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Southland Conference competition looks fierce again
Northwestern State football coach Bradley Dale Peveto has been part of staffs at LSU, Houston, Arkansas, Southern Miss and at other colleges, and as a player he went to four bowl games at SMU from 1982-86.
So he knows a little something about competitive college football.
Entering 2012 and his fourth season as head coach of the Demons, Peveto said the Southland Conference is poised for a hyper-competitive season.
“This league is as good as it gets,” Peveto said. “It is as tough a (Football Championship Series) conference as there is in the country. That is what is exciting about it, but it’s always been a tough league. If you go back and look in time, this Southland Conference has always been very strong. Last year we got back to having two teams in the playoffs, and there was a time where we had three teams. I think that is where we are headed now. There are no easy Saturday’s here.”
Sam Houston State has 20 starters back off a team that went 14-1 overall, won the SLC at 7-0 last season and fell 17-6 to North Dakota State in the Division I National Championship game in Frisco, Texas.
Also, Central Arkansas (9-4 last season, playoff appearance), Stephen F. Austin (winners of its last five games last season) and McNeese all return numerous key players from 2011.
“You are picking a year where from top to bottom, it may be as tough as it’s ever been in this league,” Lamar coach Ray Woodard said. “We are excited to get it going.”
McNeese coach Matt Viator said fans should see an even better SLC in 2012 than what they saw in 2011.
“I think everybody has a chance to be better, including Sam, and that is scary,” Viator said. “Everybody has guys coming back. Everybody has a chance to be better and the league was pretty good last year.”
Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque, a Nicholls State graduate, said he expects a great year in the conference.
“There is a lot of momentum and enthusiasm coming off 2011,” Conque said. “There are a lot of quality coaches and a lot of commitment from quality institution in this league to play at a high level, and we have outstanding players. We could be poised for one of the best years we have ever had in our league.”
Sam Houston State will be one of the favorites to win the FCS title this season. The SLC will again host the championship game in Frisco, Texas.
“I think it may be easier to climb that mountain than to stay up there and be king of the hill,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said. “That’s why we have to be better this season. Last season is over, it’s onto the next year. The talent level is really high. I think the team that will win this conference will have impact guys on their offensive and defensive lines. The winner is probably going to be the team that wins up front.”
Conque, in his 13th season at UCA, said replacing first-team SLC quarterback Nathan Dick, who was an all-American last season, will be key, but the Bears (9-4, 6-1 in SLC last season) have 15 starters coming back off last year’s team, which made the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history and won a playoff game before falling in the second round.
“We have to get bigger, stronger, faster,” Conque said. “We have to have a good camp, stay healthy and you have to shore up areas you may have some questions about in the non-conference part of your schedule. We need to play well in those early games and give ourselves a chance to win, but also to create an identity for us. We will know who we are as a football team.”
Junior Wynrick Smothers is the top candidate to take over at quarterback after Dick’s departure and senior Jackie Hinton is the team’s top running back, while linebacker Seth Allison leads the team’s defense.
Central Arkansas is ranked 24th in The Sports Network’s FCS preseason Top 25 poll.
After its first year back in the SLC last season, the Cardinals, in third year of football since bringing the program back after discontinuing it in 1989, went 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the conference.
“We are passed all that new,” Woodard said. “It’s time to focus on building a football team and see how good we can be. We need to see the entire program improve. We are going to have to better than just good. We are going to have to be really good if we want to compete in this league.”
Top players for the Cardinals are junior defensive lineman Jesse Dickson, junior offensive lineman Kyle Gillam and sophomore tight end Payden McVey.
The Cowboys, a perennial power in the SLC with 14 FCS playoff appearances, have 53 lettermen back, which includes nine on starters on offense and six on defense, but Viator said he is looking for more consistency in 2012 after the Cowboys were 6-5 and 4-3 in conference last season.
“We just need to be more consistent,” Viator said. “In previous years, we found ways to win close games, and last year, it seemed like we found ways to lose them. That’s the difference in your season. For us to get back to where we want to be, we have to be more consistent, and we have to be healthier than we were last year.”
Senior receiver Darius Carey, senior offensive lineman Alec Savoie and senior safety Malcolm Bronson are three of the top players for the Cowboys.
“Our goal is to try and win the conference,” Viator said. “If you don’t well in this conference, there is no playoffs. We have all our starters back on the offensive line and our secondary will be our strengths. We need more offensive consistency, especially on first down, and we have to improve in the kicking game.”
