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Coaches: Southland should be competitive as ever
The Southland Conference will look a little different this season compared to years past.
The effects of the conference realignment movement in college football have made its way down to the Southland.
Gone is longtime Southland member and football playing school Texas State. The Bobcats have moved on to the Football Bowl Subdivision level, where it will play as a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) school beginning in the 2012 season. Texas-San Antonio and Texas-Arlington, both longtime SLC schools, are also moving to the WAC next year.
The Southland might have lost three schools, but with Lamar playing a full SLC football schedule for the first time this season, the league will stand tall with eight football playing schools (Nicholls State, Central Arkansas, Lamar, McNeese State, Northwestern State, Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, Stephen F. Austin) and one non-football school (Texas-A&M Corpus Christi).
Despite the changes, the Southland Conference coaches believe that the league will be as competitive as ever this season.
“The Southland will stay strong,” Southeastern Louisiana coach Mike Lucas said. “We’ll do well because of the commitment of the administrations and the presidents. This league is well-coached. There’s not many people slipping up on anybody in this league. There are some good programs in this league.”
Stephen F. Austin, winners of the last two Southland championships, and McNeese State dominated the preseason conference polls. The Cowboys were picked to win the coaches’ poll, and the Lumberjacks got the most votes in the sports information directors’ poll. Both teams were ranked first and second, respectively, in both polls.
But SFA coach J.C. Harper said the polls mean nothing when the season starts.
“It’s never easy because anybody could beat anybody on any given day in this conference,” Harper said. “It’s a great league with great competition and great players that battle for their teams. It’s a fine league to be in.”
Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said the conference race always goes down to the wire, and he is expecting a similar finish this season.
“It wouldn’t shock me if the ultimate champion of our conference has one or two losses,” Conque said. “There’s a lot of parity in this league. The teams that you consider are at the top are just as competitive as the teams at the bottom.”
Conque, a Nicholls graduate, is entering his 12th season at Central Arkansas, making him the longest-tenured coach in the Southland Conference.
The Bears had a young team last season, but still finished with a 7-4 overall record and 4-3 mark in SLC play.
Central Arkansas returns 47 players from last season, including a pair of quarterbacks, four running backs and its top two receivers.
“We always have a lot of expectations here at UCA, and this year is nothing new,” Conque said. “We have good experience returning at a lot of positions. We expect to challenge for a conference championship, which we expect to do every year.”
The Bears will be led by senior quarterback Nathan Dick, who passed for 2,589 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Other returning offensive leaders are running back Terence Bobo (436 yards, nine touchdowns) and junior receiver Dominique Croom (42 passes, 446 yards and two scores).
Central Arkansas will open the season with three of its first four games on the road, including trips to FBS programs in Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech.
“It’s a tough way to start the season but I think it will help us down the road when we get into conference play,” Conque said. “We should definitely be tested after that first month.”
Local product Marcus Dumas of St. James is a starting cornerback for the Bears.
Lamar brought back its football program after 21 years last season, finishing with a 5-6 record.
The Cardinals will play an SLC schedule for the first time since 1986. They had a 1-3 mark against Southland opponents last season.
After attracting an average of 16,079 fans at their six home games last season, Cardinals coach Ray Woodard said the football team has created plenty of excitement in the Beaumont, Texas, area.
“We got off to a big start,” Woodard said. “The only way to continue that excitement in those numbers is we’re going to have to do a better job on the field. We have to give them a product they are going to come back and see. We’re going to have to be an improved football team and improved football program from top to bottom. We need to make sure we’re moving in the right direction to get better as a program.”
The Cardinals return 21 of 22 starters from last season, including senior quarterback Andre Bevil (2,013 yards and 14 touchdowns) and senior defensive end Jacody Coleman (11.5 tackles for a loss).
Lamar was picked to finish last in both preseason SLC polls, but Woodard said it will only motivate the team heading into the season.
“This is a great football conference,” Woodard said. “We are more familiar with the conference teams this year after facing four of them last year, but they will be much more familiar with us and we’re going to have to be even better this year to compete against them.”
After finishing second in the SLC standings last year, McNeese is ready to make another run at a conference title.
The Cowboys (6-5 overall, 5-2 in SLC) return 48 lettermen, including several All-Conference players in senior tailback Andre Anderson and defensive tackle-turned defensive end Desmund Lighten.
“We try to make it a point to challenge our guys every year,” McNeese coach Matt Viator said. “We’ve been fortunate through the years with our success, and I think its because of the commitment from people in southwest Louisiana. They’re committed to it. They want a winner, and it’s our job to go out and get it done.”
The Cowboys have four starters are back on offense and four on defense with both the place kicker and punter returning.
On offense, McNeese has four of the SLC’s top running backs in Anderson, Champlain Babin, Javaris Murray and Marcus Wiltz.
