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In the FCS Huddle: 2011 Southland Conference Preview

If interesting or unique turf breeds success, then Central Arkansas may very well be on its way to the FCS playoffs.

Taking a page out of the Boise State and Eastern Washington books, Central Arkansas installed purple and gray turf at Estes Stadium this offseason - a move they hope will build excitement around the program.

"It's something new, something unique," Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said. The turf alternates colors in 5-yard sections. "It's the only field of its kind in the world. It's really been exciting for our players, and especially our recruits ... it's brought a whole new vibe to the program."

While the turf is already turning heads, for the Bears it's more important that their play on the multi-colored turf turns heads and Central Arkansas claims its first official Southland title - the Bears went 6-1 in 2008, but weren't eligible for the title.

Returning after a 2,589-yard, 12-touchdown season Nathan Dick - a former transfer from Arkansas - is one of the top returning passers in the conference and perhaps Central Arkansas' key to a trip to the playoffs.

"I think we can be one of the top teams in the conference," Dick said. "I think the only thing that can stop us, if we play to our potential, is ourselves."

However, while the feeling at Central Arkansas is that of confidence, it's still a wide-open race in the Southland with McNeese State, Sam Houston State and defending champion Stephen F. Austin all more than capable of rising to the top.

As it is with most leagues, quarterback play will be a determining factor in the championship race, as McNeese and Stephen F. Austin will both be installing new starters.

For McNeese, it's the quarterback duties will either end up in the hands of Cody Stroud - last year's backup - or North Texas transfer Riley Dodge.

"Cody Stroud goes in as the No. 1," McNeese coach Matt Viator said. "But Riley Dodge has played in a lot of games and in competitive situations."

For Stephen F. Austin, replacing 2010 Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winner Jeremy Moses will be a challenge for either Brady Attaway or Dalton Williams - who both have served as backups the past two seasons.

Whichever quarterback - new or returning - is able to provide a spark to his team will likely navigate the difficult Southland schedule, no matter what color the turf they play on.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2011 Southland Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Central Arkansas

2. McNeese State

3. Stephen F. Austin

4. Sam Houston State

5. Northwestern State

6. Nichols State

7. Lamar

8. Southeastern Louisiana

Offensive Player of the Year: Nathan Dick, QB, Central Arkansas

Defensive Player of the Year: Derek Rose, LB, Northwestern State

1. CENTRAL ARKANSAS BEARS (7-4 overall; 4-3 Southland)

COACH: Clint Conque (80-47 in 11 seasons at Central Arkansas; 80-47 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Nathan Dick, Sr. (249 of 394, 2,589 yards, 12 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Frank Newsome, Sr. (100 TT, 9 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Terrence Bobo, Jr. (105 rushes, 436 yards, 9 TDs) RB Jackie Hinton, Jr. (78 rushes, 349 yards, 4 TDs) RB Marcel Threat, So. (23 rushes, 90 yards) WR Dominique Croom, Jr. (42 catches, 446 yards, 2 TDs) WR Isaiah Jackson, Sr. (31 catches, 405 yards, 2 TDs) WR T.J. Adams, Sr. (17 catches, 171 yards, 1 TDs) OL Corey Howard, Jr. OL Matt Dickerson, Sr. OL Brad Jakel, Sr. OL Dominique Allen, So. OL Logan Roubique, Sr. OL Joe Lehockey, Sr. DL Jermayne Lett, Sr. (16 TT, 3.5 sacks) DL Larry Duvall, Jr. (18 TT, 1 sack) DL Trey Lippe, Sr. (45 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks) DL Matthew Hornbuckle, So. (21 TT, 4 TFL, 2 sacks) LB Lamar Moore, Sr. (62 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT) LB Justin Heard, So. (39 TT, 4 TFL, 3 sacks) LB Jessie Sims, Sr. (28 TT) DB Jestin Love, So. (39 TT, 6 INT) DB Desmond Wilcox, Jr. (31 TT, 7 PBU, 1 INT) DB Seth Allison, Jr. (47 TT, 4 INT) DB Radarius Winston, Jr. (36 TT, 2 PBU, 2 INT)

OUTLOOK:The Bears had the best record in the Southland in 2008, but weren't eligible for the league title since they were in the midst of a transition from Division II. This year could be the year the Bears claim their first official Southland championship, behind the senior leadership of quarterback Nathan Dick. The former transfer from Arkansas is the top returning passer in the conference and has a slew of options as the Bears return seven of their top eight receivers. On defense, the Bears have a good mix of seniors and lower classmen who could stabilize the program for the long haul. Also, don't forget the purple and gray turf, which has added some national interest to the program.

