Game of the Week: No. 9 Southern Illinois at No. 14 UIW

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No. 9 Southern Illinois at No. 14 UIW

When: 6 p.m. Saturday at Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium in San Antonio

Broadcast: ESPN+

The Matchup: It’s not unusual to have two teams meet in Week 1 with a lot of unanswered questions. However, it’s not every day both teams with so many questions are ranked in the Top-15 and are the only game in FCS featuring two ranked foes this week.

UIW is a complete mystery entering the season after Eric Morris, who quickly built the Cardinals into a perennial playoff contender, left for Washington State and took QB Cameron Ward to Pullman, Wash.

The Cardinals found a quality replacement in G.J. Kinne, who inherits a team known for a dynamic offense and an opportunistic defense. What will UIW look like under Kinne on both sides of the ball? That’s what we will find out on Saturday.

Southern Illinois coach Nick Hill has a reputation similar to Morris. Hill has rebuilt SIU into a perennial playoff contender while playing in the toughest conference in FCS. The Salukis lost a lot of talent from last year’s roster, especially on the defense.

To fill in the gaps, SIU turned to the transfer portal, where they brought in 18 transfers, with 13 from FBS schools. Saturday, we will learn how well the new faces have fit in with the roster and whether the SIU defense is improved after allowing 179.4 yards rushing per game last year.

X-Factor: QB Nic Baker, Southern Illinois

The SIU offense is expected to be explosive again this year, and the return of Baker at quarterback is a large reason for the optimism. Last season, Baker completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,231 yards and 27 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

Baker has plenty of weapons around him, led by RB Javon Williams Jr., who averaged 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. Baker’s most experienced target this year is WR Avante Cox, who registered 739 yards and five touchdowns on 43 receptions. Cox has game-breaking speed and scored on a 99-yard reception last year.

Prediction: UIW has a new head coach with new offensive and defensive coordinators. Add in a new QB with the transfer of Lindsey Scott Jr. from Nicholls, and the Cardinals have far too many unknowns for me this week. I expect the offense to put up points, especially with Taylor Grimes, Ce’Cori Tolds, and Darion Chafin at wide receiver.

My main concern for UIW is defense, where the Cardinals allowed 427.6 yards and 26.9 points per game last year. What helped the UIW defense was its ability to force turnovers. Can the Cardinals’ defense continue to force an average of two turnovers per game like last season? We will find out on Saturday.

Southern Illinois by 6

Best of the Rest:

Saturday, Sept. 3

Texas Southern at Prairie View A&M, 6 p.m., ESPN+

Colorado State-Pueblo at No. 24 Midwestern State, 6 p.m., LSC Digital Network

No. 11 Muhlenberg at No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor, 6 p.m., CruAthletics.com

Other Small College Games:

Thursday, Sept. 1

NCAA FCS

Lincoln (Calif.) at Texas A&M-Commerce, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Lamar at Abilene Christian, 7 p.m., ESPN+

Mississippi Valley State at Tarleton, 7 p.m., ESPN+

NCAA DII

Chadron State at No. 7 Angelo State, 7 p.m., LSC Digital Network

Saturday, Sept. 3

NCAA FCS

Sam Houston at No. 7 Texas A&M, 11 a.m., SEC+

Houston Baptist at Northern Colorado, 3 p.m., ESPN+

SFA at Alcorn State, 6 p.m.

NCAA DII

Southwest Baptist at UTPB, 6 p.m., LSC Digital Network

North American at Texas A&M-Kingsville, 7 p.m., LSC Digital Network

No. 17 Western Colorado at West Texas A&M, 7 p.m., LSC Digital Network

NCAA DIII

No. 6 Hardin-Simmons at Wayland Baptist, 11 a.m., WBU All-Access

Austin College at Hendrix, 1 p.m., Warrior Sports Network

Howard Payne at Texas Lutheran, 1 p.m., TLUBulldogs.com

McMurry vs No. 25 Birmingham-Southern, 1 p.m.

East Texas Baptist at No. 19 Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 1 p.m.

Sul Ross State at No. 9 Trinity, 6 p.m., Tiger Network

Cal Lutheran at Southwestern, 7 p.m., VYPE Live YouTube

NAIA

Louisiana Christian at SAGU, 6 p.m., SAGU Sports Network

Texas College at Arkansas Baptist, 7 p.m.

Texas Wesleyan at No. 20 Arizona Christian, 9 p.m., GSAC Sports Network

NJCAA

Southern Shreveport at Trinity Valley, 11 a.m., SHN Sports

Tyler at No. 8 Kilgore, 7 p.m.

Resolution Prep at Blinn, 7 p.m.

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