Southland FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

George Hammond

Southland FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Southland FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Southland FCS Football 2015 Preseason All-Conference Teams


Last year, six of the Southland Conference’s 11 teams had four or five conference wins, and that might be the case again this season – from the No. 2 spot on down. But clearly the frontrunner to win the league title, and the automatic FCS playoff berth that goes with it, is Sam Houston State. The Bearkats and Southeastern Louisiana shared the top spot in 2014 but didn’t meet during the regular season. They did, however, meet in the first round of the playoffs where the Bearkats prevailed, 21-17. The Southland had three teams make the playoffs last year and could possibly see four league teams make it this fall.


1. Sam Houston State

With 13 preseason all-Southland selections, the Bearkats (11-5, 7-1) are a prohibitive favorite to win the league title. Sam Houston State reached the FCS semifinals for the third time in four seasons (ousted by North Dakota State each time) last year in K.C. Keeler’s first season. A 1-3 start in 2014, including a 47-21 loss to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, gave no inkling, however, as to what was to unfold later in the season. The Bearkats won seven of their final eight regular-season contests, then beat Southeastern Louisiana, Jacksonville State and Villanova before bowing to eventual national champion North Dakota State. Leading the returnees is all-conference quarterback Jared Johnson, who had 4,053 yards (3,054 passing and 999 rushing) and sophomore defensive end P.J. Hall, the reigning conference freshman of the year who had 29 tackles for loss in 2014. The team’s leading rusher, Keshawn Hill, graduated but the Bearkats do return the third and fourth leading rushers in Jalen Overstreet and Donovan Williams. LaDarius Brown is the team’s lead returning wide receiver (45 catches for 807 yards). Besides Hall on defense, the Bearkats’ leading tackler from last year, Tristan Eche, returns at linebacker. Fellow linebacker Myke Chatman had 95 tackles last year.


2. Southeastern Louisiana

In just three seasons, Coach Ron Roberts has created a Southland Conference juggernaut. In that span, the Lions are 25-13 overall and in the last two years, they were 20-7 overall and 14-1 in the league. They made the FCS playoffs the last two years, but in 2014, they were ousted by conference rival Sam Houston State, which got hot at the right time and made the FCS semifinals. The Lions return 15 starters, but must replace all-everything quarterback Bryan Bennett.  In 2014, the Lions put together impressive statistical numbers offensively and defensively. Consider this: The lowest they were ranked nationally was 41st in passing offense. Other than that, they were no worse than 28th (sacks). Southeastern Louisiana would love to post those numbers again. The secondary, which helped to key the defense’s No. 1 ranking in pass efficiency defense last year, should be one of the best in the nation. Seniors Harlan Miller (1st team all-Southland), Denzel Thompson (1st team all-Southland), Micah Eugene and Jordan Batiste (second-team all-Southland) all return, plus junior Will Hines, a transfer from Arkansas, will give the unit depth. Senior running back and return specialist Xavier Roberson will team with Kody Sutton (630 rushing yards in 2014) and Rasheed Harrell to give the Lions a solid ground attack. Roberson was third nationally last year in kickoff returns with a 30.8 yard average. What might help SE Louisiana – or it could hurt it – is the fact it doesn’t meet Sam Houston State this year.


3. McNeese State

The Cowboys (6-5, 4-4) are used to winning under 10th year coach Matt Viator and three straight losses to end the 2014 season left a bad taste. With 16 starters returning (nine on offense, seven on defense), McNeese believes it can rebound and be a playoff team as it was in 2013. Quarterback and leading rusher Daniel Sams heads the offense while Ryan Ross also returns in the backfield. The Cowboys had a strong rushing attack last year (17th nationally) and it should be one of the best in the nation again. If you include Sams, McNeese State has a group of running backs that combined to rush for 2,397 yards and 27 touchdowns last year. Defensively, all-American Brent Spikes returns at safety, and he is one of the best in the nation. Last year, Spikes tied a school record with three interceptions in one game and set a school and conference mark with 148 interception return yards. If you look at McNeese State statistically last year, the numbers are good – perhaps better than a 6-5 record would indicate. But there’s one number that does stand out: The Cowboys averaged 32.4 points a game yet that was good enough for just eighth in the high-flying Southland Conference.


4. Stephen F. Austin

The Lumberjacks (8-5, 5-3) tied for third in the Southland last year and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. They return 14 starters, including quarterback Zach Conque, last year’s newcomer of the year in the conference. Conque, whose father Clint is the Lumberjacks’ head coach, had 2,733 yards passing last year and rushed for an additional 626 yards. Stephen F. Austin must replace all-Southland running back Gus Johnson and all-Southland linebacker Collin Garrett.  The schedule – particularly early – is tough. In their first five games, the Lumberjacks meet Northern Arizona, TCU, McNeese State and Sam Houston State.


5. Central Arkansas

All Southland Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Woodard returns at defensive end for a team that has questions although there are 24 seniors on the roster.  Senior quarterback Taylor Reed, who alternated with Ryan Howard last season, returns for his final season. Meanwhile, the rushing game is headed up by senior Blake Veasley and sophomores Dominique Thomas, Darrien Daniels and Jeff Anderson as well as juniors Kelton Warren and Antwon Wells. The Bears will miss NFL draftee Dezmin Lewis at wide receiver, but Courtney Whitehead, who had 36 receptions for 503 yards, returns. Also the explosive junior Jatavious Wilson and Desmond Smith are back. At least five seniors should be in the defensive starting unit, including Woodard. That group includes Ricky Wyatt and D.J. Holland at linebacker, Bobby Watkins at safety and Dillion Winfrey at cornerback.


