Tennessee State comes to Cape Girardeau as one of the Ohio Valley Conference's most disappointing teams so far this season.
But don't let the Tigers' 1-4 record fool you. Tennessee State, according to Southeast Missouri State University coach Tim Billings, could be one of the most talented squads the Indians will face all year.
"I'm really worried about this game," Billings said. "Tennessee State is extremely talented. It's amazing they're 1-4. They'll have as good a skill position players as anybody we've played. They'll have better skill people than Middle Tennessee."
The Tigers and Indians (3-2) square off tonight at Houck Stadium in the OVC opener for both teams. The Family Weekend game will break a string of four straight Southeast road contests and mark just the Indians' second home appearance of the season.
"We're excited about starting the OVC," Billings said. "And we're excited about finally being at home again. Hopefully we'll have a great crowd, especially after beating Middle Tennessee."
Billings is anxious to find out if the Indians' stunning 24-14 upset of Division I-A Middle Tennessee last Saturday truly did signal that Southeast has turned the corner as a legitimate Division I-AA football program that can contend for an OVC championship.
"I really think we have turned the corner, but you can't be sure until you prove it some more," he said. "That's why this game is so big."
Southeast has not finished higher than next-to-last in the OVC since 1996. And the Indians have not beaten an OVC team other than Tennessee-Martin since Billings took over the program three years ago. Tonight appears to afford a golden opportunity to change that, although Billings said a win won't come easy.
"They've given us problems over the years and it's going to be a big challenge for us," Billings said. "We're going to have to play well to win."
The Tigers have beaten the Indians five straight times, including 20-14 last year in Nashville when Southeast failed to score from the 1-yard line on the game's final play.
TSU has struggled so far against a difficult schedule, partly because of quarterback problems. The Tigers, known for producing top-flight signal callers in recent years, have tried four players at that position.
"At times we've played good and at times we've played bad," TSU coach James Reese said. "We just haven't been real consistent, but hopefully we found something in the fourth quarter of this past week's game that we can build on."
True freshman Dwayne Buchanan made his starting debut last Saturday and helped rally the Tigers in the second half, although they lost to Florida A&M.
Buchanan, who is scheduled to start tonight, completed 14 of 26 passes for 205 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Last year, Buchanan quarterbacked Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis to a Class 5 runner-up finish.
"I think he's coming along well," Reese said. "He just has to go out and play the game the way he knows how to play it, and we'll have to keep him calmed down because he is coming close to home."
The Tigers have one of the OVC's top receivers in C.J. Johnson (18 catches, 351 yards) and two dangerous running backs in Sugar Sanders (332 yards, 5.4 average) and Charles Anthony (325, 7.2).
"They've struggled at quarterback, but I think Buchanan will be a really good player for them," Billings said. "They're dangerous at every other position, and they can really run on defense."
While Billings is wary of TSU, Reese said he is just as concerned about Southeast.
"They got our attention last year, because of the way they played us, and beating Middle Tennessee showed how much their program is coming along," Reese said.
Even though Reese doesn't expect anything to come easy tonight, he still believes the Tigers are one of the OVC's better teams.
"We still have a lot of confidence in our team. I still think we have, if not the best, close to the best skill people in our conference," Reese said. "We think if we can eliminate some of the mistakes we've been making, we can make a run at the conference title."
Billings also believes the Indians can make a run at the conference title, particularly after their win over Middle Tennessee. Tonight, he'll begin to see if those beliefs are legitimate.
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