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FCS 2019: Southland Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - It's quicker to name the teams not expected to be in the Southland Conference title race than the ones that should be there.

Like last season, when the top seven of 11 teams were separated by two games before Nicholls and IUW shared the title, this year's race will be hotly contested.

Boosting the strong lineup of teams is the fact all but Lamar returns its top quarterback from a year ago, and the Cardinals have a pretty good pair themselves.

Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 Southland race:

1. Nicholls

2. Sam Houston State

3. Abilene Christian

4. UIW

5. Lamar

6. Central Arkansas

7. McNeese

8. Northwestern State

9. Southeastern Louisiana

10. Stephen F. Austin

11. Houston Baptist

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. NICHOLLS

LOCATION: Thibodaux, Louisiana

STADIUM: John L. Guidry Stadium

HEAD COACH: Tim Rebowe (25-22, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 7-2 (Tie/1st) - No. 14 in final STATS FCS Top 25

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Chase Fourcade, QB, Sr.; Dontrell Taylor, RB, Sr.; Kendall Bussey, RB, Sr.; Julien Gums, RB, So.; Dai'Jean Dixon, WR, Jr.; P.J. Burkhalter, OL, Jr.; Sully Laiche, DE, Sr.; Brandon Fontenot, DT, Sr.; Evan Veron, LB, Sr.; Allen Pittman, LB, Sr.; Darren Evans, CB, Jr.; Khristian Mims, DB, Sr.; Winston Jones, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Damion Jeanpiere, Jr., WR; Ryan Hanley, OL; Lorran Fonseca, PK

OUTLOOK: It sounds odd, but the Southland's preseason favorite is replacing more starters than any other team. Of course, the ones back are the right ones as the defending co-champ features QB Fourcade, the conference's offensive player of the year, a near-1,000-yard rusher in Taylor and leading pass catcher Dixon on offense, and All-Southland defenders Laiche (nine sacks) and Veron (20½ tackles for loss) and leading tackler Mims on defense. If the Colonels are vulnerable, it's in the trenches, where the offensive line lost four starters and the defensive line lost four of the top six players in the rotation. Not to be overlooked is the Colonels are replacing Fonseca, who kicked 35 field goals the last two seasons. Plus, the Colonels won't play a home game until Oct. 5.

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2. SAM HOUSTON STATE

LOCATION: Huntsville, Texas

STADIUM: Bowers Stadium

HEAD COACH: K.C. Keeler (52-17, five seasons; 226-90-1 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Ty Brock, QB, So.; Kyran Jackson, RB, Jr.; Toneil Carter, RB, So. (Texas transfer); Nathan Stewart, WR, Sr.; Dee Bowens, WR, So.; Woody Brandom, TE/H-back, Sr.; Colby Thomas, LT, Jr.; Eric David, LG, Sr.; Tyler Edwards, OL, R-Sr.; Erick Fowler, DE, Sr.; Trace Mascorro, DL, Jr. (UTEP transfer); Hunter Brown, LB, R-Sr.; Royce See, LB, Sr.; Zyon McCollum, CB, Jr.; Jaylen Thomas, CB/KR

THREE KEY LOSSES: Davion Davis, WR; Derick Roberson, DE; Tre Honshtein, PK

OUTLOOK: The Bearkats expect a bounce-back season after their streak of consecutive playoff appearances ended at seven (with five of the teams having reached at least the national semifinals). The offense seeks to be high-octane again with a more-seasoned Brock at the controls, WR Stewart (182 career receptions for 3,715 yards and 31 touchdowns) back for his senior season, and RBs Jackson and Carter, a Texas transfer, expected to complement each other. With overall balance, the potential is there for this to be the best defense in Keeler's tenure. CB McCollum and DE Fowler are the impact players. The season opens at New Mexico, where the Bearkats won in their most-recent meeting in 2011.

