By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA — You have to admit it's a pretty good time to be the commissioner of the Southland Conference.
In a world where conferences fear expansion, Southland commissioner Tom Burnett welcomes it.
In a world where members of Football Championship Subdivision sometimes question their place, Burnett hosts the FCS National Championship game in what is effectively his backyard, Frisco, Texas.
In a world where conferences wonder how to compete for NCAA championships, out of nowhere came the Southland's Sam Houston State to go undefeated and play in the championship.
Some conferences are losing members, and wondering what their athetic futures might be. In contrast, the Southland is instead expanding in leaps and bounds, accepting Abeline Christian, Incarnate Word, and University of New Orleans as members starting with the 2013 season.
“As many know, the Southland Conference presidents have studied the possibilities of membership addition, as well as the impacts of Division I conference realignment, for nearly two years,” Burnett said as Incarnate Word announced their move to the Southland. “As is the case with other membership additions, the Board has only shown interest in institutions that clearly bring added value to the league. That includes strong academic performance, athletic competitiveness and achievement, excellent playing facilities, geographic fit, media market size and presence in the market, and strong fan support. UIW is a historic and accomplished institution, and has the potential and resources to be a competitively successful member of the Southland Conference and NCAA Division I.”
When former Southland member Texas State announced their intention to join the WAC a couple of years ago, along with Texas-San Antonio, a former Southland member that never wanted to play at the FCS level, some thought the Southland might be in trouble.
Instead, like so many high-level college football programs, it seems like the Southland simply reloaded with three new football programs – Incarnate Word, Abeline Christian and Houston Baptist – along with, potentially, a fourth, if the University of New Orleans, as has been speculated, wishes to bring back Division I football.
"The Southland has always fared well in the aftermath of numerous membership transitions during its half century of existence," Burnett told me, "and it’s no different now. And when you look at the historically successful programs in our league over the last 25 years – McNeese, Northwestern State, SFA, Sam Houston and lately, Central Arkansas – those teams remain in the Southland and are committed to continued football achievement at the FCS level. We are also excited with the recent coaching changes at Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana, and very pleased about the football start-up at Lamar and future member Houston Baptist. I’m very bullish on the football future of the Southland Conference!"
Not only has the Southland thrived in the current realignment environment, they've been improving by leaps and bounds on the field, too.
Sam Houston State went an incredible 14-0 during the 2012 season, only to be defeated 17-6 in a close-fought game against North Dakota State in a hard-fought Bison win.
Central Arkansas also qualified as an at-large team, winning a first-round game at Tennessee Tech to give the Southland two teams with playoff wins in the same year.
Any hopes from Southland folks that the Bearkats and Bears might simply rest on their laurels and forget about the 2012 season, however, were quickly dashed at this years' media day.
“We face a lot of challenges this year," Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz said. "Everyone in the league is returning a lot of talented players and the league is going to be tough top to bottom. We have a tough schedule with only three home games at Bower Stadium. Nine of our 14 victories last year came at home. We also play to big FBS bowl teams in Texas A&M and Baylor. We’ve got to become a better football team if we’re to succeed again this year.”
The Bearkats all the key parts of the puzzle that made it to last year's championship game, including QB Brian Bell, RBs Richard Sincere and Tim Flanders, as well as an underrated defensive front seven that was No. 1 against the rush last year.
“I think we’re ahead of the curve, but I’d like to think there is much work we can do," Central Arkansas head man Clint Conque said. "Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves because we have actually been more successful in our first six years at the Division level than we were my first six years at the Division II level. But I think that speaks to the ability of our coaching staff to recruit good student-athletes, our tradition, the name we represent. We’re blessed to have excellent coaches and excellent student-athletes. To make the playoffs in just our second year of eligibility, and to make a little bit of a run in the postseason. I feel good about where we are, where we’ve been, but I know there is just so much more to do to get to the top and be among the perennial top teams in the country."
WRs Dominique Croom and Jesse Grandy reutrn for the Bears, while one of the top linebackers in the Southland, LB Seth Allison, also will be suiting up for Central Arkansas.
There's also Stephen F. Austin, who also could very well knock off the defending Southland champions, with QB Brady Attaway and veteran receivers Grayln Crawford and Cordell Roberson.
“Last year is a motivating factor for us this season," Roberson said. "We came in and won as freshman. We repeated as sophomores, but last year we came up well short of our goals. The only thing we want to do is go out as winners. Our main goal is getting back to the top of the Southland. We want to go out the way we came in.”
