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Southern Utah University's American West Conference championship was a big step last season. But with a 3-7-1 record overall, it wasn't enough to earn the young NCAA I-AA team much respect.

But head coach Jack Bishop believes this evening's home opener against 10th-ranked Idaho is the chance his team needs to prove itself."Idaho is a great opportunity for us. We've made the move to I-AA and now it's time to show we belong here. This game is where we can do it," Bishop said.

A victory against the Vandals would give the 'Birds their long-awaited bragging rights. Idaho made it to the I-AA playoff semifinals last year before falling to eventual national champion Youngstown State. And while they lost Payton Award winning quarterback Doug Nussmeir, the Vandals have All-American tailback Sherriden May returning.

SUU and Idaho have never met on the football field, but the Vandals did leave their mark in the Beehive State last season with a 56-0 victory over Weber State and a 28-17 win over the Utes.

"This is definitely a big game for us," Bishop said. "This is the best football team we've ever played."

The challenge couldn't come to SUU at a better time.

"We're as ready for a season to begin as we've ever been and although I hate to say it, this is the best we've ever been at this stage. We've had no injuries to speak of, we're solid two-deep at every position, we have good speed, good conditioning and the schemes seem to be in place. For our program, with what we have and who we are, we're ready to play a football game; now we'll find out where we really are."

The Thunderbirds will be led offensively by quarterback Rick Robins, who is already among the team's top three in 10 season and career statistical categories.