FCS college football 2021: Southland Conference preview

National Sports

(Stats Perform) – Reigning FCS champion Sam Houston was one of five schools to depart the Southland Conference this summer, but the Bearkats remain a measuring stick to formal rivals for at least the near future.

The six remaining Southland programs grew accustomed to playing, and sometimes beating, the second-winningest FCS programs in the 2010s, which opened this decade atop the FCS. Southeastern Louisiana, the preseason favorite this fall, had the best chance in the spring, falling by five points.

There is so much for the Southland to look back to this past spring. In addition to Sam Houston’s perfect title season, Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley received the Walter Payton Award as the national offensive player of the year and UIW quarterback Cameron Ward claimed the Jerry Rice Award as the national freshman player of the year.

But after the mid-year divorce – Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Lamar and Stephen F. Austin also left the Southland – the conference needs to move forward with finding additional membership. While doing so, they should be able to show off a tight conference title race.

Here’s a preview of the upcoming Southland season:

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PREDICTED FINISH

(With Fall 2020/Spring 2021 Season Record)

1. Southeastern Louisiana (4-3, 4-2) – One of the last four teams out of the spring playoffs, the Lions allowed 51.3 points per game in their three losses. They hope to improve behind senior linebacker Alexis Ramos, who paced the conference with 80 tackles.

2. Nicholls (4-3, 3-3) – The 2018 and ’19 Southland co-champ’s offense is light’s out with quarterback Lindsey Scott, running back Julien Gums, offensive tackle P.J. Burkhalter and wide receiver Dai’Jean Dixon. The defense must cut down on allowing long gains.

3. UIW (3-3, 3-3) – Electrifying: In the spring season, Jerry Rice Award recipient Cameron Ward led the FCS in touchdown passes (24) and Kevin Brown was No. 1 in yards per carry (10.5).

4. McNeese (3-4, 2-4) – The Cowboys’ 14 Southland titles are four more than the other five programs combined. In coach Frank Wilson’s first season, Cody Orgeron had the offense figured out in the final three games, completing 70 percent of his passes for 951 yards and seven TDs without an interception.

5. Northwestern State (1-5, 1-5) – Having lost four times by eight points or less, the Demons capped coach Brad Laird’s third season with a 49-47 upset of UIW. Bryce Rivers (school-record 477 passing yards in the finale), running back Scooter Adams and linebacker Jomard Valsin are key returnees.

6. Houston Baptist (1-3, 0-0) – The offense is starting over after dominating quarterback Bailey Zappe made a grad transfer to Western Kentucky, taking key wide receivers with him. At least running back Dreshawn Minnieweather (17 career TDs) will keep finding the end zone.

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PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley – If his 6-foot-7, 260-pound size behind center isn’t intimidating enough, the Walter Payton Award recipient led the FCS spring regular season in passing yards (2,662), completions (210), total offensive yards (2,708) and total touchdowns (27 with a nifty 18 passing/7 rushing/2 receiving breakdown).

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PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

McNeese defensive end Isaiah Chambers – The former University of Houston edge rusher (6-5, 251) was physically dominating in his first Southland season, leading the conference with 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks with 11 QB hurries in seven spring games. He was fourth in voting for Buck Buchanan Award, which honors the FCS defensive player of the year and also is presented by Stats Perform.

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2022 NFL PROSPECT

Nicholls wide receiver Dai’Jean Dixon – In a run-first offense, Dixon’s career totals of 165 receptions, 2,800 receiving yards and 27 TD catches are school records already. Not a burner, he puts his 6-3, 200-pound frame to work over the middle.

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FAST FACT

Despite the loss of five programs to other conferences, the top three FCS passing attacks in the 2020-21 season remain in the conference: Houston Baptist (459.5 yards per game), Southeastern Louisiana (391.9) and UIW (377.2).

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X-FACTOR

It’s been pivotal for the defenses to improve and get healthier in the short offseason. Among returning schoos, McNeese was the best at preventing scoring (28.9 points allowed per game) and rushing the quarterback (25 sacks in seven games), Nicholls was by far the best against the run (133.1 yards per game) and in total defense (383 ypg), and Southeastern was the best at forcing turnovers (14 in seven games).

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3 MUST-SEE GAMES

McNeese at LSU (Sept. 11) – Is an upset brewing? Hardly, but Death Valley is the site of a fun matchup between McNeese quarterback Cody Orgeron and his dad, LSU coach Ed Orgeron, whose program captured the 2019 FBS national championship.

Southeastern Louisiana at UIW (Nov. 6) – Cole Kelley vs. Cameron Ward? Whew! Enough said.

Nicholls at Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 18) – Two is better than one when rivals face off twice this season. Five of the last six meetings have been decided by seven points or less.

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