7-in-Seven countdown: Top McNeese matchups in 2018

7-in-Seven countdown: Top McNeese matchups in 2018

SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - We are just seven weeks away from KPLC's coverage of TDL: Two-A-Days and starting June 18, 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. Northwestern State, November 1

The Cowboys' matchup with the Demons is usually a close game that the Pokes win thanks to a sizable early lead or a late game-clinching score to put it out of reach. Thanks to that formula, McNeese has built an impressive 13 game winning streak over Northwestern State that dates back to 2004.

NSU will enter the game with a familiar face on the sideline, as the Demons promoted defensive coordinator Brad Laird to head coach this offseason. Laird was the school's defensive coordinator the last time NSU beat McNeese.

The Demons are switching to a high-tempo offense run by offensive coordinator Brad Smiley. Laird and company hope to improve on an offense that ranked sixth in scoring (22.7) and seventh in total offense (364.2) in 2017. Northwestern returns four starters, including a solid core on the offensive line. Senior quarterback Clay Holgorsen (1240 yards, nine TD) returns, but Shelton Eppler is expected to compete for the job. Eppler played under Smiley at Trinity Valley C.C. NSU also boasts former LSU Tiger Jazz Ferguson (6'5") on the receiving core.

Defensively, there isn't anywhere to go but up for NSU. In 2017, the Demons allowed 364.2 yards and 31.5 points per game. NSU should be improved on this side of the ball with five starters returning. Pass rusher Obinna Iheoma (7 sacks) leads the way.

There are lots of unknowns about the 2018 Demons, and this is one that could be even more hyped if NSU clicks under its new coaching staff.

6. Stephen F. Austin, September 29

McNeese got it's revenge on Stephen F. Austin a season ago by beating the 'Jacks, 35-0 in Nacogdoches. McNeese and SFA have rotated wins in this series since 2013.

This Southland Rivalry got a lot more interesting on May 31 when SFA announced Ryan Ivey as its athletic director. From 2007 until 2013, Ivey was a member of the McNeese athletics staff. You can bet he'll give all the tools he can to the 'Jacks in order to win the SLC and beat his former employer.

On the field, the 'Jacks are coming off a 4-7 record and a third straight losing season. The Lumberjacks return a total of 23 starters from last season, including 11 with starting experience on the offensive side of the ball and nine on defense.

Offensively, SLC second-team receiver Tamrick Pace (645 yards, five touchdowns) returns, along with leading passer junior quarterback Jake Blumrick (1654 yards, eight touchdowns). The experience is there for SFA to improve on its disappointing offense in 2017. The 'Jacks ranked ninth in the league in scoring (19.6) and total offense (330.6 yards).

SFA looks to be a better defensive unit with defensive tackle Lamont Alexander (45 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and defensive back Alize Ward (75 tackles, four interceptions) returning. SFA improved dramatically on defense from 2016 to 2017 and the 'Jacks hope to do that again.

The motivation is now in favor of SFA to pull the upset. Another strike against the Pokes is that this game comes after their trip to BYU. McNeese should be favored nonetheless.

UPDATE: As of June 19, SFA coach Clint Conque is suspended pending an investigation into alleged violations of university policy. The investigation is expected to take several weeks. SFA has named Jeff Byrd as its interim head football coach. The Countdown was created before the news broke.

5. Lamar, September 29

The Cowboys and the Lamar Cardinals will add another chapter to the 'Battle of the Border.' The 42nd meeting will once again end the season for both teams on November 17. The Pokes won a tight one in Beaumont a season ago, by smothering the Cardinal offense.

Mike Schultz's second Lamar team will look to improve on an offense that was better than advertised in 2017. The Cardinals were middle of the pack in scoring (22.5) and total offense (374.2 yards) during Schultz's first season. Eight starters return on offense,  including SMU transfer Darrel Colbert (1,148 yards, 13 TD). His return doesn't guarantee him the starting job, but he'll have the first crack at it. Former Barbe standout, running back Kirkland Banks expects to have a larger role on the offense after totaling nearly 500 yards during his freshman season.

