(STATS) - Everywhere you turn in Southland Conference football, they're talking about Sam Houston State.

The conference favorite. The most Southland preseason selections. Four appearances in at least the semifinals over the last five FCS playoffs.

Dare we say, with a No. 2 ranking in the STATS FCS Preseason Top 25, on the verge of challenging North Dakota State for that final step?

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There's one thing that is easy to forget, though: McNeese, not Sam Houston, is the defending Southland champion.

And the Cowboys aren't nearly ready to give up first place.

"We finished 10-0 in the regular season last year, but lost in the playoffs," wide receiver Kent Shelby said, not forgetting that Sam Houston reversed McNeese's 27-10 win in the regular season with a 34-29 road triumph in the playoff second round.

"We're still humble and hungry and we want more."

With former coach Matt Viator having left the Cowboys to take over at UL Monroe, defensive coordinator Lance Guidry has saddled up to the top job. He developed one of the better defenses in the FCS last season.

One of the more interesting aspects of his coaching staff is it has representative from each of McNeese's 11 Southland championship squads since 1990.

"I'm the new kid on the block," Guidry said. "Coach Matt Viator did a great job in 17 years, 10 as head coach. It's up to us to continue that. We're going to be more physical in practice and compete every day. We want the same attitude throughout the entire team. We're still going to be run-oriented, but the offense is going to be in the QB's hands. I think we'll be more wide open this year."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2015 Southland Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Sam Houston State

2. McNeese

3. Central Arkansas

4. Stephen F. Austin

5. Lamar

6. Southeastern Louisiana

7. Incarnate Word

8. Northwestern State

9. Abilene Christian

10. Nicholls

11. Houston Baptist

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. SAM HOUSTON STATE BEARKATS=

LOCATION: Huntsville, Texas

STADIUM: Bowers Stadium

COACH: K.C. Keeler (22-9 in two seasons at Sam Houston State; 192-78-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 11-4 overall, 7-2 Southland (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: QB Jared Johnson; OT Donald Jackson III; Lachlan Edwards, P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jeremiah Briscoe, QB, Jr. (135-for-246, 1,883 yards, 14 TDs, 5 INTs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: P.J. Hall, DE, Jr. (71 TT, 18.5 TFL, 10 sacks, 2 INTs, 8 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF, 5 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Corey Avery, RB, Jr.; Javin Web, RB, So. (Houston transfer); Jordan Brown, RB, Jr. (Georgia Military transfer); Remus Bulmer, RB, So.; Yedidiah Louis, WR/RS, Jr.; Davion Davis, WR, So.; Deon Hutchinson, TE, Sr.; Ragan Henderson, TE, Jr.; Sam Hardy, OT, Sr.; Bridge Blount, OL, Sr.; Curtis Riser, OL, Sr.; Luis Carreno, DE, Sr.; Mouf Adebo, DE, Jr.; Marcus Loud, DE, Jr. (Missouri transfer); James DeLaRosa, DT, Sr.; Sione Latu, DL, Sr.; Collins Okotcha, LB, So.; Myke Chatman, LB, Sr.; Darion Flowers, LB, Jr.; A.J. Davis, LB, Jr.; Adrian Contreras, S, So.; Alfonzo McMillian, S, Jr.; Luc Swimberghe, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: There's really only one more step for the Bearkats program that has been to two national finals and two other semifinals in the last five seasons. Keeler says the goal is to keep improving on the small details that will make the difference between finishing as the No. 3 team in the nation (like last season) and being the No. 1 team. The offense will remain among the nation's best after leading the FCS in total offense (531.7 ypg) and ranking fifth in scoring offense (41.1 ppg) last season. Former QB Johnson was the Southland offensive player of the year, but Briscoe supplanted him as the starter in last year's playoffs. Briscoe will have a game-breaking running back in Avery (194 carries, 1,483 yards, 15 TDs) and a steady receiving corps, led by Louis (71 receptions, 994 yards, 7 TDs). The defense struggles against the run, but the pass rush could be unbelievable with DEs Hall, Adebo (injured last season), Carreno and Loud. New Mexico pulled out of a matchup with Sam Houston, so the schedule isn't strong, with rival McNeese having to come to Huntsville on Nov. 5.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Panhandle State

