There’s excitement brewing in the Southland Conference.
Last season, three teams made the FCS playoffs -- conference champ Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State and Nicholls -- plus McNeese had more wins (nine) than any eligible team that fell short of being in the 24-team field.
Those four teams and perhaps Southeastern Louisiana (the champ in 2014 and ’15) have realistic aspirations of extending their season this year in what should be a terrific campaign across the conference.
Here are five bold prediction for the Southland with the season fast approaching:
The title could be decided early
One of the top four teams in the race may go away and hide if all falls right in September. Defending champ Central Arkansas plays Southeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston in September and doesn’t have Nicholls on the schedule. Nicholls gets McNeese and Sam Houston in the first month of the season. Sam Houston and McNeese don’t face each other, with Sam Houston facing Nicholls and Central Arkansas in September. McNeese, picked fourth in the Southland’s preseason poll, is the exception with Nicholls in its conference opener in mid-September, then UCA and SLU later in the season.
The defending champs won’t get invited to the party
Picking against Central Arkansas is dangerous -- yeah, way dangerous. But anything short of eight wins may not cut it for a playoff bid this year with the Southland boasting so many strong contenders. The Bears have a first-time head coach in alum Nathan Brown, return only eight starters and face a difficult road schedule, including Tulsa, Sam Houston, McNeese, Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin.
New head coaches bring chance for upsets
The energy within a program soars in a coach’s first season. Central Arkansas has its new leader in Brown, but there could be as many as five Southland teams with that scenario. There’s also Incarnate Word’s Eric Morris, Northwestern State’s Brad Laird (an alum), Southeastern Louisiana’s Frank Scelfo and possibly Stephen F. Austin’s Jeff Byrd, who’s currently leading the way on an interim basis with Clint Conque suspended by the school. Opponents will have to adjust to the new schemes and philosophies.
Sam Houston State won’t make the national semifinals
The Bearkats get bashed so much nationally for lopsided exits in the playoffs that it’s almost overlooked they’ve been to two national championship games and three other semifinals, including last year, in the last seven seasons. Yeah, phenomenal stuff. But the Southland power hasn’t done enough to fix its defensive shortcoming, and this season the Bearkats have to overcome the losses of defensive lineman P.J. Hall -- perhaps their best defender in program history -- and linebacker Justin Johnson, who led them in tackles for two straight season. Those factors probably won’t have them playing in the third weekend of December.
Fear the Lions, they may be the surprise
Southeastern Louisiana closed out last season by beating Nicholls to finish 6-3 and in fifth place. The Lions lost half of their starters, but when Scelfo was hired to replace the successful Ron Roberts, he didn’t mince words, saying he expects his team to win immediately. That confidence oozes onto the roster, which has two strong options at quarterback -- 2017 Southland newcomer of the Lorenzo Nunez and Fresno State transfer Chason Virgil -- and Julius Maracalin to lead a running attack that ranked third in the nation in rushing last season. If Scelfo gets the defense rebuilt, SLU could get on a midseason roll.
-- Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics)