When the Southland Conference rolls out its preseason football predictions from its coaches and sports information directors at the league’s media day Wednesday in Lake Charles, there shouldn’t be any jaw-dropping surprises.
While you never know how preseason polls will shake out, reigning regular-season co-champions Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana should be near the top — and with good reason.
With 21 starters and 54 lettermen returning from a team that advanced to the Football Championship Series semifinals for the third time in four seasons last fall, Sam Houston State is expected to be one of the top teams in the race for the national title again.
The Bearkats, who were 11-5 overall and 7-1 in the league a year ago, placed a league-high 13 players on the All-SLC preseason teams released last week. Their top returnees are junior Jared Johnson, a dual-threat quarterback who rolled up 4,053 yards (3,054 passing, 999 rushing), and sophomore defensive end P.J. Hall, the league’s Freshman of the Year who had 29 tackles for loss as Sam Houston finished sixth in the final national poll.
Southeastern, which has 15 starters among its 46 letter-winners who have compiled a 14-1 league mark the past two seasons, won’t be far behind in its quest for a third consecutive title after winning the crown outright in 2013.
Coach Ron Roberts, who is entering his fourth season with the Lions, certainly knows what that means: Expectations will be as high as they were a year ago after going 7-0 in the league the previous season.
Just like last season, a big target will be there for every team to see.
“I think this group is actually going to be a lot better at handling that because we have 50-something guys that have experienced that,” Roberts said. “I think last year, you could say it and talk about it and how we’re going to respond to it. For the most part, for most of our guys, it was the first time with a target on our back. It was like, ‘You mean we’re going to get everybody’s best? Yeah, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot.’ ”
Roberts, whose team was 9-4 overall and 7-1 in the league, had eight players named to the preseason first and second teams — which means Sam Houston and Southeastern claimed 21 of the 58 spots available.
Six of SLU’s preseason picks come from a defense that was among the best in the league a year ago, including first-team senior defensive backs Harlan Miller and Denzel Thompson. Junior running back Xavier Roberson was named as the all-purpose player and punt returner on the second team.
While Sam Houston and Southeastern didn’t collide in the regular season after the Southland grew to 11 teams, the Bearkats topped Southeastern 21-17 in the first round of the FCS playoffs. They won’t meet this year, either, unless it’s another postseason date.
But they’re not the only teams to watch. Not by a long shot.
The SLC had three teams in the FCS playoffs for the fifth time and could be looking at possibly getting a fourth in this season.
Stephen F. Austin, with coach Clint Conque entering his second season after a 14-year stay at Central Arkansas, will be trying to get back to the playoffs after finishing in a three-way tie for third last year, going 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the league.
SFA has only 14 starters returning, but quarterback Zach Conque — the SLC’s Newcomer of the Year in 2014 — is back. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,733 yards and 15 TDs while hitting on 64.7 percent of his passes.
Lamar, which was 8-4 and 5-3, was another team on the rise last season and should again be a contender to finish in the top half of the league along with Northwestern State (6-6, 4-4) and McNeese State (6-5, 4-4).