There are five new assistant coaches on the McNeese State football staff, by far the largest turnover since Matt Viator took over the Cowboys program in 2007. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Last Modified: Sunday, July 29, 2012 8:27 PMEarly in his coaching career Matt Viator was on a pace to earn more rings than he had fingers as McNeese State won at least a share of three football conference titles in four years.
The Cowboys are in a two-year skid when it comes to conference titles and playoff bids, and head to training camp this week looking to return to championship form.
Oddly enough, McNeese’s last two playoff misses have come since the NCAA expanded the Football Championship Subdivision playoff field from 16 to 20 teams. If the Cowboys are to reach the playoffs this year, the following five reasons will probably be the most important:
1. Veteran offensive line: McNeese received good news this offseason when former all-conference guard Miguel Gauthreaux was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The better news? He has to earn a starting spot.
Gauthreaux is one of six seniors listed on the two-deep along the line, joining Taylor Johnson, Alec Savoie, Carson Chaisson, Jonathan Landry and Brett Koonce. Junior Arinze Agada also has experience as a two-time letter winner at right guard.
Injuries helped contribute to a poor showing last year with 37 sacks allowed, but fully healthy this group could go from a weakness to the team’s greatest strength.
2. Dynamic offensive weapons: Darius Carey has a chance to put together one of the most memorable seasons by a McNeese offensive player as a returner, receiver and orchestrator of the wildcat formation.
The receiving corps as a whole is fairly deep, with Wes Briscoe, Ernest Celestie, Damino Dixon, DeVionte Edmonson and Diontae Spencer as potentially steady contributors. And running back is still this offense’s strongest skill position with Javaris Murray, Champlain Babin and Marcus Wiltz all returning.
3. New voices on the coaching staff: Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to have a fresh perspective on things, especially when you’re stuck in a rut. Three new position coaches might bring some innovative ideas that will benefit players and their fellow coaches alike.
4. UCA, Northwestern and SFA at home: Sam Houston State is the runaway favorite to win the conference, but the Southland should be strong enough for one or possibly even two at-large berths this year. The three other schools with the best chance of taking silver in the Southland — Central Arkansas, Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State — all visit Cowboy Stadium this fall.
5. Improved quarterback play: It was only spring practice, but Cody Stroud looked a whole lot more assertive at quarterback than he was last year. He will have to continue that progression throughout camp and the rest of the season.
Coming off consecutive 6-5 seasons, there’s also reason to believe McNeese will miss the playoffs for a third straight year. If that’s the case, you can count on these five reasons having something to do with it:
1. Loaded conference: McNeese used to be the undisputed conference heavyweight, but no more. Historically the Cowboys still have the most meat, but SFA, UCA and Sam Houston have all taken steps past them in the past two years. Finishing fourth, as projected, probably won’t result in a playoff bid without wins in their eight other games.
2. Quarterback play does not improve: If Stroud is unable to elevate his game from a year ago, the Cowboys will be home for the playoffs. He has to throw more touchdowns than interceptions and take fewer sacks.
3. Tough road schedule: McNeese has a pair of beatable Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in Middle Tennessee State and Texas-San Antonio, but at the end of the day they are still FBS opponents and will have more depth than the Cowboys. McNeese will take a long flight into the mountains for its other nonconference showdown with Weber State. And the toughest conference foe, Sam Houston State, will be played in Huntsville, Texas.
4. D-line pressure: McNeese had 13 sacks in 11 games last year, which is not nearly enough pressure to put opposing offenses into uncomfortable situations and allow a talented secondary to make hay with game-changing plays. Another season with fewer than 15 sacks won’t cut the mustard.
5. Injuries rear their head again: Despite their flaws, the Cowboys still might have been a playoff team if not for injuries at key positions. Quarterback Riley Dodge’s career-ending concussion was a huge loss, as was losing Gauthreaux for the year in training camp. Defensive end Desmund Lighten played but was not at 100 percent.
McNeese already received bad news this spring when quarterback Will Briscoe was lost for the year yet again after yet another knee injury. More bad breaks could be all it takes to derail this season too.