Sept. 17, at Lamar*

Sept. 24, at Houston Baptist*

Oct. 1, at Stephen F. Austin* (at NRG Stadium in Houston)

Oct. 8, at Incarnate Word*

Oct. 15, Abilene Christian*

Oct. 22, at Nicholls*

Oct. 29, Texas Southern

Nov. 5, McNeese*

Nov. 12, at Northwestern State*

Nov. 19, Central Arkansas*

* - Southland game

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2. MCNEESE COWBOYS=

LOCATION: Lake Charles, Louisiana

STADIUM: Cowboy Stadium

COACH: Lance Guidry (first season at McNeese State)

LAST SEASON: 10-1 overall, 9-0 Southland (1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Daniel Sams, QB; Bo Brown, LB; Wallace Scott, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Ryan Ross, RB, Jr. (144 carries, 891 yards, 9 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Isaiah Golden, DT, Jr. (28 TT, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 2 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Grant Ashcraft, QB, Jr.; James Tabary, QB, So. (Arkansas State transfer); Dylan Long, RB, Sr.; Lawayne Ross, RB, R-Fr.; Kent Shelby, WR, Jr.; Tavarious Battiste, WR, So.; Darious Crawley, WR, Jr. (Kansas transfer); Zach Hetrick, TE, Sr.; Mason Martin, OL, Sr.; Thor Miller, OL, Sr.; Kyle Zenon, OL, So.; Anthony Yruegas, DL, Jr.; Jammerio Gross-Whitaker, DL, Jr.; Anthony Yruegas, DL, Jr.; Ashari Goins, LB, Jr.; Ed Duplessis, LB, Jr.; Dominique Hill, DB, Jr.; Jermaine Antoine, DB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The Cowboys were the only FCS team to finish the regular season with an unbeaten record last season, but they fell to Sam Houston in the second round of the playoffs. Guidry, the popular defensive coordinator, was elevated to head coach following Matt Viator's departure to UL Monroe. His defense should remain among the conference's best, with Tommy Restivo coming over from South Carolina State to take over as defensive coordinator. The 6-foot-1, 325-pound Golden is a handful up the middle and it reflected last season when McNeese ranked fourth in the FCS in rushing defense (87.4 ypg). While last year's outstanding secondary lost top players, Hill, the team's third-leading tackler, and Antione return as leaders. The offense, under coordinator Landon Hoefer, will still think run first despite losing QB Sams. Ashcraft (6-6, 219) has waited to become the starter and is a better passer than his predecessor, but Tabary will challenge for playing time after making three starts at Arkansas State as a freshman last year. Ross is a 1,000-yard rusher waiting to happen and Shelby (36 receptions, 668 yards, 6 TDs) will make big plays on the perimeter.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Tarleton State

Sept. 10, at Louisiana-Lafayette

Sept. 17, Stephen F. Austin*

Sept. 24, at Incarnate Word*

Oct. 1, Nicholls*

Oct. 8, at Southeastern Louisiana*

Oct. 15, Central Arkansas*

Oct. 22, at Northwestern State*

Oct. 29, Abilene Christian*

Nov. 5, at Sam Houston State*

Nov. 19, Lamar*

* - Southland game

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3. CENTRAL ARKANSAS BEARS=

LOCATION: Conway, Arkansas

STADIUM: Estes Stadium

COACH: Steve Campbell (13-10 in two seasons at Central Arkansas; 139-48 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 7-2 Southland (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Blake Veasley RB; Jonathan Woodard DE; Ricky Wyatt LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Desmond Smith, WR, Sr. (67 receptions, 817 yards, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tremon Smith, CB, Jr. (51 TT, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 12 PBU, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Hayden Hildebrand, QB, Jr. (132-for-208, 1,707 yards, 12 TDs, 4 INTs); Jarvis Cooper, RB, Jr. (Memphis transfer); Brady Moore, WR, Jr.; Jatavious Wilson, WR/KR, Sr.; Brandon Cox, WR/PR, Jr.; Stockton Mallett, OL, Jr.; Cardell Best, DE, Jr.; Terrence Partee, DT, Sr.; Garrett Sharp, LB, Sr.; Chris Chambers, OLB, Jr.; George Odum, S, Jr.; Devin Spurlock, S, Sr.; Brandon Porter, S, Sr.; Tyler Williams, CB, Sr.

