Sam Houston, McNeese should be on upset watch
There's no debate about which teams are the elite of the Southland Conference. Just look at the polls - this year or last year - and everyone knows the answer is Sam Houston State and McNeese.
Yet, the Bearkats and Cowboys can't just cruise until their playoff rematch at the beginning of November. They'll be starting October on upset alert.
Both Southland powers face potentially tough obstacles Saturday, with second-ranked Sam Houston State (3-0, 2-0) taking on rival Stephen F. Austin (3-1, 2-0) at NRG Stadium - home of the Houston Texans - before No. 23 McNeese (2-2, 1-1) hosts a Nicholls team which has proven its mettle on the road.
Since the STATS FCS Top 25 came into existence before last season, no Southland team has made the poll besides the Bearkats and Cowboys. Both have been part of every single one since last October.
That could all change next week.
McNeese would drop out with a loss to the Colonels (1-2, 1-0), who received 52 votes of their own in this week's STATS poll. Stephen F. Austin would certainly join the rankings by stunning Sam Houston, having already won 31-28 at McNeese two weeks ago on Hunter Taylor's touchdown pass with 3:35 to play.
That was the only drive of the game for Taylor, a former walk-on who had been playing behind Zach Conque - son of Lumberjacks coach Clint Conque. But dad had a much quicker hook last week, pulling Zach in the first quarter, and Taylor came on to complete 31 of 46 passes for 376 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Abilene Christian.
So it would seem the Lumberjacks will stick with Taylor even though it was Zach Conque who was the preseason all-Southland first-team quarterback ahead of second-teamer Jeremiah Briscoe of Sam Houston. Briscoe is off to a brilliant start, throwing for three touchdowns and more than 300 yards in each of the Bearkats' three games.
Those have all been easy wins, and Sam Houston leads the FCS with 51.7 points per game.
"We're gonna need to play with great passion, energy and focus this week versus the No. 2 team in the country," Clint Conque said. "This is a ring-the-bell type of week. We've got the most prolific offense really in the country coming in."
The Bearkats have won the past five meetings of a rivalry which dates back to 1923. However, three of the last four were decided by eight points or less, including last year's 34-28 game in which the Lumberjacks had the edge in total yards and led deep into the third quarter.
This SFA squad has won three in a row, earning the most votes of any team not to make this week's Top 25. Coach K.C. Keeler called the Lumberjacks "playoff-caliber" and the best SFA team he's seen since arriving at Sam Houston in 2014.
"It's a really intense rivalry," Keeler said heading into the 91st edition of the Battle of the Piney Woods. "Emotion is great because you can't play this game without it, but you can put yourself in a position where emotion gets out of control which we can't do."
While Keeler expects emotions to run high, McNeese can't be complacent despite facing an unheralded Nicholls program which the Cowboys have dominated. McNeese has won seven straight in the series, the last two by a combined 82-10 score.
The Colonels' two defeats this season were close ones against FBS programs. They lost in overtime at South Alabama last Saturday and nearly pulled off a true shocker to open the season, falling 26-24 to a Georgia team ranked ninth in the country.
"Georgia in front of 90,000 people was kinda crazy, and a great atmosphere this past weekend (in Mobile), but our conference is so tough and McNeese uses that home-field advantage and they'll have that stadium packed and rolling," Nicholls coach Tim Rebowe said.
However, the luster of the Cowboys has been tarnished in September with the home loss to SFA and last Saturday's uninspiring seven-point win over Incarnate Word.
Plus, McNeese hasn't shown off the formidable ground game which keyed its 10-1 season in 2015. That Cowboys squad rushed for 233.3 yards per game and 5.0 per carry whereas this one, excluding a win over Division II Tarleton State, has averaged 106.7 per game and 2.8 per carry.
That leaves coach Lance Guidry concerned because even though quarterback James Tabary has played well (eight TD passes, one interception), the Cowboys are facing what has been an impressive Nicholls pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 48.0 percent of their passes against the Colonels, who had five sacks in a win over Incarnate Word before picking off four passes at South Alabama.
"It's kind of scary because we're having to throw the ball to move the ball and score," Guidry said of the struggling ground game. "We're gonna have to be balanced, find ways to run the football. But Nicholls makes it tough."