McNeese State head football coach Matt Viator answers questions during the annual Southland Media Day Tuesday in Lake Charles. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz is interviewed as Sam Houston State players talk with reporters during the annual Southland Conference Media Days Tuesday in Lake Charles. (Brad Puckett / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 7:24 PM
This season, McNeese State will be playing a different role on the football field: that of underdog. And they still might be contenders.
The Cowboys were picked fourth by both the Southland Conference coaches and sports information directors in this year's preseason polls, which were released as part of the conference's media day at L'auberge du Lac on Tuesday afternoon. McNeese has the most football titles in league history with 13 but is coming off a 6-5 campaign.
Sam Houston State is the overwhelming favorite, returning the bulk of its starting lineup after finishing 14-1 and reaching the FCS championship game last season.
"No doubt about it, everyone is chasing the Bearkats," said Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque.
The Bearkats received all seven available first-place votes in both the SID and coaches polls. Schools cannot vote for themselves. Central Arkansas received a first-place vote in the SID poll and Stephen F. Austin received one in the coaches poll.
It is no mystery why Sam Houston State is held in such high regard.
The Bearkats return 19 starters — eight on offense and nine on defense. Two of those returners, running back Tim Flanders and receiver/wildcat Richard Sincere, are on the Walter Payton Award watch list.
However, Fritz believes Sam Houston will need to play even better this season to have any chance of duplicating or improving upon last year's success. The Bearkats only have three true home games on the schedule — the opener against Incarnate Word followed by dates with McNeese (Oct. 20) and Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 3).
"That's going to be a big challenge for us. We have to improve. We don't have the same schedule as last year," Fritz said. "We played pretty darn well on the road last season, and sometimes that can be an advantage a little bit. We're all together and we're really able to focus in."
UCA figures to be one of Sam Houston's top challengers after reaching the playoffs last year, but needs Wynrick Smothers to replace graduated all-conference quarterback Nathan Dick.
All of UCA's losses in 2011 came to conference champions — Sam Houston, Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech and Montana.
SFA is also feeling confident, finishing last year on a five-game winning streak after stumbling to a 1-5 start.
McNeese lurks just behind those three teams in the polls, though the lack of great expectation for the Cowboys is a point of concern to opposing coaches.
"Getting picked fourth is not going to sit well in that locker room," said Conque, a McNeese assistant from 1987-89.
McNeese coach Matt Viator thinks his team can be a contender if it gets improved play from starting quarterback Cody Stroud as well as those around him. Stroud is the definitive No. 1 at the position with Will Briscoe out for the year after injuring his knee in the spring game.
"We spent the first couple days after last season trying to figure out how to get better around Cody. Then after that I turned my attention to Cody," Viator said. "So often success or lack of success is pointed to the quarterback position, but I felt we did poorly around him at times.
"We had more third-and-13s and third-and-15s, I don't care who you are. In a more manageable situation he could do better. We have to be able to get more explosive, and we looked at some things over the spring to play better around him as well."
McNeese's players don't seem to mind having a target on someone else's back instead of theirs — not that theirs has gone away completely.
"Teams still play their hardest against us, and we're going to have to play our hardest against them," said offensive lineman Jonathan Landry. "We definitely want the ring on our fingers instead of having to defend ourselves as being a good team. I think we're going to be good this year and want the hardware to back it up."
Seeing Sam Houston State reach the national championship motivates all-conference Cowboy safety Malcolm Bronson.
"It's kind of like seeing it to believe it," Bronson said. "It reinstates that it is possible to happen. You just have to work hard, execute the plays coach calls and finish the game."
As every coach states, where you finish is more important than where you start. Last season Sam Houston State was picked to finish fourth in the league.
"The polls are really an indication of what you did the year before, anyway," said McNeese coach Matt Viator. "Last year we had nine starters back but were picked first or second because of where we finished the year before. This year we have 18 back but are picked fourth.
"I do believe this can be a very good year for the conference. This year each team has an opportunity to be better than they were the year before, and that includes Sam Houston."
Posted By: Randy On: 7/25/2012
Title: The State of Football
Fourth. And almost reported with glee.
When the community and journalists won't accept 6-5 seasons, ten years without a playoff win and predictions to finish middle of the pack then the football program might power forward. Imagine the terror in Baton Rouge if the Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC west after a 6-5 campaign. To get back to the next level the mindset around McNeese is going to have to change...status quo is to win more than you lose and then each fall predict the promise of better season.
The coach's projection is that his team can be a contender if it gets improved play from the qb and those around him.
Yeah. Right. The equipment manager could've made that statement.
I'm not sure what has happened to this program and community that once demanded above average status.