The stakes were high for SIU's football team this season, which makes its 7-4 run even more remarkable.
Winning is as contagious as losing, and the Salukis did more of the latter over the last three years. Two wins last season and four in 2017 and 2016 under coach Nick Hill, who entered 2019 with two new coordinators, seven road games out of 12 and a lot of pressure to win in the fourth year of a five-year contract. Hill has recruited better than Dale Lennon did during his last three years, but football is filled with veteran coaches who struggle to win more than they lose, and the Missouri Valley Football Conference is not the place to learn as you go.
The defense, under first-year coordinator Jason Petrino, returned several starters, but they returned off the worst (statistically) defense in the history of Saluki Football. In the best FCS conference in the country, SIU could have improved dramatically and still finished 6-6 or worse. Now, with preseason all-conference safety Jeremy Chinn and a defensive line that has led to 37 sacks, they've found a way to keep the team in games where the offense has stalled.
Three of the team's four new coaches this season are on the defensive side of the ball.
"Our relationship between the players and the coaches, it's built on trust and love," said Chinn, a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award and a future pro who has been invited to play in the Senior Bowl. "Of course, we're still learning things about them and they're still learning things about us weekly, but, it's a positive relationship. We trust them. They trust the players that they have, and we're bought in, they're bought in."
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Chinn and junior defensive end Anthony Knighton, who is already third in school history in sacks with 21.0, could someday be inducted into the SIU Hall of Fame. Running back D.J. Davis, the school record holder in kickoff return yardage and one of the top-three backs in Saluki history in all-purpose yards, could join them. And the reason we're even talking about these potential bids is because of this year's 7-4 run.
In an ugly game at Western Illinois last weekend, SIU led the 1-win Leathernecks 10-7. The Salukis won the game 45-21, for their fifth straight win. SIU hadn't won five games in a row since the 2009 squad, the last one to make the playoffs, won 11 straight.
"That proved a lot, how we came out in the second half," Davis said. "Offensively, defensively, special teams. Everybody, we came out in the second half, we refocused and came out shootin' on all cylinders in the second half, so I'm really proud of our team. It shows the maturity we have in all the guys, younger guys, older guys. Everybody's bought in, and I'm lovin' it."
And the job is not done. With No. 1 North Dakota State (11-0) coming into town this weekend, SIU's playoff push will reach its pinnacle at Saluki Stadium at 2 p.m. A win over the Bison, which would end their 32-game winning streak, would punch the Salukis' ticket. A loss could put them into a juggling act with the NCAA selection committee, which will be forced to weigh SIU's strength of schedule with the rest of the at-large bid prospects. The win over UMass will loom large, since there are only three out of more than 100 games between FCS and FBS programs this season, and the quality of the win does not matter to the committee, according to its guidelines. Only the number of wins over an FBS program, which, with two to play this season, SIU got one.
Win or lose, Hill and the gang have gotten SIU back into the national discussion. The Salukis tied Yale for No. 25 in the American Football Coaches Association top-25 poll Monday, the program's first national ranking in one of the two major polls since November 2014. Here, however, the standard isn't a winning record, or a top-25 ranking. It's the playoffs, and SIU isn't there yet.
"We deserve to be in postseason play," Hill said. "We have a good football team. At some point, you're going to have to beat the No. 1 team. That's the standard, and we get the opportunity this week."
TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU Athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at email@example.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.