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Soon, Southland to have different look
Over the past few years, the teams that competed for the Southland Conference football championship and represented the league are all too familiar with one another. There are several teams from Texas and Louisiana, as well as the Bears from Central Arkansas.
When conference realignment took hold a few years ago, there was massive upheaval among schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Football Championship Subdivision.
Conference realignment hit close to home and affected the Southland Conference, which remained largely unchanged since 2006.
Texas State, which entered the Southland with Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State in 1987, made the move to the FBS last season, which decreased the size of the conference to eight teams, the same number of teams the league had before Lamar joined in 2011.
As a result, the Southland Conference responded by adding three schools (Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian, and Incarnate Word), which either had football or were adding it. In the near future, the Southland Conference will look much different than it has in the league’s 50-year history.
“It’s a good step,” Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said Wednesday. “They’re not quite on the field with us yet, but they’re in the family. They’ll be more fully in the conference with other sports later on as we get into the fall. We’re pleased to have them with us and have them here at (Southland Conference Media Day) and promote them as the future of the conference. They’ll be wearing Southland Conference patches on their uniforms this year. We’ll consider them part of the family, though we can’t quite count them yet.
“That’ll come later.”
Houston Baptist, which will play an abbreviated schedule this year before becoming a full-fledged member of the conference and eligible for the conference title and the FCS playoffs next fall, as well as Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian will be beginning their four-year transition from Division II to Division I this fall.
This will be the final year of the Southland Conference as it is currently assembled with Central Arkansas, Lamar, McNeese State, Nicholls, Northwestern State, Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin all vying for the league’s 2013 football championship.
“With the teams in our conference, I always just took it by each week and figuring out what we have to defend and what we have to do and see if we can do it,” said Stephen F. Austin coach J.C. Harper, who is entering his ninth season in the Southland and seventh as head coach of the Lumberjacks.
“With recruiting, it’s going to be tight. You forget that these guys are going to be competing for the same guys that you’re might be recruiting. It was already tight before when we added Lamar in our area of the world. Now you add three more in Texas, we’ll all be fighting for the same people.”
Instead of playing a full season in its inaugural campaign, Houston Baptist will be playing a shortened seven-game schedule, which allows the Huskies to redshirt all of their players, who will earn game experience but also maintain four years of eligibility.
“It seems like yesterday on one hand when I was hired in the spring of 2012, but then on the other hand it feels like it’s been two years have gone by,” Houston Baptist coach Vic Shealy said.
“It’s exciting to know in a more significant way when we kick the ball off in a couple of weeks, we’ll have a game to play. … For us, there’s a lot of excitement for us to experience a ballgame again. Of course for us, playing Sam Houston (in the season opener on Aug. 31), that probably offers one of the greatest challenges any start-up program could ever have. With it comes a great opportunity.”
Like Central Arkansas when it entered the Southland Conference in ’07, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are making the transition from Division II. These two schools will be football members of the Southland Conference beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
For football, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are not eligible for the Southland Conference championship or the FCS playoffs until the 2017 season.
“That hurt us a little bit this year. We had a couple of guys who wanted to go to the playoffs,” Abilene Christian head coach Ken Collums said of being ineligible for the FCS playoffs over the next four seasons. “If you’re going to survive a transition like this, you better have more in place than just a chance to make the playoffs.
“What we’ve got is way more than a chance to make the playoffs. We play really good football. We’ve got some of the better players in the country, some who have gone to the NFL. Our culture is unique. The thing that separates us, and I think will ultimately get us through this is when you can put it all together and grow men who are going to change society and you do it in a radically different way being a private school and all and you can win football games. That’s crazy and we’ve been able to do that. What that’s going to look like in the future? I don’t know. We’re going to be who we are and we’re not going to change. We’re walking into unchartered territory. The transition will be interesting, but we’re fired up about it.”
In the 2014 season, the Southland Conference will grow to a 11-team football conference, which would be the largest since the league’s inception in 1963.
“We’re reacting and acting like other Division I conferences are and dealing with (conference realignment) as it comes,” Burnett added. “I think we’ve done a good job of that. We probably have to anticipate additional change in the future. Exactly what that might be? We don’t know. Ultimately, we’re focused on the people who are in the room with us and making their future better and putting them in position to where they can be athletically and academically successful.”
By Gene Schallenberg, The Huntsville Item