OUTLOOK: A loss at home to Sam Houston to end the regular season cost the Bears their first playoff berth since 2012. They hope to come in from the front porch with their athletic squad, but Campbell says his team has to mature with players in new roles. Four of the top five tacklers return to the defense, led by Spurlock (75). Tremon Smith is one of the best cornerbacks in the FCS. But the pass rush took a step back with the departure of DEs Woodard and Derek Floyd. Hildebrand was efficient in his first season as the starting quarterback and will pair with WRs Desmond Smith and Wilson (49 receptions, 536 yards, 4 TDs) in a strong passing game. In fact, the offense might have to pass more after it lost standout RB Veasley. Schedule-wise, the Bears will have to come up big on the road in Southland play against some of the conference's heavy hitters.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Houston Baptist*

Sept. 10, Samford

Sept. 17, Northwestern State*

Sept. 24, at Arkansas State

Oct. 1, at Abilene Christian*

Oct. 15, at McNeese*

Oct. 22, Lamar*

Oct. 29, at Southeastern Louisiana*

Nov. 5, at Stephen F. Austin*

Nov. 12, Nicholls*

Nov. 19, at Sam Houston State*

* - Southland game

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4. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN LUMBERJACKS=

LOCATION: Nacogdoches, Texas

STADIUM: Homer Bryce Stadium

COACH: Clint Conque (12-12 in two seasons at Stephen F. Austin; 117-71 overall)

LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Terran Vaughn, OL; Byron Williams, OL; Justin Owens, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Zach Conque, QB, Sr. (177-for-303, 1,933 yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs; 139 carries, 554 yards, 11 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: John Franklin, DE, Jr. (32 TT, 8.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 5 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Loren Easly, RB, Jr.; Joshawa West, RB, Sr.; Aaron Piper, WR, Jr.; Robert Sylvester, WR/KR, Jr.; Justice Liggins, WR, Sr.; De'Quann Ruffin, WR, Sr.; Anthony Pullins, C, Sr.; Kedrick Harrison, DE, Sr.; Mitchel Zimmerle, DT, Jr.; Price Miller, LB, Sr.; George Stone, LB, Sr.; Tre Rosser, CB, Sr.; Zack Starnes, CB, Sr.; Patrick Martin, S, Sr.; Ahmad Muhammad, S, Jr.; Marlon Walls, S, Jr.

OUTLOOK: A plethora of returnees in the skills position figure to push SFA back to a winning season. The Lumberjacks were undone by an 0-5 start last season, less than a year removed from having a playoff team. QB Zach Conque figures to have a special senior campaign under his father Clint, who also took Central Arkansas to the playoffs in 2011 and '12. The key for the offense is to overcome three senior losses up front. If the 'Jacks do, Zach Conque will be part of a strong run game that is led by RBs Easly (759 yards, 4 TDs) and West (617 yards, 1 TD). The team's five leading receivers are back as well, including Piper (41 receptions, 382 yards, 4 TDs) and Sylvester (39 receptions, 364 yards, 1 TD). The defense surrendered 33 points per game and was ravaged by the pass last season. With DE Franklin making a difference in the pass rush, the defense is counting on improvement. The 'Jacks jump right into the Southland fray with McNeese, Abilene Christian and Sam Houston to begin conference play.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Texas Tech

Sept. 10, West Alabama

Sept. 17, at McNeese*

Sept. 24, Abilene Christian*

Oct. 1, Sam Houston State* (at NRG Stadium, Houston)