If Lamar wants to keep up with McNeese and the rest of the SLC, the team's rush defense has to improve. In 2016, the Cardinals were the worst rushing defense in the conference, allowing 230 yards per game. Lamar took an even further step back in 2017, by allowing over 253 yards per game, which was almost 50 yards worst than the next team. To compare, McNeese led the NCAA with a measly 54 rushing yards allowed per contest. With eight starters back, you'd have to think Lamar's bottom-dwelling defense will be better.

We'll see how Schultz's team responds to another year of coaching. Despite being outmatched in 2017, the Cards played McNeese tight. I'd expect a similar outcome again.

4. Northern Colorado, September 1

Now comes the first non-Southland Conference football team. McNeese's season opener vs. Northern Colorado is high on the list because it should tell us a lot about the 2018 Cowboys. A road trip against an unfamiliar opponent can go a lot of different ways.

The Bears were 3-7 a season ago after coming off back-to-back winning seasons. UNC was a better team than the standings illustrated. The Bears went 2-6 in a conference that boasted six teams with winning records and a pair of playoff teams.

UNC will look to rely on an offense that returns Big Sky second-teamer, wide receiver Alex Wesley (1,010 yards, six touchdowns) and quarterback Conor Regan (1305 yards, 10 touchdowns). The duo along with an experienced offensive line should improve on it's fifth overall ranking in the Big Sky (280.9 yards) a year ago. The Bears rushing offense meanwhile, left a lot to be desired. UNC rushed for a league-worst 105.7 yards a game. Players have said improving that number is a focus.

Defensively, UNC was also near the bottom of the Big Sky. The Bears allowed 34 points and just under 475 yards per game. With that being said, there is some talent and production on that side of the ball. Defensive end Keifer Morris is back after picking up nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2017. UNC also brought in defensive coordinator Marty English, who previously was at Colorado State and Wyoming. As a UNC alum, you'd expect him to get the most out of this unit.

McNeese will be excited to head to Colorado to face what could be a solid Bear team. This will in no shape be the best team the Cowboys face in 2018, but it'll be a solid measuring stick nonetheless.

3. BYU, September 22

We go back-to-back on non-conference teams as McNeese will travel west to Provo, UT to face the BYU Cougars. It'll be just the second FBS game for the Pokes in the last four seasons. Usually, an FCS-FBS matchup wouldn't rank high on a list like this, but there is a sense of optimism that the Cowboys can not only compete in the game but win it.

BYU is coming off a 4-9 season in 2017 one that has squarely put coach Kalani Sitake on the hot seat. Vegas is expecting a bounce-back season as the Cougars over-under is set at 8.5 wins.

To get back to the BYU we all grew up with, it'll have to start with improving the offense. The Cougar offense was hard to watch at times last season, averaging just 17 points and 325 yards per game. The Cougars were aware of that and went out to hire LSU's Jeff Grimes as offensive coordinator. From spring football reports, it seems as though the Cougars will run more of a pro-style philosophy. BYU has weapons, led by tight end Matt Bushman (520 yards, three touchdowns). He was a Freshman All-American in 2017 and should only get better.

The biggest question surrounding this offense though is who will start at quarterback? Tanner Mangum (1,540 yards, eight touchdowns) is the clear-cut favorites thanks to his experience, but he didn't exactly light it up before tearing his Achilles' heel. Nine total Cougars got action a season ago and yet it still may be the 6-3, 200-pound freshman Zach Wilson who gets the starting nod. The quarterback play is likely what will help separate BYU from McNeese. If the job isn't cemented by September 22, the Pokes may take advantage.

Defensively, expect the BYU defense to give McNeese some problems. While not great in 2017, it was far from bad. After two solid top-35 seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Cougars took a small step backward. The pass rush should be solid however with senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi (six sacks) and senior outside linebacker Sione Takitaki (five sacks) returning. The front-seven should be the strength. The back-half will be the question mark, but I'd expected the defense to return to form in 2018.

