Change has been good for the Southland Conference.
The more successful programs have undergone head coaching changes yet still fielded winners. Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word joined the conference in 2014 to expand it to 11 teams.
This year, plenty of new standouts will emerge after key seniors moved on. The biggest change, though, is at defending champion McNeese State, where Lance Guidry has taken over as the new head coach.
With McNeese and fellow powers Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas expected to lead the title race, the question persists: Which other teams can change that script?
With the 2016 FCS season fast approaching, here are five key questions surrounding the Southland:
1. How can Sam Houston State take the final step?
Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler says there is only one more step for his Southland Conference power – to win the FCS championship. In the last five seasons, the Bearkats have been the national runner-up twice (2011, ’12) and reached the semifinals two other times (the last two seasons). To take the final step, the Bearkats need a big regular season. With a subpar non-conference schedule (Panhandle State and Texas Southern), they will want to be near-perfect in the regular season to gain a high seed and home games in the playoffs. Not facing North Dakota State in the playoffs would help, too. But the Bearkats are filled with veterans (16 returning starters), including quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, running back Corey Avery and defensive end P.J. Hall.
2. How much will the coaching change impact McNeese State?
Oh yes, McNeese State won the Southland title last season, not Sam Houston State. That fact can get overlooked considering the Bearkats enjoyed postseason success again. But McNeese didn’t lose a game until its second-round exit against conference rival Sam Houston State. Head coach Matt Viator has since moved on to the FBS and ULM following 10 successful seasons. It’s a loss, no doubt, but the Cowboys saddled up the next-best choice in Guidry, their popular defensive coordinator and a McNeese alum. He led one of the nation’s best defenses last season. With the Cowboys able to run the ball and stop the run, they will reload well.
3. Which team bounces back — Southeastern Louisiana or Stephen F. Austin?
Only four of the 11 Southland teams finished with a winning record last season. Central Arkansas, which would have made the FCS playoffs over Sam Houston had it won the regular-season finale between them, should be considered the chief challenger to the big two. But Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin hope to back bounce into the race. SFA made the playoffs in 2014, then lost its first five games last season before finishing 4-7 overall and 4-5 in the conference. Southeastern slumped even further — 4-7 and 3-6 — after winning Southland titles in 2013 and ’14. SFA has a veteran and perhaps the conference’s best quarterback in Zach Conque. Southeastern went heavy on junior college transfers to bolster a lineup that was set back by injuries last season. SFA appears stronger on paper.
4. Can Kade Harrington rush for 2,000 yards again?
Lamar running back Kade Harrington gobbled up rushing yards in bunches, averaging 7.9 yards per carry while leading the FCS with 2,092 yards. The runner-up for FCS offensive player of the year (to Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp) is talented enough to post back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons, but he’s also aided by the return of three starters on the offensive line as well as John Craven, who has made 18 career starts but sat out last season with an injury.
5. Who are the NFL prospects?
The senior class in the Southland isn’t nearly as strong as last season’s, which produced three NFL Draft choices. Harrington (5-9, 190) headlines the group with his north-south running style, although his smaller size and pass-catching ability best suit him for a third-down role at the next level. Harrington’s teammates Bret Treadway (6-3, 280), an offensive lineman, and Branden Langley (6-1, 190), a cornerback, also will draw attention. Central Arkansas features wide receiver Desmond Smith (6-1, 201).
— 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 by Lamar Athletics)