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Hobbs Column: New kids on Southland’s block bring new challenges

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:45 PM

By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

You definitely needed a program or an updated Rolodex to sort out the Southland Conference at L’Auberge Casino Resort Wednesday afternoon.

The usual suspects were all there for the league’s annual media days — Sam Houston, Northwestern State, Stephen F. Austin.

McNeese, of course.

And other old friends like Southeastern, Nicholls, Lamar, Central Arkansas.

But who is that stranger over in the corner, resplendent in deep purple?

And I don’t think I recognize that white helmet with HBU on it.

For that matter, those Cardinals across the room don’t look anything like Lamar.

You guys got some I.D. on you?

Call security.

It turned out the new faces were legit, the Southland Conference’s latest football members — your Abilene Christian Wildcats, Houston Baptist Huskies and the University of the Incarnate Word Cardinals.

For now, they’re all still going through the Southland’s fraternity rush, so to speak, soon to be pledges.

They will all dip a toe or two into a partial Southland Conference schedule this season and have made sure to all play each other, sometimes twice.

It’s obvious there will be some growing pains.

When the new teams do play a complete SLC schedule in earnest for the 2014 season, a charter member of the Southland Conference won’t be eligible for the conference championship.

A team that, as of today, has not yet gotten around to playing a single actual football game, will be eligible for the same trophy immediately.

But my favorite is that Houston Baptist University will play its first-ever season of football in a Catholic stadium — Strake Jesuit High School, about two miles down the road — before its own stadium comes on line next season. The tailgate debates should be interesting.

The Catholic newcomer, Incarnate Word, will play in Benson Stadium — named and mostly paid for by you know who — which is located suspiciously in San Antonio.

If you’re worried that this is covert ground-laying for the Saints to threaten a move to San Antonio again, well, the Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium holds only 6,000 seats, which probably isn’t suitable for an NFL franchise.

But the three newbies will eventually be coming in from different angles.

Abilene Christian, the charter member of the Southland when it was formed in 1963, is coming back for the 50th anniversary of the league. But the Wildcats have been a perennial power in Division II, and you could probably use the Central Arkansas model and hardly miss a beat.

Incarnate Word, also moving up from Division II, is still trying to get the hang of football heading into its fifth season of the sport. It was started in 2009 with former McNeese offensive coordinator Mike Santiago as head coach, but will enter former Lamar head coach Larry Kennan’s second season with only 12 victories in its history.

Houston Baptist is still learning which end of the football to hold.

It’s not a cheap conversion.

Coming from Division II, Abilene and Incarnate Word had to pay a $1.5 million fee to the NCAA to make the jump.

It would seem those fledgling programs could use the make-good money more than the filthy-rich NCAA — or give it the Southland, for that matter —  but that’s the rules.

They are also four years away from being legally eligible for competing for the Southland title.

That’s due to different academic requirements that Division II recruits under, so they need a four-year cycle to rinse all the riff-raff out.

Abilene Christian coach Ken Collums will live with it, but points out that due to the school’s high academic standards, it was already recruiting under Division I requirements. They’re moving up partly to get on equal footing for recruiting.

Houston Baptist, the only one yet to play a football game, got a pass on the entry fee because it was already in NCAA Division I (for all those other sports it’s actually been playing, such as golf, from which Colin Montgomery is a famous alum).

They Huskies will also be eligible immediately for 2014 because they haven’t been recruiting anybody under any guidelines.

The Huskies get another break for what will be only a seven-game shakedown cruise this season.

A little-known NCAA loophole, discovered by South Alabama when it played a partial schedule as a start-up, allows that nobody who plays for Houston Baptist this season will lose a year of eligiblity. In effect, all the freshmen that play, even start all seven games, will come back year as redshirt freshmen. Mostly, though, the Southland Conference, like the SEC, is learning that expansion brings with it some headaches, most notably in the delicate art of scheduling.

The SEC with all its millions and other resources, not to mention a year’s head start, hasn’t come close to figuring out a workable and equitable scheduling format for its bulging 14-team league.

Neither, really, has the Southland for what will soon be 11 teams.

The league, which starting in 2014 will have 11 dues-paying football members, wants to play a nine-game conference schedule.

That’s not possible for that first 11-team season because of too many existing non-conference commitments on the schedule, many of the type that pay big bucks for struggling athletic departments.

But beginning with the 2015 season, the league’s teams will in fact play a nine-game SLC schedule.

Or at least most of them will.

It involves high math, perhaps with bits of trigonometry tossed in, so I’m taking them at their word here.

Something about an odd number of teams playing an odd number of games.

But it is, I’m assured, mathematically impossible for 11 teams to all play a nine-game schedule. One team would have to play games 10 for the math to work out.

Or one team would have to play eight, which is the route the Southland will take.

Houston Baptist will play only eight games those first two years of the nine-game schedule, but do not suggest to anybody in the SLC that the Huskies were chosen because a start-up program isn’t likely to contend for the title that quickly anyway.

That’s where it could get tricky if, say, you had to break a tie between a 8-1 team and a 7-1 team that, through no fault of its own, didn’t have the same chance to get an eighth win.

According to Southland Commissioner Tom Burnett, that’s a tie-breaker the athletic directors will still have to discuss and work out.

Maybe they call the SEC for guidance.

On second thought, never mind.

• • •

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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