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Southeast football preview: Redhawks coach 'We'll be good'
Southeast Missouri State football coach Tony Samuel expects significant improvement in the fourth year of his five-year contract.
What that means in wins and losses is open for debate.
"I never get into that," Samuel said at Southeast's media day in early August. "But we'll be good, I know that. My question is how good."
The 2008 Redhawks went 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the Ohio Valley Conference, which tied for seventh place in the nine-team league.
Southeast, which opens the campaign Thursday against NAIA Quincy, was picked tied for last in the OVC's preseason poll.
"We're a better football team, there's no doubt in my mind. How much better is the question," Samuel said. "This is our first group of fourth-year seniors. ... I'm excited."
Samuel is 11-23 overall and 5-18 in the OVC during his first three seasons at Southeast. The Redhawks twice have won four games under Samuel and their high-water mark in league play has been two wins.
But Samuel is not alone in finding the going tough at the helm of Southeast football.
Southeast has not won more than four games in a year since 2003 and the Redhawks' last winning record came in 2002. That is one of only two winning seasons for Southeast since it moved up to Division I-AA in 1991.
In 18 Division I-AA seasons, Southeast's two winning marks were 8-4 in 2002 and 7-5 in 1994.
Southeast has had only four winning OVC records, most recently in 2003, during that same span.
Southeast's overall Division I-AA record is 69-133, which spans three coaches. The program has gone 46-88 in OVC play.
Despite those unflattering numbers, several of Southeast's top players believe the Redhawks are ready to turn the corner.
"We're going out to win the [OVC] championship," senior cornerback Eddie Calvin said. "We have all the tools. We just have to come together."
Senior wide receiver Walter Peoples said the commitment the Redhawks displayed during the summer and fall is a good sign.
"We put in a lot of hard work," Peoples said. "Of course it doesn't always translate onto the field, but it's a good start."
Senior offensive lineman Jaunell Pugh cites Southeast's 38 returning lettermen -- including 14 starters, along with both specialists -- as being crucial.
Pugh believes that experience will help Southeast reverse some of last year's narrow defeats. The Redhawks lost three games by seven points or fewer and they had a legitimate chance to win two others.
All four of Southeast's victories also went down to the wire. Two came in overtime, and two others were won with last-minute touchdowns.
"We have a lot of experience," Pugh said. "I definitely think we can contend."
The Redhawks have pulled off signature OVC upsets the past two seasons -- against Tennessee State last year and Jacksonville State in 2007 -- but have not been able to show much consistency.
"We've been able to upset people, now we have to beat a lot of people," Calvin said.
Southeast's schedule, which features six games at home and five on the road, is challenging. Two of the Redhawks' three nonconference opponents are powerhouses.
Defending Big East Conference champion Cincinnati, which went 11-3 last year and again is expected to be solid despite heavy graduation losses, represents the Redhawks' annual Division I-A "money" game. Southeast's athletic department will receive $275,000 from Cincinnati.
Southern Illinois (9-3), back on the schedule for the first time since 2005, again is expected to be among the premier Division I-AA teams. The Salukis are ranked seventh nationally.
Even NAIA Quincy (6-5) could pose some danger, especially since the Redhawks needed a big rally and overtime to beat Division II Southwest Baptist in last year's opener after the Bearcats were coming off a winless season. Plus, Quincy upset Division I-AA Indiana State in its opener.
Southeast hosts both SIU and Quincy, along with welcoming OVC rivals Jacksonville State (8-3, 6-2), Murray State (5-7, 4-4), Eastern Illinois (5-7, 3-5) and Austin Peay (2-9, 2-6) to Houck Stadium.
OVC road games are against two-time defending champion Eastern Kentucky (8-4, 7-1), Tennessee-Martin (8-4, 6-2), Tennessee State (8-4, 5-3) and Tennessee Tech (3-9, 1-7).
"It's a tough schedule, but I like that we have six home games," Samuel said.