If the Southland Conference preseason poll is any indicator, Saturday's showdown between Nicholls and Sam Houston could well decide the league championship.
Nicholls was tabbed the Southland favorite, albeit barely. The Colonels' seven first-place votes edged Sam Houston, a fixture in the FCS playoffs during the 2010s, which received six first-place votes. The Bearkats look to take their seventh Southland championship as a parting gift before joining the relaunched Western Athletic Conference in the fall.
Nicholls, which has steamrolled its way to a 3-0 start, brings a tenacious defense into Huntsville to try slowing down K.C. Keeler's high-powered offense.
Nicholls at Sam Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, March 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Sam Houston -2.5
When Nicholls Has the Ball
Tim Rebowe has transformed Nicholls in his time with the Colonels, including a current run with back-to-back league titles. His spring 2021 squad is off to a tremendous start in pursuit of a third consecutive crown. While somewhat skewed by their season-opening, 87-3 decimation of Div. II Lincoln University, the Colonels' offensive numbers are still eye-popping. Nicholls is averaging more than 57 points per game after having put up 55 on Southland counterpart Lamar, and 34 in a one-touchdown defeat of Northwestern State.
Quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. has completed 72.1 percent of his 68 pass attempts for 684 yards, eight touchdowns, and just one interception. The pass-catching duo of Dai'Jean Dixon and Dontaze Costly each have three touchdown grabs. Dixon was All-America-caliber in the Colonels' Southland-winning 2019, hauling in more than 1,000 yards with eight scores.
Offensive coordinator Rob Christophel's scheme leans heavily on the run despite the impressive passing numbers, and this year's rotation of ball carriers includes Julien Gums. Gums went for more than 1,200 yards in 2019 with 16 touchdowns. Nicholls' multi-dimensional run game presents matchup nightmares, with Scott able and willing to run out of the pocket effectively.
When Sam Houston Has the Ball
In his time at Delaware, Keeler oversaw a potent passing attack that cultivated the rise of standout quarterback Joe Flacco. Another quarterback of Keeler's at Delaware was Ryan Carty, now Sam Houston's offensive coordinator. Carty came from New Hampshire, a program that launched renowned offensive minds Chip Kelly and Ryan Day.
Before Carty's arrival, Sam Houston quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe became the first and only player to win back-to-back Walter Payton Awards since legendary Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards. In the spring of 2021, Eric Schmid is the Bearkats' quarterback. He appeared in eight games in 2019, posting 12 touchdown passes with five interceptions and a 58.8 percent completion rate. Early into the spring 2021 campaign, his accuracy has improved, and he avoided throwing a pick in Sam Houston's impressive 43-38 defeat of No. 18-ranked Southeastern Louisiana.
Schmid piled up 428 yards against the Lions, with Ife Adeyi, Jequez Ezzard, and Chandler Harvin combining for 302 of them. Sam Houston's propensity to pass will give the Nicholls secondary a workout. The Colonels' ability to generate pressure is key to force Schmid into potential turnover situations. Pig Cage has racked up eight tackles for a loss, blitzing from the cornerback position.
In what could end up deciding the Southland, the intensity between Nicholls and Sam Houston should be at a fever pitch. The Bearkats must avoid turnovers and force Nicholls into a track meet. The Colonels can score in buckets, but their run game makes playing from behind challenging.
Expect fireworks in this one.
Prediction: Sam Houston 45, Nicholls 42
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.