Southland Conference spring outlook

(STATS) - Not surprisingly, the three programs that joined the Southland Conference with the 2014 season have been slow to make inroads in the deep, 11-team race.

But improvement is apparent.

Houston Baptist's startup program made a big jump last year, collecting three conference wins after combining for only one in its first two full seasons (the inaugural 2013 season was sub-varsity).

Incarnate Word had a winning season in 2015 - 6-5 overall with a 5-4 third-place conference finish - and coach Larry Kennan feels he keeps adding good recruiting classes.

Abilene Christian has tremendous momentum for the 2017 season as it debuts a new on-campus stadium and a new coach, Adam Dorrel, who was ultra-successful on the Division II level.

All the Southland Conference teams are still chasing FCS power Sam Houston State, but Central Arkansas, Nicholls, McNeese and Southeastern Louisiana provide excellent depth in the title race.

Perhaps the three recent newcomers will have an effect on it as well.

Following is a look across the Southland with spring practice underway in college football:

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ABILENE CHRISTIAN=

Head Coach: Adam Dorrel (first season; 76-8 overall)

2016 Record: 2-9, 2-7 Southland

Spring Practices: Feb. 28-April 7

What to Know: Excitement abounds for the Wildcats as they move into a new on-campus stadium behind Dorrel, who went 76-8 and won three Division II national titles in six seasons at Northwest Missouri State. While 20 starters return from last year's final game, there are positions up for grabs (including on both lines and in the secondary) and some players have changed positions under the new coaching staff. Junior quarterback Dallas Sealey is coming off a banner season and will continue to have an excellent receiving corps. Senior outside linebacker Sam Denmark is one of the better defensive players in the conference. Also, former Baylor running back Johnny Jefferson announced on social media last week that he will transfer to ACU, although the school has yet to announce it.

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CENTRAL ARKANSAS=

Head Coach: Steve Campbell (23-13, three seasons; 149-51 overall)

2016 Record: 10-3, 8-1 Southland

Spring Practices: March 7-April 8

What to Know: Coming off a banner season that included a second-place finish in the Southland and a FCS playoff win, the Bears will be formidable again. This season, they face Sam Houston State early at home (Sept. 30). Quarterback Hayden Hildebrand and a stable of quality running backs will work behind an offensive line that has all five starters returning. But with outstanding wide receivers Desmond Smith and Jatavius gone, the Bears will need to find some explosive players - perhaps junior college transfer Lester Wells. Stout against the run last season, the defense must replace the middle of its line as well as two starters in the secondary.

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HOUSTON BAPTIST=

Head Coach: Vic Shealy (7-25, three seasons; 37-43-1 overall)

2016 Record: 4-7, 3-5 Southland

Spring Practices: Feb. 6-March 9

What to Know: A veteran team, including eight starters on offense and nine on defense, returns, but last year's breakout quarterback, Tony Dawson, is not back. The Huskies will be young at the position, likely going with either redshirt freshman Andrew Haidet or incoming freshman Bailey Zappe. As usual, a start-up program has to get better on the offensive line, but senior running backs B.J. Kelly (recovering from ankle injury) and Terrance Peters assist with the learning curve. The team's other strength is linebacker, where Garret Dolan patrols. He is the top returning tackler in the FCS.

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INCARNATE WORD=

Head Coach: Larry Kennan (19-36, five seasons; 32-53-3 overall)

2016 Record: 3-8, 3-6 Southland

Spring Practices: March 20-April 17

What to Know: The Cardinals' transition to Division I is complete, so they're eligible for the Southland title and FCS playoffs. Achieving either is a stretch at this point, but two season-ending wins provided a boost heading into the offseason. Kennan is seeking more consistency from his squad, which returns seven starters on each side of the ball. The offense must replace starting quarterback Trent Brittain, but backup Taylor Laird, a Kansas State transfer, is back as a senior. The bigger concern is running back, where injuries had the Cardinals down to their fifth-stringer to end last season. The defense surrendered over 37 points per game and loses leading tackler Josh Zellars.

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LAMAR=

Head Coach: Mike Schultz (first season)

2016 Record: 3-8, 3-6 Southland

Spring Practices: March 21-April 15

What to Know: Schultz is a first-time head coach, but the Houston native has spent much of his 37-year coaching career in Texas, including as the offensive coordinator at TCU and Texas State. With All-America running back Kade Harrington injured during his senior season last year, the Cardinals developed their strong-armed freshman quarterback, Adam Morse. A veteran offensive line will help further his development this season. While the defense is experienced at linebacker, the line has lost three of its four starters and the secondary no longer has standouts Brendan Langley and Xavier Bethany.

