(STATS) - At a team workout during the winter, Abilene Christian first-year coach Adam Dorrel basically lost it, chastising his players over their attitude.
Their body language indicated to Dorrel they weren't upbeat enough.
At another spring football practice, the Wildcats even practiced celebrating after plays.
This from a coach whose past teams were accustomed to playing tag at walk-throughs on the day before a game.
"My teams have always played pretty good in big games," Dorrel says, "because they don't get caught up in that pressure. It's not something that you can just turn on that week in a big game. You have to have that in your culture of having fun and staying loose."
Dorrel is busy changing a lot within the Abilene Christian program, and that includes becoming a consistent winner in the Southland Conference, where the Wildcats enter their fourth season as a member.
Voters in the conference's preseason poll might be sensing the beginning of a potential upswing after they picked the Wildcats to finish eighth just one season after they were second from the bottom in the 11-team Southland.
The head coaches and sports information directors weren't allowed to vote for their school, so Sam Houston State received all possible first-place votes - 20 of 22 - to earn the No. 1 spot in the poll.
Abilene Christian is expecting to make progress under the 42-year-old Dorrel. The Wildcats finished 2-9 last season (2-7 Southland), which was one more loss than Dorrel had in six seasons leading Northwest Missouri State, where he went 76-8 and won three of the last four Division II national titles. He was 15-0 in each of the championship seasons at his alma mater.
"I'm just trying to get everybody to raise their expectation level around here," Dorrel said. "Not in winning - that's the easy part, where everybody is like, 'Yeah, let's win.' I'm talking about raising their expectation level around here on how we do things - our daily drills, our daily approach. Not just on-the-field stuff - to the way we think, to the way we act and talk, the way we work in the weight room, what we're doing in the community, what we're doing academically. We are spending a lot of time trying to get everybody to raise their expectation level around here."
The new coaching era in Abilene Christian football coincides with this year's opening of the $55 million-plus Wildcat Stadium. When the Wildcats host a Southland matchup against Houston Baptist on Sept. 16, they will play on campus for the first time in 58 years.
They've also completed their transition period from Division II status to Division I affiliation, gaining eligibility for the Southland title and the conference's automatic playoff bid for the first time.
Abilene Christian returns 15 starters (nine on offense and six on defense), but 20 from last year's final game. As the Wildcats get stronger mentality and physically, they have to improve one of the Southland's worst defenses, and they'll look to all-conference outside linebacker Sam Denmark to lead the way. The offense boasts junior quarterback Dallas Sealey and will be switching to more of a power rushing scheme, which isn't always common in the Southland.
"When we played (Abilene Christian) back in the late 2000s," said Dorrel in looking back to his days as a Northwest Missouri State assistant coach, "obviously they had a good football program, they were Division II at the time, high-caliber athletes - just a real solid football program. There's a real proud tradition here and, obviously, that speaks to me being here. I kind of sensed that from folks and saw that from a far that there's a lot of folks who want to be good in football here."
Sam Houston was the easy choice for No. 1 in the Southland's preseason poll. Last season, coach K.C. Keeler's Bearkats won all nine conference games in a 12-1 season in which they finished fifth in the final STATS FCS Top 25.
Central Arkansas was picked to finish second again, while McNeese was third in the preseason poll.
KEY SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE GAMES
Sam Houston State at Central Arkansas (Sept. 30) - Last season's showdown began with 8-0 conference teams, but ended with Sam Houston easing up to a 59-23 victory.
Five More: Southeastern Louisiana at Central Arkansas (Sept. 16); Nicholls at Sam Houston State (Sept. 23); Sam Houston State vs. Stephen F. Austin in Houston (Oct. 7); McNeese at Central Arkansas (Oct. 28); Sam Houston State at Southeastern Louisiana (Oct. 28)
SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors Poll
1. Sam Houston State (20 first-place votes), 200 points
2. Central Arkansas (2), 177
3. McNeese, 163
4. Southeastern Louisiana, 136
5. Nicholls, 133
6. Stephen F. Austin, 114
7. Lamar, 68
8. Abilene Christian, 66
9. Houston Baptist, 56
10. Northwestern State, 49
11. Incarnate Word, 48
SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM
QB - Jeremiah Briscoe, Sam Houston State, Sr.
RB - Corey Avery, Sam Houston State, Sr.
RB - Julius Maracalin, Southeastern Louisiana, Jr.
TE/HB - Lawayne Ross, McNeese, So.
WR - Yedidiah Louis, Sam Houston State, Sr.
WR - Nathan Stewart, Sam Houston State, So.
WR - Davion Davis, Sam Houston State, Jr.
OL - Stockton Mallett, Central Arkansas, Sr.
OL - Chandler Arceneaux, Nicholls, R-Jr.
OL - Tyler Tezeno, Sam Houston State, Sr.
OL - John Cook, Central Arkansas, Jr.
OL - Josh Keith, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
AP - Kody Edwards, Incarnate Word, Sr.
PK - Nik Grau, Abilene Christian, Sr.
DL - P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, Sr.
DL - Sully Laiche, Nicholls, So.
DL - John Franklin, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
DL - Cardell Best, Central Arkansas, Sr.
LB - Garrett Dolan, Houston Baptist, Jr.
LB - Sam Denmark, Abilene Christian, Sr.
LB - Justin Johnson, Sam Houston State, Jr.
DB - Tremon Smith, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DB - George Odum, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DB - Andre Fuller, McNeese, Sr.
DB - Jaylon Lofton, Central Arkansas, Sr.
DB - Christian Boutte, Nichols, Sr.
P - Patrick Ponder, Central Arkansas, Sr.
KR - Jaylen Harris, Sam Houston State, So.
PR - Trae Hart, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
QB - Hayden Hildebrand, Central Arkansas, Sr.
RB - Remus Bulmer, Sam Houston State, Jr.
RB - Carlos Blackman, Central Arkansas, So.
TE/HB - Kiki Hill, Stephen F. Austin, So.
WR - Darious Crawley, McNeese, Sr.
WR - Tamrick Pace, Stephen F. Austin, So.
WR - Kent Shelby, McNeese, Sr.
OL - Andy Dodd, McNeese, Gr.
OL - Mitchell Watanabe, Sam Houston State, Jr.
OL - Gilberto Garcia, Central Arkansas, Sr.
OL - Ryan Hanley, Nicholls, Jr.
OL - Travis Romero, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.
AP - Trae Hart, Stephen F. Austin, Sr.
PK - Alec Chadwick, Houston Baptist, Jr.
DL - Jammerio Gross-Whitaker, McNeese, Sr.
DL - Lamont Alexander, Stephen F. Austin, Jr.
DL - Chris Terrell, Central Arkansas, So.
DL - Chris Livings, McNeese, Jr.
LB - Allen Pittman, Nicholls, R-So.
LB - Sione Teuhema, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.
LB - Cody Moncure, Houston Baptist, Sr.
DB - Dominique Hill, McNeese, Sr.
DB - Rodney Randle Jr., Lamar, Jr.
DB - Robert Hayes Jr., Incarnate Word, So.
DB - Max Lyons, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr.
DB - Derek Broussard, Houston Baptist, Sr.
P - Christian Guzman, Houston Baptist, Sr.
KR - Alize Ward, Stephen F. Austin, So.
PR - Tremon Smith, Central Arkansas, Sr.