Oct. 8, at Nicholls*

Oct. 15, Southeastern Louisiana*

Oct. 29, at Incarnate Word*

Nov. 5, Central Arkansas*

Nov. 12, at Houston Baptist*

Nov. 19, Northwestern State*

* - Southland game

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5. LAMAR CARDINALS=

LOCATION: Beaumont, Texas

STADIUM: Provost Umphrey Stadium

COACH: Ray Woodard (31-38 in six seasons at Lamar)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (6 offense/4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Reggie Begelton, WR; Cody Elenz, OL; Ronnie Jones, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Kade Harrington, RB, Sr. (266 carries, 2,092 yards, 21 TDs; 15 receptions, 216 yards, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Xavier Bethany, DB, Sr. (87 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Carson Earp, QB, Sr.; Martell Hawthorne, WR, So.; Marcus Daggs, WR, Jr.; DeAndre Jennings, TE, Sr.; Bret Treadway, OL, Sr.; John Craven, OL, R-Jr.; Matt Oubre, OL, Jr.; Omar Tebo, DT, Sr.; Manasseh Miles, DE, Jr.; Larry Carroll, DL, Sr.; Cameron Hampton, LB, So.; Dedrick Garner, LB, So.; Rodney Randle Jr., DB/KR, So.; Brendan Langley, DB, Sr.; Lloyd Julian, DB, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Harrington, the FCS rushing leader last season and runner-up for STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, is primed for a huge senior season, but that shouldn't overshadow how the Cardinals will be good as a team. After being hit hard by injuries last season, they welcome back the likes of QB Earp, OL Craven and DE Miles. While Harrington's production takes pressure off everybody else on offense, Earp is hurt by the loss of leading receiver Begelton. On defense, All-Southland DE Larance Hale (21 1/2 TFL, 7 1/2 sacks) was suspended from the program in the spring and removed this summer. The defense was much better in 2013 and '14 than a year ago, but there is plenty of talent in the secondary with Bethany and shutdown corner Langley. September could be a month to remember - or forget - with Coastal Carolina, Houston and Sam Houston offering a rugged start to the season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Coastal Carolina

Sept. 10, at Houston

Sept. 17, Sam Houston State*

Oct. 1, Southeastern Louisiana*

Oct. 8, at Abilene Christian*

Oct. 15, Northwestern State*

Oct. 22, at Central Arkansas*

Oct. 29, Houston Baptist*

Nov. 3, at Nicholls*

Nov. 12, Incarnate Word*

Nov. 19, at McNeese*

* - Southland game

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6. SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA LIONS=

LOCATION: Hammond, Louisiana

STADIUM: Strawberry Stadium

COACH: Ron Roberts (29-20 in four seasons at Southeastern Louisiana; 76-36 overall)

LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 7 (5 offense/2 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Harlan Miller, DB; Herbert Harris, LB; Xavier Roberson, RB/KR

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Julius Maracalin, RB, So. (102 carries, 590 yards, 3 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tre' Bennett, LB, Sr. (45 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: D'Shaie Landor, QB, Sr.; Donovan Isom, QB, So.; Eugene Bethea, RB, Jr.; Rasheed Harrell, RB, Sr.; Darius Durall, RB, Jr. (SMU transfer); Juwaan Rogers, FB, Sr.; Brandon Acker, WR, Sr.; Travis Romero, OL, Jr.; Miki Fangatua, DL, Sr.; Trent Williams, DL, Sr.; Javari Nichols, DL, Sr.; Solomon Parker, DL, Sr.; Jon Taylor, DL, Sr. (Copiah-Lincoln CC transfer); Jon Taylor, DL, Jr.; Sione Teuhema, LB, Jr. (LSU transfer); Will Hines, CB, Sr.; Torrance Mosley, DB, Jr. (TCU transfer); Mayori Ellison, DB, Jr. (Chabot College transfer); Ryan Sigers, S, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The Lions hope to ride the roller coaster up again. The 2013 and '14 Southland champs fell apart last season after a 2-0 start in the conference. Picked sixth (coaches) and seventh (sports information directors) in the Southland preseason polls, Roberts believes his team is better than advertised. As usual, he went big on the transfers, with RB Durall and DBs Ellison and Mosley among those expected to contribute heavily. A quick impact is needed because the Lions have the fewest returning starters (seven) in the conference. LB Bennett, who ranked fifth on the team with 45 tackles, CB Hines and S Sigers are the veterans of a basically new defense. The offense may just need better health after RB Harrell and FB Rogers were often sidelined last season. It allowed Maracalin to come on strong and lead the team in rushing as a freshman. Landor and Isom shared QB duties, but combined to complete only 51.6 percent of their passes. The Lions averaged a mere 20 points per game and committed 28 turnovers.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Oklahoma State

