(Author’s Note: My sincerest apologies for the delay in this week’s column: Between family obligations, and getting my daughter ready for Commerce this fall, it eats up time.)
As the days grow closer, Lion fans, it’s time to take an overall look at the 2018 football schedule. Your Lions are in an enviable posititon-defending National Champions. While it brings the recognition, accolades and praise that accompanies that level of accomplishment, it also whispers a warning. No longer the hunter, the Lions are now the hunted. Colby Carthel and his crew won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. They will get every opponent’s best shot. They will be everyone’s Homecoming game.
But, as proven last year, if there’s any group that can pull this off, it is this team. You’ve heard the stories. 5 games, 4 on the road. 10,000 travel miles. Overcoming a 21 point halftime deficit against the top seeded team in the region. It seems that there’s nothing that this group can’t do or overcome.
The questions are obvious….how do you replace the greatest quarterback in program history? three offensive linemen, including one of the most important positions, left tackle? Nine defensive starters return from the absolute best defense in the Division II playoffs, but the Lions lose their Defensive Coordinator, Justin Deason.
You go about it by having one of the best recruiting hauls in the nation in Division II. You get one of the top defensive backs in the 6A classification in Texas, a top junior college quarterback, and in what has probably been Carthel’s greatest move, you get backups and underclassmen plenty of meaningful reps in-game action, and keep them interested, motivated, and involved. That is the one key element, more than anything else, that sustained the Lions in their 2017 championship run. That development of depth and sense of inclusion fostered by the Lion coaching staff allowed them to overcome key injuries to stars like Buck Wilson, Shawn Hooks, and the nagging pains that come with the game of football.
With that said, let’s take a look. The only apparent bumps in the road for the Lions this year lie in two games…..Colorado State-Pueblo and Midwestern State.
The Thunderwolves from Colorado return form a 9-3 record and a 16-13 overtime loss to Minnesota State-Mankato in the first round of the playoffs last season. The Lions defeated the Mavericks the regional final, 31-21. The Lions can’t afford to sleepwalk through this one. The Thunderwolf offense averages 35 points and almost 400 yards a game with a balanced offense, while their defense allows 270 total yards and 14 points. They will be a tough opponent, that fortunately, the Lions will face in the friendly confines of The Hawk.
As a Lion fan, we’re very familiar with the other. If there is a team that has seemed to have the Lions number, is the crew from Wichita Falls. It just seems to be one of those things that the Lions struggle with, like the some of the great Aggie teams from College Station the would rip through the rest of their schedule until it came time to make the trek to Lubbock and the South Plains. Texas Tech always seem to save their best games to spoil the Aggie season. In 2017, the Mustangs dealt the Lions their only loss by a narrow 47-42 score. Everything that could go wrong, did. The question remains: Can the Lions maintain their focus in front of a hostile crowd(the Lions go back to Wichita Falls this October), eliminate the mental mistakes(unlike last season, the Lions do not have an open week this time), and give Midwestern the beating they so richly deserve?
The rest of the schedule should favor the Lions. Two concerns lie in Angelo State, who the Lions face on the road in San Angelo, and Tarleton State, at The Hawk. Both were signifigant wins, but tougher that the 9 and 14 point spreads would appear. The remainder of the opponents were dominant wins over William Jewell, Eastern and Western New Mexico, UT-Permian Basin, West Texas A&M, and Texas A&M-Kingsville. Lock Haven makes its first appearance on the schedule, coming off a 2-9 record.
The Lions should begin the year ranked #1, or at least in the top five. Worst case scenario-The Lions struggle replacing holes, injuries cause problems, and they fail to overcome the Midwestern State hump….9-2. Best case scenario-they plug the holes, Carthel keeps the ship on course, and steamroll the Mustangs in Wichita Falls…11-0.
Make no mistake, Lion fans, this season will be a challenge. A challenge, that given past performance, will be met and overcome. In the final analysis, the word here is……11-0. The Lions go into the playoffs ranked #1, and undefeated. After that, as my Dad used to say, all bets are off. From that point on, it’s a 5 game season. We know what can happen then.
So, buckle up and come along for the ride, Lion fans. It’s going to be an exciting one.
See you at The Hawk.