(Sports Network) - Southland Conference football is as hot as two-a-day practices on a summer day in Texas or Louisiana.
The Southland has re-upped as the host conference for the NCAA Division I FCS Championship Game, which member Sam Houston State has participated in the last two seasons. Also, Central Arkansas is an emerging program and the conference will add three new programs next season.
So let Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz be the one to raise the bar for how the conference can raise its national profile even more this year.
"We need to get more teams in the national playoffs," he said, "and have a team win the national championship."
It's quite possible, although for now, the legitimate candidates are limited to Sam Houston and Central Arkansas, which shared the conference title last season. Sam Houston was installed on Wednesday as this year's preseason favorite at Southland media day, with Central Arkansas picked second in the conference's two polls (head coaches and sports information directors).
Expansion will help the Southland swell to 14 members next year, with 12 fielding football programs, including newcomers Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word.
The rest of the FCS has taken notice. The expanding Southland is part of the growing number of larger conferences in the FCS, including five others that are at least 10 members deep - Big Sky (13), Colonial Athletic (11), Mid- Eastern Athletic (11), Pioneer (12 this year, 11 next year) and Southwestern Athletic (10).
The top four conferences in the FCS are generally considered the Big Sky, CAA, Missouri Valley and Southern, though their order can change from year to year. With the Southern Conference braced to lose national powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern as well as Elon next year, there could be a spot up for grabs among the nation's elite conferences, and the Southland, in addition to the nine-team Ohio Valley Conference, will try to walk in the door.
Keep in mind the Southland has outperformed the OVC in the playoffs for quite some time.
"The Southland Conference historically has placed multiple teams in the playoffs and five or six times has played in the national championship game," Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said.
"Our conference has had a handful of years when three teams entered the playoffs. I honestly feel the conference is well-positioned nationally and in the eyes of the athletic directors across the country, is one of the top three or four conferences in the country. Obviously, gaining multiple selections and winning the championship is the next step for Central Arkansas and the other quality members of our conference."
The hope for the Southland favorite rests with a group of skill position players that rivals any across the FCS. Sam Houston veterans Brian Bell (quarterback), Timothy Flanders (running back) and Richard Sincere (all- purpose) lead the way.
The offensive line is retooling, however, and that could set the Bearkats back as they try to return to Frisco, Texas - site of the national championship game - for the third straight season.
Sam Houston, Central Arkansas and McNeese State had a Southland-high 12 players each on the preseason all-conference team.
SOUTHLAND FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS
Voted on by Head Coaches
1. Sam Houston State (6 first-place votes), 48 points
2. Central Arkansas (1), 42
3. McNeese State, 37
4. Stephen F. Austin (1), 32
5. Southeastern Louisiana, 26
6. Northwestern State, 17
7. Lamar, 14
8. Nicholls, 8
Voted on by Sports Information Directors
1. Sam Houston State (6), 48
2. Central Arkansas (2), 44
3. McNeese State, 33
4. Southeastern Louisiana, 30
5. Stephen F. Austin, 27
6. (tie) Northwestern State, 18
6. (tie) Nicholls, 18
8. Lamar, 15
PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAMS
QB- Wynrick Smothers, Central Arkansas, Sr.
RB- Timothy Flanders, Sam Houston State, Sr.
RB- Gus Johnson, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.
TE/HB- Nick Scelfo, Nicholls, Jr.
WR- D.J. Ward, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.
WR- Dezmin Lewis, Central Arkansas, Jr.
WR- Diontae Spencer, McNeese State, Sr.
OL- Arinze Agada, McNeese State, Sr.
OL- Gasten Gabriel, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.
OL- Cole Caruthers, Central Arkansas, Jr.
OL- Donald Jackson, Sam Houston State, So.
OL- Antoine Everett, McNeese State, Jr.
AP- Richard Sincere, Sam Houston State, Sr.
PK- Eddie Camara, Central Arkansas, Jr.
DL- Jonathan Woodard, Central Arkansas, So.
DL- Darren Robinson, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.
DL- Matt Hornbuckle, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DL- Gary Lorance, Sam Houston State, Sr.
LB- Justin Heard, Central Arkansas, Sr.
LB- Deonte Thompson, McNeese State, Jr.
LB- Eric Fieilo, Sam Houston State, Sr.
DB- Jestin Love, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DB- Terence Cahee, McNeese State, Sr.
DB- Bookie Sneed, Sam Houston State, Sr.
DB- Guy Morgan, McNeese State, Sr.
DB- Radarius Winston, Central Arkansas, Sr.
P- Kollin Kahler, Lamar, Sr.
KR- Xavier Roberson, Southeastern Louisiana, So.
PR- Torrance Williams, Sam Houston State, Sr.
QB- Brian Bell, Sam Houston State, Sr.
RB- Marcus Wiltz, McNeese State, Sr.
RB- Marcus Washington, Nicholls, Sr.
TE/HB- Nic Jacobs, McNeese State, Jr.
WR- Chance Nelson, Sam Houston State, So.
WR- Michael Brooks, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
WR- Barry Ford, Lamar, Sr.
OL- Andrew Ratliff, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
OL- Dominique Allen, Central Arkansas, Jr.
OL- Warren Jones, Northwestern State, Sr.
OL- Matt Boyles, Sam Houston State, Sr.
OL- Kyle Stouffer, Central Arkansas, So.
AP- Xavier Roberson, Southeastern Louisiana, So.
PK- Andrew Dolan, Nicholls, Sr.
DL- Jesse Dickson, Lamar, Sr.
DL- Everett Ellefsen, McNeese State, Jr.
DL- Chris Loveless, McNeese State, Sr.
DL- Jarrett Brown, Sam Houston State, Sr.
LB- Jesse Beauchamp, Sam Houston State, Sr.
LB- Jermaine Longino, Lamar, Sr.
LB- Kaleb Muse, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.
DB- Caleb Nelson, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
DB- Bert White, Northwestern State, Sr.
DB- Marcus Peters, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DB- Todd Washington, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.
DB- Chad Allen, Lamar, Sr.
P- Jean Breaux, McNeese State, So.
KR- Javaris Murray, McNeese State, Sr.
PR- Michael Brooks, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.