The preseason Southland Conference preseason polls, snapshots for sure based largely on tradition and last year’s performance, revealed an interesting pecking order that could say a lot about this year’s football race.

• Stephen F. Austin, the champion last season, returns 16 starters and is the only team to return a decorated and proven quarterback (Jeremy Moses). Just with a returning quarterback (and a very good one), the Lumberjacks would be an obvious choice for the favorite.

• It’s both a tradition and almost a no-brainer for coaches and sports information directors to pick McNeese State either No. 1 or No. 2. Based on history, that’s safe. 

• Both Southeastern Louisiana and Texas State both project to be pretty good, but there’s a hesitancy to move either right at the top.

• The University of Central Arkansas lost a large senior class, but the Bears have also competed very well the years they have been in the league. But it’s pretty much a tradition to pick the Bears fifth or sixth.

• Sam Houston, an underperformer of late but with a new coaching staff and some good returning talent, is almost an obvious choice for sixth.

• Nicholls, which almost always plays hard but is short on depth, is a “safe” pick for seventh or eighth with a new coaching staff.

• Northwestern State didn’t win a game last season so folks usually start by putting the Demons at the bottom.

This observer doesn’t think the standings will end up as projected. They almost never come out that clean.

The big variable is almost every is either breaking in a new quarterback or relying on one largely unproven. 

Which quarterback — or even a new face — comes along the quickest and develops as a leader — will determine which team will move up or move down.

At the conference’s Media Day on Wednesday in Lake Charles, La., Texas State coach Brad Wright gave the obvious logic, “Stephen F. Austin returns a lot of players from their team that won the league last season, and McNeese State have proven they belong at the top year in and year out. Most of us have a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position and if one of them gets hot, they could result in one of us moving their way to the top.”

And SFA is just one year removed from an 0-11 season, which could work either way psychologically.

“I don’t feel any pressure heading into the 2010 season,” Moses said. “I still have the underdog mentality. The thought of that 0-11 seasons stays with me.”

McNeese, which almost always has one of the league’s top defenses, is again basing its hopes there while the offense reloads.

“I really like this defense not only because of the talent level but also because of the attitude,” said coach Matt Viator. “Last year going in, we felt we would have a good defense but we really didn’t know. We did have some injuries that hurt us but we did come up with one of our better defenses.”

Southeastern Louisiana, which has some of the most talented players in the last three years, is fighting for respect. Much of that depends on Tyler Beatty, the quarterback who led the Lions to a victory over UCA last season in a substitute role and has more experience than most quarterbacks in the league.

“He played very well in one start and no so well in another,” Southeastern coach Mike Lucas said of Beatty’s two starts. “As Tyler goes, I think our season will go. He’s a young man who has worked extremely hard and has show great leadership in the offseason.”
“Last year, we were motivated by the fact that we weren’t getting much respect,” said Southeastern’s Simmie Yarborough, one of the leading returning receivers. “This year there is no pressure because we really don’t want to go backwards.”

And the two teams every coach has picked at the bottom, Nicholls and Northwestern State, aren’t resigned to that fate.

“This staff (a new one, led by Charlie Stubbs) has emphasized academics before football and our team found that out early on,” said Patrick Dolan, Nicholls’ senior punter. “We are also held accountable for our actions, both on and off the field. They (the new coaches) also bring a different kind of excitement to the program, and the team has bought in 100 percent.”
“We had a chacne to win four or our last five games late in the fourth quarter,” said Northwestern State coach Bradley Dale Peveto. “The bottom line is, we didn’t, and it’s unacceptable. But we have a team filled with guys who are determined to get going in the right direction this fall. We are a young team, especially on defense, but we have ability, we can run and we will compete.”

UCA, used on an underdog role, finally have a postseason to play for and after talking to many players after spring practice, that is a huge motivation.
Particularly with a large group of inexperienced quarterbacks, the teams that play the best and most consistently on defense (and create the most turnovers) will be the contenders for the crown and the playoffs.

It’s usually a wild race. I expect one even crazier than normal.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)