SLU finishes ranked 20th, 21st in final FCS polls

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Cole Kelley
(Photo: Randy Bergeron)

HAMMOND, La. – For the second straight season, the Southeastern Louisiana football team finished ranked in both the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 and the AFCA Coaches FCS Top 25 released on Tuesday.

Southeastern, which finished as one of the last four out of the 16-team FCS playoff field, finished the season ranked 20th in the Stats Perform media poll and was tabbed 21st in the AFCA Coaches Poll.

The spring season was an indication that SLU is ready to become a perennial national player. All three of the Lions’ losses were to nationally-ranked teams. Southeastern opened the campaign with a 43-38 loss to eventual national champion Sam Houston in an evenly-played season opener that saw the Lions stopped deep in Bearkat territory on a fourth-and-short to end a potential game-winning drive.

Southeastern’s final game saw the Lions come out on the short end of a 55-48 shootout at Southern Illinois. The Salukis would go on to advance to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs and finish ranked in the top 10 in both polls (No. 8 – Stats Perform; No. 9 – AFCA Coaches).

The individual accolades bestowed upon the Lions following the season solidifies that some of the nation’s best talent resides on the SLU campus. Senior quarterback Cole Kelley won the Walter Payton Award – the Heisman Trophy of the FCS – as the nation’s best offensive player and is a consensus All-American.

Kelley was joined on the Stats Perform All-America team by junior defensive back Ferlando Jordan, marking Jordan’s second straight year to earn All-America recognition.

“We can see that we’re closing the gap in terms of competing with anyone in the nation,” Southeastern head coach Frank Scelo commented. “We want to be one of the programs that competes year in and year out for championships. We’ve been ranked nationally at the end each of the past two seasons, so we’re taking those steps on the field. Everyone involved with our program has to think bigger if we’re going to continue to grow.

“Consistency is the thing we’re striving for as a program,” Scelfo continued. “We made the playoffs in 2019 and we were on the cusp of the postseason this past spring. We have the Heisman winner of the FCS in Cole and a multi-time All-American in Ferlando, so we have individuals who are standing out in the national conversation. Now it’s time for our team, our university and the Hammond community to help us move our program as a whole into that conversation.”

Continuity heading into the fall campaign will be a bonus for the Lions, especially on the offensive side where SLU returns 10 starters from an offense that ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing offense, scoring offense, total offense, pass efficiency, third down conversion percentage, fourth down conversion percentage and red zone offense.

Kelley will be back after completing just under 69 percent of his passes to the tune of 2,662 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also rushing for seven scores and catching two others on the way to earning Southland and Louisiana Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Kelley will have no shortage of weapons, as 12 of the 15 Lions who caught passes this spring – including seven of the team’s top eight in receptions will be back this fall. All-Southland performers CJ Turner (44 catches, 534 yards, 5 TD), Marcus Cooper (32-329-2 TD), Austin Mitchell (24-354-1 TD) and Damien Dawson (4-132) all return. Tim Wilson Jr. (16-251-4 TD) and Nick Kovacs (14-165-3 TD), among others, figure to be a bigger part of the Lion plans with a season in offensive coordinator Greg Stevens’ system under their belts.

Southeastern’s stalwart offensive line will all will be back to provide ample time and space for Kelley to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers. All-Southland performers Jalen Bell, Drew Jones, Ethan McMullan and Rendon Miles-Character all will return up front for the Lions.

While the Lion offense put up prolific numbers in the spring, Scelfo emphasized that there’s still room for growth.

“We did a lot of good things this spring, but the work we put in June, July and August is going to allow us to be better,” Scelfo said. “We have to focus in on what we have here and do the things in preparation to become better players.”

The Lion defense had an up-and-down spring in terms of production, but certainly have no shortage of talent. SLU returns six All-Southland players on that side of the ball, led by Jordan, who led the nation in blocked kicks and has been named first team all-conference each of the past two seasons.

Jordan is joined in the secondary by fellow All-Southland performers Donniel Ward-Magee and Jack Henderson. All-conference linebackers Alexis Ramos and Herman Christophe both return, as does freshman All-Southland defensive end Darrius Harry. The Lion defensive line was particularly hard hit by injuries this spring and will be buoyed by the return this fall of key cogs Josh Carr Jr., John Graves III, Nelson Jenkins and Cherif Seye, all who missed all or the majority of the spring.