2. MCNEESE STATE COWBOYS (6-5 overall; 5-2 Southland)

COACH: Matt Viator (39-15 in five seasons at McNeese; 39-15 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (4 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Andre Anderson, Sr. (172 rushes, 855 yards, 5 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Malcolm Bronson, Jr. (58 TT, 6 PBU, 5 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Riley Dodge, Jr. (Transfer from North Texas) QB Cody Stroud, So. (63 of 110, 586 yards, 4 TDs) HB Marcus Wiltz, So. (74 rushes, 317 yards, 3 TDs) HB Champlain Babin, Jr. (65 rushes 280 yards, 2 TDs) WR Diontae Spencer, So. (35 rushes, 127 yards, 1 TDs) WR Damion Dixon, Jr. (21 catches, 289 yards, 2 TDs) WR Wes Brisco, So. (19 catches, 260 yards, 3 TDs) WR Ernest Celestie, So. (Transfer from Texas Tech) WR Darius Carey, Jr. (Transfer from North Texas) TE Josh Jordan, Jr. (Transfer from East Carolina) TE Harold Turnage, Jr. (seven catches, 79 yards) OL Miguel Gauthreaux, Sr. OL Taylor Johnson, Jr. OL Alec Savoie, Jr. DL Desmund Lighten, Sr. (68 TT, 3.5 TFL, 4 sacks) LB Joe Narcisse, Jr. (48 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) LB Kentrell Butler, Sr. (43 TT, 2 sacks, 2 INT) DB Ford Smesny, Jr. (47 TT, 1 PBU) DB Seth Thomas, Jr. (35 TT, 8 PBU) LB/DB Darrell Jenkins, Sr. (78 TT, 1 sack, 5 PBU) K Josh Lewis, Jr. (13-16 FG) P Ben Bourgeois, Sr. (37 avg.)

OUTLOOK: Having finished first or second in each of the past the four seasons, McNeese state has been one of the most consistent programs in the Southland under coach Matt Viator. A transfer-loaded roster, the Cowboys are likely to continue that trend no matter who fills the holes left by 13 departing starters. Andre Anderson leads a talented group of running backs who all averaged better than four yards per carry last season. The defense only returns five starters, but four of those earned all-conference honors last season and seven on the top 10 tacklers are back from last season. While there are still questions surrounding personnel, don't be surprised if the Cowboys are in the heat of the Southland race.

3. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN LUMBERJACKS (9-3 overall; 6-1 Southland)

COACH: J.C. Harper (23-25 in four seasons at Stephen F. Austin; 23-25 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Cordell Roberson, Jr. (61 catches, 1,011 yards, 16 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Devin Ducote, Sr. (114 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dalton Williams, Jr. (Redshirt last season, 25 of 34, 344 yards, 4 TDs in 2009) QB Brady Attaway, So. (22 of 39, 313 yards, 1 TDs) RB Jeremy Barnes, Jr. (104 rushes, 337 yards, 3 TDs) RB Keith Lawson, So. (57 rushes, 311 yards, 4 TDs) RB Gus Johnson, Fr. WR/RS Gralyn Crawford, Jr. (74 catches, 981 yards, 5 TDs; 4 return TDs) WR Kris Lott, So. (43 catches, 616 yards, 5 TDs) WR Anthony Foster, Jr. (52 catches, 528 yards, 4 TDs) OL Corey Dickerson, Jr. OL Andrew Ratliff, Fr. OL John Steel, Jr. OL Greg Hall, So. OL George Bias, Sr. DL Corey Hill, So. (18 TT, 2.5 sacks) DL Darren Robinson, So. (31 TT, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) DL Gordon Booker, Sr. (37 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) LB Derrick Choice, Sr. (86 TT, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) LB Justin Isadore, So. (TCU transfer) DB Josh Aubrey, Jr. (77 TT, 5 TFL, 10 PBU, 2 INT, 2 FF) DB Ben Wells, Sr. (12 TT, 3 PBU, 1 FR) DB Caleb Nelson, So. (66 TT, 1 INT) DB David Cato, Sr. (62 TT) K Thomas Henshaw, So. (7-9 FG) P Drew Nelson, Sr. (41.6 avg.)