Sept. 10, at Southern Utah

Sept. 24, Northwestern State*

Oct. 1, at Lamar*

Oct. 8, McNeese*

Oct. 15, at Stephen F. Austin*

Oct. 22, Houston Baptist*

Oct. 29, Central Arkansas*

Nov. 5, at Incarnate Word*

Nov. 12, Abilene Christian*

Nov. 17, at Nicholls*

* - Southland game

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7. INCARNATE WORD CARDINALS=

LOCATION: San Antonio

STADIUM: Gayle and Tim Benson Stadium

COACH: Larry Kennan (16-28 in four seasons at Incarnate Word; 29-45-3 overall)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Cole Wick, TE; Nathan Thompson, LT; Myke Tavarres, OLB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Trent Brittain, QB, Jr. (183-for-352, 2,254 yards, 9 TDs, 13 INTs; 91 carries, 407 yards, 8 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Josh Zellars, ILB, Sr. (83 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Junior Sessions, RB, Sr.; Broderick Reeves, RB, Sr.; Cyril Clarke, H-Back, Sr.; Kody Edwards, WR/RS, Jr.; Jordan Hicks, WR/PR, Sr.; Matt McCarthy, C, Sr.; Draven Taylor, RT, Jr.; Eric England, NT, So.; Corey Lee, DE, Jr.; Alex Jenkins, DE, Sr.; Greg Lemon, OLB, Jr.; Quandre Washington, ILB, Jr.; Adrian Norwood Jr., S, Sr.; Cody Seidel, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: UIW was one of only four Southland teams to enjoy a winning season last year. Strangely, despite the return of 17 starters - the second-most in the conference - the Cardinals were picked eighth (coaches) and ninth (sports information directors) in the Southland preseason polls. If there is a glaring negative, it's the loss of All-America LB Tavarres. But Kennan is thrilled to have QB Brittain acclimated again after he missed most of the 2014 season with a broken ankle. He will run the ball effectively as will RB Sessions (1,482 career rushing yards). The defense is hoping for a healthy Lee, who comes off quad surgery. The defensive end had 14 1/2 tackles for loss in 2014. Zellars has been starting since his freshman year and expects to have a banner senior season. The Cardinals hope to pull some upsets at home and stay in the top half of the conference.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Texas A&M-Kingsville

Sept. 10, at Northwestern State*

Sept. 17, at Nicholls*

Sept. 24, McNeese*

Oct. 1, at Texas State

Oct. 8, Sam Houston State*

Oct. 22, at Abilene Christian*

Oct. 29, Stephen F. Austin*

Nov. 5, Southeastern Louisiana*

Nov. 12, at Lamar*

Nov. 17, Houston Baptist*

* - Southland game

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8. NORTHWESTERN STATE DEMONS=

LOCATION: Natchitoches, Louisiana

STADIUM: Harry Turpin Stadium

COACH: Jay Thomas (16-19 in three seasons at Northwestern State; 43-54 overall)

LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: WR/KR Ed Eagan; LT Pace Murphy; PK Chris Moore