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MCNEESE=

Head Coach: Lance Guidry (6-5, one season; 7-6 overall)

2016 Record: 6-5, 5-4 Southland

Spring Practices: March 17-April 11 (spring game is April 8)

What to Know: After the 2015 Southland champs slumped in Guidry's first season, he has reclaimed the defensive coordinator's duties to try to get the unit back to a championship level (the defense ranked 11th in the FCS two years ago). Despite defensive tackle Isaiah Golden declaring for the NFL draft as a junior-eligible prospect, the defensive line is one of the team's strengths. Arkansas State transfer James Tabary turned the Cowboys into much more of a passing attack, but they will still run the ball with Ryan Ross and Justin Pratt. The offensive line needs improvement, however.

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NICHOLLS=

Head Coach: Tim Rebowe (8-14, two seasons)

2016 Record: 5-6, 5-4 Southland

Spring Practices: March 17-April 11

What to Know: Optimism abounds as Rebowe has turned around a struggling program, and the Colonels return 16 starters (nine on defense). Quarterback Chase Fourcade was outstanding as a freshman and is surrounded by excellent, young talent in the skills positions, although No. 1 wide receiver C.J. Bates is gone. The defense, which had a freshman who made the All-Southland first team - defensive tackle Sully Laiche - must replace two starters in the secondary. Also, junior college transfer Lorran Fonseca was brought in to improve the kicking game.

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NORTHWESTERN STATE=

Head Coach: Jay Thomas (17-29, four seasons; 44-64 overall)

2016 Record: 1-10, 0-9 Southland

Spring Practices: March 7-April 8

What to Know: The Demons only earned a non-Division I win over Kentucky Wesleyan in a regrettable 2016 season, so Thomas needs to get his program turned around in his fifth campaign. One positive step was bringing back alum Brad Laird for his third stint as the defensive coordinator, and while it hasn't been announced, quarterbacks coach Kyle Manley is expected to be elevated to offensive coordinator. The Demons have eight starters back on offense and seven on defense, but 36 returnees made at least one start last season. Senior quarterback J.D. Almond returns with the most experience at a position that has undergone a lot of change the last two seasons. This year's schedule is travel-friendly, with no trip more than a four-hour's drive away.

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SAM HOUSTON STATE=

Head Coach: K.C. Keeler (34-10, three seasons; 208-83-1 overall)

2016 Record: 12-1, 9-0 Southland

Spring Practices: March 3-April 8

What to Know: The Southland champ remains one of the best teams in the FCS, but the way the Bearkats' season ended - getting slammed 65-7 by eventual FCS champion James Madison in the quarterfinals - indicates they need to improve their defense and play with more of a physical style. The defense returns only five starters, although leader tackler Justin Johnson is one of them. The offense could be the nation's best as quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award winner, again works with all his favorite weapons. So the Bearkats' switch to new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey should be seamless.

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SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA=

Head Coach: Ron Roberts (36-24, five seasons; 83-40 overall)

2016 Record: 7-4, 7-2 Southland

Spring Practices: March 7-April 1

What to Know: The Lions bounced back from a subpar 2015 season (4-7, 3-6), finishing in third place, and afterward Roberts was signed through the 2018 season. The quarterback position must be resolved between junior Donovan Isom, who made two starts in 2015, and junior college transfer Chandler Eiland. The winner will get to work behind a veteran offensive line. Like the offense, the defense returns six starters. Its biggest battles are up front because the D-line was senior-laden last season. Among those looking to crack the rotation are junior college transfers Jon Miller and Imani Mitchell.

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STEPHEN F. AUSTIN=

Head Coach: Clint Conque (17-18, three seasons; 122-77 overall)

2016 Record: 5-6, 4-5 Southland

Spring Practices: March 24-April 22

What to Know: Conque will get to develop his team's depth because nine starters and key reserves, led by second-team all-conference defensive end John Franklin, will miss spring practices as they heal from injuries or offseason surgeries. TCU transfer Foster Sawyer will get into the quarterback mix on an offense that could be explosive with the likes of wide receiver Tamrick Pace and running back Loren Easly. The Lumberjacks are integrating a different scheme under their new coordinator, Jeff Byrd, who arrived from UT Martin. Last year, they ranked 10th in the Southland in total defense and last in scoring defense.

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