10 games to watch for 2016

Dayton Winn and his Hendrix team will be hoping to leave their SAA destiny in their own hands this year after a 2015 season that left them on edge till the very end.
Hendrix athletics photo

Football is back and that is music to everyone’s ears.

The season kicks off this weekend, and I’m back for a second year as the Around the South columnist. My goal is to provide the best coverage possible of the of the American Southwest Conference, the Southern Athletic Association and the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Next week will be my first regular column of the year, but this week, I’ll start by taking a look at 10 games to watch in 2016. There are obviously more than 10 games worth keeping an eye on, but the ones I am highlighting are the most intriguing in my mind.

So without further delay, it’s time to take a closer look at the big games ahead in 2016 in the South Region.

East Texas Baptist at Texas Lutheran on Sept. 3
It’s a matchup fitting for the first weekend of the regular season as both teams enter the year with high expectations. This conference crossover battle features Bulldogs running back Marquis Barrolle, who is hoping to get back to the form that made him the leading rusher in the nation two seasons ago. The Tigers have a great running back of their own with Jourdan McNeill poised for another big season. This is a matchup that both teams need to win because of the playoff implications riding on it and should go right down to the wire.

Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran on Sept. 10
Talk about an opportunity to make a statement. Texas Lutheran welcomes the Crusaders to town for a huge nonconference showdown. The Cru dominated the Bulldogs a year ago in a 48-20 victory and it will be interesting to see how Texas Lutheran handles the challenge in front of it this year, especially against a team that features All-American defensive end Teidrick Smith. The Bulldogs have to be able to strike early or face a long uphill battle against a national championship favorite. A win would go a long in helping Texas Lutheran get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Linfield at Mary Hardin-Baylor on Sept. 17
The Crusaders haven’t forgotten the pain of last year’s 38-35 national quarterfinal loss to the Wildcats, and while nothing can erase what happened, the good news is UMHB won’t have the make the long trek west to play Linfield, which starts the year ranked second in the nation. As far as regular season games go, this is about as close as you can get to a playoff game in September. The Wildcats feature quarterback Sam Riddle and a defense that should be one of the best in the country. How Cru quarterback Blake Jackson handles that defense will factor heavily into the outcome. This game should be back-and-forth all the way through and decided in part by which team makes the fewest mistakes.

Texas Lutheran at Hardin-Simmons on Sept. 24
It’s one of those must-win games for both teams if they hope to stay alive in the hunt for a playoff berth. The Cowboys will be tested for sure and hope to have their running attack in order by then after graduating their top three running backs from last season. What Hardin-Simmons does have is Ryan Breton at quarterback. The preseason ASC player of the year will have a big impact on this game. The Bulldogs, facing a stern test on the road,  will rely heavily on their defense, which is led by Darian Chandler, to nail down a win in this matchup between two future conference opponents.

Mary Hardin-Baylor at East Texas Baptist on Oct. 15
The Tigers were flat out dominated a year ago against the Crusaders, falling 67-20, but playing at home and their determination to win a league title should make this one a little closer. East Texas needs this win to have any kind of shot at the playoffs. The Tigers can hope that UMHB is looking ahead to its game against Hardin-Simmons a week later, though that isn’t likely. The Crusaders will look to set the tone early. The Tigers can’t let that happen. They need to keep this game close going into the fourth and hope to capitalize on a mistake or big play to pull off the upset.

Berry at Hendrix on Oct. 15
The Vikings have every starter back and are hungry for an SAA championship that slipped through their fingers a season ago when they dropped their final two games. Berry beat Hendrix last year, winning 27-24, but the Warriors went on to win the title and earn an automatic berth to the playoffs. Hendrix is the title favorite and has one of the best weapons in all of college football in running back Dayton Winn. The All-American led the country in all-purpose yards. This one should be decided by a touchdown or less again, and while winning it doesn’t guarantee a title, the team that prevails is in the driver’s seat for the crown heading down the stretch.

Chicago at Hendrix on Oct. 22
The Warriors face a difficult test for the second consecutive week as they face a Maroons team looking to win the SAA crown in their final season in the league. Chicago lost by only six points to Hendrix last year, and it’s hard to imagine this matchup not having a similar outcome. The Maroons have a returning starter at quarterback in Burke Moser, and they also have a phenomenal running back in Chandler Carroll. Hendrix has plenty of weapons offensively as well, and it won’t be a surprise if defense decides the outcome. The Warriors also have the luxury of playing at home.

Hardin-Simmons at Mary Hardin-Baylor on Oct. 22
The Cowboys face a difficult test on the road against one of the nation’s best teams, and an ASC title could very well be on the line. The Cru suffered its only regular season loss a year ago in its battle against the Cowboys, and you better believe it will be hungry for revenge and motivated because of what is expected to be at stake. Hardin-Simmons won 29-26 last year. This year’s game could be just as close, although it could be one-sided as well if UMHB plays up to its potential. Plus, the Cru is at home this time around.

Texas Lutheran at Trinity on Oct. 29
This is the game everyone can circle as the one that will decide the SCAC championship. The Bulldogs have never lost a game in league play, and they will look to continue that dominance in a pivotal showdown against the Tigers. By late October, Zach Galindo should be well-adjusted to being the quarterback of the Bulldogs. But he’ll have to deal with a fierce defense that is headlined by Julian Turner and Brad Hood. If the defense is playing at its best, an upset and the end of Texas Lutheran’s reign as conference champs is very possible.

Washington at Chicago on Nov. 12
The Founders Cup will be on the line in this long-standing rivalry. The Bears topped the Maroons 37-23 last season to extend a lead the all-time series 22-12. Chicago will no doubt be looking for revenge, especially after having its UAA title hopes dashed, but slowing down quarterback J.J. Tomlin will be a key to success. Tomlin has thrown for more than 5,000 yards in his career. Records never matter in a rivalry game, and they will be playing for pride in the SAA as this the final season for both teams in the conference.