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After a series of heartbreaking losses which caused McNeese to miss the playoffs last year, head coach Matt Viator’s team is picked to finish third in the Southland Conference behind defending co-champions Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas. McNeese returns 16 starters and 62 lettermen. (Rick Hickman / American Press)<br>

After a series of heartbreaking losses which caused McNeese to miss the playoffs last year, head coach Matt Viator’s team is picked to finish third in the Southland Conference behind defending co-champions Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas. McNeese returns 16 starters and 62 lettermen. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

McNeese picked third in SLC; focused on finishing

Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 10:51 AM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

If McNeese is to earn a record 14th Southland Conference football championship, it will have to leapfrog the two new heavyweights of the league.

The Cowboys were picked to finish third in the polls released by conference coaches and sports information directors at the league’s media day at L’Auberge on Wednesday. McNeese returns 16 starters and 62 lettermen.

Defending co-champions Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas were picked first and second, respectively.

The Bears and Bearkats have had McNeese’s number each of the past two seasons, both of which saw the Cowboys finish 4-3 in conference play.

“Sam Houston has been very talented, well-coached and unbelievably injury-free. We haven’t done enough to slow them the past two years,” said McNeese coach Matt Viator. “UCA, the games have been right there. The last two years have been very heartbreaking ... The two situations have been very different.”

Even though his team is picked higher, Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque considers the McNeese game a must-win on the schedule of anyone trying to earn a conference crown.

“I still say to win a conference title, you have to go through the Cowboys regardless of who you are,” Conque said. “Having coached here (as an assistant) for three years I’ve been able to convey that pretty clearly to our players, and they’ve bought into the message.”

Indeed, no one has won the Southland without beating McNeese since Troy in 1999, and typically that one game is the difference in the standings.

For McNeese, the offseason message has been “finish.”

Fourth quarter collapses accounted for last season’s one-point losses against Southeastern Louisiana and UCA and kept the Cowboys out of the FCS playoffs.

“We’ve been focusing on finishing all offseason. I think our coaches have put us in a good position,” said senior safety Terence Cahee. “We’ve worked hard and they’ve preached it. I know we took our conditioning to a whole different level. They made sure it won’t be anything about fatigue. I think we’ll be ready to play in the third and fourth (quarters). We won’t come out slouching; we’ll want to finish people off.”

The key to this season is surviving a rough stretch in the middle of the schedule.

McNeese travels to Northern Iowa (Sept. 28) and UCA (Oct. 5) in back-to-back weeks, then faces Sam Houston (Oct. 19) at home after a bye. All three are likely to be ranked in the preseason Top 25, with UNI and Sam Houston in the Top 10.

“Really, it starts with Weber State (Sept. 21), I think they’ll be a lot better this year with the kids coming back and the stability of the coaching staff,” Viator said. “Then at Northern Iowa, fly back, bus to Conway (Ark.) — that’s rough.”

The Cowboys open camp Aug. 6 and travel to FBS South Florida on Aug. 31 to open a 12-game schedule.

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