7-in-Seven countdown: Top McNeese Matchups in 2017 - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

7-in-Seven countdown: Top McNeese Matchups in 2017

(Source: Brady Renard/KPLC) (Source: Brady Renard/KPLC)

We are just seven weeks away from KPLC's coverage of Two-A-Days and starting June 19, KPLC will bring you the 7-in-Seven countdown.

Countdowns will include topics from McNeese to high school football. A new countdown each week, beginning every Monday.

We start the countdown with the top-seven matchups for McNeese this upcoming season.

7. Houston Baptist, September 23

It's the first-ever meeting between the Cowboys and the Houston Baptist Huskies. HBU comes in at number seven because it's the Pokes' home conference opener and the fact that the Huskies enter the season with momentum after winning two of its last three games in conference play.

The Huskies will likely be a team that relies on its defense to win games. HBU is led by FCS All-American linebacker, Garrett Dolan, whose uncle (Dr. Chad Millet) played quarterback at McNeese. Dolan registered 135 tackles, 15.5 for loss with two sacks and two forced fumbles last season. Four of the Huskies' top-five tacklers return to the fold, as well as both defensive ends (Taaron Timmons and Andre Walker). The ends combined for 15.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2016.

The Huskie's offense was the lowest scoring unit in the Southland in 2016, and the Huskies lose senior quarterback Tony Dawson. Dawson also led HBU in rushing yards. Sophomore Jack Swenson looks to be the projected starter, but reports have the job being wide open. The duo of Terrance Peters and B.J. Kelly will prove to be key-- both backs combined for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016.

Still a young football program, HBU has grown since its start in 2012  and with the close proximity to Lake Charles. The school could give McNeese another true conference rival moving forward. That's if the Huskies can get up to championship speed soon.

6. Alcorn State, September 16

McNeese and the Braves of Alcorn State will meet on the gridiron for just the third time in history on September 16. The Cowboys currently hold a perfect 2-0 record vs its SWAC foe, with the last game coming in 2001.

Despite the Braves' three straight SWAC East division titles, off the field issues have dominated Alcorn State's offseason.

The Braves return eight starters on offense, including quarterbacks Lenorris Footman (1,586 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Noah Johnson (1,567 yds, 21 TDs). Leading rusher, De'Lance Turner also returns to the team after rushing for 805 yards and five touchdowns and five of the Braves' top six wide receivers are back too. 

Defensively, Alcorn State is experienced as well. The Braves bring back three of their four starting defensive linemen and four of their five defensive backs. Alcorn State will have a hole on defense however, with the departure of All-American linebacker, Darien Anderson.

The Alcorn state game is part of a home-and-home deal in which the Braves will come to Cowboy Stadium in 2019.

5. Lamar, November 18

The Cowboys and the Lamar Cardinals will add another chapter to the 'Battle of the Border.' The 36th meeting will once again end the season for both teams on November 18. Last year's  41-10 McNeese drubbing of Lamar, made it the first time since 2012 the game wasn't decided by one possession.

Coming off a disappointing 3-8 record in 2016, Lamar moved on from coach Ray Woodard in favor of Texas State's Mike Schultz. Schultz made his name as the offensive coordinator at TCU (1998-2008), leading the Horned Frogs offense during their meteoric rise to the national stage. 

With Schultz, will come a more fast-paced offense-- quite the contrast from the system ran by Woodard. Cardinals return seven starters, including quarterbacks Andrew Allen (373 passing yards, two touchdowns) and Adam Morse (653 yds, four TDs). Lamar returns its top three leading receivers too. Good news for McNeese and the rest of the Southland Conference teams, all-time leading rusher Kade Harrington, will no longer wear a Cardinal uniform.

On the other side of the ball, Schultz has said he wants his defense fast too. With five returning starters, the Cardinals will need to rely on instinct if they want to improve. Lamar was the worst team in the conference at stopping the run (230 yards per game), but due to exceptional talent, the Cardinals lead the league in pass defense. Lamar will have to replace defensive back Brendan Langley, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round.

Question marks surround these two rivals heading into the season, and the closer we get to the matchup, the more we'll know where they both stand.

4. Stephen F. Austin, September 30

McNeese and Stephen F. Austin will meet at Homer Bryce Stadium on September 30. It'll the Cowboys' first opportunity to avenge a loss from 2016. McNeese trailed the Jacks 10-0 before rallying to take a 28-24 lead. A James Tabary interception, followed by a quick SFA score in the fourth quarter, proved to be the difference.

Stephen F. Austin will have a different look on offense with the departure of quarterbacks Zach Conque and Hunter Taylor. The Lumberjacks will likely lean on TCU transfer Foster Sawyer to lead the offense. The former four-star prospect started a pair of games for the Horned Frogs  during his three seasons in Fort Worth. SFA returns all-SLC honorees OL Josh Keith, WR/PR Trae Hart (511 receiving yards, two touchdowns), WR Tamrick Pace (836 yds, eight TDs) and WR Kiki Hill (172 yds, two TDs).

