SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE preseason poll analysis.
(Voting done by league coaches and sports information directors)
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
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.”