In 2009, the Southland Conference reminded us just how quickly a program could turn around and that a "big splash" hire does not always equate to success. We watched as the perennial darkhorse made a triumphant stand and bare witness as the league placed two teams into the Division I playoffs for the first time since 2005.
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The "story of the year" in the SLC was the rise of Stephen F. Austin.
Two years removed from an 0-11 campaign in his first season at the helm of the Lumberjack program, head coach J.C. Harper built a winner on the field. Questioned by fans and media at the onset of his tenure after losses to Div. II Tarleton State and a 45-0 setback at South Dakota State, Harper wrapped up the 2009 regular season in the Div. I quarterfinals with a loss to Montana.
The Lumberjacks were not predicted to do this well. Picked to finish fifth in both preseason polls, many put the hopes of SFA's success on quarterback Jeremy Moses.
Plagued by turnovers before the season, Moses piloted the Lumberjacks to the nation's top-ranked passing offense and second-ranked total offense. Besides the team statistical success, Moses led the SLC in passing efficiency and total offense.
With Duane Brooks averaging more than nine receptions a contest, and Vincent Pervis providing an ample running game, the Lumberjacks took off. After a narrow loss to 2009 bowl participant Southern Methodist, SFA rolled to victories in its next six games. A lone SLC loss at Texas State would be the only blemish moving forward until the playoff loss at Montana.
Rapidly rising among the conference's all-time leaders, Moses will return in 2010 to lead the Lumberjacks offense. Whether the team continues its rise will depend on the ability of the squad to fill the vacancies of Brooks and the nation's No. 2 sack leader, Tim Knicky.
SFA did teach us all a lesson and quite frankly, it is one as followers of the SLC that we should know by now. At the start of the season, one can throw out the preseason polls as any team from top to bottom is capable of walking away with the conference championship.
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While their rivals in Nacogdoches were having their share of success, the Northwestern State Demons were seeking answers through an 0-11 campaign.
The Demons, picked to finish third and fourth by the respective polls, had a strong offseason. The university hired LSU defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto and the former Tiger assistant followed through with what one scouting service ranked as the top recruiting class in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Though the recruiting class could pay dividends down the line, NWST was not a good return on investment this year. The preseason hype fizzled as the team suffered setback after setback, including being blanked at home by Central Arkansas (34-0) and Southeastern Louisiana (27-0).
Besides the on the field aspect of the program, the team heavily promoted its football program using the "Peveto Promise" that fans would have an entertaining experience. With an 0-10 mark on the field and rival SFA playing for an SLC title in the season's final weekend, less than 4,000 fans showed up.
Peveto will have plenty of work to do moving forward.
A coach with a lengthy resume of success, the team will have to fill the voids left by All-SLC selections Albert Smith, Wesley Eckles and Gary Riggs. All defensive players and seniors, the three players were the lone Demons among the first- or second-team selections by the league's head coaches and sports information directors.
Then again, the defense was not always the problem in a league where having a stable offense that can put points on the board is.
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Southeastern Louisiana was on the opposite end of the state and spectrum compared with the aforementioned Demons.
The Lions, perennially placed in the darkhorse role, emerged in 2009. Though the team suffered two losses to end the regular season and keep them out of contention for the SLC title, SLU was right there when it mattered.
Picked for the bottom two of the preseason polls, head coach Mike Lucas had a team that did an about-face on the notion by opening SLC play with a 4-1 mark. Entering a Nov. 7 game against SFA, the Lions were primed to finally take their step into the lineup. Unfortunately, the team fell to the Lumberjacks 41-10.
As the team knocked on the door, the 2010 season is shaping up as one in which the door could be knocked down as a sign of success to come for the program. If anything, the Louisiana Coach of the Year had something the team had lacked in years prior - depth.
On Oct. 31, the depth shined brightly. With senior quarterback Brian Babin and the team's top two wide receivers sidelined, junior quarterback Tyler Beatty did what was thought impossible. Beatty completed 23 of 35 throws for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Additionally, he rushed 12 times for 48 yards to lead the Lions to a stunning victory over No. 12 UCA.
The banged-up Lions, who also were without All-American candidate Tommy Connors this season, should have plenty of help next year.
With Connors returning along with Beatty, the team has athletes capable of playing at a high level. Add in receivers Simmie Yarborough and Merrick Lanaux, as well as tackle machine Mark Newbill and the faithful in Hammond have to feel good about their chances.
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When it is all said and done, the most important thing to happen was the return of two SLC teams to the Division I playoffs.
The league, once one of the national standard bearers in placing multiple teams into the postseason, had not done so since 2005.
With Hurricanes Katrina and Rita weighing heavily on recruiting, finances, scheduling and numerous other issues around the league, the league was back to business as old in 2009.
With SFA defeating Eastern Washington in a first-round game, the league picked up another first since 2005 - a victory.
Though the state of higher education in Louisiana could become part of the equation as universities find ways in the Pelican State to remain open despite large cuts from the Bobby Jindal administration, what we do see across the league is the schools working to better position themselves for at-large eligibility.
A glance at 2010 schedules around the league shows that teams are scheduling more appropriately in an effort to qualify. By more appropriately, we speak of games against Div. I opposition, particularly those teams in FCS.
With additional at-large teams in the field in 2010 as the playoffs expand to 20, now is the best opportunity to place multiple teams on an annual basis. As the Sam Houston State athletic director recently said in his online blog, "With the playoff field getting expanded next season to 20, we want to do what we can to strengthen our playoff at-large position."
This league is in position and with the league schedule expanding to eight games - four home and four away - with the addition of Lamar in 2010, it will only help a league that has had to struggle through the circumstances.
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The 2010 calendar year has begun and there is already plenty of football at hand!
With official schedules to be announced, two new head coaches, new programs at Lamar and UTSA, plenty of personnel moves and national signing day around the corner, there are plenty of offseason topics to occupy one’s time.
Please join me this year as we go “Down South” in our column format, while also joining the blog craze here on College Sporting News with “Speaking of the Southland.”
Updates will come often, but this is the Southland Conference and football is truly a year-round business for those who are avid followers of the 10 football-playing programs and their fans.