The Southland Conference hasn’t just served as host of FCS championship week since the game was moved to Frisco, Texas, with the 2010 season, it’s been a second home for the Walter Payton Award.
The Southland, whose offices are based in Frisco, has had four different quarterbacks combine on five FCS offensive player of the year awards during the 13-year span.
Who’s next? Well, the leading Southland candidates this fall would likely come from defending co-champions Southeastern Louisiana and UIW, who were ranked a close 1-2 in the conference’s preseason poll, announced during virtual media day on Monday. The two programs have been the dominating powers since Sam Houston’s departure following the 2020-21 academic year, with both posting at least one victory in each of the last two postseasons.
UIW (12-2) is replacing the 2022 Payton recipient, Lindsey Scott Jr., similar to what Southeastern (9-4) faced last season with 2020 recipient and 2021 runner-up Cole Kelley. Previously, Stephen F. Austin’s Jeremy Moses won the top honor in 2010 and Sam Houston’s Jeremiah Briscoe went back-to-back in 2016 and ’17. In all five seasons, the Southland winner ranked top-three in the FCS in both passing yards and total offensive yards per game.
Southeastern, the preseason favorite for the third consecutive year, and UIW appear equipped to overwhelm defenses again. Due to returning all-conference selections automatically being named to the Southland preseason team, the Lions’ conference-high 17 selections included both quarterback spots, Northwestern State transfer Zachary Clement on the first team and returnee Eli Sawyer the second team.
“I think at the end of the day, you might see one, two or all three (also Hawaii transfer Cam Cooper) of those guys playing,” Scelfo, the 2022 Southland coach of the year, said on the ESPN+ broadcast of media day.
“The coaches, the players and all the way through the conference, you better bring it or you’re just gonna get your butts kicked. I think that’s what’s important, for everybody to realize it.”
Clement’s 2,498 passing yards and 19 touchdown passes at NSU last season are the most among returning Southland QBs, but coach Frank Scelfo figures to utilize two signal callers along with Sawyer, like last season. Sawyer’s 11 TD passes against only one interception featured a walk-off winner over UIW.
It’s still get-to-know-you time with UIW’s reworked lineup as the Cardinals’ eight selections on the preseason team trailed Southeastern and Nicholls (11). Clint Killough, who at 30 is Division I’s youngest head football coach, added over 20 transfers, with quarterback Zach Calzada perhaps one of the most influential in the FCS. He passed for 2,185 yards and 17 TDs at Texas A&M in 2021 while also guiding an upset win over No. 1-ranked Alabama in 2021.
Circle Oct. 7 on the calendar because the biggest game of the Southland season comes early again, when UIW hosts Southeastern.
Southland Conference Preseason Poll
- Southeastern Louisiana (2022: 9-4, 5-1), 93 points (9 first-place votes)
- UIW (12-2, 5-1), 91 (7)
- McNeese (4-7, 2-4), 65
- Nicholls (3-8, 3-3), 62
- Northwestern State (4-7, 4-2), 52
- Texas A&M-Commerce (5-6, 3-3), 33
- Lamar (1-10, 1-5), 28
- Houston Christian (2-9, 1-5), 24