro­gram won its first FCS play­off game since 2011. Se­nior quar­ter­back Hay­den Hilde­brand was named to the pre­sea­son All-Southland sec­ond team and has started 19 games since the 2015 sea­son. The of­fense lost all-time lead­ing re­ceiver Des­mond Smith to grad­u­a­tion, the de­fense re­turns six starters, and a Southland-lead­ing four de­fen­sive mem­bers were named to the pre­sea­son All-Southland first team.

3. MCNEESE STATE (163 POINTS)

Sec­ond-year Coach Lance Guidry re­gained con­trol of the de­fense af­ter the Cow­boys gave up 285 to­tal points in 2016, the most al­lowed in three years, and al­low­ing 28 red-zone scores in 30 tries. The for­mer McNeese de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor said he felt like the Cow­boys’ stan­dard was not held and “thought it would be best if I took back over.” McNeese plays at UCA on Oct. 28.

4. SOUTH­EAST­ERN LOUISIANA

136 POINTS

The Lions swept Southland’s Louisiana schools in 2016 and in 2017 and opens the sea­son at Sun Belt Con­fer­ence op­po­nent Louisiana-Lafayette. The state has 11 Di­vi­sion I foot­ball pro­grams, and sixth-year South­east­ern Louisiana Coach Ron Roberts said an­other sweep of the state could help sub­stan­tially in re­cruit­ing. “For us to have suc­cess over them will hope­fully add value to us to re­cruits,” said Roberts, whose team went 7-4 last sea­son. “At the end of the day, kids want to win.”

5. NI­CHOLLS STATE (133 POINTS)

The Colonels gained na­tional at­ten­tion when they nearly beat Ge­or­gia in a 26-24 loss at the start of last sea­son. They open the sea­son against a con­fer­ence op­po­nent, McNeese State, for the first time since start­ing the 1992 sea­son with a 38-0 loss to Southland op­po­nent Louisiana-Mon­roe. Ni­cholls will travel to Texas A&M the fol­low­ing week. Thirdyear Coach Tim Re­bowe said the fo­cus re­mains on earn­ing the team’s first win­ning con­fer­ence record since ty­ing for first in 2005. “We re­ally haven’t done any­thing yet,” Re­bowe said.

6. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (114 POINTS)

The Lum­ber­jacks started the 2016 sea­son 3-1 be­fore they lost 12 play­ers to in­jury and fin­ished the sea­son 5-6. SFA lost TCU trans­fer quar­ter­back Fos­ter Sawyer to an in­jury sus­tained over the Fourth of July week­end that will side­line him for 8-10 weeks. Sawyer had earned the start­ing po­si­tion af­ter spring prac­tice, and three other quar­ter­backs who are a com­bined 2 for 4 for 25 yards as Lum­ber­jacks will com­pete for the spot. “The re­al­ity is Fos­ter’s our guy,” said fourth-year Coach Clint Conque, a for­mer Cen­tral Arkansas head coach. ¨All three of these kids will have to step up.”

7. LA­MAR (68 POINTS)

The Car­di­nals have had one win­ning sea­son since re­turn­ing a foot­ball pro­gram to cam­pus in 2010. La­mar hired its sec­ond coach since the re­birth, Mike Schultz, who was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Texas State from 2011 to 2015. Schultz be­gan his coach­ing ca­reer as a quar­ter­backs coach at Sam Hous­ton State in 1979 and was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at TCU when NFL Hall of Fame run­ning back LaDainian Tom­lin­son fin­ished fourth in the 2000 Heis­man Tro­phy vot­ing. La­mar re­turns 10 starters on of­fense and de­fense.

8. ABI­LENE CHRIS­TIAN (66 POINTS)

First-year Coach Adam Dor­rel is try­ing to change the cul­ture of an Abi­lene Chris­tian pro­gram that has not had a win­ning sea­son since join­ing the Southland in 2014. Dor­rel, who led North­west Mis­souri State to three NCAA Di­vi­sion II cham­pi­onships, an­nounced tan­gi­ble im­prove­ments in his first seven months: The team’s GPA in­creased from 2.5 last fall to 3.2 this summer; and the team in­creased its com­mu­nity ser­vice to 400 hours, which helped quadru­ple its sea­son ticket num­bers. ACU will open their new 8,500-seat Wild­cat Sta­dium against Hous­ton Bap­tist on Sept. 16.

9. HOUS­TON BAP­TIST (56 POINTS)

The Huskies en­ter the sea­son with a se­nior class of the pro­gram’s original re­cruits. HBU has gone 4-20 in Southland play since join­ing the con­fer­ence in 2014. Ju­nior line­backer Gar­rett Dolan was named to the pre­sea­son All-Southland First Team, and fourth-year Coach Vic Shealy re­flected on start­ing up the pro­gram. “To see foot­ball become a grounded sport has been ex­cit­ing,” Shealy said. “Start­ing out, all we had was hope to sell and a vi­sion for a fu­ture.”

10. NORTH­WEST­ERN (LA.) STATE (49 POINTS)

Fifth-year Coach Jay Thomas hired a new of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor af­ter the Demons went 1-10 (0-9, Southland) last sea­son. Quar­ter­back coach Kyle Man­ley was pro­moted to of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor to stim­u­late an of­fense that ranked No. 8 in the Southland in to­tal of­fense (367.8 yards per game). For­mer De­mon all-time pass­ing leader Brad Laird was hired as the pro­gram’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for the third time. Laird, who was most re­cently the ath­letic di­rec­tor at Rus­ton High (La.), was the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor when the Demons last won the Southland cham­pi­onship and had an FCS play­off ap­pear­ance in 2004.

11. IN­CAR­NATE WORD (48 POINTS)

The Car­di­nals have fin­ished their four-year process of re­clas­si­fy­ing from an NCAA Di­vi­sion II team to Di­vi­sion I and are el­i­gi­ble for post­sea­son play for the first time this sea­son. In­car­nate Word has com­peted in the Southland for three sea­sons (10-16), and fourthyear Coach Larry Ken­nan has higher ex­pec­ta­tions this year. “When we started, we were a bad Di­vi­sion II team,” said Ken­nan, a for­mer of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for three NFL teams. “We have got­ten to the point where we ex­pect to be a good Di­vi­sion I team.”

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