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5 Key Questions in the Southland Conference for the 2017 FCS Season

P.J. Hall Action.jpg

Sam Houston State's P.J. Hall (92)

In some ways, Sam Houston State football gets a bum rap.

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The Bearkats have the second-most wins among FCS programs in the 2010s (behind North Dakota State) and make deep playoff runs, including two national runner-up finishes.

Yet people often focus on some of the lopsided losses that have ended the Kats’ postseasons.

In truth, most schools would gladly take Sam Houston’s resume.

The Bearkats are favored to win another Southland Conference championship this year, but Central Arkansas, last year’s other playoff team out of the conference, and several other teams believe they can turn the race upside down.

With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the Southland:

Will Sam Houston State sweep the Payton and Buchanan awards?

The Bearkats’ two best players are among their returnees, quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe and defensive end P.J. Hall, both entering their senior season. Briscoe is seeking to become the second player to repeat as the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner (Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards won in 2008-09) and Hall is coming off a runner-up finish in the Buck Buchanan Award voting. No school has ever won the two biggest FCS player of the year awards in the same season.

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After Jeremiah Briscoe, who’s the best quarterback?

It’s a strong season for returning quarterbacks in the Southland. Of course, Briscoe is the headliner, but there’s also James Tabary of McNeese, Chase Fourcade of Nicholls, Hayden Hildebrand of Central Arkansas and Dallas Sealey of Abilene Christian. Only three teams don’t have a quarterback with a previous start at his school, and two of them, Incarnate Word and Stephen F. Austin, could be going with signal-callers who were previously at FBS programs. Houston Baptist is the other program starting anew.

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Related: Top 10 FCS Quarterbacks to Watch in 2017

How are the new teams making progress?

Unlike Big Sky with Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah, the three relative newcomers to the Southland Conference haven’t had a big impact in the conference standings. Since Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word came aboard in 2014, only Incarnate Word has had a winning season, going 6-5 overall with a 5-4 third-place conference finish in ‘15. But the three programs feel a good foundation is in place. Abilene Christian made one of the more interesting coaching hires this offseason with Adam Dorrel, who won three Division II national titles at Northwest Missouri State.

Related: Assessing Head Coaching Changes in FCS College Football

Is this a three-bid conference?

Both of last year’s Southland playoff teams won their first games before they were eliminated. Sam Houston and Central Arkansas are primed to return to the postseason and they could bring a third team with them. Southeastern Louisiana, which finished third a year ago, held out hope for an at-large bid, which didn’t materialize. Perennial power McNeese, which went only 6-5 in posting a 12th straight winning season, should get right back into the playoff picture with a softer schedule – no FBS opponent or Sam Houston State.

Who are the NFL prospects?

Briscoe (6-3, 220) and Hall (6-1, 280) are the top candidates. Briscoe set the FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes last season, and Hall has an impressive 36 sacks and 67 tackles for a loss through his first three seasons. One of their Sam Houston teammates, running back Corey Avery (5-10, 190), will get a look as will Central Arkansas cornerback Tremon Smith (6-0, 180).

Related: Top FCS 2018 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch

— 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.

(Photos by Sam Houston State Athletics)