This should be a game BYU wins-- after all, that's why the Cougars scheduled it. McNeese however, has shown a knack for pulling FBS upsets and because of that, should be given a fighter's chance in this one.

2. Southeastern, November 3

This matchup was the Cowboys' most anticipated game a season ago. The carryover from SLU's hail mary haunted the Pokes heading into the game. Cowboys responded with a dominant defensive performance and a 13-3 win.

The Lions will enter the matchup with a new head coach for the first time in seven years. Ron Roberts accepted the defensive coordinator job at UL Lafayette this off-season. SLU hired UTSA offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo to fill the void. Scelfo has had stops with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Wildcats, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and Tulane Green Wave in recent seasons.

Offensively, the Lions should continue to be a dangerous team. They were the third-ranked rushing offense in the FCS a year ago with a 283-yard average. Junior quarterback Lorenzo Nunez returns after totaling 1,454 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air and on the ground. Fresno State transfer, Chason Virgil will also be in the mix for the QB job. The grad transfer had solid numbers with the Bulldogs (2,843 yards, 19 TDs).

Also back is three of the Lions' top-five leading rushings in sophomore Marcus Cooper (646 yards, three touchdowns), senior Julius Maracalin (328 yards, seven touchdowns) and senior Darren Johnson (571 yards, four touchdowns). Per usual with an option off, SLU's cupboard is barer in the receivers department.

The Lions defense doesn't return near as much talent. SLU lost all of its starting linebackers and returns only a single starter in the secondary. It'd be reasonable to expect the Lions' fourth-ranked scoring defense to take a step back this season with the turnover in place.

Likely the only mention of special teams in the article comes thanks to Lion return man, Juwan Petit-Frere. He's no little brother to anyone in the country in the return game, having already grabbed multiple preseason All-American honors. He led the nation in kick return average with 34.6 yards, taking a pair of runs to the house. Scelfo expects the dynamic playmaker to play a bigger part in the offense.

Lots of new faces will grace the sidelines for both teams, so there will be no extra sauce on top of this ballgame. However, there is little love lost between these rivals.

1. Nicholls, September 15

The Colonels took a step forward in 2017, by putting together an impressive 8-4 record as the school made an FCS playoff appearance for the first time in 12 years. The Colonels are also the reason the Pokes were left out of the playoffs despite a 9-2 record. Nicholls held off McNeese to open the season in 2017.  It's likely not a feeling the Cowboys will forget.

Bad news for the Pokes (and the rest of the Southland) is that the Colonels return quite a lot of talent.

On offense, Nicholls will welcome back four offensive first-team SLC members in running back Kyran Irvin (764 yards, eight touchdowns), wide receiver Damion Jeanpierre (770 yards and four touchdowns) and linemen Ryan Handley and Chandler Arceneaux. The Colonels offense matched McNeese's throughout the season finishing fifth in scoring (28.2 points) and total offense (402.5 yards) per game. Once again, junior quarterback Chase Fourcade returns with a pair of starting seasons already under his belt. In 2017, he was fourth in the SLC in yards passing (2316) and passing touchdowns (14).

Defensively, Nicholls lost some NFL talent in lineman Tevin Lawson and cornerback Christian Boutte. Neither of those players were first or second-team all-conference. Five of the Colonels returning starters, however, were. Linemen Sully Laiche and Kenny Dotson combined for 14 sacks, while linebacker Allen Pittman returns with his 78 tackles. Defensive backs Corey Abraham and Ahmani Martin are both physical tacklers on the back end. This defense may be better in 2018.

Nicholls will be one of the conference favorites along with Sam Houston and McNeese (Colonels play both back-to-back). The Pokes will have a few opportunities to prove they belong in the playoffs and this game will be one of the most important. Cowboys also have some pride on the line because McNeese hasn't lost to Nicholls in back-to-back seasons since 1990-91.

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