HOUSTON — On Thursday, I had the chance to talk to nearly a dozen Southland Conference head football coaches and nearly 20 top players — and the word of the day was "parity".
After plowing through eight of the 11 teams' season previews this summer already (see SL preview links below story), I'm not surprised that word came up so frequently at Southland Conference Preseason Media Days. If you really dig into the situations at these schools, you can see why the expectation is that we'll see a repeat of last year's craziness — where on Nov. 1 we had absolutely no clue what was going to happen and who would make the postseason.
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Last year was a teaser to a newer brand of Southland (has a ring to it, doesn't it?). In seasons "recent past", the Southland always seemed resolved by the end of September. Either the frontrunner basically had it locked up, or the clearcut top two were slated for a final week matchup that would settle No. 1, and the rest of the league — barring a massive collapse from the frontrunners, which never happened — could only watch and hope. For years, there was very little drama, and the top school names didn't change much.
That's not how 2018 went, and that's not how 2019 is going to go either.
Hold off on the eye-rolling for a sec, oh ye of little Southland faith … primarily those fans who reside in Missouri Valley and CAA realm. Why? Because our point here is simple — this conference was deeper last year and it'll be even better again this year, and basically what we're getting at is: If a team goes on a big run and survives what appears to be a Southland gauntlet, that may be a message to the FCS that this is a team to be reckoned with, not shrugged off as has been done in years past. Could we be talking about preseason favorite Nicholls? Could it be another?
So why is it crazier now than it was a few years ago? Is it because Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas were a bit down last year? Or was it because the Lamars, the Incarnate Words and the Abilene Christians suddenly threw themselves in the top tier and knocked off teams they hadn't beaten recently (if ever).
Quarterback play was a big reason for last year's success and this year's optimism. Who are we kidding, a team with a good signal caller is off on the right foot. At media day, nine quarterbacks represented their teams — and they combined for 18,000 yards passing last year. That's roughly 10 miles of passing in 2018, and as one of those talented arms told me off the record after we interviewed — "you'll see a whole lot more than that this year".
Meanwhile, the frontrunners of the Southland from 2014-17 — Sam Houston State (46-12 in that span), Central Arkansas (33-15) and McNeese (31-13) — all went 6-5 last year yet all have nice contingents back, and they're mad.
Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler told HERO Sports that major focus has been put into his team's strength and conditioning program … and he was bluntly honest about why: The Bearkats want to take that next step nationally in the FCS and know this is where it needs to happen. The postseason lessons learned going against physical teams at North Dakota State and James Madison have been noted and will be improved upon, the coach said.
So all indicators point at this being a nutty 2019. Will the upstarts continue to uproot the usual suspects at the top of this league? Will Nicholls' consistent senior class continue its impressive run of the past few years? Will the dominant powers of 2014-17 reclaim their seats up front?
All I can say, as an outsider: Get the popcorn poppin' and grab a seat. This league should be interesting and drama filled, just the way college football fans like it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: More coverage to come from the Southland Media Day experience in the next few days.
PREVIEWS: The Southland
Sam Houston St. (July 25th) | SE Louisiana (29th) | Stephen F. Austin (30th)
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