FRISCO, Texas – The 56th season of Southland Conference football kicks off Thursday with four evening matchups. Central Arkansas visits Western Kentucky and Northwestern State faces UT Martin on the road at 6:30 p.m. CT, and Lamar hosts Bethel (Tenn.) and Southeastern Louisiana takes on Jacksonville State at home at 7 p.m.
Three Southland teams are ranked nationally in preseason top 25 polls, led by Nicholls at No. 11 in the FCS Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the STATS FCS Top 25. Sam Houston State is ranked No. 22 and No. 23, respectively, and Central Arkansas comes in at No. 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll.
The conference is coming off a second-consecutive three-bid year in the FCS playoffs last season and aims for its ninth-straight season with multiple postseason berths. The league has not failed to secure an at-large bid since 2010.
Click here for a list of the TV selections for the first four weeks.
Nicholls Colonels – Preseason Ranking: 1st – 2018 Record/Place: 9-4 (7-2 SLC), 1st
Coming off their first Southland title since 2005, the defending co-champions return the fewest starters among the league (12), but nine of those individuals were all-conference honorees in 2018. Nicholls led the way with 11 student-athletes on the preseason all-conference teams, including eight on the first team. The Colonels earned the Southland’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs in 2018, marking the first time in school history they have made back-to-back FCS playoff appearances. Nicholls defeated San Diego at home before falling to national runner-up Eastern Washington in the second round.
Senior quarterback Chase Fourcade, the reigning Southland Football Player of the Year, was named to the Preseason Walter Payton Award Watch List and enters his final season with the 10th-most career total offense yards in league history (8,990). Senior defensive lineman Sully Laiche, a member of the Preseason Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, begins his senior campaign as the active FCS leader in career sacks (25.5).
Opening Game: at Kansas State, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Central Arkansas Bears – Preseason Ranking: 2nd – 2018 Record/Place: 6-5 (5-4 SLC), t-4th
UCA’s title-defense campaign didn’t go as planned in 2018, finishing in a four-way tie for fourth place in the final standings. The Bears return 17 starters from last year’s squad and welcome the return of redshirt sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith, who broke his ankle in week four against Sam Houston State. UCA earned the second-most preseason all-conference selections with seven, including three members of the secondary in senior Juan Jackson and juniors Jackie Harvell and Robert Rochell.
The offense features an all-conference duo of Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley, who combined for 1,386 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018. They will be running behind a big-bodied offensive line that returns four of five starters from last season. The Bears suffered a crucial loss on defense with the dismissal of senior defensive lineman Chris Terrell, an all-American in 2018 and a Preseason Buck Buchanan Award Watch List member.
Opening Game: at Western Kentucky, Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Incarnate Word Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 3rd– 2018 Record/Place: 6-5 (6-2 SLC), t-1st
First-year head coach Eric Morris led UIW to a historic turnaround in 2018 as a five-game swing vaulted the Cardinals to their first Southland Conference title and FCS playoff appearance. UIW returns 17 starters, including eight on offense, from a team that fell to Montana State in the opening round of the playoffs. Perhaps the most notable returner is defending Southland Conference Freshman of the Year Jon Copeland, who set a single-season program record with 2,984 yards through the air in 2018 and was one of five Cardinals on the preseason all-conference teams.
UIW returns most of its offensive line, which helped set single-season school records in offensive yards (5,315), total points (357) and touchdowns (48). The Cardinals have the biggest holes to fill on defense, which recorded at least one turnover in every game last season and led the FCS with 29 turnovers gained at the end of their regular season.
Opening Game: at UTSA, Saturday, 5 p.m.
Sam Houston State Bearkats – Preseason Ranking: 4th – 2018 Record/Place: 6-5 (5-4 SLC), t-4th
The Bearkats look to extend their streak of winning seasons to 10 and return to the playoffs behind a crop of 18 returning starters and six preseason all-conference picks. For just the second time in this decade and the first time under head coach K.C. Keeler, Sam Houston State failed to win nine or more games and missed the FCS playoffs after a 6-5 campaign in 2018. SHSU features nine returning starters on defense, including preseason all-America defensive back Zyon McCollum.
Senior wideout Nathan Stewart, a Preseason Walter Payton Award Watch List honoree and First Team Preseason All-America nod, is 228 yards shy of the all-time Southland receiving record. Stewart is one of four wide receivers in FCS history to reach 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons and would become the third FCS wideout to do it all four years if he were to put up another four-figure performance in 2019.
Opening Game: at New Mexico, Saturday, 5 p.m.
Lamar Cardinals – Preseason Ranking: 5th – 2018 Record/Place: 7-5 (6-3 SLC), 3rd
Coming off its first FCS playoffs appearance, Lamar returns 14 starters and aims to win its first Southland title since 1971. The Cardinals suffered a bitter 16-13 loss at Northern Iowa in the first round of the postseason to cap off a 7-5 campaign. The Cardinals bring back three of their top four rushers, led by junior Myles Wanza, a second team preseason all-conference selection. In all, Lamar placed three on the preseason all-league teams.
Senior defensive lineman Daniel Crosley, a first-team preseason all-conference nod, is one of three returners on the defensive line and tallied 16 tackles for loss in his junior season. His nine sacks were the third-most in the conference in 2018. Running the offense will be senior quarterback Jordan Hoy, who earned Southland Football co-Newcomer of the Year honors last year.
