Jim Gazzolo column: Southland takes it on the chin

Published 1:30 pm Thursday, September 7, 2023

It was deep into the night last Saturday, long after the rain had cleared out and the deluge of points had been scored by Tarleton State when the postgame news conference took place.

As McNeese State head coach Gary Goff explained the evening’s events as best he could, he used the word “shocked” more than once.

In the back of the room stood a figure who wore a look of shock on his face.

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Chris Grant didn’t see this weekend coming either. The Southland Conference commissioner could only watch and wonder just what had happened over the last 72 hours.

During that span, his league’s eight football-playing programs had taken a beating. It was not a good start to the season for the SLC.

How bad was it?

After one weekend of play, Houston Christian sits atop the Southland standings alone, that’s how bad it was.

The Huskies were the lone Southland team to win during Week 1, though even that comes with an asterisk. HCU thumped a Division II school 66-0.

While some of this could be expected, as both Incarnate Word, Northwestern State, and Southeastern Louisiana played money games against Football Bowl Subdivision programs of different degrees, the rest was not a good look.

Four of the league’s teams, including McNeese, got beat by multiple touchdowns at home against other Football Championship Subdivision schools. The Big Sky went 3-0 against the Southland with little resistance.

Nicholls State kept things relatively close against Sacramento State in the end but was down 17-0 quickly. You never got the feeling watching the Colonels had a realistic chance at winning.

Granted, those Big Sky teams were all nationally ranked, but getting blown out is never a good look, especially at home.

Grant has stated that the league needs to win its share of these games to rebuild its national reputation. The Southland is two years removed from losing five of its schools in one summer, though Lamar has since returned.

McNeese, the SLC’s longtime front-runner, continues its rebuilding process, leaving upstart UIW and Southeastern as the conference’s two true torch barriers. They shared the league title last year and were the only two to make the playoffs.

Grant said he wants to see more of his teams make the postseason, as would any league commissioner. However, you have to wonder if the conference has the financial resources to do that.

Big-budget Tarleton State rolled into Lake Charles and won a game as much by money as anything else. The school has invested heavily in football and has a budget with as much as $10 million for the sport.

That is hard to keep up with for a league like the Southland.

In order for the SLC to get where Grant wants it to go, more investment will be needed. Somehow the schools are going to have to figure this out or continue to be left behind.

Like it or not, college sports, particularly football, is about the dollars. We are long past the days of the game being about anything else. Money rules the rankings.

That is one reason why McNeese has to go play games like the one this weekend at Florida. The big check will help a bit. It is also why the school has invested in football so much over the last few years in an attempt to climb back up the national ladder.

But there are a lot of other schools doing the same thing. Everybody seems to understand winning college football programs are good for the business of education.

If the Southland Conference wants to have a seat at the FCS table, then it has to find a way to win its share of these nonconference games. It’s just good business.

No longer can they act shocked when some school with deeper pockets wins the game, or seven of eight.

This is a race the entire league needs to realize it is in. Remember, they are also trying to put their best foot forward to recruit new schools as well.

That’s the game they can’t lose.

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