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Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett. (Associated Press)

Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett. (Associated Press)

Schedule part of SLC growing pains

Last Modified: Monday, July 28, 2014 12:46 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

There will be extra servings of red beans and rice in Lake Charles this fall.

The annual “Red Beans and Rice Bowl” between McNeese State and Central Arkansas loses the “annual” part this year with the matchup between the schools falling victim to the Southland Conference’s expansion from eight to 11 teams.

Thus, the Cowboys hold onto the cast-iron trophy for another year.

The rivalry seemed contrived when it was invented, but the games have lived up to the billing. Until last year’s 59-28 McNeese thrashing of the Bears in Conway, Ark., the previous four matchups were decided by less than a touchdown.

But each school in the league will miss out on two league opponents this season. For McNeese, those teams are UCA and Houston Baptist. The Big Ten used a similar rotating schedule model when Penn State was added as an 11th team in 1991.

“I’m a very competitive person. McNeese is one of the better teams in the conference,” said Bears wide receiver Dezmin Lewis, who had an acrobatic last-minute catch in UCA’s 27-26 win in 2012. “It gives your team a good check to see how good you really are. It’s definitely going to be different not playing them this year.”

Despite the scheduling quirks created in the 11-team setup, most coaches said they are happy it is in place. The art of nonconference scheduling will become far easier next season when the Southland expands to nine conference games and the Football Championship Subdivision schedule contracts to 11 overall games.

“It’s great to have all the new universities in the league,” said Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas. “It makes the league better. The league is outstanding. Always has been. I’ve always looked at it like a mini-SEC. You have to bring your best, play your best and coach your best. It’s not going to be any different.

“I look forward to playing Abilene (Christian), Incarnate Word … learning about those guys. I think in the future it’s just going to make us better as we go on down the road.”

It will also create strange bedfellows.

“I told coach (Clint) Conque, for the first time ever, I’ll be pulling for Stephen F. Austin,” said Lamar coach Ray Woodard. “We don’t play them this year, so I hope they beat a heck of a lot of conference opponents.

“It’s going to be different to have two teams you’re not going to play that are involved in the league standings. It brings a lot of unpredictablity. I’m excited to be a part of it. I think when the scores come out every week there’s going to be a lot of surprises.”

Getting to this point has long been a goal for Southland Commissioner Tom Burnett, who took over a league with six football-playing members in 2003.

“We only played a five-game conference schedule, which certainly made scheduling difficult for our conference,” Burnett said. “We’re in a very different situation now with 11 teams, which will lead to some different scheduling models for the foreseeable future. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

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