Even though they compete in different divisions, there are plenty of similarities between the football teams at Southeast Missouri State University and Eastern Michigan, who square off in today's season opener in Ypsilanti, Mich.
For starters, each squad went 3-8 last year under new head coaches who are both trying to perform major rebuilding jobs. EMU has not had a winning season since 1995 and Southeast has not posted a winning record since 1994. Since 1996, the Eagles are 17-38 while the Indians are 16-39.
Then there is the fact Southeast's Tim Billings and EMU's Jeff Woodruff both thought their teams were physically outmanned in virtually every 2000 contest. While each coach believes his unit has improved in that department, they still know there is a long way to go.
"Everybody we played last year physically pushed us around," said Woodruff. "We've gotten a lot stronger, but not near where we need to be."
A familiar story
Funny, but Billings has on more than a few occasions said exactly the same thing, about how physically overwhelmed the Indians were last season and how they've improved their strength but still have a long way to go.
So the stage is set for today's 5 p.m. contest, which on paper the Eagles should win handily because they are an NCAA Division I-A program while the Indians compete a notch below in Division I-AA.
But Woodruff, a former Arizona and Washington assistant, isn't buying into that. He insists he would be happy with any kind of a victory today, but doesn't expect it to come easily. And he's hoping his players aren't anticipating a cakewalk.
"There is no way we can overlook anybody. I mean, we lost our scrimmage," said a laughing Woodruff. "We couldn't overlook a local high school team. When you only win three games, coming from where we are, there's no way we can take anybody lightly."
All kidding aside, the Eagles did appear to make at least some strides toward the end of last season as they won two of their final three games. But Woodruff knows how much further his program has to go.
"Right now, we just have to try and improve on a daily basis," he said. "We just have to get some recruiting classes under our belt and build the program."
Billings isn't trying to make anybody believe that the Eagles have high-level talent compared to the nation's better I-A programs, but he said they have some impressive athletes nonetheless.
Offensively, Billings said EMU has a dangerous running back in Ashantti Watson, who rushed for 353 yards as a freshman last season, and they have some talented receivers, led by Kevin Walter, who caught 55 passes a year ago.
Quarterback, however, is a question mark, with junior-college transfer Jeff Crooks likely to get the nod over the returning Troy Edwards, who saw very limited action last year.
"That's going to be their key, quarterback," Billings said. "Our goal is to stop the run and make them throw."
Defensively, the Eagles return quite a bit of experience, led by their top two tacklers from last year in linebackers Kenny Philpot and Scott Russell, who both had more than 100 tackles in 2000. Philpot had 15 tackles for loss and Russell 14. Each recorded five sacks.
Another solid defensive performer is tackle James Turner, who had nine tackles for loss and five sacks.
"Defensively, they've got a lot of starters back," said Billings. "Philpot is a big-play guy."
A major weapon for the Eagles could be kicker Toller Starnes, who was successful on 11 of 14 field-goal attempts last year, with a long of 45 yards.
Billings is anxious to see how his youthful squad -- seven freshmen and five sophomores are slated to start -- responds today. He's hoping the Indians can keep their mistakes to a minimum, hang tough and be close entering the late going.
"Our goal is to hang in the game and try to be around in the fourth quarter," he said.
INDIAN NOTES: Reserve wide receiver Chris NesSmith, whom Billings has been high on, was recently declared academically ineligible for the season...reserve wide receiver Andy Dunaway, a Cape Central High School product, has been cleared to play today after recovering from a broken finger suffered earlier this summer...starting cornerback Demar Winston, who has been held out of contact drills because of a shoulder injury, has been cleared to play today.