Viator said the running game will be the strength of the Cowboys offense this season.
“We have to remember that we went into last year with four tailbacks and we wound up with one,” he said. “If we can stay healthy there we have the opportunity to be pretty good.”
The Cowboys defense will be led by Lighten, who has been ranked as one of the top-10 defensive linemen in the Football Championship Subdivision by The Sports Network. Former St. James High linebacker Juarelle “Joe” Narcisse is also a starter for the Cowboys.
The 2010 season was a wild one for the Demons.
After starting the season 1-4, the Demons (5-6 overall, 4-3 in SLC) won four straight Southland games to jump in contention for a conference title, but ended the year with losses to Nicholls State and SFA.
Northwestern State coach Bradley Dale Peveto said the Demons have made progress from last year.
“We went into the spring and felt like there were three things we have to improve on,” Peveto said. “One is our turnover ratio. Our turnover ratio was minus 19 our first year, minus 15 our second year. When your turnover ratio is that bad, you’re not going to win many football games, period. Secondly, we felt like had to take our run game to the next level, and then thirdly, eliminate foolish penalties.
“If we can come out and improve in those three categories like we did in the spring, we’ll be a good football team.”
Northwestern will be led by junior quarterback Paul Harris (1,821 passing yards, 13 TDs) and linebacker Derek Rose (SLC leading 138 tackles in 2010). The Demons will face a difficult schedule to start the season, playing at LSU (Sept. 10) and at SMU (Sept. 17) before opening SLC play against Nicholls on Sept. 24.
“It’s a rough way to start the year, but we’re going to work hard and give it our best shot,” said Peveto, a former LSU co-defensive coordinator.
SAM HOUSTON STATE
In 2010, Sam Houston had one of the youngest teams in Southland history with only 29 returning lettermen and six seniors on a 90-man roster.
But the young Bearkats grew up fast and won six of its final nine games, including three conference losses by a total of 14 points.
Second-year Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said his main goal is to continue building on last season. They return 11 starters on offense and nine on defense.
“We have a lot of kids coming back,” Fritz said. “We have a lot more experience than we had before. I feel good about our prospects. We have a lot of confidence.”
Sophomore running back Tim Flanders, the conference’s co-freshman of the year in 2010, will look to improve on a 948-yard, 13-touchdown season.
Defensively, the Bearkats will return 11 of their 12 top tacklers.
“Defensively we are a blitzing, risk-taking team,” Fritz said. “We need to come up with more sacks and takeaways. If we can make more big plays on both sides of the both, the sky is the limit for this team.”
The Lions enter the season looking to rebound from a 2-9 year in 2010, in which six of their losses came by a touchdown or less.
In an effort to turnaround the program, Lucas said the Lions focused on the fundamentals during spring practice.
“We’ve got reduce penalties,” Lucas said. “If you look at our penalty total from last year, it was ridiculous. We’ve got to take care of the football. We threw way to many interceptions last year. We’ve got to do a better job taking care of the football. We’ve got to tackle better. It’s all about doing the little things.”
Lucas said the Lions’ biggest advantage this season will be its receiving core, which is highlighted by senior Simmie Yarborough (60 catches, 709 yards, nine scores), who is 343 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time receiving yards leader.
“I think people will be surprised with the playmakers we have,” Lucas said. “Our strength is our receivers. We got a good group of receivers coming back. We’ve got to get the ball to them. We’ve got to protect the quarterback and give him enough time to get the ball to them.”
With only two returning starters on defense, Lucas said the Lions will have to develop its young defenders quickly.
“We have brought in some talented athletes on defense, but our challenge as a coaching staff is molding them into a cohesive unit,” Lucas said.
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
The two-time defending SLC champions will enter the new season with a big question mark at an important position — quarterback.
They must replace Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Jeremy Moses, who ended his career as the school and conference’s all-time leader in completions, passing yards and touchdowns.
The Lumberjacks return nine talented starters in its spread offense, but Harper said their success will depend on the new starting quarterback, which will be either junior Dalton Williams or sophomore Brady Attaway.
“We don’t know who our quarterback is,” Harper said. “That’s a pivotal position. It’s an important part of what we do offensively, so once we get a better feel for who that guy is, then we might have a better thought on how good we can be.”
SFA had the conference’s best defense last season, holding opponents to less than 320 yards per game. The Lumberjacks return four starters on defense, but will have to replace All-Americans in linebacker Jabara Williams and defensive end Kenneth Charles.
After winning the last two SLC championships, Harper said high expectations are becoming the norm for the program.
“I think it’s a lot better to be on top than it is to be on bottom,” Harper said. “We’ve been on the top. I think the polls are a tribute to the work ethic they’ve done. Our seniors obviously want to go out winning another one. That’s what they want to do. We’re ready.”
By Chris Singleton, Houma Today