A full slate of FCS games returns in Week 1 of the college football season, highlighted by this week's FCS game of the week when No. 9 Southern Illinois visits No. 14 UIW. The Salukis and the Cardinals meet in Week 1's lone game featuring two ranked teams, a matchup that also pits two 2021 second-round FCS playoff teams against each other.
Week 1 FCS game of the week
Southern Illinois returns arguably the top quarterback/running back/wide receiver trio in all of FCS football in Nic Baker, Javon Williams Jr. and Avante Cox. Baker threw for a school-record 3,231 passing yards last year, and Williams enters his fifth year of college — his third year eligibility-wise — with over 2,800 total yards and 40 total touchdowns in his career. Cox is the biggest wildcard of the bunch, coming off an injury-plagued fall 2021 that followed an All-American season in spring 2021. Cox had surgery on his left hand in the offseason and could miss Week 1's game.
On defense, the Salukis return five starters. Two returning starters included preseason all-conference selections in cornerback PJ Jules and free safety Clayton Bush. The duo led a Saluki secondary that finished 2021 second in the MVFC in passing defense. With a bevy of transfers coming in on the defensive side of the football, the Salukis' run defense is aiming for improvement this fall after finishing the third-worst in its conference last year.
UIW enters 2022 without last year's head coach and Jerry Rice Award-winning quarterback Eric Morris and Cameron Ward, respectively, departed for Washington State this offseason. However, the Cardinals bring in head coach G.J. Kinne from UCF and quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. from Nicholls. At Nicholls last year, Scott gained over 3,000 total yards and scored 25 total touchdowns.
Most notably, Scott's passes led top wide receiver target Dai'Jean Dixon to NFL opportunities. That bodes well for Scott's newest target at UIW, wide receiver Taylor Grimes, who's coming off a 2021 season where he led the FCS in receiving touchdowns.
Linebacker Kelechi Anyalebechi leads UIW's defense. Anyalebechi was a finalist for 2021's Buck Buchanan Award after leading the Cardinals in total tackles, sacks and forced fumbles. Anyalebechi is joined by safety Kaleb Culp Jr., who finished second on the team in tackles last year. Culp leads a secondary that has three preseason All-Southland selections. The backend of UIW's defense led the Southland in passing defense efficiency and looks to again be a strength for the Cardinals.
UIW and Southern Illinois open the season with a high-stakes matchup. Neither team is predicted to win its conference in 2022; if the predictions hold true, this season-opening game could carry at-large playoff stakes down the road. Yet, before we get to that point in the season, week 1's only ranked vs. ranked game should provide excitement as the Salukis and Cardinals try to send a statement to the top of the FCS.