Ron Roberts began to answer the question — Is the Southeastern Louisiana program ahead of expectations? — just like any other coach.
“I don’t know if it’s ahead …” he began before trailing off.
Because he’s unlike any other coach, Roberts then searched for the truth: OK, yeah. It’s ahead.
“This team has exceeded my expectations,” he said.
Eleven wins. A Southland Conference championship. A playoff win.
The Lions even surprised their own coach, who’s in his second year. The stunning run ended Saturday with a 20-17 loss to New Hampshire in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals.
That did little to quell the excitement around Hammond, despite a two-thirds-full Strawberry Stadium for the biggest game in school history. The Southeastern fans who did brave the 50-degree, windy weather knew what their team had accomplished. As the Lions walked off the field, a group of fans began chanting, “S-L-U! S-L-U!”
“That was special,” Roberts said afterward.
Southeastern is likely to finish in the top 10 in the FCS rankings, and Roberts now has a great pitch to recruits in this talent-rich region.
Returning next year is a talented and experienced quarterback, Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett. The Lions (11-2) lose just eight of 22 starters.
Roberts called this season “a launching pad for what’s yet to come for Lion football.”
“I’m proud of my guys for getting into the playoffs,” he said. “You’ve got to get there as a team. You’ve got to experience it. I’ve been a part of it.”
Roberts has, indeed, been there.
At Division II Delta State, he took four of five teams to the playoffs. Those squads lost in the second round and quarterfinals and endured a 5-5 season before reaching the Division II title game in 2010, a nail-biting 20-17 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
“You’ve got to fall short a couple of times before you can get to the big dance,” Roberts said. “I think we gained some valuable experience this year.”
Southeastern proved it can compete against the best in the FCS. The Lions twice beat Southland rival Sam Houston State, which had advanced to the past two national title games. They beat two more ranked teams by 27 and 34 points and had a consistent playoff squad on the ropes Saturday.
New Hampshire (10-4) is in its nation-leading 10th straight playoff appearance. The Wildcats have been ranked in the Top 25 for 139 straight weeks. No one in the nation can match that.
They’re your typical FCS powerhouse: a defensive-minded northern team equipped with a playmaking quarterback that uses a power running game to wear down the opponent.
At some point along the way, Southeastern would have to beat a team like that. On Saturday, the Lions couldn’t keep surprising everyone.
“Just getting into the quarterfinals is huge,” Roberts said. “There’s a ton of valuable experience to underclassmen — getting a taste of that big stage and facing a tough opponent.”