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Time for the good Southland stuff
Well, it’s finally October and that can only mean one thing. The football season is about to get really interesting now as conference games get into full swing.
Throughout the first month of the fall, every team in the Southland Conference has gotten to test their mettle against strong opponents from the FCS as well as teams from the power conferences in the FBS.
Generally, the first month of the season is filled with those nonconference games, but the Southland Conference was also able to get a jump start on the title race as each team in the league played at least one conference game, while McNeese State, Central Arkansas, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana have gotten two under their belts.
Even this early in the season, a lot can be learned about what to expect in the next three months.
So far, there have been teams which have been as advertised, while others have fared better and others, not so much.
Leading the charge in the Southland are the Bearkats, who are just one of three teams in the FCS (126 schools) that have yet to lose a game. Sam Houston (1-0 in Southland play, 4-0 overall), which is now ranked 11th in the Sports Network FCS Top 25 poll, opened the fall with three impressive victories over Western Illinois (20-7), Central Arkansas (31-10) and New Mexico (FBS). Last weekend, the Kats knocked off UTSA 22-7 without starting quarterback Brian Bell, who was held out of the game because of concussion-like symptoms.
The Bearkats expected to continue where they left off season when they won six of their final nine games, losing three Southland contests by a combined 11 points. So far, they’ve been up to the task with an effective running game led by sophomore tailback Tim Flanders (504 yards and seven touchdowns) and a dominant defense, which ranks 26th in the FCS with 315.25 yards per game and just nine touchdowns allowed.
Also living up to preseason expectations has been McNeese State, which has finished second or better in the Southland in each of the past five seasons. Following a season-opening loss to Kansas (42-24), the 15th-ranked Cowboys have won three straight, including two straight conference wins over Southeastern Louisiana (48-27) and Northwestern State (20-18) in Natchitoches, La.
Those same Demons, who had a rough nonconference schedule with a pair of blowout losses to LSU and SMU and needed to come back from behind to beat Division II Delta State, have made a strong opening argument so far in conference play. In its SLC opener, Northwestern State coasted past in-state rival Nicholls (34-0) and were a 2-point conversion shy of tying McNeese State (20-18). Even with the loss, Northwestern State can have a say as far as who will come away with the SLC title with games against Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin to close out the season.
After dropping a tough 31-10 decision to the Bearkats in its conference opener, Central Arkansas bounced back this past weekend with a healthy Nathan Dick at quarterback and held off a furious fourth-quarter rally to beat Stephen F. Austin, the defending two-time SLC champions, 38-28.
While those four teams fully expect to contend for a conference title as the season winds down or at least take another step forward, there are those like Stephen F. Austin and Nicholls still looking to figure things out.
Even without Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Jeremy Moses and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, the Lumberjacks looked to have the same kind of explosive offensive attack after blasting McMurry 82-0 in the season opener. However, Stephen F. Austin has struggled offensively with new quarterback Brady Attaway by its own merits and have thrown for only four scores since then. Attaway is the Southland’s leading passer with 1,400 yards and also has eight touchdown passes, but has also been picked off eight times.
The Lumberjacks have also failed to notch a win, losing three straight to Baylor, Texas State and Central Arkansas. But nothing can remedy a skid like the Lumberjacks’ like a heated rivalry game, which is next on the agenda for Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks will take on the Bearkats on Saturday at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Heading into the season, the Colonels had plenty of reason for optimism. They were entering their second season under head coach Charlie Stubbs and third-year quarterback LaQuinton Caston. But it hasn’t panned out the way Nicholls expected. The Colonels are in the midst of a four-game losing streak, including lopsided losses to Northwestern State (34-0) in their SLC opener and a 38-12 drubbing to former conference member Texas State.
Despite whatever setbacks may have already occurred, the quest for a title is by no means over for the teams who already have conference losses. The season is a long one with plenty of key contests still yet to be played, including the Oct. 22 game between Sam Houston State and McNeese State, the only undefeated teams in SLC play, in Lake Charles, La.
By Gene Schallenberg, Huntsville Item