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3. ABILENE CHRISTIAN

LOCATION: Abilene, Texas

STADIUM: Wildcat Stadium

HEAD COACH: Adam Dorrel (8-14, two seasons; 84-22 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Luke Anthony, QB, Jr.; Tracy James, RB, Sr.; Billy McCrary, RB, Sr.; Josh Fink, WR, Sr.; Kade Parmelly, OL, Jr.; Cole Burgess, DT, Sr.; Kameron Hill, DE, Jr.; Corey Smith, DE, Sr.; Jeremiah Chambers, MLB, Sr.; Jack Gibbens, OLB, Jr.; Bolu Onifade, S, Sr.; Adonis Davis, CB, Sr.; Koy Richardson, CB, Jr.; Oscar Hernandez, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chase Cokley, WR/KR: Bill Weber, OL; Dante Hibbert, DL

OUTLOOK: After posting their first winning season on the Division I level, the Wildcats are tied for the most returning starters in the conference at 18, with another six players who started at least two games. Dorrel says his squad has to be more physical at the line of scrimmage, but opponents will struggle with the Wildcats' offensive firepower: Anthony passed for 3,019 yards and 23 touchdowns, James and McCrary combined for 1,488 yards and 14 scores on the ground, and Fink caught 55 passes. New defensive coordinator Clint Brown arrived from FCS power South Dakota State. All-Southland standout Chambers (113 tackles) will patrol the middle of the defense. While a playoff bid is possible, the road schedule is brutally tough.

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4. UIW

LOCATION: San Antonio

STADIUM: Gayle and Tim Benson Stadium

HEAD COACH: Eric Morris (6-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 6-2 Southland (Tie/1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jon Copeland, QB, So.; Ameer King, RB, So.; Keyondrick Philio, RB, Jr.; Lamont Johnson, WR, R-Sr.; Kam Williams, WR, Sr.; Brandon Floores, OL, Sr.; Terence Hickman, OL, Sr.; Javon Wright, DL, Jr.; Jeremy Jones, OL, Sr; Kelechi Anyalebechi, DL, So.; Mar'kel Cooks, LB, Sr.; Malick Phillips, DB, Jr.; Louis Otis, DB, Sr.; Lamont Johnson, WR, R-Sr.; David Balcomb, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Ra'Quanne Dickens, RB; Kody Edwards, WR; Silas Stewart, LB

OUTLOOK: In his first season at UIW, Morris lifted a 1-10 team in 2017 to a share of its first Southland title and playoff appearance. The 2019 season could be memorable as well, and the Cardinals have a chance to win two FBS games (UTSA and New Mexico State). QB Copeland, the conference's freshman of the year who averaged 306.1 yards of total offense per game, led an offense that set program records for total offense and scoring, and while the offensive line is stout, the Cardinals lost a handful of key skills position standouts. The defense was one of the best in the FCS at forcing turnovers, but must replace LBs Stewart and West Lambert.

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5. LAMAR

LOCATION: Beaumont, Texas

STADIUM: Provost Umphrey Stadium

COACH: Mike Schultz (7-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 6-3 Southland (3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (8 offense/4 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jordan Hoy, QB, Sr.; Will McBride, QB, So. (Tennessee transfer); Myles Wanza, RB, Jr.; Zae Giles, WR, Sr.; Case Robinson, TE/FB, Sr.; Tamatoa Neher, OL, Sr.; Stephon Cooper, C, Sr.; Aires Gilmore-Gardner, OL, Sr.; Hayden Kaaiohelo, OL, Sr.; Case Robinson, TE, Sr.; Daniel Crosley, DE, Sr.; Reggie Boseman, DE, Jr.; James Jeffrey, DT, Sr.; Isaiah Spencer, LB, Sr.; Jerod Alton, DB, Jr.; Kyron Norwood, DB, Jr.; Elvin Martinez, PK, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Darrel Colbert, Jr., QB; Garrett Bowery, OL; Dedrick Garner, DE

OUTLOOK: The Cardinals penned one of the wildest stories of the 2018 season, entering October without a Division I win before they rallied to six straight victories and their first playoff appearance. This season, they're seeking their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1966-67. QB Hoy started only three games in 2018, but did enough to earn the conference's newcomer of the year award. He will be pushed by McBride, and Schultz isn't opposing to using two signal callers. Crosley is the defensive leader, but the secondary lost four starters plus one of the two players who split another spot. Conference favorite Nicholls is not on the schedule.

