LAKE CHARLES, La. —
Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz knew coming into the season that he was going to have his hands full turning around the Bearkats’ football program.
The rest of the coaches in the Southland Conference apparently agree.
Coming off a 5-6 season, a fifth-place finish in league play and the loss of 15 starters, Sam Houston State has been tabbed to finish seventh in the SLC preseason coaches’ poll, which was announced Wednesday during the Southland Conference Football Media Day at the L’Auberge du Lac Resort.
“We lost a bunch of guys — 27 seniors — a bunch of lettermen from last year’s group,” the new Bearkats’ head coach said. “I’m excited about the kids we have coming back and the body of work they are doing. I like the direction we are going and I feel like we signed a good class.”
With all the turnover, it wasn’t too surprising to see where Sam Houston fell in the preseason poll, and it was even less surprising to see which schools are at the top.
Defending Southland Conference co-champions Stephen F. Austin and McNeese State are pegged to finish first and second, respectively.
The Lumberjacks, who just a few years ago went 0-11, put together a remarkable 2009 campaign, going 6-1 in SLC play and 10-3 overall, including a 44-33 victory over Eastern Washington in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
SFA received seven of the eight possible first-place votes from the coaches mainly because the Lumberjacks return 2009 SLC co-player of the year in Jeremy Moses. The senior quarterback from Baytown Lee High School threw for 4,124 yards and 40 touchdowns last season.
“It’s a great honor that we are (picked atop the poll) because that is obviously where everyone wants to be,” SFA head coach J.C. Harper said. “We just want to be there consistently. That would be nice. But I think this year it is because we have a really good quarterback who is a senior and has had quite a few accomplishments at SFA.
“He is a Walter Payton Award candidate and an All-American. We also have an All-American on the other side of the ball in (linebacker) Jabara Williams. Anytime you have two guys like that, (being picked to finish first) comes with the territory. Now, you just have to go out and get it done on the field.”
McNeese State received the other first-place vote. The Cowboys, who year after year are among the top teams in the SLC, also went 6-1 in league play last fall and finished with a 9-3 overall mark following a 49-13 loss to New Hampshire in the first round of the playoffs.
McNeese has a steeper mountain to climb this season with the daunting task of replacing quarterback Derrick Fourroux, the SLC co-player of the year, and all-conference running back Todd Pendland. But the Cowboys do return 10 starters on one of the SLC’s top defenses.
“You have to pick (SFA and McNeese) at the top until someone beats them,” Fritz said. “SFA went two rounds deep in the playoffs and McNeese made it. That is what we aspire to build our program to. We want to be a team that competes for championships every year.”
Southeastern Louisiana is picked to finish tied with Texas State for third in the preseason poll. The Lions came close to a breakout year in 2009 under head coach Mike Lucas.
Southeastern finished fourth in the SLC at 4-3, which included a one-point loss to McNeese in Lake Charles. That was the Lions’ best showing since joining the conference in 2005.
Southeastern compiled a 6-5 overall record, its first winning season since 2004.
“We have worked very hard to get ourselves into position to compete for the conference championship and have a chance to get into the FCS playoffs,” said Lucas, who served as the defensive coordinator at SHSU from 1987-2001. “There was a time when I was at Sam Houston that whenever we got into the playoffs there was such a lift to the campus, the community and the entire fan base. We need to experience that at Southeastern. That is a goal this year.”
Texas State went 5-2 in the SLC in 2009 and 7-4 overall. The Bobcats have won two conference championships in the past five seasons.
Central Arkansas, which is eligible to compete for the SLC championship and the FCS playoffs after transitioning from Division II the past four years, is slated to finish fifth.
Northwestern State, which is looking to get things turned around under second-year head coach Bradley Dale Peveto following an 0-11 season, was picked sixth ahead of Sam Houston State.
Nicholls was voted into the eighth spot. The Colonels will totally revamp their offense this season, shifting from the triple option to pass oriented scheme under new head coach Charlie Stubbs.
Media Day notes
All-conference snub — Sam Houston State was the only school not to land a player on the preseason All-Southland Conference teams.
Defending co-champions McNeese State and Stephen F. Austin led the way with 14 and 12 selections, respectively. The Cowboys landed a league-best seven players on the first team, while the Lumberjacks had five.
Every team except the Bearkats had at least three preseason All-SLC players. Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana each had seven. Texas State had five, Northwestern State notched four and Nicholls had three.
2010 Southland Conference Football Coaches’ Poll
(first-place votes in parentheses)
1. Stephen F. Austin (7) 49
2. McNeese State (1) 43
t3. Southeastern Louisiana 29
t3. Texas State 29
5. Central Arkansas 27
6. Northwestern State 20
7. Sam Houston State 18
8. Nicholls 9
2010 Sam Houston State Bearkats Football Schedule
Sept. 4 @ Baylor 6 p.m.
Sept. 18 @ W. Illinois 1 p.m.
Sept. 25 Gardner-Webb 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 @ Lamar 6 p.m.
Oct. 9 @ Nicholls * 4 .m.
Oct. 16 Southeastern La. * 2 p.m.
Oct. 23 Stephen F. Austin * ^ 2 p.m.
Oct. 30 @ Northwestern State * 6 p.m.
Nov. 6 McNeese State * 2 p.m.
Nov. 13 @ C. Arkansas * 3 p.m.
Nov. 20 Texas State * 2 p.m.
* SLC games ^ @ Reliant Stadium