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: De'Mard Llorens, RB, Sr. (173 TT, 820 yards, 11 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Darius Poullard, S, Sr. (59 TT, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brooks Haack, QB, Sr. (UL Lafayette transfer); J.D. Almond, QB, Jr.; Joel Blumenthal, QB, Jr.; Ronald Green, RB, So.; Chris Jones, RB, Sr.; Tuff McClain, WR, Sr.; Bobby Chan-Chan, WR, Jr.; Shakeir Ryan, WR/KR, Sr.; Korliss Johnson, LT, Sr.; Terrance Boyd, RG, Sr.; JeMarcus Marshall, DE, Sr.; Isaiah Wheeler, DT, Jr.; Ike Warren, CB, So.; Shawn Stephens, LB, Sr.; Lyn Clark, LB, Jr.; Peyton Guidry, LB, Jr.; Adam Jones, S, Sr.; Eric Piccione, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: For the first time in six years, the Demons will have the same defensive coordinator (Daryl Daye) as the previous season. It's time for progress, though, because the Demons ranked last in the conference in scoring defense (39.5 ppg) and total defense (485.2 ypg) a year ago. They are set at safety with Jones and Poullard, and some midyear transfers will help out the defense. Quarterback was unsettled a year ago, and even though Almond and Blumenthal return to the fold, the starting job might go to transfer Haack, who was the primary starter at UL Lafayette last year in another up-and-down situation. The offense is replacing its most dynamic player, Eagan, but RBs Llorens and Jones will form a productive pair. The Demons have a tendency to be middle of the pack in the Southland.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Baylor

Sept. 8, Incarnate Word*

Sept. 17, at Central Arkansas*

Sept. 24, at Southeastern Louisiana*

Oct. 8, Kentucky Wesleyan

Oct. 15, at Lamar*

Oct. 22, McNeese*

Oct. 29, Nicholls*

Nov. 5, at Abilene Christian*

Nov. 12, Sam Houston State*

Nov. 19, at Stephen F. Austin*

* - Southland game

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9. ABILENE CHRISTIAN WILDCATS=

LOCATION: Abilene, Texas

STADIUM: Shotwell Stadium

COACH: Ken Collums (22-23 in four seasons at Abilene Christian)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Cedric Gilbert, WR; Codey Funk, LT; Lynn Grady, OLB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: De'Andre Brown, RB, Jr. (147 carries, 735 yards, 5 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Sam Denmark, MLB, Jr. (138 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dallas Sealey, QB, So.; Parker McKenzie, QB, Sr.; Donell Dunn, WR, Fr.; Deshun Qualls, WR, Fr.; Chase Cokley, WR, Fr.; Greg Craddock, WR, Fr.; Cody Ennis, TE, R-So.; Dakota Laws, OT, So.; Riley Mayfield, OT, R-So.; Brandon Niccum, OG, So. (Troy transfer); Carlton LaFrance, DE, Jr. (Saddleback College transfer); Bryson Gates, OLB, Jr.; Jabari Butler, CB, So.; Royce Moore, S, Jr. (Long Beach City College transfer); Nik Grau, PK, R-Jr.

OUTLOOK: Last year's losing record was the Wildcats' first since 2005, although it was only their third season on the FCS level. At one point in the injury-filled campaign, there were 15 key contributors sidelined. But there's energy heading into this season as Abilene opens a new stadium. The defense, which struggled to stop the run, will get contributions from transfers and freshmen. It has dominating players in Denmark, who led the FCS with 88 solo tackles, and Butler, who picked off six passes and broke up another nine as a freshman. On offense, Brown has had two solid seasons at running back. QB McKenzie (161-for-247, 1,855 yards, 14 TDs, 9 INTs) was better in 2014 than a year ago and has battled Sealey for the starting job. Abilene has been lining up FBS opponents, and the first one is Air Force to kick off the season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Air Force

Sept. 10, Northern Colorado

Sept. 17, at Houston Baptist*

Sept. 24, at Stephen F. Austin*

Oct. 1, Central Arkansas*

Oct. 8, Lamar*

Oct. 15, at Sam Houston State*

Oct. 22, Incarnate Word*

Oct. 29, at McNeese*

Nov. 5, Northwestern State*

Nov. 12, at Southeastern Louisiana*

* - Southland game

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10. NICHOLLS COLONELS=

LOCATION: Thibodaux, Louisiana

STADIUM: John L. Guidry Stadium

COACH: Tim Rebowe (3-8 in one season at Nicholls)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 3-6 Southland (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (7 offense/ 9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Michael Henry, RB; Tobias Lofton, RB; Jonah Austin, LT

