(STATS) - At Sam Houston State, there are frequent references to North Dakota State.

With admiration, not jealousy.

"There's no doubt about the fact that they are the No. 1 FCS program," coach K.C. Keeler says.

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North Dakota State stands alone in the FCS with five straight national championships, but the program which has had the second-most wins (56) and postseason success during that time is Sam Houston. To any program other than the Bison, two appearances in the championship game and another two in the semifinals would sound out-of-this-world great.

Keeler doesn't feel the Bearkats are far off from reaching a higher level, but the last steps for attaining NDSU's heights have proved challenging.

Making some of the necessary improvements are part of the focus while Sam Houston goes through spring practices. The other 10 programs in the Southland - and McNeese State is the defending champion - may not have the same lofty focus as the Bearkats.

"We're pleased with our talent level, our strength and conditioning efforts and the commitment of our players to winning a national championship," Keeler said. "But we're maybe 10 percent away from a national title."

Following is a look across the Southland Conference with spring practices getting underway in college football:

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ABILENE CHRISTIAN

2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 5-April 15

Storyline: It's been a busy offseason with the Wildcats breaking ground on a new stadium for 2017 and securing future games with FBS opponents. They're anxious to get back on the field, though, because injuries contributed to them suffering their first losing season since 2005. At one point, there were 15 key contributors sidelined. Quarterback Parker McKenzie will look to hold off Dallas Sealey during the spring, when the Wildcats work to build consistent depth. The defense struggled to stop the run last season, but it returns eight starters and greets some welcome additions to the roster. Outside linebacker Sam Denmark is coming off a huge season. Despite the down year, coach Ken Collums has a solid program moving forward.

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CENTRAL ARKANSAS

2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 7-2 Southland (Tie/2nd)

Spring Practices: March 5-April 9

Storyline: A loss at home to Sam Houston to end the regular season cost the Bears a playoff berth, so coach Steve Campbell and his team are highly motivated this offseason. The Bears will return five starters on offense, including efficient quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, and seven on defense. The biggest task is retooling the run game, which not only lost a standout back in Blake Veasley but also several senior offensive linemen. The pass rush also isn't the same with the departure of defensive ends Jonathan Woodard and Derek Floyd. The Bears really figured it out after a slow start to last season and this year's squad has Top 25 potential.

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HOUSTON BAPTIST

2015 Records: 1-9 overall, 0-8 Southland (11th)

Spring Practices: Feb. 15-March 10

Storyline: For the first time next season, the Huskies will have a recruiting class on campus for four years (20 of the 44 juniors were redshirts who will fit the description). It also is important to have growing size and depth on the offensive and defensive lines. There are 10 returning starters on each side of the ball as well as an outstanding punter in Christian Guzman, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury. There is emerging talent, especially on defense with the likes of leading tacklers Garrett Dolan and Cody Moncure at linebacker and cornerback Prince Sam. With a more experienced team, the next step for Coach Vic Shealy's squad is to have better execution during games.

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INCARNATE WORD

2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (4th)

Spring Practices: March 22-April 19 (spring game is April 9)

Storyline: Although the offense struggled at times last year, quarterback Trent Brittain got acclimated again after he missed most of the 2014 season with a broken ankle, and there are nine returning starters on that side of the ball. The O-line still needs improvement and will gain from the added reps. Some of the defensive linemen will miss spring practices, including end Corey Lee as he comes off quad surgery in the fall. Last year's fourth-place finish was a surprise, so the next step is building on the success as the conference heavyweights stand in the way. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they no longer have linebacker Myke Tavarres, an All-American in his only season with the program.

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LAMAR

Spring Practices: March 7-April 16

2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

Storyline: While 2,000-yard rusher Kade Harrington grabbed all the headlines last season, one of the other storylines was the injuries to key players. So coach Ray Woodard will be happy to welcome back the likes of quarterback Carson Earp, offensive lineman John Craven and defensive end Manasseh Miles - expected to be the Cardinals' best pass rusher. Of course, the team's fortune in the Southland rest on Harrington, the runner-up for the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year award. The Cardinals have six returning starters on both offense and defense. A lot of focus in the spring will be on the defense after it dropped off considerably last season from 2013 and '14.

