The hardest part might be over for Southeast

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The bad news for Southeast Missouri State University's football team was that Bowling Green thumped the Indians 49-10 Saturday night.

No surprise there. The Falcons are a legitimately strong Division I-A squad that remained competitive with second-ranked Oklahoma for most of last week's opener.

But the good news for the Indians is that Central Michigan -- next Saturday's opponent -- is not nearly as good as Bowling Green. The Chippewas, in fact, are rated as one of the nation's worst Division I-A outfits.

Perhaps, however, the best news for the 0-2 Indians is that in one more week their ridiculously brutal three-game nonconference road stretch to open the year will be over and Southeast can begin its "real" season of Ohio Valley Conference play while also finally seeing home action for the first time on Sept. 25.

After being drubbed by Southern Illinois -- the nation's top-ranked Division I-AA team -- 42-3 on Sept. 2, it didn't take a genius to figure out that things would likely not go any better at Bowling Green.

As for Central Michigan, although a win would be a significant upset, Southeast figures to have a good chance of at least staying with the Chippewas.

And if the Indians can keep things close heading into the fourth quarter, then who knows what might happen.

After all, Southeast beat I-A Middle Tennessee State in 2002. And the Indians nearly defeated I-A Eastern Michigan twice, in both 2001 and 2002. Middle Tennessee and Eastern Michigan are both probably fairly similar programs to Central Michigan, although the Chippewas might be a cut or two above that pair.

But, like I said earlier, the best news for the Indians is probably that their OVC schedule is right around the corner.

More good news for Southeast football is that athletic director Don Kaverman says he won't ever again force the Indians to play two I-A opponents in the same season as long as they only have an 11-game schedule.

Southeast is slated to face one team from football's highest division in 2005 as the Indians visit Kent, which like Bowling Green and Central Michigan competes in the Mid-American Conference.

I know the athletic department needs the money that comes from playing up a division, but two I-A foes in the same season is far from fair to a program.

The Indians have struggled in their first two games against superior opponents, but there is also plenty positive going on within the program.

Willie Ponder, Southeast's All-American wide receiver in 2002, and Eugene Amano, an All-American center for the Indians last season, both are in the National Football League. Ponder is in his second season with the New York Giants while Amano is a rookie with the Tennessee Titans.

That Southeast has two NFL players demonstrates just how much coach Tim Billings and his staff have upgraded the program's talent level since they took over in 2000.

It has been rare in recent years for Southeast to even have one product in the NFL, but this season the Indians have two. And they appear to have at least one or two pro prospects for next year as well.

Here's hoping Ponder and Amano both enjoy long and productive NFL careers.

How about those SIU Salukis? Maybe Southeast shouldn't feel so bad about its lopsided season-opening loss in Carbondale -- not after SIU very nearly stunned a good I-A Northern Illinois squad Saturday before falling one point short, 23-22.

I wrote recently that the University of Missouri's cupcake early schedule almost assured the Tigers of being 3-0 entering Big 12 Conference play.

Well, evidently Troy forgot that it was supposed to be more like something devoured in a bakery than a legitimate college football team.

In a stunning upset, the unheralded Trojans -- competing in Division I-A for just the fourth season -- whipped the Tigers 24-14 Thursday night.

What was perhaps as surprising as the victory was the way the Trojans held strong -- and the Tigers crumbled -- after MU grabbed a 14-0 lead right off the bat. But after that, the Tigers could do virtually nothing offensively.

One early loss doesn't mean a season is ruined, and the 1-1 Tigers can still have quite a year. But Thursday's game is just another example of why sports are so great -- you simply never know what can happen on a given day.

And one more quick observation on the Tigers. It appears, at least after seeing Thursday's contest, that MU is trying to turn Brad Smith into a drop-back quarterback, which is definitely not his strength.

While Smith appears to have improved his passing -- although you couldn't tell it by the last three quarters against Troy -- he is at his dangerous best when he's running around and wreaking all kinds of havoc on the defense.

Whether Smith was reluctant to leave the pocket for much of the Troy game by design or of his own doing, I think he definitely needs to take off and run more, like the last two years.

The NFL season got off to an exciting start Thursday night as the Super Bowl champion Patriots held off the Colts 27-24.

It's always tough to repeat in any sport, but New England seems about as equipped as any recent Super Bowl winner to pull off that difficult feat.

This is an exciting time of the year for sports fans, with baseball heading down the stretch of its regular season and the NFL and college football campaigns getting started -- not to mention high school football.

It sure doesn't get much better than this.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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