SLU, Nicholls meet in River Bell Classic

HAMMOND — Win or lose, Southeastern Louisiana’s season will come to a close Thursday.

The Lions (4-6, 4-2 Southland Conference) won’t be going to a bowl game, a playoff or any other form of the postseason, which gives them all the more reason to show up when they head to Thibodaux to take on Nicholls State (1-8, 0-6) in another installment of the River Bell Classic.

The rivalry began in 1972, and the two schools played every year until 1985, when the series took a 20-year hiatus. They returned to action in 2005 when SLU joined the Southland Conference and it’s been in full swing every year since.

“To play in a rivalry game is huge,” SLU coach Ron Roberts. “That’s what college football is all about.”

But there’s a lot more on the line than just the new, shiny River Bell trophy the schools had made for Thursday. SLU is playing its seventh and final conference contest of the season, searching for its best SLC finish in school history.

A win Thursday night against Nicholls would also give SLU conference victories against all three Louisiana-based SLC schools, including McNeese State and Northwestern State.

“We’re not going to the playoffs, we’re not going to a bowl game,” Roberts said. “So this is our bowl, this is our playoffs, this is our championship. It’s a chance to finish 5-2 in the conference and finish in the upper echelon. It would complete of the sweep of Southland Conference schools in the state of Louisiana — that’s going to be huge in recruiting. There’s a lot of reasons we need to play exceptionally well on Thursday night.”

On paper, Thursday’s matchup looks much more doable than some recent contests for the Lions.

SLU dropped a 70-0 shellacking to Sam Houston State two weeks ago before bouncing back to beat Stephen F. Austin, 42-27.

Now, the Lions face a Nicholls State squad that is winless in the conference and near the bottom half of most statistical categories. The numbers may add up in favor of SLU, but Roberts was certain to not overlook a Colonels team that has continuously put up a fight this season, losing three games by fewer than 10 points.

“They’ve played everybody tough,” Roberts said. “For some reason, I don’t know what it is, they haven’t been able to win the close ones. I know what (Nicholls coach Charlie Stubbs) is going through. It’s a tough point for a program to be able to get over that hump, and I know that. We don’t want to be that person that they get over that hump on.”

Nicholls’ lone victory came in a 73-17 win against Evangel in the Hall of Fame game, but the Colonels have dropped six straight since, including a 27-26 heartbreaker at Northwestern State and a 34-24 defeat at Lamar on Saturday.

Nicholls has seen sure signs of promise though, and it boasts the No. 3 pass offense in the SLC, averaging 228.7 yards per game through the air. Despite the inevitable losing season that lies ahead for the Colonels, Stubbs continues to focus on the positives and the potential his team possesses.

“We’re working on a mindset here that we’re absolutely not quitting,” Stubbs said. “There’s so much to play for. On our football team, we’ve got 90 guys returning and a lot of them see the big picture. We’re excited about the opportunity.”