It turns out all we needed were better football teams.

More years the end of the prep football season in Southern Illinois ended with a “What gives?” discussion. Each year 12-13 area teams would qualify for the Illinois High School Association playoffs and no one would make a deep run.

Several years ago, 13 teams advanced to the postseason, 10 were defeated in the first round and the other three were summarily dismissed the second week. It was rare that more than one team would stay alive to the quarterfinal round.

This year two teams have advanced to state title games – Murphysboro in Class 4A and Nashville in Class 2A. This marks the first time since Du Quoin made the championship contest in 2008 that an area team will play for a state title.

No team from the Deep South has won a state title since Harrisburg’s magical run in 2000.

During that nearly two-decade drought various theories have advanced.

One theory suggested there wasn’t enough competition in the south.

That thought can be assigned to the trash heap. This wasn’t a particularly strong year for the south. Du Quoin and Nashville were the class of the SIRR Mississippi, Carterville, Sparta and Pinckneyville all struggled this season.

The SIRR Ohio was a little better with Benton, Murphysboro and West Frankfort all having winning seasons, but Herrin finished under .500 while Massac County and Harrisburg continued to struggle.

Still other people claimed that the south was behind the curve in terms of football strategy. Teams in other areas of the state played a more “modern” game, i.e. throwing the ball on every down.

Murphysboro’s high-powered running attack knocks that theory out of the water. The Red Devils are capable of throwing the ball – Saturday’s game-winning touchdown in overtime was a Jamarr McZeke to Jake Hoppenstedt pass – but the Red Devils offense is built around running the football.

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Others claimed coaching in the south was inferior.

I never bought into that claim, coaches like Kerry Martin, Al Way, Al Martin, state championship coaches, were still active when that claim was made. And, I’m fairly certain Murphysboro’s Gary Carter and Nashville’s Steve Kozuszek would be happy to debate that point.

And, my all-time favorite – private schools were to blame.

Nashville reached the state championship game by knocking off Decatur St. Teresa in the semifinals and Murphysboro defeated Kankakee McNamara in the quarterfinals.

No, it turns out, the south just needed better teams. Both Nashville and Murphysboro have been impressive in their postseason run. As a result, there will be Thanksgiving weekend prep football in Southern Illinois for the first time since 2008.

SIU and the playoffs: Southern Illinois University football fans are disappointed that the Salukis didn’t qualify for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The 7-5 Salukis, who finished the season winning five of their last six, were among the last teams out.

The college football punditry all seemed certain SIU was a shoo-in. The Salukis strength of schedule was excellent. The Sagarin ratings were in their favor. And, the Missouri Valley Football Conference is generally regarded as one of the two more competitive in the nation.

Like others following the Salukis, I wanted to believe the pundits’ numbers. But there were two numbers that bothered me – 1 and 5. The Salukis only defeated one ranked team. That was Youngstown State and after the loss to SIU the Penguins dropped out of the rankings.

Finally, SIU had five losses. Granted, there wasn’t a bad loss in that group, but when your fate rests in the hands of a committee, five losses is a huge number.

Despite the snub, or omission, it appears Nick Hill has the Salukis turned in the right direction.

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LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler


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