LAKE CHARLES, La. - Over the past three seasons, the University of Central Arkansas Bears have gone from the hunter to the hunted in the Southland Conference football race.
The Bears have finished no lower than third in the SLC standings in that time, including their second consecutive 6-1 league mark last season. Therefore, their No. 2 preseason selection came as no surprise when the league announced its 2013 preseason polls during Football Media Day at the L'auberge Resort.
The Bears, co-champions of the SLC a year ago, trail only Sam Houston State, which tied the Bears for the best record in the league at 6-1. The Bearkats received six first-place votes and 48 overall points in both the coaches' and sports information directors' polls. The Bears got 44 points and two first-place votes by the SIDs and 42 points and one first-place nod by the coaches. The other first-place vote went to Stephen F. Austin, which still finished fourth overall in the poll.
"Preseason polls and preseason honors, they are obviously very encouraging to our team and our coaching staff, to give us motivation,' said UCA head coach Clint Conque, the dean of SLC coaches entering his 14th season. "But at the end of the day, this league is so balanced, from top to bottom, and the gap continues to close each and every year... the team that's going to win this conference is the team that can stay healthy and that can execute at a high level week in and week out.
"Most of our conference games are very close, very physical, very competitive. It's awesome to be recognized as one of the top teams in the conference, and there's also been some national recognition in the polls, some Top 10, Top 12 selections. With that said, we have to go out and do it. Our players are hungry. One of the big things I've talked about all through the spring and summer is, we're not entitled to anything. What was last year is last year, the year before is the year before. What we do this year is what matters. And that journey starts next week.'
UCA had a league-high nine first-team All-SLC selections when the preseason teams were announced last week. The Bears are coming off a 9-3 season when the advanced to the second round of the FCS Playoffs for the second straight year.
"That's very difficult to do, to go 6-1 in this league, and we're very proud of that,' said Conque, the reigning SLC Coach of the Year. "But we're all 0-0 now. We have four quality home games and three very challenging road games in conference play this year. We're going to have to play well in the non-conference part of our schedule, stay healthy and get some of our inexperienced players some game time. And when we open up after the open date on Oct. 5 with McNeese State, we're going to have to be hitting on all cylinders because for seven straight weeks, it's going to be a grind.'
Conque, the winningest coach in UCA football history with 98 victories, said the confidence around his program is high after back-to-back nine-win seasons and the school's first two FCS Playoff appearances. UCA is also 11-0 at home on "The Stripes" at First Security Field at Estes Stadium over those same two years.
But 2013 is a new year with unique challenges every week, according to Conque.
"A lot of confidence carried over from last year,' he said. "But I tempered that a lot with our team, because one of my favorite sayings is, "the wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain.' We probably have a little bit of a bullseye on our back. And we need to embrace that and have confidence in our abilities and what our potential is, and then work every day to reach that.'
The Bears open the season on Thursday, Aug. 29 at home against SLC newcomer Incarnate Word. The other home conference games are against McNeese (Oct. 5), Stephen F. Austin (Oct. 26), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 9) and Sam Houston State (Nov. 23). UCA will have two games televised on the Southland Television Network (McNeese, SFA) and two more on ESPN3 (at Northwestern State, SLU).
2013 SLC Coaches Poll
1. Sam Houston State
3. McNeese State
4. Stephen F. Austin
5. Southeastern Louisiana
6. Northwestern State
BEARS ON PARADE: UCA was represented at SLC Media Days by a pair of first-team All-SLC selections in senior quarterback Wynrick Smothers and senior defensive back Jestin Love. Smothers, a south Louisiana native from Destrehan, La., was the SLC Offensive Player of the Year in 2012 and threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago. Love, from West Memphis, was the 2010 SLC Freshman of the Year and has recorded 12 career interceptions.
FRIEND TO FOE: Abilene Christian is one of four new schools joining the SLC this season, and one of three football-playing institutions. The head coach of the Wildcats is a familiar face to UCA fans, former UCA All-American quarterback Ken Collums. The Vernon, Texas, native led the Bears to the 1991 NAIA National Championship as a freshman. He served as UCA's quarterbacks coach early in Clint Conque's tenure before leaving for ACU.
Collums is entering his second season as head coach after spending seven years as ACU's offensive coordinator.
THE TRANSITION: The only new SLC team on the Bears' schedule this season is Incarnate Word (Aug. 29) as the three football schools make the transition to the Southland. UIW is coached by veteran Larry Kennan, who was the quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders when Clint Conque was drafted by the NFL team out of Nicholls State.
UIW, Abilene Christian and Houston Baptist will play full SLC schedules for the first time in 2014. Houston Baptist, already an NCAA Division I school before joining the SLC, is just starting its football program this season. ACU and UIW, both moving up from Division II, will not be eligible for SLC championship play until 2017.
The league race in 2013 will feature the same eight teams as a year ago.
THURSDAY NIGHT SPECIAL: Three teams will open the 2013 season with Thursday night games on Aug. 29, including UCA hosting Incarnate Word. Northwestern State also visits Missouri State in Springfield, Mo., and Southeastern Louisiana hosts Southeast Missouri.
THE BIG BOYS: After playing 18 FBS schools during the 2012 season, Southland teams will only face 12 FBS schools this season. The SLC has 18 victories against FBS schools since 2000. Nicholls State will play a league-high three FBS schools this season, including Oregon, Western Michigan and Louisiana Lafayette.
UCA's only FBS game is at Colorado in Boulder, Colo., in Week 2 (Sept. 7).
SIX PACK: The Bears are the only team in the SLC to win at least six conference games three times since 2006, the year UCA joined the league. The Bears were 6-1 in 2008, 2011 and 2012. McNeese State, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State have done it twice each.