After Saturday, the Southland Conference football race could be in a bigger logjam at the top, one team could separate itself but still face an upstream journey or the University of Central Arkansas might be riding the crest of a wave toward a share of the league title.
Southeastern Louisiana, the Bears’ opponent Saturday night during homecoming at Hammond, is the only unbeaten team in the conference at 3-0. UCA (4-1), Sam Houston State (3-1) and Stephen F. Austin (2-1) are on the Lions’ tail. And the Lions now face three straight weeks of playing the top contenders (UCA, Sam Houston State and SFA). The Lions had an open date last week for additional preparation for the stretch run.
The Bears have their open date at the end of the conference season so they have one fewer league game left than everyone else. Thus, a victory in Hammond would give the Bears a chance to play for at least a share of the conference championship the next weekend at home against Northwestern State.
"They’re all good football teams, but in this conference, it’s like that every week," said Southeastern coach Ron Roberts, who has revived the Lion program in his first season after a highly successful tenure at Delta State. "And I know if UCA can get us, they’ll think they’ll have the conference championship wrapped up."
"We’ll have to start fast and finish," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "We’ve not put together a complete game yet."
The Lions are 3-4 after going through a tough non-conference schedule that included Missouri, South Dakota State, UT Martin and Alabama-Birmingham.
"We’ve seen pretty much everything this year, so I think that schedule prepared us for the conference schedule — particularly as far as the speed of the game," Roberts said.
Conque, who has seen his team have some troubles at Strawberry Stadium, has long had a respect for SLU. As a Louisiana native, he knows Southeastern is in the middle of a rich recruiting area that includes the New Orleans area, the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi junior colleges.
"I’ve always said Southeastern was the most athletic team we would face in the conference any given year," Conque said. "They have size, speed and length and they are playing with an attitude and confidence. They are putting it together. I think this year they may even be more talented; they brought in some good transfers. Coach Roberts has gotten them to believe in themselves and they won a couple of games and kept gaining confidence."
Southeastern’s multiple schemes demand clear recognition.
"They do a lot of things scheme-wise that are difficult to prepare for and they stretch you," Conque said. "They get you out in space.
"They play a hybrid defense and really mix it up. They have a variety of blitz packages, some sound, some not so sound. They try to confuse you. I think Wynrick Smothers (quarterback) may have to have his best game."
"I don’t think we’ve seen as talented a receiving corps as what Central Arkansas has," Roberts said.
The Bears should be healthier than they have been in the last couple of weeks. Offensive lineman Dominique Allen is coming off a two-game suspension and defensive lineman Larry Duvall a one-game suspension. Defensive back Karl Brady should return to the lineup and linebacker Rojae Jackson, who was injured against Nicholls State, will also make the trip with a chance to play.
"I told the team this one is must-get," Conque said. "If we want to at a share of the conference title, we’ve got to get this one."