Opening Game: vs. Bethel (Tenn.), Thursday, 7 p.m.
McNeese Cowboys – Preseason Ranking: 6th – 2018 Record/Place: 6-5 (5-4 SLC), t-4th
The owners of the fourth-longest streak of winning seasons (14) at the FCS level, McNeese looks to stretch that to 15 in 2019. The Cowboys will see lots of new faces with just 14 returning starters and a new coach in former South Florida offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who plans to introduce a spread offense to McNeese’s playbook. The Cowboys placed three on the preseason all-Southland squads.
Chris Livings, a first-team preseason all-conference nod, is one of three returners on the defensive line along with Jonta Jones and Cody Roscoe. The trio combined for 13 sacks and 22 tackles for loss last season. On the offensive side of the ball, Gilbert brought in three FBS transfers in wide receiver Rhashid Bonnette (Louisiana Tech) and running backs Elijah Mack (South Florida) and D’Andre Hicks (Appalachian State).
Opening Game: vs. Southern, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Abilene Christian Wildcats – Preseason Ranking: 7th – 2018 Record/Place: 6-5 (5-4 SLC), t-4th
The Wildcats snapped a streak of three-straight losing seasons in 2018 with a 6-5 mark last season. ACU’s four-game improvement warranted a multi-year extension for head coach Adam Dorrel that will keep him under contract through the 2023 season. Among ACU’s 18 returning starters are 10 on defense, led by Second Team Preseason All-America honoree Jeremiah Chambers, whose 113 tackles in 2018 tied for 10th-most in single-season program history.
ACU returns three of its top offensive weapons from last season, including quarterback Luke Anthony, who ranked top-10 nationally in completions, attempts, passing yards, completions per game and total offense. He is joined in the backfield by 2018 Southland Football co-Newcomer of the Year Billy McCrary. Wide receiver Josh Fink, a second team preseason all-conference selection, is back for his final season.
Opening Game: at North Texas, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
Southeastern Louisiana Lions – Preseason Ranking: 8th – 2018 Record/Place: 4-7 (4-5 SLC), t-8th
Second-year head coach Frank Scelfo aims to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2011-12 and hired four new coaches, including former McNeese head coach Lance Guidry as his defensive coordinator. The Lions’ 12 returning starters are tied with Nicholls for the fewest league-wide, but the group includes six preseason all-conference picks.
Quarterback Chason Virgil, the defending Southland passing yards leader (3,034), will once again be targeting tight end Bransen Schwebel and wide receiver Juwan Petit-Frere, who was also first team preseason all-Southland as a kick returner. The Lions occupied the punt returner slots on both preseason all-conference squads with Devonte Williams and Austin Mitchell, who combined for 222 yards on 15 attempts (14.8 yards per return) in 2018.
Opening Game: vs. No. 6/6 Jacksonville State, Thursday, 7 p.m.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks – Preseason Ranking: 9th – 2018 Record/Place: 2-8 (2-7 SLC), 10th
First-year head coach Colby Carthel brings a wealth of success to Nacogdoches after six seasons at the helm at Texas A&M-Commerce, where he won the 2017 NCAA Division II National Championship. His staff hit the ground running, signing the third-best recruiting class among all FCS institutions. The Lumberjacks welcome the return of 17 starters and look to snap a streak of four-straight losing seasons.
The ‘Jacks landed three on the preseason all-conference teams, including wide receiver Tamrick Pace, who ranks 10th all-time in career receiving yards at SFA (2,104) and is tied for eighth in career touchdown receptions (20). Safety Alize Ward, an All-Southland pick in each of the last two seasons, was positioned for a breakout final season but will miss the year due to an ACL injury.
Opening Game: at Baylor, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Northwestern State Demons – Preseason Ranking: 10th – 2018 Record/Place: 4-5 (5-6 SLC), t-8th
Having improved their record in each of the past two seasons, the Demons look to continue that trend under second-year head coach Brad Laird. Northwestern State returns 17 starters with seven on each side of the ball and a trio on special teams. The Demons garnered four preseason all-conference selections, led by first-teamer and junior safety Hayden Bourgeois, who ranked third nationally in forced turnovers (7) in 2018 with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
The “Purple Swarm” defense returns 70 of the team’s 82.5 sacks and its top six tacklers from 2018 with Bourgeois’ 83 stops leading the way. While the offense saw the departure of Southland Football Offensive Player of the Year Jazz Ferguson, fellow wide receiver Quan Shorts is back after hauling in 56 passes in 2018, a total that ranks fourth in single-season program history.
Opening Game: at UT Martin, Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Houston Baptist Huskies – Preseason Ranking: 11th – 2018 Record/Place: 1-10 (0-9 SLC), 11th
Boasting the most returning starters (20) of any Southland squad, Houston Baptist vies to stop a 19-game league losing streak heading into 2019. The Huskies trio of wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, defensive lineman Andre Walker and linebacker Caleb Johnson represented the program on the preseason all-conference second team.
As a freshman, Sterns paced the Southland in receptions (68) from quarterback Bailey Zappe, who tied for the conference lead with 23 passing touchdowns. Walker begins his final season as the program’s all-time sacks leader (11.5), and Johnson ranked fifth in the conference with 9.3 tackles per game and tied for the league lead with four fumble recoveries in his sophomore campaign.
Opening Game: at UTEP, Saturday, 7 p.m.