HAMMOND — After jumping out to a surprising 3-0 start in the Southland Conference, the Southeastern Louisiana football team is playing from unfamiliar territory — the front of the pack.
SLU (3-4, 3-0 SLC) is the only remaining undefeated team in the conference and now has a big target on its back as its heads into the final stretch of the season against four conference opponents that sit consecutively behind the Lions in the standings.
After a much-needed bye week that followed seven straight weekends of action, SLU hosts Central Arkansas (6-2, 4-1) on Saturday night, looking to defend its spot atop the conference and retain a hold of the SLC.
“I hope there’s a target. That’s good,” said SLU coach Ron Roberts. “I think there’s some people around the conference and if they’re taking notice of us, that’s great. I’d much rather play from the front than to have to play catch-up and worry about what someone else has got to do. We’re still in the process of trying to play for some respect. That’s on our shoulders. Just take one at a time.”
The Lions, who finished 3-8 overall last season and 1-6 in conference play, are off to a successful start in their first season under Roberts but still feel there is more to prove. SLU wants to show that it’s here to stay.
After starting the year off 0-3, SLU has turned the season around, winning three of its past four and drawing the attention of other coaches around the league.
“(SLU) in my opinion, has as much or more talent, length and athleticism and size and speed as anybody in our conference,” said Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque. “They’re putting it together. We need to have our best week of preparation of the season this week. We need to travel well.”
The Lions are going to need all of those facets come Saturday as they face arguably the biggest challenge yet from conference play in the form of UCA quarterback Wynrick Smothers.
Smothers ranks second in the conference with 253.9 passing yards per game, and has thrown 20 touchdowns. The Destrehan native is also second on the team with 243 rushing yards and two TDs.
“He’s a very athletic quarterback,” SLU linebacker Devan Walker said of Smothers. “He’s very talented, and what it’s going to come down to is teammates executing and playing within our system. That’s one thing we do well, and they do it well, too. It’s going to be hard-fought game and just power football.”
Walker is third in the SLC with five sacks this season.
The Lions will need Walker’s contributions if they hope to contain Smothers, but Roberts said the stiff competition from SLU’s nonconference slate has helped prepare his team.
“He’s as good a quarterback as we’ve seen all year,” Roberts said. “But we’ve seen some athletic quarterbacks, so I don’t think it’s anything we haven’t seen yet. That’s not going to be an issue. It’s just going to be about us executing and taking care of ourselves and doing our own job and seeing if we can put four quarters together.”
But it’s not just Smothers that poses a problem. Three Bears wideouts have racked up more than 300 yards receiving on the year, with two compiling more than 500 yards. All three have scored at least four times.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen a receiving corps with this many weapons,” Roberts said.
SLU ranks in the middle of the pack in the SLC in total defense, allowing 374 yards per game, but the Lions are hoping the intangibles will tilt the game in their favor.
Not only are they coming off the bye week and feel they’re back to being as healthy as they were at the start of the season, but the Lions have only lost once at home this season and say they expect a packed house at Strawberry Stadium on Saturday night.
“I think it’s big to have it at home. It’s a big game for us,” Roberts said. “I expect it to be packed, I expect it to be sold out, and I definitely expect a huge home-field advantage. ... I think it’s going to be a difficult environment on our opposing quarterback.”