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6. CENTRAL ARKANSAS

LOCATION: Conway, Arkansas

STADIUM: Estes Stadium

HEAD COACH: Nathan Brown (6-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Breylin Smith, QB, R-So.; Luke Hales, QB, R-So.; Carlos Blackman, RB, Sr.; Kierre Crossley, RB, Jr.; Brandon Myers, WR, Jr.; Tobias Enlow, WR, Jr. (Arkansas transfer); Jarrod Barnes, WR, So. (Arkansas transfer); Jack Short, TE, Jr.; Hunter Watts, OL, Sr.; Adrian Harris, OL, Jr.; Brandon Myers, WR, Jr.; Nathan Grant, DE, Jr.; A'Javius Brown, NG, Jr.; Jackie Harvell, S, Jr.; Juan Jackson, S, Sr.; Trai Mosley, CB, Sr.; Robert Rochell, DB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jakari Dillard, WR; Eric Jackson, DT; Chris Terrell, DE

OUTLOOK: The Bears already were facing a difficult schedule in Brown's second season, but the scenario was complicated even more on the eve of preseason camp when Terrell (46½ tackles for loss and 21 sacks in career) - one of the nation's more dominating defenders - was dismissed for a violation of team rules. The defense will now rely most on the loaded secondary, led by S Jackson. Last year's season-opening quarterback, Smith, seeks to reclaim the top job from Hales after he missed the final eight games due to injury. RBs Blackman and Crossley form one of the better duos in the FCS. The Bears will play at Hawaii on Sept. 22.

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7. MCNEESE

LOCATION: Lake Charles, Louisiana

STADIUM: Cowboy Stadium

HEAD COACH: Sterlin Gilbert (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Cody Orgeron, QB, Jr.; Justin Pratt, RB, Sr.; Elijah Mack, RB, Jr. (South Florida transfer); Cyron Sutton, WR, Jr.; Rhashid Bonnette, WR, Gr. (Louisiana Tech grad transfer); Trevor Begue, WR, Jr.; Grant Burguillos, OL, Sr.; Chris Livings, DL, Sr.; Cody Roscoe, DL, Jr.; Kody Fulp, LB, So. (Navarro JC transfer); Colby Burton, DB, Sr.; Jovon Burriss, DB, Sr.; Gabe Foster, DB, Jr.; Cory McCoy, DB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Parker Orgeron, WR; B.J. Blunt, LB; Alex Kjellsten, P

OUTLOOK: McNeese has one of the most traditionally strong Southland programs, but it's a bit of a wild card this season after last season's disappointment, which ended without the playoffs for the third straight year despite a 5-1 start. Gilbert, the former Texas and South Florida offensive coordinator, takes over a veteran team. The offense was last in the Southland in total offense and ranked 10th in scoring average. It's expected to be up-tempo and led by QB Orgeron, a dual-threat. DE Livings had a five-sack game last season and will chase the school's all-time record. The Cowboys have a tough assignment to end the regular season with games at Nicholls and Lamar.

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8. NORTHWESTERN STATE

LOCATION: Natchitoches, Louisiana

STADIUM: Harry Turpin Stadium

HEAD COACH: Brad Laird (5-6, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Shelton Eppler, QB, Sr.; Jared West, RB, Sr.; Quan Shorts, WR, Sr.; David Fitzwater, TE, So. (Tulsa transfer); Chris Zirkle, OL, Sr.; Dustin Burns, OL, Sr.; O'Shea Jackson, DT, Sr.; Damian Thompson, NT, Jr.; Quan Whitley, LB, Sr.; Hayden Bourgeois, S, Jr.; Shemar Bartholomew, CB, So.; Ryan Reed, S, Sr.; Myles Ward, KR, So.; Parker Pastorello, P, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jazz Ferguson, WR; Jaylen Watson, WR; Obinna Iheoma, DE

OUTLOOK: Laird has something going on at his alma mater. A strong finish to his first season has the Demons eyeing their first winning record since 2008. Laird, a former quarterback, loves what his team has in Eppler, who completed over 60 percent of his passes for 2,639 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior. While Ferguson and Watson were huge losses, WR Shorts (56 receptions) moves into the No. 1 role. The Demons ranked 109th in the FCS in total defense and 97th in scoring defense, but the return of DT Jackson and NT Thompson will make them strong up the middle. The schedule may allow for a strong start, but the meaty portion of it follows in October and November.