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Tuskani Figaro, QB, Sr. (91-for-164, 925 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs; 94 carries, 456 yards, 5 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: B.T. Sanders, SS, Sr. (75 TT, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chase Fourcade, QB, Fr.; C.J. Bates, WR, Sr.; Damion Jeanpiere, WR, So.; Josh Singleton, WR, Sr.; Stephen LeBouef, TE, Jr.; Chris Bordelon, OL, Sr.; Ryan Hanley, OL, So.; Eddie Houston, OL, Jr. (East Central CC transfer); Kenny Dotson, DL, So.; Hezekiah White, LB, R-So.; Geoffrey Hebert, LB, Jr.; Jeff Hall, CB, Sr.; Ahmani Martin, DB, So.; Darryl Adams, DB, So.; David McKey, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Talk about a turnaround in the second half of Rebowe's first season, the Colonels ended a 23-game losing streak dating to 2013, then won road games against Lamar and Southeastern Louisiana and nearly beat Central Arkansas. Rebowe is hoping some of the young talent continues to fill the two-deep, but the Colonels still need senior leadership. Figaro, an option-style quarterback, has been injury-plagued during his career (last season's injury was a broken collarbone in November), yet he can be electric when healthy. He set the program record with 1,103 rushing yards in 2013. Leading receiver Bates also hopes to finish his career with a flourish. Sanders is the standout defensively, but there's up-and-coming players across the defense, including sophomores White, who led the team in tackles (96) and tackles for loss (9 1/2), and Martin, who had team highs in interceptions (three) and pass breakups (eight).

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 10, at Georgia

Sept. 17, Incarnate Word*

Sept. 24, at South Alabama

Oct. 1, at McNeese*

Oct. 8, Stephen F. Austin*

Oct. 15, at Houston Baptist*

Oct. 22, Sam Houston State*

Oct. 29, at Northwestern State*

Nov. 3, Lamar*

Nov. 12, at Central Arkansas*

Nov. 17, Southeastern Louisiana*

* - Southland game

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11. HOUSTON BAPTIST HUSKIES=

LOCATION: Houston

STADIUM: Dunham Field

COACH: Vic Shealy (3-18 in two seasons at Houston Baptist; 33-36-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 1-9 overall, 0-8 Southland (11th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Jones, DE; Prince Sam, CB; Travis Shinn, PK

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Terrance Peters, RB, Jr. (96 carries, 576 yards, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Garrett Dolan, MLB, Jr. (110 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Max Staver, QB, Jr.; Tony Dawson, QB, Sr.; B.J. Kelly, RB, Jr.; D'Angelo Wallace, WR, Jr.; Wesley Lewis, WR, Jr.; Brandon Taylor, WR/RS, Jr.; Hunter Barron, OL, Sr.; Cody Moncure, OLB, Jr.; Dorrin Turner, OLB, Jr.; Taaron Timmons, DE, Jr.; Terrell Brown, LB, Jr.; Taylor Thompson, S, Jr.; La'Travien Gee, S, Jr.; Jonathan Buffin, CB, Jr.; Tay Spann, CB, Sr.; Alec Chadwick, PK, So.; Christian Guzman, P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: For the first time this season, the Huskies' young program has a recruiting class on campus for four years. Their 19 returning starters are the most in the conference. Shealy is looking for his team to handle adversity better and start to win more games. Growing size and depth on the offensive and defensive lines are a plus, but there must be improvement at quarterback, where Staver and Dawson combined to throw 16 interceptions and only six touchdowns. That contributed to the Huskies averaging a conference-low 258.7 yards and 14.3 points per game. RB Peters picked up the slack when Kelly had a sophomore slump last season, and both need to be productive this season. Defensive leader Dolan and punter Guzman (43.6-yard average) are among the best in the conference. The Huskies are playing an FBS program for the first time, visiting Western Kentucky on Oct. 1.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, Central Arkansas*

Sept. 10, Texas Southern

Sept. 17, Abilene Christian*

Sept. 24, Sam Houston State*

Oct. 1, at Western Kentucky

Oct. 15, Nicholls*

Oct. 22, at Southeastern Louisiana*

Oct. 29, at Lamar*

Nov. 5, at UTEP*

Nov. 12, Stephen F. Austin*

Nov. 17, at Incarnate Word*

* - Southland game