The FCS Playoff Bracket release always seems to leave a team or two home wondering "what if?" There was no bigger example of that Sunday than with Southern Illinois. Like Indiana State last year, Eastern Washington, Delaware and Austin Peay in 2017, Albany in 2016 and North Dakota in 2015 … there were solid arguments for the Salukis' inclusion in the 2019 bracket, but the bubble ended up blowing up in their faces instead of carrying SIU to the postseason. We caught up with SIU head coach Nick Hill to talk about it.
The television cameras were there, ready to show SIU's program erupt on ESPNU after a 10-year playoff hiatus within a brutally tough conference. But a celebratory mood was not the end result … only stunning disappointment.
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"I just literally got out of the team meeting room a couple of minutes ago, and it was a tough team meeting," Hill told HERO Sports Sunday afternoon. "And it was tough to watch it unfold in front of your eyes. It was tough when you have such a great group, especially our seniors. You think you're in, everybody's telling you you're in … in fact I had (Indiana State head coach) Curt Mallory tell me he thought we were playing like a Top 10 team at the end of the season."
"We scheduled two FBS games, and (playoff-bound) SEMO and (7-5) UT Martin. That's our non-conference schedule. So I guess they're saying that if we'd beaten UMass (the blowout FBS win on SIU's resume) and beaten just one more lower FCS opponent, we're in (with eight wins)."
The argument could be made.
Just hours after pushing No. 1 seeded NDSU hard in Carbondale (game was tied 7-7 with five minutes left in the 3rd quarter – SIU eventually fell 21-7), the Salukis would find out the resume apparently wasn't strong enough. SIU had won five straight MVFC games — four decisively — coming into the season-finale with the Bison, then pushed the defending national champions hard. SIU's argument is that its seven-win season includes a blowout FBS win, a 5-3 record in traditionally the toughest conference in the FCS, it finished the year strongly and scheduled tough outside of the conference. Meanwhile, seven-win teams with no FBS wins — North Dakota, Furman (throwing out its NAIA win) and SE Louisiana got in.
"I know it's about the whole body of work (in the FCS) and I'm throwing excuses out there … ultimately, we have to win more games," Hill said. "I think we're fighting to get back to having more respect from the whole country. But we're going to get back to work. The culture of our program is to handle things the right way."
Like Indiana State, Eastern Washington, Delaware, Austin Peay, Albany and North Dakota before them, the Salukis now pivot to thinking about the next season. Motivation won't be a problem within this program, because it showed major potential. Keep in mind, after a playoff snub at 7-4 with a tough strength of schedule in 2017, Eastern Washington made it to Frisco a year later. After a strong resume and then a playoff snub in 2015, North Dakota won the Big Sky Conference in 2016 … and Delaware nabbed a playoff bid one year after being left out in 2017. Oh, and that Austin Peay team? Two years after being left out at 8-4 with three FBS losses, the Governors' roster — mostly intact from that 8-win season in 2017 — is in the FCS playoffs this week for the first time in school history.
Hill won't have to worry about complacency in the weight room or on the practice field for the next 10 months leading up to kickoff. He also has a strong roster returning, with 13 starters from the NDSU game being underclassmen. He's expected to return his top two passers, top four receivers, three of the top four rushers, a 1,000-yard RB who didn't start but led the team in rushing (Javon Williams), six of the top 10 tacklers, including the No. 1 guy (Qua Brown) and the top two sack men. There will be plenty of talent to work with to hit that eight-or-more win mark in 2020 so SIU doesn't have to wonder whether it'll get in one year from today.
"Yesterday, we had 12 seniors on the field," Hill said. "We have 105 guys on the team. Now, we're going to lose some very good players (Jeremy Chinn, D.J. Davis, etc), but the majority of the team is coming back, not the minority. We'll just keep building, you've just got to keep building. This just hurts. They're teammates. But there's nothing we can do about it now. You watch every selection show in every sport in the NCAA, and somebody's left out.
"Unfortunately, this time it's us."
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