In the FCS Huddle: Southland on the rise

( - The growth of Southland Conference football from eight to 11 teams this season has people talking about a superconference.

Those within the Southland are pointing more to being a super conference.

The Southland is on the rise after Sam Houston State's back-to-back appearances in the FCS championship game in 2011 and '12 and Southeastern Louisiana's quick rise to being a national championship contender.

The Lions, who were 10-3 overall and 7-0 in conference play last season, and return 15 starters and 58 lettermen, were installed as the favorite on Wednesday in both the Southland head coaches and sports information directors polls. Playoff contenders McNeese State, Sam Houston and Central Arkansas followed in the same order.

The three newcomers won't quite lift the conference's image just yet, but the hope is that Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word and second-year program Houston Baptist make a quick adjustment to the Southland. Abilene Christian, a Southland member from 1964-72, is the most likely to do so with a program that has had recent success on the Division II level.

"There was nothing easy about our league to begin with," Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas said, "but we've added two quality programs (ACU and UIW) and one in Houston Baptist that has tremendous potential to develop very fast. Not playing everybody else in the conference race is a new experience for us, but there are plenty of leagues where that happens. I think this will make everybody in the Southland better, because I don't think it will take long at all for the newcomers to have an impact."

With the expansion comes unbalanced scheduling. Each team will play eight conference games, missing two other members.

Among the top teams in the two polls, Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana don't play each other this season. Neither do Central Arkansas and McNeese State. It could make a big difference in the title race.

"The biggest effect the expansion of the Southland Conference is going to have is the schedule," Southeastern Louisiana coach Ron Roberts said. "Now we don't all play each other, which will be different."

Southeastern figures to build off last season's success, when it reached the FCS quarterfinals. The Lions placed a conference-high nine players on the Southland preseason first team, led by senior quarterback Bryan Bennett, the conference's 2013 player of the year. The former Oregon backup QB is one of the many transfers who have entered the program under Roberts, causing quick turnaround of the Lions' fortunes.

Not afraid of a bull's-eye, Roberts says his squad is better than a year ago as it enters fall camp. It will need to be considering the depth of the conference, where the second-tier teams have raised their programs as well.

"I've been in the Southland for the better part of 20 years and as coaches and players, I think we've always believed we could compete very well against any FCS program," Thomas added. "We've had some nice runs this century, with Sam Houston's two championship game appearances the latest cases in point. We're in a location where playing non-conference games against other FCS teams is tougher to do because of travel, so that postseason success is like gold for us. It confirms what we've thought and shows the rest of the country that we belong in that national championship conversation year in and year out."

The Southland will be the host conference of the FCS championship game for the fifth straight season. The game will be played Jan. 10 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.


Head Coaches Poll

1. Southeastern Louisiana (9 first-place votes), 99 points

2. McNeese State (2), 92

3. Sam Houston State, 79

4. Central Arkansas, 70

5. Northwestern State, 59

T6. Stephen F. Austin, 52

T6. Lamar, 52

8. Abilene Christian, 36

9. Nicholls, 35

10. Incarnate Word, 21

11. Houston Baptist, 10

Sports Information Directors Poll

1. Southeastern Louisiana (10), 100

2. McNeese State (1), 89

3. Sam Houston State, 78

4. Central Arkansas, 72

5. Northwestern State, 61

6. Stephen F. Austin, 55

7. Lamar, 45

8. Abilene Christian, 39

9. Nicholls, 36

10. Incarnate Word, 20

11. Houston Baptist, 10


First-Team Offense

QB - Bryan Bennett, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

RB - Rasheed Harrell, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

RB - Gus Johnson, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.

TE/HB - Zach Hetrick, McNeese State, So.

WR - Reggie Begelton, Lamar, Jr.

WR - Dezmin Lewis, Central Arkansas, Sr.

WR - Tyler Boyd, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.

OL - Jonathan Braddock, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

OL - Antoine Everett, McNeese State, Sr.

OL - Donald Jackson, Sam Houston State, Jr.

OL - Cole Caruthers, Central Arkansas, Sr.

OL - Quentin Marsh, McNeese State, Jr.

AP - Xavier Roberson, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

PK - Luc Swimberghe, Sam Houston State, So.

First-Team Defense

DL - Jacob Newman, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

DL - Jonathan Woodard, Central Arkansas, Jr.

DL - Everett Ellefsen, McNeese State, Sr.

DL - Deon Simon, Northwestern State, Sr.

LB - Isiah Corbet, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

LB - Drew Misita, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

LB - Bo Brown, McNeese State, Jr.

DB - Harlan Miller, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

DB - Imoan Claiborne, Northwestern State, Sr.

DB - Mike Wade, Sam Houston State, Sr.

DB - Aaron Sam, McNeese State, Sr.

DB - Fred Thomas, Northwestern State, Sr.

P - Jean Breaux, McNeese State, Jr.

KR - Xavier Roberson, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

PR - Kevin Johnson, Lamar, Sr.

Second-Team Offense

QB - Caleb Berry, Lamar, Sr.

RB - Kelvin Bennett, McNeese State, Jr.

RB - Keshawn Hill, Sam Houston State, Sr.

TE/HB - Shane Young, Sam Houston State, Sr.

WR - Jeff Smiley, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

WR - Damien Watts, Central Arkansas, Sr.

WR - Ernest Celestie, McNeese State, Sr.

OL - Joe Graves, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

OL - C.J. Simon, Central Arkansas, Sr.

OL - Byron Williams, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.

OL - Austin Douglas, Northwestern State, Sr.

OL - Justin Brock, Lamar, Jr.

AP - Daniel Taylor, Northwestern State, Jr.

PK - Eddie Camara, Central Arkansas, Sr.

Second-Team Defense

DL - A.J. Bowen, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.

DL - T.J. Randall, Central Arkansas, Sr.

DL - JeMarcus Marshall, Northwestern State, So.

DL - Gary Lorance, Sam Houston State, Sr.

LB - Justin Church, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

LB - Kaleb Muse, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

LB - Davin Bovie, Nicholls State, Sr.

DB - Tyler Stoddard, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

DB - Gabe Hammer, McNeese State, Jr.

DB - Dillon Winfrey, Central Arkansas, Jr.

DB - Adam Jones, Northwestern State, So.

DB - Byron Cobb, Nicholls State, Sr.

P - Nick Bruno, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.

KR - Jatavious Wilson, Central Arkansas, So.

PR - Ed Eagan, Northwestern State, Jr.