The ACU Wildcats, who will be playing their first Southland Conference football schedule in more than 40 years in 2014, have been picked to finish eighth in the 11-team league, according to the league, which announced pre-season poll results Wednesday morning at its annual media day at the L'Auberge Resort.
ACU – coming off a 6-5 season at the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Independent level – was picked to finish eighth in the league by both the league's head coaches and its sports information directors.
ACU tallied 36 points in the coaches' poll to finish just head of Nicholls (35 points), Incarnate Word (21 points and Houston Baptist (10 points). In the SID poll, ACU accumulated 39 points to 36 for Nicholls, 20 for Incarnate Word and 10 for Houston Baptist.
The Wildcats – who will field one of the most inexperienced offenses in the league, but a defense that returns eight starters – last played in the Southland Conference in 1972. A charter member of the league, ACU joined the Lone Star Conference in 1973 and stayed in the LSC until July 1, 2013, when it moved to the Southland Conference and up in classification from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I.
ACU opens the first 12-game regular season in program history on Wednesday, Aug. 27, when the Wildcats go to Atlanta to take on Georgia State in the Georgia Dome. The Wildcats don't have an open date throughout the regular season.
"I know we have to be ready to play every single week," ACU head coach said. "You have to hope your plan and your program and your recruiting willl carry you through a 12-game schedule, especially in this league."
Southeastern Louisiana, which won its first league title in school history last season, was picked as the favorite heading into the 2014 season.
Southeastern was the top pick by both the coaches and the SIDs, receiving nine first-place votes and 99 points total in coaches' poll and a maximum 10 first-place votes and 100 points in the SID poll. McNeese picked up the final two first-place votes from the coaches and the remaining vote from the SIDs. Coaches and SIDs could not vote for their own team.
The Lions, who posted a perfect 7-0 mark in conference play last season, return 15 starters and 58 lettermen, including the reigning conference player of the year, quarterback Bryan Bennett, and two-time all-conference selection Xavier Roberson. The Lions reached the quarterfinals in its first FCS postseason trip last season. Eight offensive starters return for the Lions, who also return six defenders and one special teams player.
McNeese State, which advanced to the Division I post-season for the 15th time last season, was picked second in both polls, receiving 92 points from the coaches and 89 from the SIDs. The Cowboys return 16 starters and 51 letterwinners to a team that finished 6-1 in league play. Leading the way for McNeese is senior offensive lineman Antoine Everett, a preseason all-America selection.
Sam Houston State, which is coming off a tie for third place and its third consecutive trip to the FCS playoffs, was tabbed third in both polls, garnering 79 points from the coaches and 78 from the SIDs. The Bearkats return 53 letterwinners, including 14 starters. The Bearkats, who will be under the direction of new head coach K.C. Keeler, will be led by preseason all-American offensive lineman Donald Jackson.
Central Arkansas was slated fourth in both polls with 70 points from the coaches and 82 from the SIDs. The Bears, who tied for third last season, return 19 starters and 54 letterwinners. Kick returner Jatavious Wilson and defensive end Jonathan Woodard, both of whom earned preseason all-America accolades, will lead the Bears on the field while first-year coach Steve Campbell will direct the Bears from the sidelines.
Northwestern State is picked to fifth in both polls. The Demons, which finished in this slot last season with a 3-4 league mark, received 59 points from the coaches and 61 from the SIDs. The Demons return 20 starters and 57 letterman, including quarterback Zach Adkins, the league's newcomer of the year last season.
Stephen F. Austin and Lamar were both picked sixth in the coaches' poll with 52 points each while the Lumberjacks were tabbed sixth by the SIDs with 55 points and the Cardinals were slated seventh with 52 points.
SFA, which will be coached by Clint Conque this season, returns 15 starters and 33 letterwinners. The Lumberjacks' explosive offensive will be led by running back Gus Johnson and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
Lamar returns 14 starters and 46 letterwinners to a team than finished sixth with a 2-5 league mark. Lamar will be led by running back Kade Harrington, last season's top freshman, and wide receiver Reggie Begelton, an all-conference selection.
ACU was picked eighth in both polls followed by Nicholls in the ninth slot. UIW and Houston Baptist were picked 10th and 11th, respectively, as both programs get set to begin their first football seasons in the league.
ACU HEAD COACH KEN COLLUMS
On ACU's young offense, which returns just three starters
"I really can't answer too many questions about our offense because we've got some guys who haven't done much for us on the field. But we know what we're doing and we'll put guys in a great position to be successful. But we had a ton of production walk out the door after last season so we'd better have some guys make some plays or we're not going to score."
On ACU's defense, which returns eight starters
"We've got 15 guys coming back on that side of the ball that played significant amounts of time for us, and that's huge. Our defense will be fine. We emphasized that side of the ball very heavily in recruiting, so we'd better make stop or we'll get 50 points rung up on us week after week. We're going after big people on both lines (offense and defense), and I think we'll see that start to pay off in the next couple of seasons."
On ACU's first season in the Southland since 1972
"We've played good football at ACU for a long time now, and we're used to winning. We know these next couple of seasons are going to be tough as we transition to a new level, but we're striving to be as good or better at this level as we were at the previous level. But I know this: the other coaches in the Southland don't care about what we've done in the past. We have to establish credibility within this league, and the way you do that is to go about your business the right way, work hard, out-recruit people and win games."
ACU TIGHT END JONATHAN PARKER
On not being eligible for NCAA post-season
"Yeah, it's disappointing. I came into an established (NCAA) Division II program four years ago that expected to win and go to the playoffs, and now we know that no matter what our record might be, we can't go to the playoffs. As a competitor, it's very disappointing. But we are competitors, so we're going to play hard for 12 games, no matter what."
ACU SENIOR DEFENSIVE END NICK RICHARDSON
On playing in the Southland Conference
"We've had really good teams at other levels of football, and now we have a chance to show that we're an elite team and compete with the best. We want to win. Everybody that signs up to play wants to win. As long as you come out and win, people will notice you, no matter what."
Information for this story provided by Abilene Christian Athletics.