Southern Utah football: T-Birds tackle brutal schedule
Obstacle or opportunity?
That's the big question for Southern Utah as the new college football season approaches.
Coming off their first-ever trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Thunderbirds open 2014 with one of the most torturous four-week stretches in program history.
Opponents include Nevada and Fresno State of the Mountain West Conference as well as Southeast Louisiana and South Dakota State. Both are ranked in the preseason top 10 among FCS schools.
"It's a great thing," Thunderbird coach Ed Lamb says. "Our goal is to become the best team we can be by the end of the season and there's no way to do that without tackling an aggressive schedule."
Aggressive? More like suicidal.
The Thunderbirds open against Nevada of the Mountain West. The Wolfpack finished 4-8 last season but took BYU to the wire during a 28-23 loss in their final game. After Nevada, SUU visits Southeast Louisiana, which is ranked third in the FCS preseason poll. The Lions went 11-3 last year and reached the second round of the playoffs.
Southern Utah opens its home season on Sept. 13 against South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are ranked 10th in the preseason after going 9-5 and reaching the second round of the playoffs in 2013.
The Thunderbirds' final nonconference opponent is Fresno State. The Bulldogs, who went 11-2 last season, are the defending Mountain West champion and preseason favorite to repeat.
Lamb seems undaunted by the difficult task facing his team prior to its Big Sky Conference opener on Sept. 27 against Weber State.
"We tell our players, 'Iron sharpens iron,'" Lamb said. "There's nothing to be gained by beating up [inferior] teams."
Southern Utah, 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky last season, hopes an improved offense under new coordinator Gary Crowton will help overcome the grueling early schedule.
At quarterback, BYU transfer Ammon Olsen is battling returning starter Aaron Cantu for the No. 1 job in a neck-and-neck race that is going down to the wire.
Defensively, junior end James Cowser anchors an experienced group that allowed only 300 yards and 20 points per game last season.
A Davis High product, Cowser is one of 19 players on the preseason watch list for Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in the FCS.
All times mountain
Aug. 30 at Nevada, 1 p.m.
Sept. 6 at S.E. Louisiana, 6 p.m.
Sept. 13 South Dakota State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Fresno State, 8 p.m.
Sept. 27 Weber State, 6 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Cal Poly, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 Eastern Wash., 1 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Idaho State, 2 p.m.
Oct. 25 North Dakota, 1 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Sac State, 3 p.m.
Nov. 15 Montana, 1 p.m.
Nov. 22 at Northern Arizona, 2 p.m.