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Southeast Missouri vs Missouri

Missouri running back Ish Witter (right) takes a handoff from quarterback Maty Mauk against Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 5, 2015. (Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — If Nick Saban had his way, Southeast Missouri’s football team wouldn’t visit Missouri on Saturday to trade a paycheck for a bloodletting.

For years, Alabama’s coach has advocated for tougher scheduling in the Southeastern Conference. He’d like to see SEC teams play 10 conference games a year and two against other Power 5 opponents. If he gets more coaches and athletics directors on his side, there might come a day when teams from the major conferences stop scheduling games against programs from the Football Championship Subdivision, what was formerly known as Division I-AA.

But that day isn’t coming anytime soon — at least not by Saturday, when Southeast Missouri (1-1), No. 20 in the FCS coaches poll, visits Mizzou (1-1) for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium.

All but 15 of the 64 teams in the Power 5 conferences play an FCS opponent this season, including every team in the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences. Even Saban’s Crimson Tide, who host Western Carolina in late November.

Rarely have these FCS games been competitive for more than a quarter or two at Mizzou. The Tigers have won 17 straight games over FCS opponents since they became fixtures on the schedule in 1998. (MU didn’t play an FCS team in 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2005.) MU’s average margin of victory in those 17 games is 39.8 points. Only four of the 17 FCS foes have come within 30 points of the Tigers. Mizzou is favored by 34 points Saturday.

For SEMO, the payoff is worth the potential pain. MU will pay SEMO $425,000 for playing the game, one of the cheapest price tags for an FCS opponent in the SEC this year, but valuable revenue for an FCS athletics department that in 2018 worked on a budget of $12.6 million. Louisiana State paid the most for its FCS game, $600,000 to Northwestern State, according to USA Today’s recent report on guaranteed appearance fees. Florida is playing two FCS foes this season and paying Tennessee-Martin $500,000 and Towson $450,000.

For a few years, the Big Ten prohibited teams from scheduling FCS opponents but now allows members to play an FCS team in years when they host only four of their nine conference games. Four Big Ten schools play FCS opponents this year. In the Big 12, all but Texas have an FCS team on the schedule. Eight of the 12 Pac-12 teams play an FCS foe.

Asked for his take on the FCS debate — to schedule or not to schedule — Missouri’s Barry Odom essentially pleaded the fifth this week.

“I think there’s a number of ways to look at it,” he said. “I’ve had one or two small votes in scheduling in like year 2025, so don’t hold me to the reasons this season is the way it’s lined up. . . . I look at the stance that that the SEC has taken on what they think about scheduling and trying to move toward. I understand and support and stand by Commissioner (Greg) Sankey on those. Also, look, this is the schedule that I’ve been handed, that we’ve been handed. I am glad that it’s an in-state game. I think that’s important. I think there’s value in that.”

That’s been the trend for Mizzou lately. The Tigers played SEMO in 2015 and have future games scheduled against the Redhawks for 2021 and 2023. Mizzou hosted Missouri State in 2017. Missouri has future games scheduled against FCS teams Central Arkansas (2020), South Dakota (2022), Murray State (2024), North Dakota (2025) and Illinois State (2027).

“There’s a million different ways to look at it, what’s best, what’s not,” Odom added. “I need to refrain from having too many comments on it and I need to get my guys ready to go play no matter who the opponent is and maybe someday stand up here and say, ‘Hey, this is the way we ought to schedule. This is what we ought to do.’ But I’m not there yet.”

Saturday’s matchup, as lopsided as it might become, is built out of mutual respect. When Odom coached at Memphis, he had offseason Xs and Os meetings with SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz and his assistants and has since worked summer camps alongside the Redhawks staff.

The last time Matukewicz brought his team to Columbia was the 2015 opener, a 35-3 MU victory. Weeks later, Mizzou’s season unraveled in the final year under Gary Pinkel.

“The biggest thing is just the respect I have for Coach Odom,” Matukewicz said on this week’s Ohio Valley Conference teleconference. “When he took that job, I mean, it was a dumpster fire to be honest. People were having walkouts and riots on campus. Then he takes it over and now all of a sudden they get a bowl ban (from the NCAA) that had nothing to do with anybody who was there. They didn’t lose a soul (to transfers). It tells you what he’s building up there. Those guys are connecting. I love the culture and the team he built.”

Some of those memories notwithstanding — there never were riots at Mizzou during the campus protests in 2015 — the mutual respect between the staffs is evident. If history is a guide, Missouri’s coaches might get a good look at their backups if the score gets out of hand early. That’s not defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ approach this week.

“I just want to get a win. Stop somebody and get a win,” Walters said. “I don’t worry about who’s going to get reps, who’s not going to get reps. Our message every week is we’re going to prepare like we’re playing the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Then whatever happens in the game happens in the game.”

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