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MCNEESE STATE

2015 Records: 10-1 overall, 9-0 Southland (1st)

Spring Practices: March 11-April 16

Storyline: An unbeaten regular season was followed by a quick exit in the postseason as the Cowboys lost to Sam Houston State. With defensive end Lance Guidry elevated to head coach, replacing Matt Viator after 10 successful seasons, the Cowboys are seeking continuity with a business-as-usual approach this spring. The return of fifth-year end Brian Hine from a 2015 knee injury adds to an already outstanding D-line, which features tackle Isaiah Golden. Junior Grant Ashcraft (6-foot-6, 219 pounds) will likely become the starting quarterback and gain from the many good receivers and an excellent run game with Ryan Ross as well as Dylan Long coming back from a knee injury.

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NICHOLLS

2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: Feb. 26-March 22

Storyline: The Colonels have bounce in their step after the culture changed within the program in the second half of last season. After ending a 23-game losing streak, they won on the road against Lamar and Southeastern Louisiana and nearly beat Central Arkansas over their last three conference games. Coach Tim Rebowe has kept his first two recruiting classes close to home, with last year's class boasting safety Ahmani Martin. He is among 10 returning starters on defense. Considering the conference is offense-based, the Colonels have to improve on that side of the ball. Wide receiver C.J. Bates is a breakout candidate. Option-style quarterback Tuskani Figaro broke his collarbone last season and missed the final two games.

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NORTHWESTERN STATE

2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

Spring Practices: March 8-April 15

Storyline: For the first time in six years, the Demons will have the same defensive coordinator (Daryl Daye) as the previous season. With nine returning starters and six mid-year transfers, there should be quick improvement within their 3-3-5 and 4-3-4 packages. Quarterback was unsettled last season until Stephen Rivers came on strong in the second half. He is gone, but spring practices provide J.D. Almond and Joel Blumenthal the opportunity to establish themselves. Among the other losses is the team's most dynamic player, Ed Eagan, but senior running backs De'Mard Llorens and Chris Jones should form a productive pair. Coach Jay Thomas also must develop a punter and kicker.

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SAM HOUSTON STATE

2015 Records: 11-4 overall, 7-2 Southland (Tie/2nd)

Spring Practices: March 16-April 11 (spring game is April 8)

Storyline: All the key players look like a go for spring practices and there are plenty of them with 17 returning starters (eight on offense, nine defense). Coach K.C. Keeler says the goal is to keep improving on the little details that will make the difference between finishing as the No. 3 team in the nation and being the No. 1 team. No FCS team has a quarterback tandem rivaling Jared Johnson and Jeremiah Briscoe, and running back Corey Avery brings explosiveness to an offense that could be the best in the FCS next season. The Bearkats are replacing All-America offensive lineman Donald Jackson III, a four-year starter. The defense welcomes back 2014 standout end Mouf Adebo from injury.

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SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA

2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 8-April 16

Storyline: Coach Ron Roberts is assuming the defensive coordinator's position as his Lions - who won 2013 and '14 Southland titles - return only four defensive starters. Injuries played a big part of last year's disappointment (seven losses in the last eight games). Senior quarterback D'Shaie Landor was among the injured players who will work under new offensive coordinator Matt Barrett this year. Running back Julius Maracalin came on strong and will help bring added production to a team that averaged only 20 points and committed 28 turnovers.

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STEPHEN F. AUSTIN

2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

Spring Practices: March 25-April 16

Storyline: While the offense returns eight starters, the three losses were linemen who combined to make 163 career starts, so coach Clint Conque has some work to do this spring. His son Zach will have all the key skill position players back for his third season as the starting quarterback. The Lumberjacks have a new offensive coordinator in Gary Crowton, but he and Clint Conque have worked together previously. Defensive end John Franklin emerged at the end of last season and should settle into a bigger role following the loss of three seniors. The Lumberjacks, undone by an 0-5 start, surrendered 33 points per game last year.