Another Southeast Missouri State football season kicks off Thursday night as the Redhawks visit Division I-A Ball State.
That's the start of a rugged opening stretch for the Redhawks, who will shoot for the program's first winning season since 2002 and only its second since moving up to Division I-AA in 1991.
Southeast, 2-9 last year, plays its first three games on the road.
After their annual "money" game at Ball State -- which is paying Southeast $275,000, an amount that goes toward general revenue for the athletic department -- the Redhawks open Ohio Valley Conference play Sept. 11 at Murray State before visiting Southern Illinois on Sept. 18.
Murray State is rebuilding with a new coach but perennial Division I-AA power SIU enters the season ranked fifth nationally.
The Redhawks finally have their first home game Sept. 25 against Tennessee Tech, which is projected by many as a darkhorse contender in the OVC.
Then it's back on the road to face defending OVC champion Eastern Illinois on Oct. 2.
Southeast will be decided underdogs against Ball State, SIU and Eastern Illinois. Tennessee Tech won't be easy and Murray State also can't be considered a sure thing.
If the Redhawks can somehow emerge from that gauntlet 2-3, I'd consider that acceptable. If they go 3-2, then look out, the season might turn out to be something. If they go 1-4, they could still recover but it wouldn't be easy. If they go 0-5, then it's "here we go again."
Even though Ball State will be favored to roll over Southeast, don't expect the Cardinals to take the Redhawks lightly.
Not after last year's 2-10 disaster that featured an 0-7 start and a home loss to Division I-AA New Hampshire.
That came after the Cardinals were one of the Cinderella stories of 2008, winning their first 12 games and entering the BCS discussion before finishing 12-2.
With many of its top players returning, Ball State is expected to be much improved.
Still, on paper, this has a chance at being a more competitive money game for the Redhawks than some of their recent mismatches against teams from major conferences.
Thursday's contest breaks a four-year stretch during which Southeast's annual money game was against a squad from a BCS conference. All four games proved to be monumental blowouts as the closest Southeast came was 52-3 against Missouri in 2008. The Redhawks lost to Cincinnati 70-3 last year.
Ball State is the type of lower-level I-A program that occasionally suffers an upset at the hands of a I-AA squad, as was the case last season.
Southeast narrowly missed out on beating Eastern Michigan -- like Ball State a member of the Mid-American Conference -- in both 2001 and 2002 under former coach Tim Billings. Granted, Eastern Michigan was among the nation's worst I-A teams back then and this Ball State outfit is much better.
It will be interesting to see if the Redhawks can hang with the Cardinals.
Southeast is 1-14 against I-A opponents, its lone win 24-14 at Middle Tennessee State in 2002.
That was also Southeast's last winning season, an 8-4 mark under Billings that stands as the program's best record since going 8-2 in 1969.
The Redhawks' 2011 I-A game is at Purdue of the Big 10 Conference. That will net a school-record $315,000, surpassing the previous high payout of $300,000 from Arkansas in 2006.
All nine OVC football teams play their first games this week.
Six squads are kicking off their campaigns on the road against I-A opponents.
Murray State visits Kent State on Thursday, while Saturday matchups feature Eastern Illinois at nationally ranked Iowa, Tennessee Tech at nationally ranked Arkansas, Jacksonville State at Mississippi and Tennessee-Martin at Tennessee.
Other OVC openers find Eastern Kentucky visiting Missouri State on Thursday, Austin Peay hosting Cumberland on Thursday and Tennessee State hosting Alabama A&M on Saturday.
Tennessee Tech sure isn't easing into its season. After opening with Arkansas, the Eagles face another nationally ranked I-A foe, TCU on Sept. 11.
Sports Illustrated, in its College Football Preview edition, predicts Missouri to go 9-3 overall and a second-place 5-3 in the Big 12 Conference North Division.
For Illinois, the outlook isn't as promising. SI tabs the Illini for a 4-8 record, including 2-6 in the Big 10 Conference.
Those two rivals square off Saturday in St. Louis to kick off their seasons.
After failing to land former Tennessee player Josh Tabb, who was denied a final year of eligibility by the NCAA, the Southeast men's basketball program still had one available scholarship.
That will go to point guard Lucas Nutt, coach Dickey Nutt's son whose solid freshman season as a walk-on ended after nine games with a broken foot.
Lucas Nutt received a medical redshirt and still has four seasons of eligibility remaining.
The NCAA last week placed the Morehead State men's basketball program on probation for two years for recruiting violations related to booster activity.
The NCAA accepted Morehead's self-imposed penalties and did not include serious sanctions. The self-imposed penalties included the loss of one scholarship, temporary reductions in recruiting days, visits and telephone calls, and a permanent ban from recruiting student athletes in all sports from the NIA school in Newark, N.J.
According to news reports, coach Donnie Tyndall, entering his fifth season, accepted full responsibility for the violations. Morehead State went 24-11 overall and 15-3 in the OVC last season, one year after the Eagles won their first OVC title and earned their first NCAA tournament berth in 25 years.
Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.