Let’s start this Southern Utah University vs. the University of North Dakota football preview with a hypothetical.
A nameless team in a respected conference has the following resume:
- 4-7 overall record
- 3-4 in their conference
- faced highly ranked preseason opponents
- won three times at home, but struggled mightily on the road
- narrowly pulled out a one point home win against a rival
- fought valiantly to win on the road in their final game
- ended the season disappointed by a few close games and crucial missed field goals
How would you evaluate that team? Did
What if I told you that team isn’t the Southern Utah University, but actually a team the Thunderbirds lost to on home soil last season, the University of Northern Alabama?
The Lions, who won seven games in their first season in Division-I in 2018, beat what ended up being the 1-10 T-Birds by four points. They struggled mightily after a core group of seniors graduated at the end of last season and limped to the resume you see above.
SUU also lost a core group of seniors in Marquez Tucker, Chinedu Ahanonu and Taelin Webb last season, but somehow won more games in 2019.
The difference between seven wins and nine wins is different than the difference between one win and three, but there have been signs of improvement for the T-Birds. 3-9 is a respectable record, especially given SUU’s strength of schedule.
Now, as the team travels east to face the University of North Dakota, they have one more chance to build their resume and build some momentum heading into next season. If they win on the road, then they’ll pull even with a team that beat them last season, a clear sign of improvement.
If Northern Alabama could travel to Gardner-Webb and get a win in their final game of the season, then SUU should be able to do it, too. The T-Birds are better than that 2018 UNA team and they could be better than North Dakota, too.
This is the exact kind of signature win that SUU has been so desperate for this season. Barely squeaking out a win against a rival on home turf, like they did last week against Northern Arizona, is one thing, but winning on the road against a team with everything to play for is on another level.
North Dakota currently sits at 6-5, needing just one more win to be eligible for the FCS Playoff. There’s an outside chance they get in, especially with six win Maine and Eastern Washington teams in action. If Nicholls State, Southern Illinois or Towson fall and UND wins, then the Fighting Hawks might claim an at-large bid.
SUU could completely ruin their chances with a win in Grand Forks.
The Fighting Hawks are a good team, but they’ve produced similar results as the T-Birds have against common opponents.
Both teams beat up on Idaho State, went down to the wire against UC Davis and Cal Poly, and got beat up on by highly ranked opponents.
SUU might argue that if a couple of field goals and a few bounces had gone their way, the T-Birds would be the ones with everything to play for against North Dakota.
The Fighting Hawks did beat No. 9 Montana State, but they did it at home with a 16-12 win heavily affected by the weather. Montana State clobbered the T-Birds 42-7 in Bozeman.
Each team performed well in Ogden against No. 4 Weber State. UND lost by three. The T-Birds were tied at half time but let the game get away in the final quarter.
So, if the T-Birds truly are better than their record indicates, then this is their final chance to prove it. They have to stare a playoff team in the eye and not flinch.
That’s a big ask, but continuing to push this program forward will not be easy for Demario Warren. This could be that season-defining type of win they need to keep hope churning in their future.
Las Vegas betting odds opened with North Dakota as the twelve point favorite. That’s become common place for the T-Birds. The team was the underdog in all but one game this season and was a double digit underdogs in all but three.
This season the T-Birds have been outscored by 160 points while on the road. Their 96-256 combined score while on the road is shocking in comparison to their 181-156 home combined score.
Now is the time to prove the doubters wrong and show the world who the T-Birds really are.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by Mitchell Quartz