After a changing of the guard in the Southland Conference last fall, Nicholls State has gone from being the hunter to the hunted.
Gone are the days when the Colonels, who went 0-12 in 2014, were viewed as nothing more than a rent-a-win for FBS schools and a pushover for fellow FCS teams — particularly those in the Southland.
Nicholls continued its upward trajectory under coach Tim Rebowe by qualifying for the FCS playoffs the past two seasons, earning the SLC’s automatic berth last fall and winning a postseason game for the first time in 32 years.
“The conference is tougher, but I think people now don’t think they’re just going into Thibodaux and walking away with a win,” said Rebowe, who enters his fifth season at Nicholls. “That's not going to happen.”
After claiming the conference title in 2018, when the Colonels were picked to finish second behind FCS power Sam Houston State, expectations have grown even more.
While Nicholls received the most first-place votes and points from SLC coaches and sports information directors to repeat as champions, Rebowe, who took over after that horrific 2014 season, is making sure his team remains grounded.
“Our guys are going to have to do what we always do,” he said. “We have to block out all the distractions, all the noise, everything people are saying about you.”
Rebowe said that formula worked last fall when Nicholls was picked to finish second.
“We talked about the same thing last year,” he recalled. “Our main focus has to be on our team. We can’t worry about numbers (polls).
“Our guys know last year was last year, but they want to build on that and continue what we’re doing.”
Senior quarterback Chase Fourcade, the reigning SLC player of the year, remembered what it was like when the Colonels were picked second and sees 2019 as being no different.
“We didn’t even think about those preseason polls,” he said. “The other teams are probably looking at Nicholls now and thinking how they can beat us and dethrone us.
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“It’s good for the school, for Nicholls itself,” Fourcade added. “Don't get me wrong, it’s good for us, too. But we still have to work hard and be consistent.”
Nicholls, which was 9-4 overall and 7-2 in the SLC, has a good chance to do that.
Starting with Fourcade, who piled up 2,930 passing yards and 659 rushing yards with a combined 34 touchdowns, the Colonels return most of their skill players from an offense that ranked 12th in the nation with 474.0 total yards a game.
Dontrell Taylor is back after producing 990 rushing yards and nine TDs and wide receiver Dai’Jean Dixon is the top returning receiver after catching 53 passes for 753 yards with seven scores.
The biggest question is the offensive line, where the Colonels lost four starters — including All-SLC first-team performers Ryan Hanley and Chandler Arceneaux.
All-American defensive tackle Sully Laiche is the anchor on that side of the ball. He is the active FCS leader with 25½ career sacks going into the season.
Like Laiche, linebacker Evan Veron was a first-team all-league pick a year ago. He had seven sacks among his 22 tackles for loss, helping the Colonels lead the SLC and rank 11th in the nation in rushing defense at 105.4 yards per game.
With enough important pieces back this season, the Colonels will be seeking a third consecutive trip to the playoffs with the goal of going deeper in the playoffs.
In 2017, they lost in the first round. Last year, they ousted San Diego before falling to eventual FCS runner-up Eastern Washington in the second round.
So, the third round and beyond is the goal for this year.
“Being better than the previous year, that’s been a goal for myself and everybody else on the team,” Fourcade said. “So going deeper in the playoffs and playing for a national championship, that’s our goal.”
“We’ve got some key guys in the right places to be able to do that,” Rebowe said. “Anytime your quarterback is back and he happens to be the conference player of the year, you have a chance to have a lot of success.”
AT A GLANCE
LAST SEASON: 9-4 (7-2 Southland Conference)
COACH: Tim Rebowe (fifth season, 25-22)
LEADER: Senior quarterback Chase Fourcade, the SLC's player of the year in 2018 after steering his team to the league title, is back for one final shot to get his team deeper into the FCS playoffs after Nicholls lost in the first round in 2017 and in the second round in 2018.
RETURNING: Senior defensive tackle Sully Laiche, one of 11 Colonels named to the preseason All-SLC team, is a stalwart of a salty defense that ranked in the top 30 in the FCS in three key categories — rushing defense (11th), scoring defense (21st) and total defense (27th).
BREAKOUT: Junior Dai'Jean Dixon, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, was overshadowed by Damion Jeanpiere in his first two seasons. But now that Jeanpiere has moved on, it'll be Dixon's turn to shine after showcasing his ability in catching 53 passes for 753 yards with seven TDs in 2018.
ISSUE: Rebowe lost four of five offensive line starters, so bookend tackles Bradston Burnside, a 6-3, 285-pound senior, and Jair Joseph, a 6-4, 315-pound junior, will have to be keys to their success.
OUTLOOK: There's no reason to believe the Colonels won't repeat as SLC champions. After breaking through a year ago, they return much of their offense and defense and were tabbed to repeat by the coaches and SIDs.
8.31 at Kansas St. — 6 p.m.
9.14 at Prairie View — 6 p.m.
9.21 at Stephen F. Austin — 6 p.m.
9.28 at Texas St. — TBA
10.5 Central Arkansas — 3 p.m.
10.12 Northwestern St. — 3 p.m.
10.19 at Sam Houston St. — 2 p.m.
10.26 Abilene Christian — 3 p.m.
11.2 at Incarnate Word — 4 p.m.
11.9 Houston Baptist — 3 p.m.
11.16 McNeese St. — 3 p.m.
11.21 at Southeastern — 6 p.m.