Southeast Missouri State's storybook football season continued Saturday with a rare win at Eastern Illinois.
Now Southeast is poised to break into the national rankings for the first time since early during the 2003 campaign.
The Redhawks' 28-13 victory over defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Eastern Illinois accomplished a pair of firsts for Southeast's program.
Southeast had not won at Eastern Illinois since joining the OVC in 1991, its lone success in Charleston, Ill., coming way back in 1957.
The Redhawks also never had posted victories in their first three OVC games.
Southeast improved to 4-1 overall and a first-place 3-0 in the OVC with its fourth straight win and its third consecutive road victory.
Since moving to Division I-AA in 1991, Southeast's only other four-game winning streak and three-game road winning streak came in 1994.
The Redhawks received the second-most votes among those teams outside the top 25 in last week's Sports Network poll. They are likely to crack the top 25 when the new rankings are released today.
Southeast also has a shot of breaking into the top 25 of the coaches poll. The Redhawks received the sixth-most votes among the squads outside the top 25 last week.
Southeast began the 2003 season 20th and 21st in the two major polls, dropped to 21st and 22nd after an opening loss and dropped out after a Week 2 defeat.
Southeast hasn't appeared in the top 25 since, but it will be a surprise if that doesn't happen today.
Even though the Panthers are struggling big time -- they are 0-5 for the first time since 1977 and 0-3 in the OVC for the first time since joining the league in 1996 -- they figured to be difficult to beat Saturday partly based on how desperate they were for a win.
That made Southeast's decisive victory impressive, especially because the Redhawks trailed 10-7 at halftime before taking control in the second half.
While Southeast's rushing attack, led by sensational senior tailback Henry Harris, continued to thrive, the Redhawks' defense particularly stood out.
Southeast's defense forced a season-high five turnovers -- four interceptions -- and scored its first touchdown of the year on a 48-yard interception return by sophomore safety Tylor Brock.
What makes the Redhawks' start noteworthy is that they have played four of their first five games on the road.
Southeast gets four of its final six contests at home, starting with Saturday's matchup against Tennessee State that will feature the OVC's top two rushers who rank among the national leaders.
Tennessee State's Preston Brown has rushed for 760 yards while Harris has piled up 680 yards.
What Southeast's unprecedented start also means is that, barring a total collapse -- which the way the Redhawks are playing doesn't appear likely -- coach Tony Samuel will earn a deserved contract extension.
It didn't take a genius to know that Samuel, in the final year of a five-year contract and having never won more than four games overall or two OVC games in his first four seasons, needed a solid campaign, probably a winning one.
Considering the Redhawks still play Division II Southwest Baptist, at least 6-5 seems a virtual lock. And there doesn't seem to be any reason they can't do much better than that.
As someone who thinks highly of Samuel and his staff, I'm happy they're finally reaping the rewards of all their hard work.
It was announced last week that Southeast's annual "money" game for the 2013 season will be at the University of Mississippi.
Mississippi will pay Southeast a school-record $375,000 -- not quite the $500,000 to $600,000 that had been rumored. It still surpasses the high-water mark of $315,000 the university will receive for its contest at Purdue in 2011.
Southeast's Division I-A game for 2012 has not been finalized.
Turning to basketball, an early OVC preseason poll was released and the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook predicts Southeast's men to finish seventh in the 10-team conference.
Defending champion Murray State is the preseason favorite, followed by Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Illinois, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech, Southeast, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Martin.
The OVC will announce its preseason poll Oct. 25.
Practice begins Oct. 15, but limited offseason workouts have been going on for several weeks.
I had a chance to take in one of the Redhawks' recent workouts. While I'm not about to make a season prediction on Dickey Nutt's second Southeast squad, I came away confident that fans will be pleased by the significant upgrade in talent.
Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.