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9. SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA

LOCATION: Hammond, Louisiana

STADIUM: Strawberry Stadium

HEAD COACH: Frank Scelfo (4-7, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Chason Virgil, QB, Sr.; Cole Kelley, QB, Jr. (Arkansas transfer); Devonte Williams, RB/PR, Sr.; Marcus Cooper, RB, So.; Lorenzo Nunez, WR, Sr.; Juwan Petit-Frere, WR/KR, Sr.; C.J. Turner, WR, So.; Bransen Schwebel, TE, Sr.; Pat Allen, OL, Sr.; Drew Jones, OL, Jr.; Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, DE, Sr.; Ferlando Jordan, DB, So.; Xavier Lewis, DB, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Darren Johnson, RB; Tamarcus Russell, LB; Zeke Walker, DB

OUTLOOK: After underachieving in Scelfo's first season, the Lions should be improved. They'll have to be when they open with a strong nonconference schedule (Jacksonville State and at Bethune-Cookman and Ole Miss). There's superb depth at quarterback with Virgil, who led the Southland in passing yards (3,034) and Arkansas transfer Kelley. Plus many of the top offensive weapons are back, including Petit-Frere for a seemingly umpteenth season of excellence. Former McNeese coach Lance Guidry was hired to lift the defense, which ranked eighth in the conference. Adeyemi-Berglund will make the full switch to defensive end from linebacker.

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10. STEPHEN F. AUSTIN

LOCATION: Nacogdoches, Texas

STADIUM: Homer Bryce Stadium

HEAD COACH: Colby Carthel (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-8 overall, 2-7 Southland (10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Jake Blumrick, QB, Sr.; Josh McGowen, RB, Jr.; Tamrick Pace, WR, Sr.; Remi Simmons, WR, Jr.; Josh Weeks, TE, Gr. (UTEP transfer); A.J. Brown, OL, Sr.; Rayshad Nichols, DT, Jr.; Carl Williams, DT, Fr.; Quin Jones, LB, Sr.; Alize Ward, S, Sr.; Trenton Gordon, S, Jr.; Aretavious Hendrix, CB, Sr.; Storm Ruiz, PK, Sr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: Terian Goree, WR; Ryan Woods, LB; Chris Wilkerson, LS

OUTLOOK: Carthel led Texas A&M-Commerce to the Division II national title in 2017 and should have the Lumberjacks much-improved sooner rather than later. He signed a standout recruiting class, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The offense struggled last season and QB Blumrick is coming off back surgery. If healthy, Blumrick has terrific wide receivers in Pace and Simmons, who combined for 101 receptions last season. The defense is strong in the back with a potential All-American in Ward plus Hendrix. Ruiz was named the Southland preseason first-team place-kicker.

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11. HOUSTON BAPTIST

LOCATION: Houston

STADIUM: Dunham Field

HEAD COACH: Vic Shealy (10-45, five seasons; 37-59-1 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 0-9 Southland (11th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

KEY PLAYERS: Bailey Zappe, QB, Jr.; Dreshawn Minnieweather, RB, Jr.; LaDarius Dickens, RB, Jr.; Jerreth Sterns, WR, So.; Terry Tillmon, WR, Sr.; Gamar Girdy Brito, WR, Sr.; Cody Hooks, OL, Sr.; Hekoti Chapman, OL, Sr.; Tuita Chapman, OL, Sr.; Andre Walker, DE, Sr.; Caleb Johnson, LB, Jr.; Brennan Young, LB, So.; Colton Manning, S, So.; Patrick Wolfe, S, Jr.; Coi Miller, CB, Jr.

THREE KEY LOSSES: David Racine, WR; Langston Tunson, LB; Raphael Lewis, CB

OUTLOOK: The Huskies seek to halt a 19-game Southland losing streak since 2016, and the return of an experienced lineup provides optimism. Some junior-college transfers were brought in for the offensive line to make the offense go for QB Zappe (2,812 yards, 23 touchdowns) and his many offensive weapons. HBU allowed 27.9 points per game in a 1-10 season in 2017, but last year it was a 43.7-point average - third-worst in the FCS. DE Walker and LB Johnson often get into backfields, so overall improvement is likely. Behind a number of key underclassmen, the Huskies may be setting up a breakthrough 2020 season.

Updated August 9, 2019

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