COLUMBIA—Southeast Missouri State coach Tony Samuel knows what it feels like to pull off a shocking upset. He also knows what it's like to have success against MU.
In 1999, Samuel took his New Mexico State Aggies squad to Tempe, Ariz., for a game against No. 22 Arizona State. The Sun Devils were expected to have an easy time against an opponent that was 3-8 the year before, but New Mexico State pounded the Sun Devils 35-7, setting itself up for its first winning record under Samuel.
Samuel was a two-year starter at defensive end for Nebraska, and was 2-0 in Columbia as a player. He returned to the Cornhuskers as an assistant coach from 1986-1996 and remained perfect on Faurot Field.
But Samuel realizes there is a big disparity between his current team and MU. The main reason the Redhawks are coming to Faurot Field is because they're being paid $250,000 to do so.
"It's a money game; we're pretty much outmatched," Samuel said.
Samuel was playing and coaching Division I-A football at both Nebraska and New Mexico State. On Saturday, Samuel's Redhawks will have the disadvantage of fewer players that comes with being in a lower division.
As part of playing in what is now known as the Football Championship Subdivision, Southeast Missouri State is restricted to 63 full scholarships, 22 fewer than MU and other members of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"They're a great football team with 85 scholarships," Samuel said. "We're a team that operates at a total of 63. We break it up, but we typically don't even run a total of 63."
That disparity means one thing for the Redhawks on Saturday. They know they need to play the game of their lives to pull off an upset that would rival Appalachian State's 2007 win over Michigan as one of the biggest in college football history.
"We've almost got to be perfect, honestly," Southeast Missouri State quarterback Houston Lillard said. "We've got little room for error. That's hard to do in football, so we've got to play as good as we can and limit the mistakes."
The challenge of having to be perfect is not something most players would embrace, but to Lillard, being perfect on the football field is nothing compared to what he's been through. Lillard grew up in Oakland, Calif., in a less-than-ideal neighborhood, and has always viewed football as an escape from the problems of real life.
"Once I get in the game, I just play," Lillard said. "I've been around so many other things that are more scary or make me nervous. Growing up where I grew up at, I dealt with things that are more stressful. Football's like a getaway for me. When I'm on the field, I'm just trying to have fun."
No matter what the result is, the experience of playing in a full stadium against one of the strongest teams in college football will be a fun experience for the Redhawks. Southeast Missouri State's biggest challenge is to make sure that it uses this game as a boon for its season in ways other than monetary.
The Redhawks struggled against Southwestern Baptist in their opening game, needing 23 unanswered points to pull out a 35-28 overtime victory, and Samuel wants his team to show him that it can execute no matter who the opponent is or what the situation is.
"From our perspective, players come out and get excited about it," Samuel said. "They'll give a good effort, and we'll see what happens from there. I want to see us go out there, first and foremost, not be intimidated and run our offense and our defense. I want to see them play with much better energy and play hard."
That fits with Samuel's philosophy that the score shouldn't affect how his players execute their game plan. He stressed that his players do not pay attention to the score in terms of how they attack their opponent, a philosophy he has preached throughout his career.
"The philosophy is that you play at a high level regardless of what the score is, that's what I mean when I say that," he said. "Obviously as coaches, we've got to look at the scoreboard, but the level of performance isn't because of the scoreboard."
That ideal should help Southeast Missouri State make this game a positive should it turn into the blowout that is expected between these teams. Although Appalachian State was a rallying cry for heavy underdogs, Samuel is not using that game to motivate his team. In his mind, the situations are completely different.
"It's usually a tough situation when you play a money game with (a) I-AA (team)," Samuel said. "You're outmatched not only financially, but also numbers-wise.
"A lot of people got a lot of hope with that Appalachian State thing. People expect that to be normal, but Appalachian State's a great program at this level with a lot of facilities and a lot of money. They can match up with a lot of middle to lower I-A programs. It's not an impossible thing (for us). It's improbable, but not impossible."
The disparity in the teams' approaches might be best summed up by the different mind-setof the two quarterbacks. MU's Chase Daniel said his dream scenario for Saturday was to come out by halftime because the Tigers had built a lead big enough for him to turn the game over to backup Chase Patton. Lillard's dream was much larger.
My dream scenario is "to win," he said.