OUTLOOK: Despite the pressure and expectations of filling in for Walter Payton Award winner Jeremy Moses, either Dalton Williams or Brady Attaway will be put in a position to succeed this season. Whichever quarterback wins the starting job will be protected by one of the FCS' most experienced offensive lines and will have a bevy of options with four returning wide receivers. In addition to providing the new quarterback a security blanket, Gralyn Crawford is one of the best return men in the country, after taking four kicks back for touchdowns last season. On defense, the Lumberjacks have a good mix of veterans and younger players that could create a very difficult unit to score on. Either way, the Lumberjacks success lies in how well the new quarterback can fill in for Moses.

4. SAM HOUSTON STATE BEARKATS (6-5 overall; 4-3 Southland)

COACH: Willie Fritz (6-5 in one season at Sam Houston; 103-52 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (11 offense, 9 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Tim Flanders, So. (172 rushes, 989 yards, 13 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Kenneth Jenkins, Jr. (58 TT, 3 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brian Bell, So. (110 of 205, 1,381 yards, 7 TDs) RB Ryan Wilson, So. (44 rushes, 148 yards) WR Richard Sincere, So. (42 rushes, 282 yards, 5 TDs) WR Seth Patterson, Sr. (35 catches, 370 yards, 3 TDs) WR Kevin Matthews, Jr. (20 catches, 274 yards, 2 TDs) WR/RS Brandon Closner, Jr. (11.5 avg punt return, 1 TD; 25.8 avg kick return) TE T.J. Jones, Jr. (7 catches, 49 yards) OL Kaleb Hopson, Jr. OL Steve Solomon, Fr. OL Travis Watson, Sr. OL Chris Crockett, Sr. OL Dan Jenkins, Jr. DL JT Cleveland, Jr. (43 TT, 4.5 sacks) DL Eddie DeCambre, Sr. (34 TT, 2 TFL, 3 sacks) DL Gary Lorance, So. (15 TT, 1 sack) DL Preston Sanders, So. (12 TT, 1 sack) LB Will Henry, Sr. (48 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks) LB Kash David, Sr. (33 TT) LB Mike Littleton, Jr. (16 TT) DB Bookie Snead, So. (36 TT, 16 PBU, 1 INT) DB Daxton Swanson, Jr. (34 TT, 8 PBU, 2 INT) DB Darnell Taylor, Jr. (64 TT, 2 sacks, 2 PBU) DB Robert Shaw, Jr. (44 TT, 4 PBU, 2 INT) P Matt Foster, Jr. (38.8 avg.)

OUTLOOK:It appeared that the Bearkats would contend for their first FCS playoff berth since 2004 after they started the season 4-2 last year. However, three straight losses - all to Southland opponents - shot down postseason aspirations. This year, the offense should be one of the most cohesive units as it returns all 11 starters. The defense returns nine starters and has arguably one of the best secondaries in the country. It's even scarier for Southland opponents considering the fact the Bearkats' secondary consists of four juniors and a sophomore. If that unit can continue the positive performance from last season, the Bearkats could be heading to the playoffs.

5. NORTHWESTERN STATE DEMONS (5-6 overall; 4-3 Southland)

COACH: Bradley Dale Peveto (5-19 in two seasons at Northwestern; 5-19 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (10 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: OL Zach Case, Sr.

