Last Modified: Monday, July 28, 2014 2:38 PMBarring the unexpected, the biggest game on this year’s Southland Conference schedule figures to take place when McNeese visits Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 15.
Of course, the very nature of college football means the unexpected — injuries, off-field issues, breakthrough players, disappointing players — is to be expected. What seems certain in July might not feel that way by Halloween.
But there is one game on the conference slate has already clinched the title for “most awkward,” and nothing can change that. On Oct. 4, Central Arkansas will visit Stephen F. Austin and head coach Clint Conque, who jumped to the Lumberjacks this offseason after 14 years in charge of the Bears.
Conque knows going to a conference rival is an unorthodox move, so he went to great lengths to explain the decision at last week’s Southland media day.
“I’ll try to address this one time, then move forward,” Conque said. “We had a tremendous run for 14 years at the University of Central Arkansas. Conference championships — the only program in the FCS to win a title transitioning (from Division II). A couple playoff appearances, four APR awards. A tremendous amount of relationships and acquaintances.
“With that said, in 2004 when we were Division II at UCA, I had applied for the SFA job and interviewed as one of the finalists. I was a little younger and probably didn’t have enough sand in my bags.
“I had let other opportunities pass, but when this one came up again I was ready for a new challenge. No. 1, it re-energized me. I felt I needed that at 52 years old. We have unbelievable leadership at Stephen F. Austin. Tremendous support for the student-athlete welfare. We do some things you see at the big-time college football programs. I’m excited about those resources.
“And recruiting. I’ve coached in Louisiana and Arkansas. It would be an arguable point, but a valid point, that some of the best football played on Friday night is in Houston, Southeast Texas, East Texas and Dallas-Fort Worth. Stephen F. Austin is located in the middle of that footprint. That’s exciting to my staff and myself.
“Obviously there were financial considerations for me and my staff. That will allow us to do our jobs more efficiently and better, and provide more for the student-athletes. That excites me. That re-energized me.”
It’s easy for Conque to focus on the new task at hand, turning around the worst defensive and special teams unit in the Southland last season.
SFA’s defense looked like a roll of toilet paper trying to stop Niagara Falls last year, allowing 525 yards and 49.3 points per game. They weren’t helped by the league’s worst kickoff unit — an average of 17.5 yards per return — or an offense that committed 34 turnovers.
But when the week comes that Conque is across the field from a team of players he recruited, he concedes there will be some emotions. But he won’t be taking the foot off the gas pedal, either.
“I’m their biggest fans, except for one game,” Conque said. “I’m still a very fierce competitor. The day I lose that competitiveness is the day I go sell widgets, or write newspaper articles. We’ve got a lot of water and a lot of bridges before we get there. I’m sure the media will make a big deal of it that week. But it’ll be about the 22 men on the field and who is prepared best and who makes the fewest mistakes and most plays. That’s the approach I will take.”
Needless to say, UCA players are more than a little fired up about this one a full three months ahead of time.
“It’s highlighted and everything,” said Bears receiver Dezmin Lewis. “We respect the coaches and respect the team. But it’s a big game going to play against our old coaches. And two years ago when we played at SFA it was a big storm and we didn’t give our full potential because we couldn’t throw the ball. So this year we’re going down there with a different mindset.”