Mars Hill College football coach Tim Clifton is realistic yet optimistic about the challenge his team faces Saturday at Houck Stadium.
Clifton knows the odds are stacked against his Division II Lions when they play Football Championship Subdivision Southeast Missouri State in the Redhawks' 6 p.m. home opener.
"We've beaten some [FCS programs] in the past," said Clifton, who has a 106-95 record in his 20th season at the North Carolina school. "You win some, but the majority of the time they've got more bullets in the game.
"They've got more talent than we do for sure, the level they play. It'll be a big challenge for us. But we've played up about every year I've been here. We enjoy playing those guys. It gives us a good opportunity to see where we're at. But I'm not crazy about playing two."
The Lions, who earned their first Division II playoff berth in program history last year, are playing their first two games against FCS teams. They opened the season last week with a 42-14 loss at regional rival Western Carolina.
"We play them every year. They're about an hour away," Clifton said.
Clifton said a squad the Lions originally were scheduled to play this week backed out of the game, leaving Mars Hill with an open date. That's how Saturday's matchup came about.
"We couldn't find a Division II or Division III to play, and they [Southeast] had this date open," said Clifton. "Somebody asked me how we got the game with Southeast Missouri. It wasn't on purpose, that's for sure."
Mars Hill gets a guarantee paycheck for facing an FCS team. Clifton said the Lions will receive about $30,000 from Southeast, with all the money going to their football program.
Southeast received $300,000 for its opener last week at Football Bowl Subdivision school Central Michigan, with the money going toward the university's general athletic department revenue and not specifically the football program.
The Redhawks weren't far from recording an upset, leading by 14 points in the first half before falling 38-27.
Clifton said the Lions' chances of springing an upset lie in duplicating what the Redhawks were able to do much of the game.
"I think they're a much better football team than last year. They had a chance to beat Central Michigan. That's a little scary for us," Clifton said. "The only way you have a chance when you play up, and Southeast Missouri did it, you have to find a way to stay close, milk the clock, give yourself a chance to win."
Southeast coach Tony Samuel believes the Lions have enough talent to do exactly what the Redhawks did to the Chippewas.
"They're a very good football team," Samuel said. "They had a great record last year."
The Lions are coming off their best year in program history. They went 8-3 and earned a share of the South Atlantic Conference title. They were ranked 18th in one preseason Division II national poll this year.
Mars Hill lost superstar tailback Jonas Randolph, voted Division II's top player after he rushed for 2,170 yards, but they returned six offensive starters and nine defensive starters.
Sophomore tailback Shaikel Davis, who rushed for 374 yards while averaging 8.5 yards per carry last year, is the Lions' feature back.
Davis began the season with 109 yards on 18 carries against Western Carolina.
"He's got a chance to be really good, but he's just learning," Clifton said. "We miss him [Randolph] right now."
Senior quarterback Jon Richt, who redshirted as a freshman at Clemson before transferring, completed 54.1 percent (157 of 290) of his passes for 1,899 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions last season. He was 10 of 37 for 120 yards against Western Carolina.
Sophomore wide receiver Dimitri Holmes is coming off a sensational freshman campaign that saw him catch 65 passes for a 13.2-yard average and score nine touchdowns. He had five receptions and a TD in the opener.
Senior wide receiver Joshua Young is another threat in the passing game. He caught 47 passes for a 13.9-yard average and five touchdowns last year.
The Lions' defense is led by preseason All-American junior end Troy Harris, a 260-pounder who had nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last year. He recorded two sacks against Western Carolina.
Senior linebacker Rudy Cabral led the Lions with 106 tackles a year ago. He also had 9.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
"They've got talent. We're in for a battle," Samuel said.
Southeast is 6-0 against non-Division I teams under Samuel, but the Redhawks have had their share of tough games in those matchups, including last year's 55-44 shootout against Central Methodist.
"We're at a point, we can't take anybody lightly. We're capable of beating anybody we play, but we're capable of being beat by anybody we play," Samuel said. "They're coming in here to win, not to roll over."