On defense, SFA will have to improve in the Jacks hope to make a conference title run. SFA allowed an average of 473 yards and a league-worst 38.4 points per game in 2016. The Jacks bring back all-SLC defensive end John Franklin (32 tackles, 14.5 for a loss and eight sacks) and safety Alize Ward (59 tkls, one interception). 

Coach Clint Conque welcomes in five new coaches as SFA hopes to improve on that 5-6 record a season ago. With the motivation from last year, McNeese will enter Nacogdoches aiming to pay back the Jacks. 

3. Nicholls, August 31

The season starts on a Thursday for both McNeese and the Colonels of Nicholls. The Louisiana foes will clash August 31 in Thibodaux. This will be the first time since 1975 the Cowboys' scheduled season opener will come against a Southland Conference member.

McNeese played arguably its best game in 2016 vs the Colonels.  The Cowboys totaled 447 yards and scored 38 points, controlling the game from start to finish. Nicholls loss two games by more than seven points.

The Colonels enter 2017 searching for a breakout season under Tim Rebowe. Nicholls has improved its record in both seasons under Rebowe. Nicholls is coming off a 5-6 season and a winning record in league play at 5-4.

The Colonel offense will once again be lead by quarterback Chase Fourcade. He threw for 2,482 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman a year ago. Fourcade's emergence gave Nicholls a top five scoring offense as the Colonels were tied for third in the Southland in touchdowns. Nicholls lost both its leading rusher and receiver to graduation. Running back Dontrell Taylor (417 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and wide receiver Damion Jeanpiere (505 receiving yards, six TDs) return as the Colonels best offensive weapons.

Nicholls' top-three defense returns  leading tackler Allen Pittman (95 tackles) and sack artist Sully Laiche (9.5 sacks). Both Colonels were freshman in 2016, and will look to fill the leadership void left by all-conference selections B.T. Sanders and Jeff Hall.

With both McNeese and Nicholls possessing quarterbacks that can put up big numbers, the game will likely come down to which defense can make enough stops. 

2. Central Arkansas, October, 28

From McNeese's best game of 2016, to its worst. The Cowboys and Bears of Central Arkansas will meet in Conway, Arkansas for the 'Red Beans and Rice Bowl' on October 28. Last season, the Pokes were dominated 35-0 by UCA. The Cowboys played with heavy hearts following the death of Lance Guidry's brother. It was a terrible week for McNeese in every sense of the word. 

You can imagine, when October 28 rolls around, a different McNeese team will take the field.

UCA will look a lot different too. The Bears must replace their all-time leading receiver in Desmond Smith, and all-time all-purpose yards leader, Jatavious Wilson. Central Arkansas does bring back leadership, with Louisiana native Hayden Hildebrand returning at quarterback. The rising senior threw for over 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago.

The Bears won a playoff game last season for the first time since 2011. A big factor why, was their defense. The Bears smothered opponents behind the Southland's number one ranked unit. UCA led the SLC in points allowed per game (21.7) and  yards allowed per game (336.3), while sporting the nation's top rushing defense. Central Arkansas loses a lot of experience on the defensive line, as well as two of its top three leading tacklers. The Bears do bring back a pair of all-SLC first teamers-- defensive backs Tremon Smith (35 tackles, two interceptions) and George Odum (86 tackles, four forced fumbles).

The purple and gray striped turf of Estes Stadium is usually a graveyard for visiting teams. UCA has compiled a 28-6 home record since the installation of the multi-colored turf. McNeese will enter Conway riding a two-game win streak at the home of the Bears. The Cowboys are the only team in the country that has beaten the Bears at home twice in that span.  

1. Southeastern, November 4

Surely you saw this one coming? Southland rivals Southeastern and McNeese will go toe to toe on November 4 at Cowboy Stadium. McNeese has had plenty of time to get over this play that ended the game a year ago. That hail mary ending snapped a two-game winning streak for McNeese and brought the Pokes back down to a .500 record.

The Lions return a lot of experience, including five All-Southland Conference performers.

On the offensive side of the ball, senior quarterbacks Justin Alo and D'Shaie Landor graduated. ULM transfer Chandler Eiland appears to be the top candidate to win the job. Junior running back Julius Maracalin (747 yards, eight touchdwns), senior wide receiver Juwan Dickey (768 yds, seven TDs) and senior offensive lineman Travis Romero (three-year starter) all return for SLU.

On defense, senior linebacker and former LSU Tiger, Sione Teuhema (8.5 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks) and senior defensive back Max Lyons (73 tackles, three fumble recoveries) return. The Lions finished 2016 ranked as the fourth best defense in the Southland in scoring and yards allowed.

This will be the most anticipated home game for McNeese for a variety of reasons. The fans, coaches and players all want another shot at the Lions, a team most McNeese players consider the Cowboys' most hated rival.

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