Season Preview: Seniors ready to lead Cowboys back to top (with Southland roundup)

The banner in the corner of Cowboy Stadium’s south end zone listing McNeese State conference championship seasons seems to go on forever. Until you get to 2009.

That’s the last time the Cowboys won a share of the Southland title and reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. So with the exception of linebacker Hayden Dobbs, who redshirted his second year, no member of this year’s McNeese senior class has played in a postseason game.

If that happens again this season, it would make this year’s seniors the first class at McNeese to complete their playing careers without winning a championship since 1990.

More than anything, that legacy is one this group is looking to avoid.

“Nobody wants to be the class that comes through without having won a ring. There’s so much tradition at McNeese,” said senior offensive lineman Arinze Agada. “So many guys have won multiple rings. It’s my last chance. We really have a good team. I keep saying we’re poised for success.”

The pressure is the greatest on Agada and wide receivers Wes Briscoe and Diontae Spencer. None of the three redshirted, so they’ve never been part of a McNeese championship in any role.

“The two other guys, Briscoe and Arinze, we came in and didn’t redshirt and are on the verge of leaving without a ring,” Spencer said. “(A championship is) a huge accomplishment I’m trying to reach. I feel we have the team to do that.”

Cody Stroud enters the year ranked sixth all-time in school history for passing yards (4,697) and touchdowns (31). But he says rising in the record books doesn’t mean a thing without the ring.

“I have a ring from my redshirt year, but I didn’t contribute as much as I would have liked,” Stroud said. “So really I don’t have a ring yet for my sake. So this year that’s the starting goal. That’s what we have to work forward to.”

It’s not as if success has eluded this group. While the Class of ’90 never experienced in a winning season in four years, this year’s seniors have never finished below .500.

If there is one common thread for the Class of 2013’s careers, it is the preponderance of frustratingly close losses. As freshmen, a last-minute drive by Payton Award-winning Stephen F. Austin quarterback Jeremy Moses and a last-second goal-line stand by Central Arkansas led to their two conference losses.

Last year it was a pair of one-point losses to Southeastern Louisiana and UCA that kept the Cowboys from the playoffs.

“We’ve certainly been close a few times. It’s not like they’re losing seasons,” said head coach Matt Viator, “but it’s something that’s motivated them, and motivated me too. You’re talking about quality kids who have given everything, and you’d like to see them have the opportunity to (win a ring).”

That opportunity may come down to a handful of plays, just as it did last year. Briscoe said the Cowboys will be ready.

“We’re not taking anything for granted. Last year it was little things that we didn’t take care of that ended up costing us,” Briscoe said. “You pay attention to detail more. You look into the little things a lot more now.”

There’s enough experience coming back to make that happen. The Cowboys return 16 starters — though that is countered by a multitude of inexperienced players on the second unit who will be asked to step up at some point.

Led by Stroud, running back Marcus Wiltz and senior wideouts Briscoe, Spencer and Ernest Celestie, there’s veteran leadership at the offensive skill positions. LSU transfer Nic Jacobs will be an impossible target to miss at tight end with his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame.

The wild card is the offensive line, which is anchored by Agada at right guard and Antoine Everett at left tackle but is counting on D-line converts Nick Gorman and Quentin Marsh to carry their weight.

With defensive coordinator Lance Guidry back at McNeese after successful stints at Miami (Ohio) and Western Kentucky, the Cowboys have played with speed and confidence on that side of the ball in training camp.

“I know on third down we have to get better than last year. We didn’t get off the field on third down, so we’ve been stressing that a lot,” Guidry said. “We’ve been stressing takeaways. Our offense has done a great job of not turning the ball over a lot through the years. Our goal is to win the turnover margin no matter how many the offense has.”

Special teams — probably the biggest difference in last year’s losses to UCA and SLU — has been under the most scrutiny this offseason.

“We’ve worked harder in the spring and camp than we have before on special teams,” Viator said.

With this year’s schedule, the Cowboys will probably need to be better in all three areas than they were in last year’s 7-4 campaign.

Nonconference opponents Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Northern Iowa will be contenders for their respective conference crowns, and the Cowboys face Southland big dogs UCA and Sam Houston State in back-to-back games.

“I think it’s a good thing, other than the fact there are no easy games. At least it gets your attention every week,” Viator said. “Focus is always a big deal, and it’s probably extra this year because each week is going to be a test.”

For the seniors, the hope is attention to detail will result in “2013” earning its place in the south end zone — in more than one spot.

“We’re putting everything together and we have all the parts,” Spencer said. “It’s a matter of us executing. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to add a Southland Conference championship and be on the way to Frisco.”

Southland Conference Preview

Central Arkansas

Nobody has beaten the Bears in Conway since they installed their purple-and-gray turf two years ago.

With opponents getting their second go-round on the psychedelic field this season, it’s possible that home-field advantage will finally vanish. But don’t count on it.

