Mickles: Coach Ron Roberts, Lions enjoy being the favorite

LAKE CHARLES — One year ago, Southeastern Louisiana University football coach Ron Roberts came to Southland Conference media day with a team that was flying well under the radar.

Coming off a 5-6 record in 2012, Roberts’ first season at the school after a highly successful five-year stay at Delta State, SLU was picked to finish fifth by the league’s coaches and fourth by the sports information directors in what was then an eight-team conference.

But there’s absolutely no chance of going undetected this time around.

Not after an 11-3 record and the Southland Conference title — the first football championship for the school in 52 years.

Not after winning 10 consecutive games and reaching the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, just two victories shy of playing for a national championship.

Not after having 15 starters back among the 58 lettermen Roberts will have ready for the season opener on Aug. 30 against Jacksonville.

Certainly not when one of the returnees is quarterback Bryan Bennett, the reigning SLC Player of the Year and one of 20 athletes named to the 2014 Walter Payton Award Watch List.

So, to no one’s surprise, Southeastern was voted Wednesday to repeat as the league’s football champions — a far cry from where they were in 2013.

It was also no surprise that it didn’t take long for Roberts to start the Lions’ segment at media day by mentioning his team wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone this season.

“We’re very excited about 2014, but we don’t expect to jump on anybody by surprise,” he said. “The guys carried over the momentum from the playoffs and we had a great (offseason) of preparation for the last eight months.

“We had a great spring and some great work in the weight room, so the players’ commitment and dedication have been outstanding.”

But having been to the NCAA Division II semifinals one year and the championship game another at Delta State, Roberts knows being successful comes with a price.

In this case, it’s a big bull’s-eye on the front of the Lions’ jerseys.

“Parity in this conference is unbelievable, so there aren’t going to be predictions about being able to repeat what we did (in 2013),” Roberts said. “We’d love to, yeah, but it’s difficult to compete in a conference like this.”

The numbers from last season tell a much different story, however. In going 7-0 in league play, the Lions won by an average of 25.4 points with their smallest margin of victory 13 points.

Yet, they trailed Nicholls State at halftime at home before exploding for a 52-27 win in the regular-season finale — which earned them a No. 4 national seed for their first FCS playoff appearance.

It’s that kind of bull’s-eye Southeastern has to avoid, Roberts said.

“We’ve got a bull’s-eye on our chest, but I think you’ve got to enjoy that,” he said. “In any competition that you have a bull’s-eye on your chest, it means that your opponent is going to bring its best game.

“Hopefully, that means you’re going to bring your best and they’re going to bring out the best in you. Hopefully, we can handle the job and be the best football team we can be.”

Much of that will depend on the play of Bennett, who naturally was in high demand on media day.

But, like his team being favored to win the conference title, that was pretty much a given after the Oregon transfer’s first season with the Lions resulted in 3,165 passing yards and 21 touchdowns as well as 1,046 rushing yards and 16 more scores.

Like Roberts, Bennett said the Lions will have to be at their best now that expectations are higher than ever on the Southeastern campus and in Hammond.

“In our locker room, we’ve always had high expectations because we go in there every day wanting to be great,” he said. “Obviously, people on the outside are expecting more of us this year than they were last year.

“So it’s up to us as individuals to take care of business the way we know how. We can’t let outside aspects come into play. We’ve got to worry about what we do and how we take care of business.”

That’s because they won’t be flying under the radar any more.

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.