Jim Gazzolo column: Time for a game of SLC darts

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

It wasn’t that long ago when folks, especially McNeese State fans, laughed at hearing Incarnate Word was joining the Southland Conference.

Nobody in Cowboy camp is laughing now.

As the Southland gets set for a fresh season with more newcomers than a freshman social, the Cardinals have become one of the league’s elite in football. Their run to the national semifinals last fall left them a second-half collapse away from a shot at the Football Championship Subdivision championship.

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Of course, like the rest of the league, a good portion of that roster has been turned over, including the head coach. In fact, four head coaches are new in the eight-team conference.

Thanks to the NCAA transfer portal, the players are also new. In a lot of cases, it’s likely seven quarterbacks will debut for their team in the opener.

So picking a winner is like throwing darts in the dark. Still, it has to be done so we shall give it a shot.

If nothing else these picks might lead to debate, and probably anger.

Either way, here they are:

1. Incarnate Word

For a third consecutive season, the Cardinals will have a new head coach and a new quarterback. It didn’t hurt last season and may not again this year.

Auburn transfer Matt Calzada moves into the starting quarterback role, taking the place of one-year Cardinal wonder Lindsay Scott, who won the Walter Payton Award.

The 6-foot-4 217-pound Calzada gained experience playing at Texas A&M as well as Auburn. In his last season at A&M, he played 12 games with 10 starts, threw for more than 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns, and even earned Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week along the way.

That should help Clint Killough’s slide over to the top coaching job an easy one. A lot of new faces will be on the UIW roster as well and should be enough for a title run.

2. McNeese St.

I can hear the calls of “homer” already. Last year I picked the Cowboys for fifth and was said to be anti-McNeese. Guess it just comes with the territory.

This is likely the ceiling for the Cowboys, who if all goes right could make a run at the SLC title. I figure after years of everything going wrong, odds might be on their side.

There is also the addition of 57 new players, a new culture, and a full offseason, all things that were desperately needed. If the quarterback play holds up behind a much-improved offensive line, and a few playmakers are found on the outside, head coach Gary Goff’s Air Raid offense could come to life.

The secondary is also better and it is easy to get caught up in the hype. While this is still a work in progress, so is most of the rest of the league.

3. SE Louisiana

The Lions won the SLC last year by way of beating UIW in the head-to-head encounter. They again have hit the portal to try and get back to the back to the top. SLU has become the top cat in the conference of late, but having that last might be tough this season with so many changes in other places as well.

The Lions lost all-American defensive back Zu Alexander to LSU but kept head coach Frank Scelfo, who was looking at a move to Lamar. They did get all-SLC quarterback Zach Clement from Northwestern State which could help soften the blow of any departures. The Lions hit the transfer portal late after coaching tug-of-war.

Southeastern is still full of talent with 17 preseason all-SLC selections and are the top pick of the league’s coaches in sports information directors. But a lot went right last year and that could be tough to repeat.

4. Nicholls St.

Lots of talent returns but early games against Texas Christian and Tulane will test the Colonels’ depth. If Nicholls can stay healthy it could make for an interesting SLC opener in Lake Charles for a pair of playoff hopefuls.

Collin Guggenheim will not have to share the running duties this season as he is expected to be the lead back for the Colonels. Guggenheim has 1,606 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons splitting time with Julien Gums.

But if the Colonels are going to get back to winning the defense must improve on allowing 433 yards and 35.3 points a game, which it did last year. Linebacker Eli Ennis is one key to that happening. If not, Nicholls won’t be able to outrun its opponents.

5. TAMU-Commerce

Clint Dolezel jumps from arena football to take over a program that lost its best player.

Star receiver Andrew Armstrong left for Arkansas and his production will be tough to replace. His spot is not the only one that will need to be filled.

The Lions will be led by their defense, which has four of its members make the Southland’s preseason teams. Defensive back Daryion Taylor leads the group. He has 129 career tackles and four takeaways.

In their second year in the league, Commerce hopes to turn some heads like it did a year ago. It will be tougher to surprise anybody this year.

6. Northwestern St.

The Demons were a big surprise last fall but still finished 4-7 and lost a lot in the portal, including breakout quarterback Clement. Head coach Bruce Laird is likely on the lot seat after surviving rumors of his exit last year.

Their 4-2 conference record a year ago seems to be more of a product of timing and schedule while their 0-5 nonconference mark seems closer to reality.

Idaho State transfer Tyler Vander Waal is likely taking over the top job and will have Travon Jones and Zach Patterson to play catch with.

Whether that’s enough for another surprise season at Northwestern State is unlikely.

7. Lamar

Pete Rossomando takes over a program that is 5-23 the last three seasons after twice switching leagues. The Cardinals added a new video board and upgraded sound system to their stadium as they look to invest in football.

However, on the field, things still look like rough going. The offense will be led by preseason SLC first-teamer Khalan Griffin, who ran for 644 yards and six touchdowns last fall. He is the league’s top returning back.

But this is a team that will need its newcomers to step up if it’s going to do anything more than show up this fall.

8. Houston Christian

New head coach Branton Harris has a lot of work to do as the Huskies are 7-57 in SLC all-time. Senior Branden Walker from Sulphur could have a big year if quarterback play improves. He made three starts last season and had six catches for 34 yards against McNeese.

But the rest of the Huskies’ numbers from a year ago are not good as the offense struggled mightily, scoring 18 points a game. Linebacker Rodney Dansby could be the best defensive player in the league and someone to watch.


Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com