CARBONDALE — Saluki Stadium hasn't ever hosted a playoff game, but Saturday's game between 17th-ranked Southeastern Louisiana and 18th-ranked SIU will have that feel.
There is a chance the winner of the game between the 4-2 Lions and 4-3 Salukis doesn't get into the 16-team playoff field, as there are only six at-large bids nation-wide, but they won't know until Sunday. Both teams have multiple wins against top 25 teams, but neither can win their leagues. That won't stop them from trying to earn some momentum for the fall.
"You never know how a game's gonna go. They have a very talented quarterback and a really good playcaller, I feel like, and a good scheme that fits him really well," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "They scored twice on defense (against Nicholls last weekend). We're not gonna try to adapt to them. We're gonna try to play our game, do what works for us, and it should be a good football game."
Here are three things to watch for in both teams' regular-season finale:
No. 1 — Airing it out: It's 6-foot-7, 260-pound Cole Kelley against SIU's experienced secondary, which could be a good matchup for the Salukis. Kelley, the nation's leading passer in yards with 2,244 in six spring games, completes 66.9% of his passes and averages 374 a game through the air. SIU, with Qua Brown, Clayton Bush, James Ceasar and Jonathan Thompson in the starting lineup, allow less than 143 yards a game through the air (10th-best in the FCS).
The Salukis haven't given up a 300-yard passing game yet this season, and have only allowed six passing touchdowns all year. Kelley has a strong arm and makes good decisions, but the Lions have struggled to protect him consistently. He's been sacked 20 times in six games, and even though SIU is down some tackles its front four could have a big game Saturday.
"First half (at Nicholls) we had a couple drives, and we had to kick field goals, which I was disappointed in, but we kept fightin,'" Lions coach Frank Scelfo said. "In the second half, we had some big plays, but I felt like Cole really played well. It might've been his best game all year."
The Saluki Stadium record is 466 passing yards by former South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion in 2016. Even if SIU's front four play well, Kelley and the Lions throw it so much, they might put up some big numbers. The Salukis allowed a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game in their last game, a 30-27 loss at Missouri State, and also gave up a 31-yard pass play and a 38-yard version.
No. 2 — Keeping the football: SIU is minus-8 in turnover margin this season, and has almost singlehandedly given away games with the amount of turnovers it's committed in a single afternoon. The Salukis must show some discipline in taking care of the ball and trying to take it away from the Lions, who have given away only eight possessions all year. Kelley has only been intercepted four times, and Southeastern Louisiana has only lost four of eight fumbles.
"We've been really good when we don't turn the ball over and hurt ourselves, and we gotta find ways to get takeaways, and play well on special teams," Hill said. "When you have a good football team, the other things kind of take care of themselves."
Against a team that scored 45 points and lost by double digits March 20 (Incarnate Word beat the Lions 56-45), SIU can't give away extra possessions. It must find a way to reduce the silly penalties that kept some critical Bears drives alive two weeks ago, and get off the field on defense.
No. 3 — Black Out Cancer game: If trying to end its season with a win, and a possible playoff berth, isn't enough to juice up SIU, hopefully the Black Out Cancer game adds some energy.
Originally scheduled for the Western Illinois game that was supposed to be on April 10, Saturday's game will be SIU's annual fundraiser for the Coach Kill Cancer Fund. Saluki players will wear special Under Armour jerseys with the names of fans' loved ones on the back. Fans bid for the right to put a loved one's name on the back of an official SIU jersey, raising $31,896, according to a news release.
The event has raised more than $364,000 in 10 years.