McNeese seeks to rebound in Southland race

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(STATS) - McNeese State football coach Matt Viator might be ready to spend five seconds on last season.

If that. He's moved on.

One year ago, McNeese finished with a winning record under Viator yet again. That's happened in all nine of his seasons.

But it probably didn't feel that way. The Cowboys fell out of Southland Conference title contention by losing their final three games, finishing 6-5 overall and without a winning conference mark (4-4) for the first time under their veteran coach.

After McNeese was picked third in the Southland's preseason coaches poll - and fourth in its preseason sports information directors poll - at Wednesday's media day in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Cowboys are ready to try to rebound and compete for this year's title. They won 10 games and qualified for the FCS playoffs in 2013 before the last season's step back, but this year's team features 16 returning starters and many other experienced players.

"Every year is a new year and will stand on its own merits," Viator said. "That is the approach I have always taken for each offseason. The biggest thing for us is to get the players that were injured last year healthy and ready to go for August."

Viator boasts a 68-32 record (.680) at McNeese, so he's had incredible success. There's good reason the Cowboys should contend again against the likes of FCS powerhouse Sam Houston State, the No. 1 team in both Southland preseason polls which features 21 returning starters and 13 players on the preseason all-conference team; Southeastern Louisiana, a two-time defending champion; and Stephen F. Austin. All three of those schools from the 11-team conference made the national playoffs a year ago.

McNeese is bolstered by the return of nine starters on offense and seven on defense. The Cowboys' running game will be among the best in the FCS after it finished 17th nationally with 221.9 yards per game.

Quarterback Daniel Sams is at the controls and rushed for a team-high 711 yards on 6.8 yards per carry. Running back Ryan Ross kept getting better as a freshman and churned out 599 yards. Also, Derrick Milton, Kelvin Bennett and Dylan Long (team-high 10 touchdowns) are back, and each gained at least 346 yards.

All-America safety Brent Spikes and linebackers Wallace Scott and Bob Brown - all seniors - front the defense, which struggled to end the season when the Southland schedule toughened. To that end, Viator is looking to instill a "tough-minded and competitive" identity to avoid a similar end-of-season freefall.

"I think the depth is great for our league," he said. "The key is to be healthy and peaking at the right time."

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SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLLS=

COACHES=

1. Sam Houston State (8 first-place votes), 98 points.

2. Southeastern Louisiana (1), 86.

3. McNeese State (1), 79.

4. Stephen F. Austin, 73.

5. Northwestern State, 60.

6. Central Arkansas (1), 57.

7. Abilene Christian, 49.

8. Lamar, 46.

9. Incarnate Word, 26.

10. Nicholls, 16.

11. Houston Baptist, 15.

SIDs=

1. Sam Houston State (9), 99.

2. Stephen F. Austin, 87.

3. Southeastern Louisiana, 77.

4. McNeese State (1), 75.

5. Central Arkansas (1), 66.

6. Northwestern State, 51.

7. Abilene Christian, 48.

8. Lamar, 41.

9. Incarnate Word, 25.

10. Nicholls, 20.

11. Houston Baptist, 12.

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ALL-SOUTHLAND PRESEASON TEAM=

OFFENSE=

QB - Jared Johnson, Sam Houston State, Jr.

RB - De'Andre Brown, Abilene Christian, So.

RB - Michael Henry, Nicholls, Sr.

TE/HB - Cole Wick, Incarnate Word, Sr.

WR - Ed Eagan, Northwestern State, Sr.

WR - Reggie Begelton, Lamar, Sr.

WR - Cedric Gilbert, Abilene Christian, Sr.

OL - Donald Jackson III, Sam Houston State, Sr.

OL - Byron Williams, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.

OL - Pace Murphy, Northwestern State, Sr.

OL - Quentin Marsh, McNeese State, Sr.

OL - Codey Funk, Abilene Christian, Jr.

AP - Ed Eagan, Northwestern State, Sr.

DEFENSE=

DL - P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, So.

DL - Jonathan Woodard, Central Arkansas, Sr.

DL - Leroy Armstrong, Northwestern State, Sr.

DL - Corey Lee, Incarnate Word, Jr.

LB - Wallace Scott, McNeese State, Sr.

LB - Bo Brown, McNeese State, Sr.

LB - Myke Chatman, Sam Houston State, Jr.

DB - Trenier Orr, Sam Houston State, Sr.

DB - Harlan Miller, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

DB - Denzel Thompson, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.

DB - Brent Spikes, McNeese State, Sr.

DB - Adam Jones, Northwestern State, Jr.

SPECIAL TEAMS=

PK - Luc Swimberghe, Sam Houston State, Jr.

P - Lachlan Edwards, Sam Houston State, Sr.

KR - Jatavious Wilson, Central Arkansas, Jr.

PR - Ed Eagan, Northwestern State, Sr.

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FIVE KEY SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE GAMES=

Stephen F. Austin at Abilene Christian (Sept. 26) - Sandwiched between games against McNeese State and Sam Houston State, SFA faces a road trip to the conference's potential breakout team.

Southeastern Louisiana at McNeese State (Oct. 10) - After a disappointing 2014, McNeese State needs this game to gain an early roll.

Southeastern Louisiana at Central Arkansas (Oct. 31) - With a lot of surrounding talent, the visiting Lions hope quarterback D'Shaie Landor can fill the shoes of Bryan Bennett.

Stephen F. Austin vs. Sam Houston State (Nov. 7) - "The Battle of the Piney Woods" always thrills the big crowd at Houston's NRG Stadium.

Sam Houston State at McNeese State (Nov. 7) - Sam Houston expects to be one of the nation's top teams. McNeese State says not so fast.

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