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CSN Down South: Respectability is Back
By Jason Plotkin, CSN Down South Columnist
After several years in which the Southland Conference was not recognized as one of the top leagues in the country, the conference has earned solid footing by accomplishing several of the tasks laid before the league.
Before the season began, we discussed several factors critical to regaining the stature that was once SLC football. Now, we have a chance to reflect on those ahead of the start of the Division I playoffs.
1) Winning nonconference games against Division I institutions.
A large step by the conference was taken when McNeese State defeated perennial national championship contender Appalachian State early in the season. The SLC also was the beneficiary of a victory over Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) member Western Kentucky by Central Arkansas.
Other nonconference victories at the Division I level include victories over teams from the Missouri Valley, Great West, Northeast and Southwestern Athletic conferences.
2) Return to the national rankings
For the last few years, the SLC has not had the consistent presence among the top teams in the country, as viewed by voters of The Sports Network, Any Given Saturday and FCS Coaches polls.
Stephen F. Austin and McNeese have maintained spots among the top 15 for much of the second half of the season. McNeese is ranked No. 8 across the three major polls with SFA in the No. 12 spot in each of the polls.
To further aid matters, Texas State made a late-season run that has it at the bottom of the top 25 in the trio of polls with Southeastern La. rounding out the bunch by also receiving votes.
Each of these polls factor into the Gridiron Power Index (GPI), which ranks the Cowboys in a tie for No. 14 and the Lumberjacks at No. 16.
3) Multiple playoff entrants
When the league received two bids into the NCAA Division I playoffs last Sunday, it represented the first time since 2005 when TXST and Nicholls appeared among the 16 teams chosen.
SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett could not have been a happier person when the league placed two teams in the playoffs this year as SFA and McNeese were placed in the bracket with the Lumberjacks holding the automatic bid.
To make matters better for the conference, both squads will host first-round contests with SFA hosting Eastern Washington in Nacogdoches, Texas, with New Hampshire making the long trek down to Lake Charles, La., to face McNeese.
A problem in the past for the SLC has been the dreaded trip to Missoula, Mont., to face the Montana Grizzlies, rarely a loser on the biggest stage. Not an issue, at least for the first round this year, the current path lays to an easier road of passage, last accomplished when Sam Houston State (2004) and TXST (2005) advanced to the semifinals in consecutive years.
A fourth factor in regaining national credibility is by having individuals who are well-positioned to receive national honors.
SFA head coach J.C. Harper received a first-place vote from this columnist after pioneering a program that was 0-11 a short time ago into one that is 9-2, a conference champion and hosting a first-round game.
Tommy Tate, the then-McNeese head coach, was the last recipient of the Walter Payton, Buck Buchanon or Eddie Robinson awards. Tate was named the Robinson Award winner in 2002.
Considering how far the Lumberjacks have come under Harper and the fact that the media, coaches and sports information directors did not think much of their chances, there is no better candidate than Harper.
A LOOK AT THIS PAST WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS AND STORY LINES
While the games occurred this past week, the biggest story lines happened to be the changing of the guard at Nicholls and SHSU.
Nicholls athletic director Rob Bernardi and Bearkat athletic director Bobby Williams watched as two coaches, Jay Thomas and Todd Whitten, respectively, were let go.
Several candidates have emerged according to publications in both areas. The Colonels’ list of potential head coaches include Louisiana-Lafayette assistant Tim Rebowe, South Alabama assistant Mitch Rodrigue, SHSU defensive coordinator Scott Stoker, Crowley HS head coach Tommy Tate and UCA assistant Hud Jackson.
The SHSU coaching search includes the aforementioned Stoker, Iowa assistant Tom Herman, Houston assistant Jason Phillips, Blinn JC (Texas) head coach Brad Franchione, Pitt assistant Joe Tumpkin and Texas A&M-Commerce head coach Guy Morriss, among others.
As is the case with any Division I coaching search, these two should be relatively interesting to follow.
THIS WEEK’S SLATE
In perhaps the featured matchup on the playoff schedule, two high-powered offenses will collide at 2 p.m. Saturday at Homer Bryce Stadium as SFA hosts Big Sky entrant EWU in a first-round contest.
The Eagles, which earlier this season were not looking as if they would be eligible for consideration, have ran off four straight victories after falling to Weber State and Montana earlier this year.
SFA is ranked No. 3 in total offense nationally with 478 yards per contest with EWU a spot behind at No. 4 with 451 yards. Both feature Payton Award candidates at quarterback with Jeremy Moses leading the host Lumberjacks and Matt Nichols standing across the sidelines for the Eagles.
The game will come down to defense and special teams as whichever team has a longer field to work with could end up claiming this contest.
One state over, Colonial Athletic Association member UNH will visit McNeese at 2 p.m. Saturday as well.
UNH features an offense ranked in the top 15 in scoring, but it could really turn the game around on specials teams, where the team ranks No. 3 nationally in kickoff returns and defensively, where the program is No. 5 in turnover margin.
The Pokes will counter with Derrick Fourroux, who along with Moses was named SLC Player of the Year after pacing McNeese to having the No. 5 offense in the nation, with the aid of having the No. 5 rushing offense.
Fourroux’s versatility along with the running of Toddrick Pendland should play to McNeese’s advantage if it can hold on to the ball.
* * *
LAGNIAPPE – A BIT EXTRA TO WRITE HOME ABOUT
* Southeastern La. found itself a new athletic director with the hiring of Bart Bellairs. Bellairs made his way from Savannah State and prior to that, Virginia Military Institute. Bellairs replaces Joel Erdmann, who moved to South Alabama in August. A former head basketball coach for VMI, Bellairs was the first white AD at the HBCU in Savannah.
* The All-Southland Conference teams were announced last week. Highlighting the list besides Fourroux and Moses as Player of the Year was Bradley George of TXST as Offensive Player of the Year, Malcolm Bronson of McNeese as Freshman of the Year and Andre Banks of SFA as Newcomer of the Year. The duo of UCA’s Larry Hart and SFA’s Tim Knicky shared Co-Defensive Player of the Year Award. George, for what it’s worth, was named an honorable mention selection at quarterback and if the runningbacks that excited us before the season were healthy throughout the season, would probably have not deserved the distinction.
* While we were away, Lamar and Georgia State apparently handled their scheduling issues with each school appearing on the other’s schedule. More importantly, both schools list the game as taking place on Nov. 6. As funny as it might seem, this has been an issue in scheduling before!