6. Northwestern State

The Demons have one of the more exciting players in all of FCS: wide receiver/return specialist Ed Eagan. He is receiving all-American mention as are offensive lineman Pace Murphy and defensive back Adam Jones. In addition, former LSU and Vanderbilt quarterback transfer Stephen Rivers (6-7, 223 pounds), brother of Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers, is on the roster. As many as five quarterbacks are battling for the No. 1 job vacated by record-shattering quarterback Zach Adkins although Daniel “Bear” Hazlewood might be the frontrunner. Ten offensive or defensive starters return for a team that beat Louisiana Tech, Sam Houston State and had four losses decided in the final two minutes.


7.  Abilene Christian

The running attack appears strong with junior Parker McKenzie (3,084 yards, 22 touchdowns) and sophomore De’Andre Brown (962 yards). Plus, Oklahoma State transfer Herschel Sims, a former top 100 recruit, should see action as well. Defensively, Abilene Christian has eight players returning that saw significant action. Although the Wildcats are picked to finish in the lower half of the conference, they had the second-most preseason selections to the all-Southland Conference preseason team behind league favorite Sam Houston State. Parker McKenzie, who is the top returning quarterback in the Southland Conference in several categories, is back this fall.


8. Lamar

The Cardinals need a quarterback as last year’s starter Caleb Berry has graduated. There should be talent at wide receiver, though as Lamar welcomes Georgia transfer Brandon Langley. In addition, senior receiver Reggie Begelton made all-Southland preseason first team honors (67 receptions last year and 170 for his career) while offensive lineman Justin Brock and running back Kade Harrington made second team. Defensively, Lamar has two all-Southland selections in lineman Omar Tebo and cornerback Xavier Bethany, who had 98 tackles last year.


9. Incarnate Word

Junior defensive end Corey Lee received preseason all-American mention this spring after a season in which he had 39 overall tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss. Lee and senior tight end Cole Wick became the first two players in school history to be named preseason first-team all-Southland Conference. However, this is just the school’s second year in the conference (2-9, 2-6 last year). Quarterback Jordan Scelfo, who started the season’s final four games last year, returns. He had 947 passing yards in 2014 and eight touchdown passes. Sophomore Trent Brittain also returns at quarterback after missing almost all of the 2014 season with an injury.


10. Houston Baptist

The program, which went 2-9 in its first season of FCS football and 1-7 in the league, has eight starters returning on offense and ten on defense. Running back B.J. Kelly, who had 735 yards rushing last year, is back, and another player getting attention is Oregon transfer Erik Amoako, a defensive back. One weapon the Huskies do have is punter Christian Guzman, who has received preseason all-American consideration.


11. Nicholls State

First-year coach Tim Rebowe’s first order of business is to snap the school’s 18-game losing streak. The last win came against Northwestern State Oct. 12, 2013. Last year, Nicholls State averaged 14 points a game while yielding 50 points. Two key players are running back Michael Henry, a 1,000-yard rusher and second-team all-Southland selection and linebacker Kameryon Brown, the team’s second-leading tackler at linebacker.


Conference Game To Watch:

Stephen F. Austin at Sam Houston State, October 3 – Because Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana don’t meet again this season, the Lumberjacks figure to be one of the schools that could challenge the talent-laden Bearkats. Sam Houston State won last year, 42-28.


Another Conference Game To Watch:

Southeast Louisiana at McNeese State, October 10 – The winner could have the inside track toward a playoff berth. SE Louisiana has won the last three meetings.


Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Central Arkansas at Samford, September 3 – It’s the Southland Conference going up against the Southern Conference. Samford is expected to be one of the stronger teams in the SoCon so this will be a good barometer for Central Arkansas.


Another Non-Conference Game To Watch:

Northern Arizona at Stephen F. Austin, September 5 – This is the Big Sky Conference going up against the Southland in a contest that could have a bearing later in the year come playoff time.


FBS Upset Watch:

Southeastern Louisiana at Ohio, September 19 – This is the first meeting between the two, and it’s a contest the Lions can win. Ohio, a member of the Mid-American Conference, was 6-6 last year.


Another FBS Upset Watch:

Sam Houston State at Texas Tech, September 5 – The last meeting between these two came in 2005 when the Red Raiders rolled 80-21. It’s unlikely that will be the score this time. Last year, Texas Tech nearly got shocked by Central Arkansas so the Big 12 Conference member will definitely not overlook the Bearkats.


Top NFL Prospect:

Ed Eagan, WR/return specialist, Northwestern State – He’s not the biggest guy around (5-10, 181), but Eagan broke five school records and tied another for receiving and return yardage last year. He caught 73 passes for 908 yards in 2014.


Coach on the Hot Seat:

In the college football coaching world of what have you done for me lately, Sam Houston State’s K.C. Keeler has to be the top candidate. The Bearkats’ 2014 success was somewhat of a surprise, especially after the 1-3 start. This year, fans expect a deep run in the FCS playoffs.


Freshman To Watch: (Complete FCS Recruit Rankings)

True freshman Brandon Blackwell (6-3, 239) has been impressive in camp for McNeese State at defensive end.  


Most Overrated:

Last year, McNeese’s State quarterback Daniel Sams was 46-of-97 with four interceptions and seven touchdown passes. He is a running threat, too, but the Cowboys would love to see that pass completion percentage improve.


Most Underrated:

One name to remember is Stephen F. Austin’s Judah Jones. A Kansas State transfer, Jones spent two seasons at Kansas State where he played in 10 games last year. He is a receiver and return specialist.


FCS All-Conference Teams

FCS Conference Previews