Southland Conference Preview

Two-time defending national runner-up Sam Houston State is picked to win the Southland Conference championship in both the coaches and sports information directors' preseason polls.

Sam Houston, Central Arkansas and McNeese are tabbed 1-2-3 in both polls.

A look at the SLC:

1. Sam Houston State (11-4, 6-1) — Posting double digit victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time in its 97-year football history, the Bearkats have led the Southland Conference in scoring offense, rushing, passing efficiency, scoring defense, total defense and rush defense the past two years.

Although missing 14 starters from last year's team which lost to North Dakota State 39-13 in the national championship game, coach Willie Fritz welcomes back the team's three most prolific playmakers.

Two-time SLC Player of the Year Timothy Flanders enters his senior season just 461 yards shy of the SLC's all-time rushing record. The owner of 34 school records, Flanders averaged 5.7 yards per tote while rushing for 1,642 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012.

Flanders is joined in the backfield by running back/wide receiver Richard Sincere, a two-time All-Conference honoree. Last season, Sincere was second on the team in rushing (106 carries, 607 yards, 5 TDs) and fourth on the squad in receiving (17 receptions, 230 yards).

Quarterback Brian Bell is 30-8 since assuming the starting job early in his sophomore season. Last year, he threw for 2,715 yards with 25 TDs and 10 interceptions.

Chance Nelson (35-671-9) is expected to be Bell's primary target after ranking second on the team in receiving a year ago.

Sam Houston will have to retool its offensive line. Guard Donald Jackson III is the lone starter from a unit which helped the Bearkats generate 40 points and 458.5 total yards (268.3 rushing, 190.2 passing) per game.

A pair of All-SLC performers, linebacker Jesse Beauchamp and cornerback Bookie Sneed, return from a defensive unit which allowed a league-best 21.5 points per game. Beauchamp was the team's leading tackler with 94 stops, including 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, while Sneed registered 39 tackles and four picks.

2. Central Arkansas (9-3, 6-1) — After advancing to the playoffs the past two seasons, the defending SLC co-champion Bears are looking to put together a deep postseason run.

Coach Clint Conque enters his 15th season in Conway, armed with 20 returning starters, including senior quarterback and reigning SLC Offensive Player of the Year Wynrick Smothers.

A former Destrehan standout, Smothers amassed 3,103 yards and 31 touchdowns through the air last season, with only nine interceptions in 427 attempts.

Wide receiver Dezmin Lewis (56 receptions, 616 yards, 6 TDs) steps into the go-to receiver role after ranking second on the team last fall.

Willie Matthews (35 carries, 236 yards, 1 TD) will be asked to take up the slack in the running game as the Bears must replace their top two rushers.

Dominique Allen and Cole Caruthers, a pair of All-Conference tackles, return to anchor the offensive line.

Three of the top five tacklers are back from a defensive unit which ranked second in the league in points allowed (22.5) in 2012.

Linebacker Justin Heard logged a team-leading 100 stops with 15 tackles for loss, while safety Jestin Love was next with 91 stops, three tackles in the backfield and four pass breakups. Bastrop High product RaDarius "Nook" Winston moves from safety to strongside linebacker after ranking fifth on the squad with 61 tackles and a pair of picks as a junior.

Also back is end Jonathan Woodard, who packaged together 36 tackles, 11 TFLs, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries en route to earning SLC Freshman of the Year acclaim.

3. McNeese State (7-4, 4-3) — With 16 holdover starters, coach Matt Viator's Cowboys are pursuing their eighth straight winning season.

Senior quarterback Cody Stroud is looking to build on a strong finish to his junior season after directing the Cowboys to three victories over the final four games. The Montgomery High product finished the campaign with 2,102 yards passing, 19 TDs and 5 INTs.

McNeese also returns its top two rushers and leading receiver.

Marcus Wiltz (130 carries, 650 yards, 6 TDs) and Javaris Murray (86-504-3) will again alternate at the running back position, while Diontae Spencer (31 receptions, 413 yards, 2 TDs) heads the receiving corps.

McNeese has some holes to fill up front, following the departure of three starters who helped pave the way for the SLC's No. 2 rushing team (209.5 yards per game). Right guard Arinze Agada, a first-team All-SLC honoree last season, provides a veteran presence.

Led by weakside safety Terence Cahee (83 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups), the team's top tackler in 2012, cornerback Guy Morgan (57 tackles, 3 INTs) and free safety Ryan Bronson (50 tackles, 3 INTs), the secondary is the strength of the defense. Among the other key incumbents are end Everett Ellefsen (44 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) and tackle Kevin Dorn (25 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks).

4. Stephen F. Austin (5-6, 4-3) — Armed with an explosive offense, Bastrop High quarterbacks coach Zeke Dixon's alma mater expects to bounce back from its first losing season in five years.

Coach J.C. Harper brings back a third-year starting quarterback, three of the top five receivers, an All-Conference running back and three starters up front from an offense which ranked second nationally in passing (385.5 yards per game) and third in the SLC in scoring (34.1).

Quarterback Brady Attaway passed for 3,671 yards and 29 TDs as a junior, but is looking to reduce his 21 interception total (21).

D.J. Ward (62 receptions, 762 yards, 4 TDs), Mike Brooks (51-492-2) and Aaron Thomas (32-323-4) head up a deep group of receivers.

