The Southland Conference enters 2011 as a league in flux, the latest to feel the ripples of conference re-alignment.
The Western Athletic Conference has raided the SLC for two football-playing members - Texas State and start-up program Texas-San Antonio - and it is also taking away non-football member Texas-Arlington. There remains a good chance that others, including Sam Houston State and Lamar, might also be the targets of future WAC expansion.
It’s possible in coming years that the SLC, which has a long history of members trickling away from the conference’s place in Division I’s championship subdivision (FCS) into the bowl subdivision (FBS), will look far different from today’s lineup.
But as much as things change in the SLC, things at the top of the standings in football seem to always stay the same.
Look at the preseason poll and you’ll find McNeese State, the league’s longtime standard bearer, again at the top. It should be no surprise considering the Cowboys have finished either first or second in the league 17 of the past 21 years, including 10 conference championships.
McNeese has finished in the league’s top two spots all five years under head coach Matt Viator.
This year, SLC coaches picked the Cowboys to win the league, barely edging two-time defending conference champion Stephen F. Austin (McNeese shared the title with SFA in 2009).
The sports information directors went the other way with SFA getting the slight nod over the Cowboys, who are coming off a 6-5 season that included a 5-2 conference record. A late touchdown by Central Arkansas in a 28-24 Bears win over the Cowboys in the season finale is all that kept McNeese from sharing the title with SFA.
“SFA is the obvious choice for me since they are defending champions,” Viator said. “Our players and coaches have to understand that (the preseason favorite) doesn’t mean anything.”
There is reason to think McNeese is a favorite for reasons other than its proud history.
The Cowboys return only eight position starters but have talent accumulated at key spots, particularly at tailback.
Andre Anderson was the league’s top rusher in conference games and finished with 855 yards for the season. But the Michigan State transfer became the go-to back only after a slew of early-season injuries at the position took away a trio of talented backs in Javaris Murray, Marcus Wiltz and Champlain Babin.
All three injured players are back, along with Anderson, giving McNeese quality depth.
“We have to remember that we went in last year with four tailbacks and wound up with one,” Viator said. “If we can stay healthy there, we have the opportunity to be pretty good.”
In front of them, McNeese returns three starters on the offensive line, including All-SLC tackle Jonathan Landry.
This also promises to be a season where McNeese gets re-settled at quarterback after losing four-year starter Derrick Fourroux following the 2009 season.
Tulsa transfer Jacob Bower came to McNeese as a senior last season and, as a one-year starter, bought Viator and company time to develop some young quarterback prospects. One of them, Cody Stroud, started two games last season while Bower was injured, including a poised performance in a 32-10 loss at LSU.
Stroud enters his sophomore season as the starter, but will be pushed by North Texas transfer Riley Dodge, a one-time starter for the Eagles who passed for 8,642 yards in a storied prep career.
The top two pass receivers among wideouts return in Damion Dion (21 receptions, 289 yards) of Port Allen and former Central star Wes Briscoe (19-260). Anderson continued a recent trend of productive receiving McNeese backs by catching 21 passes last year.
On defense, McNeese’s 4-2-5 unit is led by All-SLC defensive lineman Desmund Lighten, who has shifted from tackle to end for his senior season.
“I get to play up against some tight ends instead of against some of those 300-pound tackles,” said Lighten, a smallish 250-pounder who used quickness to register 7.5 tackles for loss last year. “I played at end in some third-down situations last year. It’s going to give me more running room.”
Even as a small tackle, Lighten was frequently a disruptive force, blowing up plays in the backfield even if he wasn’t the one eventually making the tackle.
Having him back gives Viator reason to think his defense can be better than the one that allowed 377 yards per game last year.
“I like our defense,” Viator said. “Desmund Lighten will be a difference maker for us on the defensive line.”
The Cowboys will also be deep in the secondary, with safeties Darrell Jenkins (78 tackles) and Malcolm Bronson (five interceptions) leading the way.
McNeese’s special teams are bolstered by the return of kicker Josh Lewis, a Denham Springs graduate who hit 13 of 16 field goals last year.
If McNeese is to overcome SFA this year, it will have to win at Nacogdoches, Texas, in an Oct. 29 showdown. The Cowboys do have a more forgiving nonconference schedule this season than last, when McNeese played at LSU and Missouri. This season, the Cowboys play just one guarantee game, at Kansas, and have nonconference home games against Sioux Falls, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.