The Southland Conference landscape begins to change with the start of the 2013 football season.
While the eight teams in this year’s league race are the same as last year – the Bearkats, SFA and Lamar from Texas; McNeese, Northwestern State, Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana from the Pelican State and Central Arkansas.
But the Southland has added three schools to the mix and each of the trio will soon bring the number of football competitors in the league to 11.
Over the past few years, the teams that competed for the Southland Conference football championship and represented the league are all too familiar with one another. There are several teams from Texas and Louisiana, as well as the Bears from Central Arkansas.
Houston Baptist, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word will give the Southland a much different look than ever before in the league’s 50-year history.
“It’s a good step,” Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said this week at Southland football media day. “They’re not quite on the field with us yet, but they’re in the family. They’ll be more fully in the conference with other sports later on as we get into the fall.
“We’re pleased to have them with us and have them here at (Southland Conference Media Day) and promote them as the future of the conference. They’ll be wearing Southland Conference patches on their uniforms this year. We’ll consider them part of the family, though we can’t quite count them yet.
“That’ll come later.”
Houston Baptist, which will play an abbreviated schedule this year before becoming a full-fledged member of the conference and eligible for the conference title and the FCS playoffs next fall, as well as UWI (Incarnate Word) and Abilene Christian will be beginning their four-year transition from Division II to Division I this fall.
Two of the three teams will be on the Bearkats’ schedule this year. Sam Houston opens the 2013 season with Houston Baptist on Saturday Aug. 31 then faces UWI on Saturday Sept. 21. Both games will be at Bowers Stadium.
“With the teams in our conference, I always just took it by each week and figuring out what we have to defend and what we have to do and see if we can do it,” said Stephen F. Austin coach J.C. Harper, who is entering his ninth season in the Southland and seventh as head coach of the Lumberjacks.
“With recruiting, it’s going to be tight. You forget that these guys are going to be competing for the same guys that you’re might be recruiting. It was already tight before when we added Lamar in our area of the world. Now you add three more in Texas, we’ll all be fighting for the same people.”
Instead of playing a full season in its inaugural campaign, Houston Baptist will be playing a shortened seven-game schedule, which allows the Huskies to redshirt all of their players, who will earn game experience but also maintain four years of eligibility.
“It seems like yesterday on one hand when I was hired in the spring of 2012, but then on the other hand it feels like it’s been two years have gone by,” Houston Baptist coach Vic Shealy said.
“It’s exciting to know in a more significant way when we kick the ball off in a couple of weeks, we’ll have a game to play. For us, there’s a lot of excitement for us to experience a ballgame again. Of course for us, playing Sam Houston, that probably offers one of the greatest challenges any start-up program could ever have. With it comes a great opportunity.”
Like Central Arkansas when it entered the Southland Conference in 2007, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are making the transition from Division II. These two schools will be football members of the Southland Conference beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
For football, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are not eligible for the Southland Conference championship or the FCS playoffs until the 2017 season.
“We play really good football,” Abilene Christian head coach Ken Collums said. “We’ve got some of the better players in the country, some who have gone to the NFL. Our culture is unique. The thing that separates us, and I think will ultimately get us through the transition period is when you can put it all together and grow men who are going to change society and you do it in a radically different way being a private school and all and you can win football games. The transition will be interesting, but we’re fired up about it.”
In the 2014 season, the Southland Conference will grow to a 11-team football conference, which would be the largest since the league’s inception in 1963.
Houston Baptist, UIW and Abilene Christian will join the current football-playing members of the Southland along with New Orleans, A&M-Corpus Christi and Oral Roberts in other intercollegiate sports action during 2012-13.