All-SLC running back Gus Johnson (154 carries, 964 yards, 14 TDs) is the centerpiece of the ground attack.

Turnovers and defense were largely to blame for last year's losing record. Committing a dreadful 41 giveaways, the Lumberjacks finished the season with an SLC-worst negative-15 turnover margin. Defensively, the 'Jacks surrendered 33.5 points.

SFA's front four looks to be much-improved with the addition of transfer tackles Shayvion Hatten from Texas A&M and Donald Bryant from Baylor. All-SLC performer Darren Robinson (31 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks) returns at one end, while Malcolm Mattox (27 tackles, 2.5 TFL) moves back to tackle after starting at end in 2012. Mattox earned second-team All-Conference recognition each of the past two seasons.

Other notable defenders include linebacker Collin Garrett (96 tackles, 9.5 TFL), last year's leading tackler, and safety Caleb Nelson (66 tackles, 3 TFL).

5. Southeastern Louisiana (5-6, 5-2) — Seeking to build on the momentum from a strong finish, the Lions return 18 starters (8 offense, 9 defense, 1 specialist). Besides winning five of their final eight games in Ron Roberts' first season as head coach, SLU won its most conference games since reinstating the football program in 2003 and swept its instate conference rivals (McNeese, Northwestern and Nicholls) for the first time in school history.

Half of the Lions' eight veteran offensive starters reside on the offensive line, led by All-Conference left tackle Gaston Gabriel.

SLU also returns its two leading rushers, Xavier Roberson (105 carries, 488 yards, 4 TDs) and Rasheed Harrell (72-376-3 in 6 games), and top receiver Tony McCrea (28 receptions, 401 yards, 1 TD).

However, the Lions will open the season with a new starting quarterback for the fifth straight year. Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett and Jordan Barnett are competing for the starting job.

Defensively, the top five tacklers return in linebacker Caleb Muse (80 tackles, 6 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), strong safety John Graves (70 tackles, 2 TFL), free safety Tyler Stoddard (63 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 INTs), middle linebacker Cqulin Hubert (60 tackles, 9 TFL) and Marcie Sutton (57 tackles, 4 pass breakups).

6. Northwestern State (4-7, 2-5) — First-year head coach Jay Thomas inherits 16 returning starters (8 offense, 8 defense) and 58 returning lettermen as the Demons seek to snap a string of three straight losing seasons.

Thomas' most pressing task is to find a starting quarterback. Redshirt freshman Daniel Hazlewood is among four prospects vying to replace Brad Henderson. A fifth candidate, junior Don Canyon is expected to be sidelined until midseason due to a shoulder injury.

NSU returns its leading rusher, sophomore Daniel Taylor (45 carries, 304 yards, 4 TDs in 9 games), and top receiver, Louis Hollier Jr. (28 receptions, 384 yards, 2 TDs), and two key offensive linemen, right tackle Blayne Cole and center Warren Jones.

Linebacker Pat Black (88 tackles, 3.5 TFL), the team's second-leading tackler is back, along with safety Bert White (60 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack) and tackle Lesley Deamer (41 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 FF).

First-year defensive coordinator Chris Boone is looking for improvement up front after the Demons yielded an SLC-worst 193.6 yards rushing per game in 2012.

7. Lamar (4-8, 1-6) — With 15 returning starters and 17 three-year lettermen headlining the roster, the Cardinals remain a work in progress. Since restoring the program in 2010 (Lamar dropped football in 1990), the Cardinals have compiled a 13-21 record in three years under coach Ray Woodard.

Junior Caleb Berry and senior Ryan Mossakowski are both expected to see action at quarterback. Berry threw for 663 yards with 5 TDs and 5 INTs in eight games last season, while Mossakowski passed for 1,194 yards, 13 TDs and 8 INTs in nine outings.

Lamar returns its top three receivers, including Barry Ford (49 receptions, 470 yards, 1 TD), but must replace its top three ground-gainers.

Center Kyle Gillam, who has started every game since 2010, is one of three holdover starters up front.

Second-team All-SLC end Jesse Dickson (43 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 sacks) and linebacker Jermaine Logino (107 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks) are the defensive mainstays.

8. Nicholls State (1-10, 0-7) — A quick glance at the 2012 season stats reveals that the Colonels need drastic improvement on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Nicholls ranked dead last in the league in scoring offense (17.7 points per game) and sacks allowed (43). Defensively, the Colonels were at the bottom of the conference in scoring defense (38.7 ppg), pass defense (263.1 yards per game), total defense (263.1 ypg) and sacks (11).

With 2012 starting quarterback Landry Klann out for the season with a shoulder injury, junior Beaux Hebert had the edge over sophomore Tuskani Figaro entering preseason camp. The son of former Northwestern State and NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, Beaux Hebert was 23-of-37 for 315 yards, with 1 TD and 2 INTs in four games last year.

Four offensive linemen are back, along with two-time All-SLC tight end Chris Scelfo (22 receptions, 300 yards, 2 TDs).

Running back Marcus Washington was second on the team in both rushing (116 carries, 598 yards, 6 TDs) and receiving (25 receptions, 167 yards) in 2012.

Linebacker Chris Bermond (64 tackles, 2 TFL) was the team's second leading tackler.