“We have to be more fundamentally sound on defense,” Scelfo said. “We have to do a better job of letting our players fast and with more energy.”

Southeastern also has an All-Southland pair back in the specialist group in punter Austin Dunlap and Mateo Rengifo. Long snapper Korey Karbowsky and holder Jordan Loving will also return.

“We took some positive steps on special teams this spring,” Scelfo said. “What I like about that group is they all are freshman and sophomores, so they have room to grow together as a unit over the next couple of years.”

SLU will open its 2021 fall schedule on Sept. 4, hosting North Alabama, before traveling to FBS opponent Louisiana Tech and 2019 Northeast Conference champion and playoff participant Central Connecticut State to round out nonconference play. A unique Southland slate will see the Lions face in-state foes Northwestern State, McNeese and Nicholls each twice, along with an Oct. 16 home game versus Houston Baptist and a Nov. 6 trip to UIW.

In Scelfo’s mind, the sky is the limit for Southeastern moving forward.

“We feel we are building something special right here in Hammond,” Scelfo said. “We want our university, the city of Hammond and Tangipahoa Parish communities to realize that our football program needs their support if we’re going to do what we’re capable of, which is competing annually for a national championship.”

2020-21 Stats Perform FCS Top 25
Team (First-place votes) Record Points Prv.
1. Sam Houston (40) 10-0 1000 4
2. South Dakota State 8-2 958 2
3. James Madison 7-1 918 1
4. Delaware 7-1 859 5
5. North Dakota State 7-3 827 6
6. North Dakota 5-2 783 7
7. Jacksonville State 10-3 732 8
8. Southern Illinois 6-4 706 14
9. Weber State 5-1 705 3
10. Eastern Washington 5-2 630 9
11. Monmouth 3-1 606 10
12. VMI 6-2 572 11
13. Missouri State 5-5 503 12
14. UC Davis 3-2 405 13
15. Richmond 3-1 402 15
16. Villanova 2-2 356 16
17. Kennesaw State 4-1 345 17
T18. Murray State 5-2 247 19
T18. Rhode Island 2-1 247 18
20. Southeastern Louisiana 4-3 223 20
21. ETSU 4-2 155 22
22. Sacred Heart 3-2 154 NR
23. Austin Peay 4-5 153 21
24. Alabama A&M 5-0 152 NR
25. Nicholls 4-3 110 23

Others receiving votes: Holy Cross 64, Northern Iowa 59, Davidson 31, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 30, Southern 19, Samford 16, Maine 12, Duquesne 8, UIW 3.

2020-21 AFCA Coaches Poll
Team (First-place votes) Record Points Prv.
1. Sam Houston (21) 10-0 525 4
2. South Dakota State 8-2 504 2
3. James Madison 7-1 459 1
4. Delaware 7-1 448 5
5. North Dakota State 7-3 437 7
6. North Dakota 5-2 407 6
7. Jacksonville State 10-3 385 9
8. Weber State 5-1 373 3
8. Southern Illinois 6-4 365 14
10. Monmouth 3-1 331 10
11. Eastern Washington 5-2 324 8
12. VMI 6-2 312 11
13. Missouri State 5-5 225 17
14. Richmond 3-1 219 13
15. Kennesaw State 4-1 195 15
16. UC Davis 3-2 188 12
17. Murray State 5-2 247 18
18. Villanova 2-2 159 16
19. Alabama A&M 5-0 121 22
20. Southern 5-1 115 19
21. Southeastern Louisiana 4-3 105 21
22. Sacred Heart 3-2 91 NR
23. Nicholls 4-3 84 20
24. ETSU 4-2 75 23
25. Holy Cross 3-1 49 NR

Others receiving votes: Arkansas-Pine Bluff 47, Davidson 36, Northern Iowa 25, Austin Peay 19, Duquesne 13, Charleston Southern 10, Samford 8, UIW 7, Southeast Missouri State 6, Northern Arizona 5, Tarleton State 3, Mercer 1.

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