LAKE CHARLES - Leave it to Clint Conque, a Catholic High graduate now in his 12th year as Central Arkansas’ football coach, to sum up the difference between the top and bottom teams in the Southland Conference.
In 2006, the Bears started their transition from Division II. Two years later, they finished first in the conference standings, though they weren’t yet eligible for postseason play.
Last season, UCA finished 7-4, coming within one victory of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Through all those years, Conque said, only one thing was a virtual certainty: When it came to Southland Conference games, his team was in for a thriller.
“We did a study since we’ve been in this conference,” Conque said. “What we found was that 76 percent of UCA’s conference games have been decided by eight points or less. You’re going to see three to five really big plays in every college football game, and you never know when they’re going to happen. Our conference is no different.”
He’s not the only Southland coach who feels that way.
In one preseason poll, released Wednesday by the league at its annual media day, conference coaches picked Stephen F. Austin to win its third straight championship.
In another poll, the league’s sports information directors chose McNeese State.
But five teams received at least one first-place vote, and as Conque and other coaches noted, the race for the Southland title sometimes resembles a free-for-all.
With rich recruiting bases and growing football programs to go with established, traditional powerhouses, the modern Southland isn’t always the best league in the Football Championship Subdivision. But from week to week, the difference between winning and losing seems fairly thin.
“I thought Stephen F. Austin should have been the overwhelming team to beat,” McNeese coach Matt Viator said. “They’re defending champs with a lot of players back. After that, I don’t know. I really don’t. I look at who has impact players coming back, and who has players that make a difference. When you look at the league, everybody has some.”
Take, for example, Nicholls State, now in its second year under coach Charlie Stubbs.
Last season, his team started with consecutive losses to San Diego State, Western Michigan and South Alabama.
But the Colonels went 4-4 in their final eight games, winning their final two conference games against Northwestern State and Southeastern.
Now, Stubbs said, they have 20 returning starters, not to mention a little dash of confidence.
“This is a crazy game,” he said. “You get a break here or there, and you stay injury-free, you never know what can happen. ... So the goal this year is (that) I’d like to be in every conference game in the fourth quarter. I’d like to be in striking distance - either ahead, of course, or to where we can be close.”
Other teams have made similar strides.
Two seasons ago, in Bradley Dale Peveto’s first year at Northwestern State, the Demons went 0-11. Last season, they finished 5-6.
Wednesday, they got a first-place vote in the SIDs preseason poll.
In other words, they’re no pushover.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way,” said Peveto, a former LSU assistant. “My first year was a great building block for us. I was proud of that first year; we don’t hide from it. We did a lot of good things and lost a lot of close football games.”
Looking for more evidence of parity? Look at McNeese.
In finishing second last season, the Cowboys lost two conference games - one by four points at Central Arkansas, another by five points against SFA. Those two teams were championship contenders.
But Viator noted two other games from last season - games that spoke to the league’s perceived parity.
In the season opener, the Cowboys hosted Lamar, which revived its football program last year and played as an independent (the Cardinals re-join the Southland as a full member this season). In that game - Lamar’s first since 1989 - McNeese had to hold on for a 30-27 win.
Later that year, at Southeastern Louisiana - which finished last in the standings, with a 2-9 overall record - the Cowboys got a 52-yard field goal from Josh Lewis on the last play, giving them a 13-10 win.
“We play Stephen F. (Austin) and Central Arkansas, we lose in the last minute,” Viator said. “But yet we beat Southeastern and Lamar by three points. To me, that’s it in a nutshell.”