The memo about change often being good clearly got out in the Southland Conference.
Reigning co-champion UIW even took the concept to extremes.
The Cardinals, whose best season ever ended in a thriller at North Dakota State in an FCS playoff semifinal, are joined by Houston Christian, Lamar and Texas A&M-Commerce in having a new head coach – a group that represents half of the eight Southland programs.
Clint Killough taking over at UIW feels like a seamless transition. The change that may be the most important is at quarterback, where 2022 Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. fueled the second-highest scoring average (51.5) in an FCS season.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming Southland season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. *Southeastern Louisiana (9-4, 5-1; preseason 15 ranking) – Two was better than one last season, and the Lions may go again with a two-quarterback system in returnee Eli Sawyer (11 touchdowns to one interception) and Northwestern State transfer Zachary Clement (2,498 yards, 19 TDs versus 13 interceptions). They were two of SLU’s conference-high 17 selections on the Southland preseason team. The Lions aren’t taking it easy before the conference schedule, opening the season with two FBS games and Eastern Washington on the road.
(A look back to Southland Conference football media day – it’s an arms race)
2. *UIW (12-2, 5-1; preseason 7 ranking) – National expectations haven’t lowered much despite UIW being under the guidance of its third different head coach in as many seasons – the 30-year-old Killough, the youngest in Division I – and returning just six starters (what is the freak-out factor rating?). In a lineup full of transfers, none is more influential than quarterback Zach Calzada, the former Texas A&M starter who can target wide receivers Brandon Porter, C.J. Hardy and Jaelin Campbell (six TD receptions each). Defensive end Steven Parker (11 tackles for loss, seven sacks) and defensive back Brandon Richard are the top returnees on that side of the ball.
3. McNeese (4-7, 2-4) – Despite having 57 newcomers on the roster, the Cowboys don’t feel as though they’re starting over in coach Gary Goff’s second season due to their strong finish last season (two close losses before a three-game winning streak). Transfers Nate Glantz (Iowa State) and Tre Simmons (Tusculum) have battled to be the starting quarterback, and they’ll be protected by a bigger offensive line which is anchored by Cole Leclair and Dylan Dauzart.
4. Northwestern State (4-7, 4-2) – The winning conference record and third-place finish were the best of coach Brad Laird’s five seasons. The offense should remain strong even after Clement’s transfer to Southeastern Louisiana. Former Idaho State QB Tyler Vander Waal will enjoy passing to wide receiver Zach Patterson, whose 83 receptions last season were the second-most in program history. Running back Scooter Adams, tight end Travon Jones and wide receiver Ke’Nard King also are productive.
5. Nicholls (3-8, 3-3) – After five straight winning seasons, the Colonels allowed 433.5 yards and 35.3 points per game – their worst averages since 2012 – in a difficult campaign. A turnaround would mean they’ve overcome one of the tougher schedules in the FCS (their 11 opponents were a combined 83-53 last season). Defensive end Perry Ganci and linebacker Eli Ennis are the keys defensively, while Collin Guggenheim (1,606 yards, 15 touchdowns) will shift back to being the featured back following Julien Gums’ graduation.
6. Texas A&M-Commerce (5-6, 3-3) – New coach Clint Dolezel makes the transition from arena football at his alma mater. The Lions’ schedule is upgraded significantly from last year’s first FCS season following their jump from Division II. They had four selections on the Southland preseason second team, and each resides on defense: defensive backs Daryion Taylor (129 career tackles, four takeaways), Max Epps and Sean-Krystoff King, and nose tackle Leon Young.
7. Houston Christian (2-9, 1-5) – Braxton Harris, who had been Campbell’s associate head coach, has become just the second head coach in Huskies history, inheriting one of the best 1-2 defensive duos in the Southland with linebacker Rodney Dansby and defensive Jalyx Hunt plus a strong cornerback in Devion Hargrave. The Huskies seek to improve an offense that ranked last in yards per game (307.4), rushing yards per game (79.3) and points per game (18.0).
8. Lamar (1-10, 1-5) – With only three wins (and just two versus FCS programs) in the last two full seasons, Lamar seeks growth under Pete Rossomando, the one-time Central Connecticut State head coach who doesn’t necessarily consider his new program to be in rebuilding mode. The Cardinals have depth at running back, led by Khalan Griffin (644 yards, six TDs, and the conference’s top-returning rusher) Major Bowden and RJ Carver. The newcomers include transfers Kevin Anderson (Texas State safety) and Robert Coleman (Mt. San Jacinto College quarterback).
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
John Allen, OL, Southeastern Louisiana – Left guard was named the 2022 Southland offensive lineman of the year.
Zach Calzada, Grad, UIW (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The 6-foot-4 signal caller passed for 2,185 yards and 17 TDs for Texas A&M while directing a win over top-ranked Alabama in 2021.
Rodney Dansby, LB, Houston Christian (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – The junior combined on the second-most tackles in the FCS over the last two seasons (256, one fewer than Fordham’s James Conway).
Perry Ganci, DL, Nicholls – A veteran of 42 career games, Ganci (143 tackles, 23.5 TFLs, 12.5 sacks) wraps up ball carriers.
Zach Patterson, WR/KR, Northwestern State – Patterson set a Demons record with 15 receptions against Texas A&M-Commerce en route to catching 83 overall – the second-highest total in program history.
(Southland trio selected to Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Southeastern Louisiana at UIW (Oct. 7) – It’s another early showdown for the defending co-champs. Southeastern handed UIW its only regular-season loss last season on Eli Sawyer’s game-ending, 59-yard TD pass.
2. Nicholls at Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 16)
3. UIW at McNeese (Oct. 21)
4. Northwestern State at Nicholls (Oct. 14)
5. Southeastern Louisiana at Texas A&M-Commerce (Nov. 11)
Nicholls is the only FCS program to be facing multiple FBS opponents that finished in the final AP Top 25 last season – No. 2 TCU, the national runner-up, and No. 9 Tulane.
This season’s nine Southland matchups against FBS programs:
McNeese: Florida (Sept. 9); Nicholls: TCU (Sept. 9) and Tulane (Sept. 23); Northwestern State: Louisiana (Sept. 2) and Louisiana Tech (Sept. 9); Southeastern Louisiana: Mississippi State (Sept. 2) and South Alabama (Sept. 9); Texas A&M-Commerce: Old Dominion (Sept. 23); UIW: UTEP (Sept. 2)
A Southland quarterback has finished first or second in the FCS in passing yards per game in six of the last seven seasons. In the fall 2020/spring 2021 season, the conference held the top three spots: Houston Baptist’s Bailey Zappe (458.2), Southeastern Louisiana’s Cole Kelley (380.3) and UIW’s Cameron Ward (376.7).