Schedule does Indians no favors

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Ready or not, Southeast Missouri State University's football team is just a few days away from opening another season.

Chances are, the Indians will be 1-0 by about 9:30 p.m. Thursday after Arkansas-Monticello exits Houck Stadium. The Boll Weevils appear to be a decent Division II team and will have some quality athletes, but likely not nearly enough to pull off an upset.

But the Boll Weevils appear to be one of the few weak links on a demanding 12-game schedule that will seriously challenge the Indians' hopes of posting the program's first winning record since 1994 -- or at least winning as many as five games for the first time since 1995.

After Thursday, the Indians will be heavy favorites only against one other opponent -- Tennessee-Martin, whose presence in the Ohio Valley Conference has kept Southeast from finishing last the past several years.

The Indians might rate as a slight favorite at rebuilding Southern Illinois in week two and perhaps even over Samford in the season finale, although the Bulldogs surprisingly were ranked in one Division I-AA preseason poll.

Following the SIU game, there are three more straight road contests with Division I Eastern Michigan, Southwest Missouri and Division I Middle Tennessee. Even though the Indians almost upset Eastern Michigan last year and nearly beat Southwest Missouri, they figure to rate as underdogs in all three games and big ones against potent Middle Tennessee.

Then comes the OVC schedule that features, besides Tennessee-Martin, all five opponents ranked in at least one preseason I-AA poll. Based on that, and the fact Southeast was picked to again finish sixth among seven teams, you've got to rate the Indians as underdogs against Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and Murray State.

I know games aren't played on paper, so this underdog-favorite talk really doesn't mean a whole lot, especially to the coaches and players. And particularly meaningless is the OVC preseason poll because the Indians are probably going to always automatically be picked next-to-last until the year they finally don't wind up there.

But the point is that the Indians face a bear of a schedule as third-year coach Tim Billings continues trying to rebuild the Indians, who went 4-7 last season and 3-8 the season before that.

Not much was realistically expected out of Billings' first two Southeast teams --although last season's was competitive -- because turning around a downtrodden football program rarely happens in less than a few years.

But, even though the Indians are young -- there are just 11 seniors on the roster, with only six of them slated to start -- Billings is not far off from the portion of his tenure where people will expect results sooner than later.

Billings and his staff appear to have brought in a better collective group of athletes than the program has seen in some time -- maybe ever -- which is no small feat considering the built-in recruiting handicaps caused by Southeast's substandard facilities.

While Billings knows that good recruiting is nice, as is the exciting style of play the Indians demonstrated last year, the bottom line in college athletics -- especially in a high-profile sport like football -- is to produce victories.

The Indians' schedule won't make that easy.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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