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Opinion: It’s Time to Believe in Southern Illinois

The Salukis are back.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beautiful things about FCS football... heck, college football in general... is that every year there are a litany of potential dark horse teams that reveal themselves slowly but surely as the season presses on. Four weeks in and some of those squads are starting to emerge from the murky waters already. It’s not always easy to separate the masked pretenders from the possible contenders and it’s really not easy in the FCS. One team, though, is widening that gap and doing so convincingly.

If you don’t believe in Southern Illinois, the time to start is now.

Now, when I say “believe” do I mean pencil the Salukis in for Frisco? No. A trip to the semifinals? Probably not. The upper crust of the subdivision is a monster all its own and it’s damn near impossible for most teams to crack into that echelon. When I say believe, though, I mean it’s time to start putting stock into the idea that this team is no longer a middle-of-the-road group. Gone are the days of being a punching bag in the Missouri Valley.

SIU... it seems... is hitting back.

Remember back in that Covid-shortened spring season when Southern Illinois beat the brakes off North Dakota State... yes, North Dakota State? You probably don’t because it isn’t talked about too much anymore. But that actually happened; the Salukis clobbered the Bison 38-14 in Carbondale and some folks started to think the tides were finally tuning out in the Midwest. Of course they weren’t and NDSU is right back where we expect them to be, but for a brief moment, it was a fun dream.

Let’s fast forward to 2022. Life got pretty low if you were an Salukis fan but that only came after a really high high. Following an 0-2 start, SIU rolled into Evanston, IL and pulled off a big upset over FBS Northwestern. It was a win that not only yanked the Salukis back into the national discussion but it kickstarted a five-game win streak. Unfortunately for Nick Hill’s team, that streak was followed by a four-game slide right at the end of the season that cost them playoff berth. It was a season of ups and downs but the downs were a lot more prevalent.

Here we are at the end of September of 2023, though, and the mood in Carbondale has done a complete 180, or at least it should have. Southern Illinois isn’t just 3-0, it’s an impressive 3-0. Wins over Austin Peay, Northern Illinois (another FBS victory) and, most recently, Southeast Missouri State have the Salukis flying high. In a matter of four weeks, this squad went from unranked to #10 with no signs of slowing down.

Are you paying attention? You should be.

No good team is complete without a good quarterback and the Salukis have a really good one. Senior Nic Baker is a baller and he has been for a while. Since 2018, Baker has thrown for 7,488 yards and has set program records for single game passing yards, single game completion percentage and single season passing yards.

This season has been much of the same. He’s has lit up opposing defenses and scoreboards. Baker has 825 yards and has tossed six touchdowns, none more clutch than the game winner from two weeks ago (seen above). He has tremendous poise in the pocket and has one of the better arms in the whole country. Don’t be surprised if he’s in consideration for the Walter Payton Award come January.

It isn’t just Baker, however, that has SIU on the rise; the offense as a whole is chock full of talent. Running back Ro Elliot is averaging 5.1 yards per carry this year and has three touchdowns. Four different receivers are already over 100 yards on the season with junior Izaiah Hartrup already accounting for half of the team’s TDs through the air. The offensive line has allowed just six sacks so far this year.

Where the Salukis are really shining thus far in 2023, though, is on the other side of the ball. The defense, which is allowing under 20 points per contest, is playing as lock down as it gets right now. Opponents are rushing for just 62.7 yards a game and have thrown five interceptions to the ball-hawking secondary. Senior cornerback P.J. Jules is one of the best in the nation right now with six defended passes and right behind him is Mark Davis with four and a pick.

The numbers are all there but there’s something beyond stats that Southern Illinois possess this season... something they didn’t necessarily have in years past.

This team is one of the more experienced in the FCS when it comes to heart-stopping wins and stomach-churning losses. It’s that wide range of experience that should only help them as they get into the meat of their schedule in the coming weeks.

In their “War for the Wheel” rivalry against Southeast Missouri State alone, seniors like Baker have been through three-point defeats and last second wins. Over the last five seasons, SIU has traveled to Fargo, ND three times to face the mighty Bison in one of the toughest venues in the country, including once in the playoffs. It’s a place they’re headed back to this November. Two years back, the Salukis even went into Brookings and handed a then-unbeaten South Dakota State a 42-41 overtime loss.

Syndication: Argus Leader Erin Bormett / Argus Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

For the guys who have been around through all that, that experience is invaluable and there will be no venue nor opponent that will be intimidating. And that’s good because the Missouri Valley is no walk in the park. There are scheduled trips to Youngstown State and North Dakota State down the line as well as a home contest against the #1 Jackrabbits.

Undefeated and fresh off a bye week, however, there’s plenty of reason to have faith in this year’s Saluki team. At least there ought to be. Head coach Nick Hill, now in his eighth season, has something special brewing. Missouri State pays a visit this weekend and the chance to go 4-0 for the first time since 2007 hangs in the balance.

SIU’s ascension thus far in 2023 has been rapid, swift and... most of all... steady. The Salukis are playing some of the best ball they have in years right now and it shouldn’t go without noticing the manner in which they’re winning. Crunch time has been their time; there’s something to be said for that.

With a quarterback oozing confidence, a coach with a heap of experience and a team full of talent, this is a group that’s only just beginning to tap into its potential. It’s hard to imagine many teams in the nation having a higher morale right now than Southern Illinois. We’ll see what that turns into over the next two months. As of right now, though, it’s all up and going upward in Carbondale.