JOLIET – Starting off the season against the top-ranked team in the preseason, who also happens to be the defending national champion, makes for a difficult opener.
But when that is followed in Week 2 by a squad that's ranked third and then the sixth-ranked team two weeks later, things don't get any easier.
That's the scenario that coach Joe Curry's University of St. Francis football team faces as it prepares for its season opener Aug. 31 in Sioux City, Iowa, against Morningside College, the defending National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics champions, who drew all 16 first-place votes in the coaches' preseason poll.
Morningside went 15-0 last season to win its first NAIA championship. Despite graduating all four of their All-Americans, coach Steve Ryan's Mustangs are ranked ahead of the team they beat for the title last year, second-ranked Benedictine College from Kansas.
USF's second opponent also is the University of Saint Francis, which is located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and ranked third in the preseason. That game is scheduled for Sept. 7 at ATI Field at Joliet Memorial Stadium.
After playing at Trinity International in their conference opener Sept. 14, the Fighting Saints travel to sixth-ranked Concordia University of Michigan in their fourth game Sept. 21. USF also has two games scheduled against fifth-ranked Saint Xavier, the first Oct. 26 in Chicago and then again Nov. 16 in the regular-season finale in Joliet.
"Every year we play a tough schedule, and this year we start out with the No. 1, No. 3 and the No. 6 teams in the first four weeks," said Curry, a 2001 USF alumnus who enters his eighth season with a 39-37 record. "We've talked about it all camp that we're going to get battle tested right away. We're trying to get our guys to get ready for game day and to focus on that since you can't take a game or two to get yourself ready.
"The encouraging thing is that I think we have a lot of veteran seniors who are teaching the younger guys about what college football is all about and how to prepare. We've had a good camp in doing that, and our young guys are surprisingly coming along really well. Hopefully we learn through success early. I just like the way that we're preparing right now, and it's been a little bit different than in years past the way our team has come to practice every day. We expect to compete, but I tell them that we have to prepare that way, and they have."
Although the Saints will go with a new quarterback, Curry is upbeat about his offense since he has honorable mention All-American Brandon Ruffin back to lead the receiving corps and also returns his top two rushers, seniors Dwayne Milton and Michael Johnson. Ruffin is a three-time All-Mid-States Football Association Midwest League first-team selection while Milton also was a first-team pick in 2018. Another returner who was a first-team pick is senior right tackle Zach Buikema.
At quarterback, USF will go with either freshman Major Dedmond, a Class 2A wrestling champion from Freeport who Curry is excited about because of his athleticism and playmaking abilities, or with junior Jamal Salaam, a junior college transfer from California.
With an offensive attack that shows a lot of promise, Curry hopes that his defensive unit, which features several returning players, can improve upon last season. Two of the team's top three tacklers from 2018, junior linebacker Mason DeLong and senior linebacker Kody Randa, both received All-MSFA recognition, as well.
"Defensively, I think we're a lot better than we were last year since we're just being a group that's playing together," Curry said. "We missed some of that last year, but this year we're a lot more stout in the front six, and hopefully that can carry over into games. What we've tried to focus on in our camp is taking every Saturday as the most important thing, and if we do that and focus every single week, I like where we'll be at the end of the year."
Offensive coordinator Matt McCarthy has not only been together with Curry throughout his tenure at USF, but also assistant coaches at Ferris State, where McCarthy also enjoyed a school record-setting career as a quarterback. He's happy to have a lot of offensive weapons, with one of the most dangerous being Ruffin, who already owns USF career marks for receiving yards (2,597) and career touchdown receptions (34).
"We have two nice young quarterbacks," McCarthy said. "Major is a freshman, and we have Jamal, who is a junior college transfer. They're the two front-runners for [the quarterback job] right now, and both are doing a great job. ... Each brings a different skill set to the table. Jamal may be more of a pocket kid, while we can run Major around and do some things like we've used our quarterbacks in past years. I feel great about both of them, and they both can win us football games, and we're still in the evaluation process with them.
"Michael and Dwayne will be our top two backs and be interchangeable, and we'll try to get them the ball as many times as we can. I really feel like with our backs that we're going to be able to free up Brandon and other receivers since we'll get heavier boxes to defend the run. Obviously Brandon is one of the best players at the NAIA level, so we have to do everything that we can coaching-wise to design schemes where we can take advantage of his skill set."