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Derek Rose, Jr. (142 TT, 10 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Paul Harris, Jr. (146 of 258, 1,821 yards, 13 TDs; 4 rush TDs) RB Sterling Endsley, Sr. (93 rushes, 291 yards, 2 TDs) RB Rumeall Morris, So. (56 rushes, 256 yards, 1 TD) RB Sidney Riley, Jr. (49 rushes, 160 yards) WR T.C. Henry, Sr. (21 catches, 445 yards, 2 TDs) WR Phillip Harvey, Jr. (25 catches, 312 yards, 1 TD) TE Justin Aldredge, Sr. (22 catches, 289 yards, 4 TDs) OL Larry Calcote, Jr. OL Destry Hesskew, Jr, DL Wade Williams, Jr. (46 TT, 2 TFL, 1.5 sacks) DL Quinn Anthony, Jr. (22 TT, 1 sack) LB Yaser Elqutub, Sr. (69 TT, 1 sack, 3.5 TFL) LB Lamont Simmons, Sr. (59 TT, 1 TFL, 1 sack) DB Cashas Pollard, Sr. (30 TT, 4 PBU) DB Jeremy Lane, Sr. (33 TT, 12 PBU, 1 INT) DB Brashard Booker, Jr. (90 TT, 3 TFL, 8 PBU) DB Jamaal White, Jr. (65 TT, 2 TFL, 5 PBU, 3 INT) K John Shaughnessy, Jr. (5-9 FG)

OUTLOOK: Northwestern State had a chance to win the Southland last year when it met Stephen F. Austin in the season finale. However, the Demons were defeated, 36-13, and finished under .500 for the third straight season. While the Demons lost in the season finale, the season was a massive improvement for Northwestern State after going 0-11 in 2009. In order to continue that upward trend Northwestern State will have to improve upon what was the Southland's worst-scoring offense last season. While the offense has room for improvement, the defense boasts the best linebacker corp in the conference, highlighted by Derek Rose, who could keep the Demons in the Southland title chase.

6. NICHOLS STATE COLONELS (4-7 overall, 3-4 Southland)

COACH: Charlie Stubbs (4-7 in one season at Nichols State, 4-7 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (10 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB LaQuitin Caston, Jr. (98 of 188, 1,141 yards, 8 TDs; 171 rushes, 577 yards, 10 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Jordan Piper, Jr. (52 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Jesse Turner, Jr. (111 rushes, 630 yards, 8 TDs) RB Marcus Washington, So. (49 rushes, 251 yards) WR Kenyad Blair, Sr. (29 catches, 278 yards, 3 TDs) WR Joshua Warren, Sr. (21 catches, 192 yards, 2 TDs) WR Chucky Nichols, Jr. (12 catches, 173 yards, 1 TDs) WR Brad Nelson, So. (12 catches, 150 yards) OL Michael Billingsley, Sr. OL Gerald Gruenig, Jr. OL Pio Adams, Sr. OL Bart Roussel, Sr. OL Jarrad Hernandez, Sr. DL Darrell Brown, Jr. (32 TT, 2 TFL, 1 sack) DL A.J. Carter, Sr. (18 TT, 2 sacks) DL Edet Udoh, Jr. (24 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 sacks) LB Rashar Knight, Jr. (37 TT, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PBU) LB Shawn Elrod, Sr. (45 TT, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PBU) DB Bobby Felder, Sr. (33 TT, 7 PBU, 4 INT) DB Chika Madu, Sr. (41 TT, 12 PBU, 1 INT) DB Jordan Hanberry, So. (50 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 INT) DB Siegan Vergenal, So. (37 TT, 4 PBU, 1 INT)

OUTLOOK: There was some slight improvement by the Colonels in coach Charlie Stubbs' first season as the win total improved from three wins to four. Nichols is likely to improve once again this season as it returns 18 starters from a team that grew up and won a pair of close games to end the season last year. LeQuitin Caston provides a dual-threat quarterback in the backfield for the Colonels and has a reliable running back in Jesse Turner (the duo rushed for a combined 18 touchdowns last season). The defense is transitioning to a 3-4 base. How smooth that transition goes could determine whether or not the Colonels can reach above .500 this season.