The Demons were 5-6 overall the last two seasons and were 3-4 in the SLC last year.
“We have 13 starters back, seven on offense, and six on defense, and we have 49 returning lettermen, so the same team that was 5-6 in back-to-back years is the same team we are going to put on the field this fall,” Peveto said. “We are more mature. I think you have an experienced football team going into a season, it pays great dividends.”
Peveto said some of the intangibles he has seen from the Demons have excited him.
“Our morale and our chemistry is very, very good,” Peveto said. “I think their work ethic and toughness, and I feel like those intangibles will help us have a great year.”
Senior quarterback Brad Henderson, senior linebacker Derek Rose, senior safety Jamaal White and senior kicker John Shaughnessy are some of the key players for the Demons entering 2012.
“Brad Henderson our quarterback is back, and he is a guy who played a lot for us last year fresh out of junior college,” Peveto said. “He is a seasoned guy, and his senior leadership and the leadership we have on this football team will help us make that final push that we haven’t been able to make the last couple of years.”
SAM HOUSTON STATE
Not only do the Bearkats open 2012 as the favorite to win the SLC, they are also one of the front runners to win the Football Championship Subdivision title.
Included in the 20 starters they have coming back, the Bearkats — ranked No. 1 in preseason FCS poll — return junior running back Tim Flanders, the SLC Player of the Year, junior running back Richard Sincere, the SLC Offensive Player of the Year and senior defensive back Darnell Taylor, the SLC Defensive Player of the Year.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win the national championship, but to do that, you have to win the conference first,” Fritz said. “I know everyone gets tired of hearing it, but we need to do what we did last year. We did an excellent job of taking it one game at a time and having that single mindedness that you have to have to be successful. You can put together a lot of good weeks. We have a lot of kids coming back. I think we have the chance to be better, we just have to go out and do it, but there is a lot of room for improvement.”
Junior defensive tackle J.T. Cleveland and junior quarterback Brian Bell are other top players for the Bearkats.
Ron Roberts is the lone new coach in the SLC this year. He takes over for Mike Lucas, who led the Lions to a 3-8 mark (1-6 in SLC) last year and to a 19-40 overall record in five seasons.
Roberts spent the last five seasons as head coach at Division II Delta State where he amassed a 47-16 record.
The Lions have 20 starters back last season.
“We are just going to try and get better each week and get into that top group in the conference,” Roberts said. “We are in a hot-bed for recruiting. We have the third-largest school in the state, and we are in a great community in Hammond. This program has all the potential. I am excited about where we could be. We have to keep plugging away.”
Senior quarterback Brian Young is back for the Lions, along with senior defensive back Robert Alford, senior running back Sam Fairley and senior linebacker Devan Walker.
Roberts said his experience playing in the highly competitive Division II Gulf States Conference has helped prepare him for the rigors or the SLC.
“You better take them one at a time and not overlook anybody,” Roberts said. “If you don’t those emotional high games will put you on a roller-coaster ride, and you have to keep a steady pace and keep climbing and peak at the right time, and that is what you want to do.”
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
The 2009 and 2010 SLC champs closed 2011 with five-straight wins to close at 6-5 and 5-2 in the SLC.
“There’s no question that is a momentum builder,” Lumberjacks coach J.C. Harper said. “I think everybody feels it, our players feel it. Going 5-0 is a great way to end things, especially when you start 1-5. To our players’ credit, they turned it around. I felt that same optimism and work ethic in the spring.”
Junior quarterback Brady Attaway returns after throwing for 3,181 yards and 27 touchdowns last year and his favorite target is senior receiver Cordell Roberson, a four-year starter.
“Our quarterback is a really good player,” Harper said. “There is no question about his talent, and his ability to throw the football. Sometimes he throws it to the wrong person, but I think the experience he has now is beginning to pay off, and he showed it in the spring with remarkable improvement.”
The Lumberjacks (No. 20 in the preseason FCS poll) also return the conference’s leading tackler in senior linebacker Ryan Epperson, senior defensive back Josh Aubrey and senior defensive end Willie Jefferson, a Baylor transfer who was the SLC Newcomer of the Year last season.
“We have some great players on defense, and a lot of the other guys all have experience,” Harper said. “I feel like we have a chance to be really good. I like our football team. I like the players and what they are doing. Things are good.”
By Kelly McElroy, Houma Today