“It’s a big deal,” said Bears defensive back Jestin Love. “Every time we come out at home, we have a certain motivation with The Stripes.”

With all-conference quarterback Wynrick Smothers at the helm, the Bears say they are capable of making a run to Frisco, Texas (site of the Football Championship Subdivision national championship game), similar to that of Sam Houston State the past two years. The key may be having a good enough regular season to make sure all playoff opponents have to play on The Stripes.

“We’ve got to get a home game. We were the automatic qualifier last year and Sam was an at-large team. They played at home, we had to go on the road,” said coach Clint Conque. “We’re pretty good at home. If we can get a home game and build some momentum, whether it be second or third round, that’s a start.”

Hickey’s Pick: First, 7-0 in SLC.

Sam Houston State

How do the Bearkats top back-to-back appearances in the national championship game?

By actually winning the thing this time around.

It won’t be easy as former McNeese State defensive coordinator Mike Collins has to replace four starting defensive backs in the Bearkats’ 4-2-5 scheme. But the return of star running back Tim Flanders along with quarterback Brian Bell and wide receiver Richard Sincere has Sam Houston thinking it can take the next step.

The quality of the senior class is part of the reason fourth-year coach Willie Fritz is still in Huntsville despite overtures from bigger programs last offseason.

“I really kind of came in with Brian and Tim,” Fritz said. “I’m very strongly connected to the university, I have a degree from Sam Houston. Two of my kids go to school there. It’s a different situation than a lot of head coaches have. But we’ve got a really good group of young men that are easy to work with.”

Hickey’s Pick: Second, 6-1 in SLC.

Southeastern Louisiana

The Lions took everyone by surprise last year under first-year coach Ron Roberts. SLU went 5-2 in conference, its best win total in league play since 1978.

The element of surprise will not be on SLU’s side.

“You can’t deal with what other people are going to do,” Roberts said. “It’s always about us and what we can control. Last year there’s a lot of things we had to make improvements on to compete with the upper echelon in this conference. Whether we’re there yet or not, we’ll find out.”

However, the potential best quarterback in the league will be in Southeastern’s corner. Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett played well when he got on the field for the Ducks, and could take the Southland by storm.

Hickey’s Pick: Fourth, 4-3 in SLC.

Stephen F. Austin

The Lumberjacks will again have a high-flying offense with quarterback Brady Attaway slinging the ball around. They also showed they can run the ball a little bit last year with bruising running back Gus Johnson, and his role could be increased this year.

However, if SFA wants to vault back into the conference’s top tier, it will need improved performance from a defense that ranked sixth in the league in scoring.

“We’ve got to get to where we can stop people,” said coach J.C. Harper.

The ’Jacks also have to be more careful with the ball, or create a lot more turnovers — they ranked 117th in the nation in turnover margin last season.

Hickey’s Pick: Fifth, 3-4 in SLC.


The time for excuses is over.

Now in its fourth year of existence, Lamar’s football program needs to take a step forward and become a real competitor. Coach Ray Woodard thinks it can happen.

“This is the first year we’re playing with a level playing field. It’s our first year with redshirt seniors in our program,” Woodard said. “We have the experience and depth that we haven’t had in the past. It’s time to step up and compete with the top end of this league. To do it sooner would have been great, but now I think it’s time.”

If the Cardinals show any improvement, it will have to be by bettering an offense that moved forward inches at a time last season. Lamar was 115th in the country with 280 yards per game.

Hickey’s Pick: T-Sixth, 1-6 in SLC.

Nicholls State

So get this — a team that has lost every SLC game the last two seasons opens the year at national powerhouse Oregon. And if the Colonels haven’t been maimed by the end of that one, there’s encores the following weeks at Football Bowl Subdivision schools Western Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette.

“We’ve just got to come out of those first three games with confidence and healthy,” said coach Charlie Stubbs. “It’s a difficult situation, but I’m excited about it. It’s a thing Nicholls has to do right now. In future years we’ll be able to minimize it.”

The good news is once that gauntlet is passed, Nicholls has two home games and an open date before opening conference play, which gives a chance to build confidence and recover. With 22 starters returning, don’t expect the conference losing streak to hit three seasons.

Hickey’s Pick: T-Sixth, 1-6 in SLC.

Northwestern State

After an unusually long coaching search, the Demons turned back to a familiar face to try and bring them back to respectability.

Former Nicholls coach Jay Thomas, who went 27-35 in six years in Thibodaux while dodging multiple hurricanes, is the main man in Natchitoches.

“It’s strange,” Thomas said. “It’s kind of like going in a time warp.”

Don’t expect to see the triple-option attack he employed with the Colonels, though. The Demons are going to operate an up-tempo attack similar to that employed by Louisiana Tech last season.

Thomas had three winning seasons at Nicholls and could be the right guy to turn around a traditional Southland power. It just may take some time.

Hickey’s Pick: T-Sixth, 1-6 in SLC.