Southland Conference Media Day preview: Five questions, five answers _lowres

Southeastern wide receiver Jeff Smiley puts a move on McNeese defensive back Carlos Carroll which allowed him to score a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond. (Photo by Randy Bergeron/SLU Public Info)

Q: How far can Sam Houston State go?

The Bearkats have reached the semifinals of the FCS playoffs three times in the past four seasons with championship-game appearances in 2011 and ’12, so they know how to make a deep postseason run.

With 21 starters returning from the team that lost to three-time champion North Dakota State in the semis last December, there’s no reason to believe they won’t do it again.

Experience at quarterback in Jared Johnson and defensive end P.J. Hall, the SLC’s Freshman of the Year in 2014, give them a leg up on both sides of the ball.

Q: Can SLU make it three titles in a row?

Southeastern won the league title outright in 2013 and shared the crown last year with Sam Houston, which it did not face in the regular season.

There are questions about an encore, mainly because of the loss of star quarterback Bryan Bennett. But they should be in the hunt with eight offensive starters back to go with six All-SLC preseason picks on defense.

We’ll know where the Lions stand early. They open league play against Northwestern State, Lamar, McNeese State and Stephen F. Austin — teams that will vie for spots in the upper half of the league.

Q: What’s new for 2015?

Not much.

After welcoming three new schools in Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word and becoming the first FCS conference to implement full instant replay last season, the winds of change blew lightly this offseason.

Only one coaching change was made: Nicholls State hired Tim Rebowe to take over for Charlie Stubbs, who resigned two games into what turned out to be an 0-11 season.

A former Nicholls assistant, Rebowe has a tall task ahead of him in trying to turn around a program that’s lost 17 games in a row dating to October 2013.

Q: Can anyone challenge the top two?

In addition to Sam Houston and SLU, the Southland sent Stephen F. Austin to the FCS playoffs last season.

SFA was the only team to defeat Southeastern in the regular season and will get a lot of attention again after returning a solid group for this year.

Lamar was a huge surprise in tying for third after being picked to finish in the second half of the league — and it has 20 starters back.

And don’t ever count out McNeese State, which was right there with Sam Houston and SLU last year until losing its final three games.

Q: Who’ll be next to shock an FBS foe?

Southland schools will play 12 games against the FBS after going 2-11 a year ago.

League teams have 22 wins against FBS foes since 2000 after Northwestern State edged Louisiana Tech, and Abilene Christian topped Troy last year.

They won’t get as many chances this season because the SLC went to a nine-game slate, but they’ll give it a try.

Some of the intriguing matchups with the FBS this fall: Sam Houston at Texas Tech (Sept. 5), Stephen F. Austin at TCU (Sept. 12) and Northwestern State at Mississippi State (Sept. 19).