With three team with Southland Conference – and NCAA championship – goals this season, Tom Burnett cannot be more pleased with the current state, and the trajectory, of his conference.
Five Players To Watch in 2012
1. QB Brian Bell, Sam Houston State: The Berakats and their multiple-faceted rushing attack meant Bell surprised a lot of defenses when he did throw the ball, to the tune of 20 TDs in last years' historic season. But will opposing defenses be surprised the next time around?
2. QB Wynrick Smothers, Central Arkansas: An unknown quantity since beating out former Razorback Jacoby Walker for the starting QB nod, few players seem as central to their team as Smothers. If he's the second coming of recently-graduated QB Nathan Dick, the Bears could win the Southland. If he's not, the Bears could easily fall back to the pack.
3. DT J.T. Cleveland, Sam Houston State: It's sometimes easy to forget with all the Bearkats' success last year, it was their mammoth defensive line, led by Cleveland (41 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss) which was the No. 1 rushing defense in the land last year. Scarily, he and the Sam Houston State defensive front could be even better this year.
4. S Malcolm Bronson, McNeese State: In a league loaded with great receivers, it's imperative that Southland defenses have a punishing safety, and McNeese might have the best in the conference with Bronson (79 tackles, 2 INTs). Can he anchor the Cowboy defense into a unit that shuts down Southland offenses enough that allows McNeese to compete for the title?
5. QB Brady Attaway, Stephen F. Austin: Attaway will certainly put up a lot of yards this year, with speedy targets like WRs Cordell Roberson and Gralyn Crawford to toss to in the pass-happy Lumberjack offense. Will he have the type of season to put Bell in the dust – and have the Lumberjacks make it back to the FCS playoffs?
My Sleeper Player to Watch: WR Dominique Croom, Central Arkansas. With all the great receivers in the Southland, it's too easy to overlook great players like Croom, who battled injuries last year but still managed 518 yards receiving and 7 TDs. Combined with Jesse Grandy, he could form a receiving tandem for QB Wynrick Smothers that could rival the best in the Southland. Will the whole thing come together?
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Sam Houston State: With a roster that includes 19 starters returning from a group that went all the way to the FCS National Championship game last year, the Bearkats are scary good. They won't repeat the 11-0 regular season with 2012 games at Baylor and Texas A&M – never mind only 3 home games – but they're still the team to beat.
2. Stephen F. Austin: A young team that returns 10 of 11 starters, including QB Brady Attaway, the Lumberjacks' pinball offense will certainly rack up the points and passing yards. Can they build off their five game winning streak to close the year and win the Southland?
3. Central Arkansas: Could Central Arkansas be the team that knocks the Kats off their perch? The Bears get Sam Houston State at home and return some impressive talent like WRs Dominique Croom and Jesse Grandy, but with QB Nathan Dick lost to graduation, it remains to be seen if the Bears can knock them off.
4. McNeese State: Like all the teams of the Southland, it seems, the Cowboys return most of their starting lineup offensively and defensively. But they struggled against the Bearkats, Lumberjacks and Bears last season, and the loss of their leading tailback Andre Anderson to graduation seem to point to being a step behind the leaders.
5. Southeastern Louisiana: The pass-happy Lions return — surprise! — 17 of 22 starters, including QB Brian Young. But the Lions will need to improve on their woeful defense (111th in the nation last year) and their propensity to turn over the ball (Young had 15 interceptions last year and SeLa had a minus-1.09 turnover margin) in order to get into the Southland title race.
6. Northwestern State: The polar opposite of the Lions, the Demons stuffed the run extremely well behind the play of LB Derek Rose (61 tackles, 1 INT). But their offense will need to improve behind QB Brad Henderson and RB D.J. Palmer to have a shot.
7. Nicholls State: Charley Stubbs has shaken things up after last year's 1-10 campaign, moving last year's starting QB, LaQuinton Caston, to wideout and having QB Beaux Hebert, son of the former New Orleans Saints QB, to compete to be the starter. But it seems like a tall mountain to climb for the Colonels to jump from last-place to contenders this year.
8. Lamar: After a rude re-introduction to the Southland for Lamar, the Cardinals nevertheless got two Southland victories last year against Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls. But new QB Ryan Mossakowski will have his work cut out for him, with most of Lamar's receiving corps gone from last year.