7. LAMAR CARDINALS (5-6 overall, 0-0 Southland)

COACH: Ray Woodard (5-6 in one season at Lamar, 5-6 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 22 (11 offense/11 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/PR Marcus Jackson, Sr. (41 catches, 727 yards, 8 TDs; 24.4 PR avg., 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Asim Hicks, Sr. (102 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Doug Prewitt, So. (60 of 96, 725 yards, 4 TDs) QB Andre Bevil, Sr. (157 of 288, 2,013 yard, 14 TDs) RB Octavious Logan, Sr. (52 rushes, 229 yards) RB Cody Hussey, Jr. (58 rushes, 217 yards) WR J.J. Hayes, Sr. (52 catches, 745 yards, 6 TDs) WR Kendrick Prejean, Sr. (20 catches, 413 yards, 1 TD) WR Josh Powdrill, Sr. (37 catches, 410 yards, 1 TD) WR Barry Ford, So. (14 catches, 148 yards, 1 TD) TE Billy Chavis, Sr. (12 catches, 78 yards, 1 TD) OL Taylor Davis, So. (Missouri transfer) OL Cameron Epple, Sr. OL Joey Chavez, Sr. DL Jacody Coleman, Sr. (40 TT, 11 TFL) DL Adren Dorsey, Jr. (9 TT, 2 sacks) DL Mark Murrill, So. (20 TT, 2 TFL, 1 sack) DL Darby Jackson, Sr. (36 TT, 3 TFL, 3.5 sacks) LB Jordan Garrett, So. (Transfer from Tulane) LB Jonathan Ekpe, Sr. (75 TT, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU) DB Branden Thomas, So. (44 TT, 9 PBU, 3 INT) DB Steven Murry-Sesay, Jr. (35 TT, 5 PBU) DB Tim Hayter, Sr. (50 TT, 1 PBU) DB Chad Allen, So. (30 TT, 2 TFL)

OUTLOOK: After reintroducing the football program after a 21-year hiatus, Lamar went 5-6 last year as an independent program. The schedule gets much tougher this year as they join the Southland and will have to play teams like Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin - both teams that crushed the Cardinals last season - on a consistent basis. However, Lamar boasts one of the best wide receiver duos in Marcus Jackson and J.J. Hayes, who will give either Doug Prewitt or Andre Bevil a pair of big, consistent targets this season. On defense, the Cardinals will benefit from getting everyone back to a unit that allowed 26.1 points per game a year ago. Looking at the schedule, the Cardinals may have come close to a winning record in 2010, but if last year's 71-3 loss to Stephen F. Austin is any indication, they'll struggle in the Southland.

8. SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA LIONS (2-9 overall, 1-6 Southland)

COACH: Mike Lucas (16-32 in four seasons as SE Louisiana, 16-32 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 8 (5 offense/3 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Simmie Yarborough, Sr. (60 catches, 709 yards, 9 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Devin Boutwell, Sr. (23 TT, 5 TFL, 3 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brian Young, Jr. (86 of 164, 1,012 yards, 4 TDs, 7 INT) QB Nathan Stanley, Jr. (Ole Miss transfer) RB Sam Fairley, Jr. (145 rushes, 579 yards, 1 TD) RB Zeke Jones, Jr.(99 rushes, 380 yards, 8 TDs) RB Jordan Wells, Fr. WR Brandon Collins, Sr. (56 catches, 875 yards, 4 TDs) WR Kory Theodore, Sr. (34 catches, 622 yards, 4 TD) OL Josh Penton, Sr. OL Marshall Paris, So. OL Paul Roppolo, Jr. DL Devan Walker, Jr. (35 TT, 4 TFL, 4 sacks) LB Avery Crooks, Sr. (25 TT) LB Walter Smith, So. (12 TT, 2 TFL) DB Jerome Wright, Sr. (35 TT, 2 PBU) DB Keiron Jones, Sr. (42 TT, 4 PBU) DB Robert Alford, Jr. (Missed 2010 with injury) P Beau Mothe, Jr. (38.2 avg.) K Seth Sebastian, So. (10-14 FG)

OUTLOOK: Despite returning 16 starters last season, the Lions struggled to a 2-9 record after posting a winning season in 2009. This year, SE Louisiana must replace starting quarterback Tyler Beatty, a role which will likely be filled by either Brian Young, who started two games last season, or Ole Miss transfer Nathan Stanley. Whoever starts will have three talented wide receivers at his disposal, as the top three pass-catchers from last season all return for their senior season. Only returning three starters from last season, the defense is a very inexperienced group, even though the Lions return safety Robert Alford, who missed all of last season with a neck injury. With only eight starters returning - the least of any team in the Southland - the Lions are likely to once again finish at the bottom of the standings.