Kicking off a six-game spring FCS schedule, two of the top Southland contenders will meet on Saturday night when Southeastern Louisiana travels to face the Sam Houston Bearkats.
Both the Lions and Bearkats finished with 6-3 conference records in 2019, although only Southeastern Louisiana made the FCS playoffs, edging out Villanova (45-44) before getting drubbed (73-28) by No. 6 seed Montana. Both teams enter this unique spring season with a real shot to contend again, as Sam Houston currently sits 10th in Athlon Sports' Power Poll followed by Southeastern Louisiana.
Although Sam Houston has won three straight in this series, Southeastern Lousiana won the two previous games, and the average margin is just 6.2 points. However, the Lions have not won in Huntsville, Texas, since an overtime win in 2008.
Both schools will have their work cut out for them, as two-time Southland champion Nicholls returns as the conference favorite, but the winner of this game gets an early leg up in what should be a competitive race.
Southeastern Louisiana at Sam Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, February 27 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Sam Houston -6
When Southeastern Louisiana Has the Ball
Reigning Southland Coach of the Year Frank Scelfo has made plenty of changes to his offense, where former Arkansas transfer Cole Kelley takes over at quarterback after serving as Chason Virgil's backup last season. Although Kelley was efficient last season in completing 74.2 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns to two interceptions, the 6-foot-7 signal-caller was even more of a threat on the ground, where he led the team with 10 rushing scores.
Although the Lions will need to replace leading rusher Devonte Williams, leading receiver CJ Turner (78 rec., 963 yds., 7 TDs) and all-conference wideout Austin Mitchell (57, 896, 8) are back. However, the Lions also are moving on without a pair of All-Southland offensive linemen: Pat Allen and Jarius Gooch.
That uncertainty on the O-line could be dangerous against one of the top defensive fronts in the FCS. Sam Houston finished second in the subdivision in sacks last season and return a trio of dangerous players in Trace Mascorro (Southland's 2019 Newcomer of the Year and an Athlon preseason All-American for the spring campaign), Joseph Wallace, and Jevon Leon. There's some weakness at the second level with the graduations of linebackers Royce See and Hunter Brown, but the Bearkat defense, which ranked eighth in scoring defense last season (17.8 ppg) remains imposing.
When Sam Houston Has the Ball
The Bearkats' offense runs through Donovan Williams, who tied for second in the Southland last season with 14 rushing touchdowns. The junior dominated in his first season as a starter in 2019 and will look to gain the upper hand against a Lions defense that ranked third in the conference and 21st overall against the run (123.0 ypg).
Williams will have the benefit of another year of experience under the belt of starting quarterback Eric Schmid, who completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,733 yards in eight games last season, with 12 touchdowns to five picks. The Bearkats lost leading receiver Nathan Stewart to graduation but do return three quality options in Ife Adeyi (31 rec., 513 yds., 5 TDs), Chandler Harvin (33, 475, 4), and Dee Bowens (23, 315, 3).
The player to watch on the Lions' defense is cornerback Ferlando Jordan. The junior is a preseason All-American and returned three of his team-high five interceptions last season for touchdowns. Linebacker Alexis Ramos, who racked up six sacks last season, could also cause trouble.
These are two teams on the rise, but one factor appears to be the difference-maker: Sam Houston's dominant defensive front. Southeastern Lousiana may put together a dangerous offense by the end of the season, but the massive personnel turnover, especially on the O-line could be an issue against Mascorro and Co.