When Demario Warren took over as the head football coach at Southern Utah University in 2016, not much was expected of the T-Birds.
In that year’s Big Sky Conference preseason poll, Southern Utah was picked to finish seventh in the conference; respectable, if nothing more.
Instead, the T-Birds overachieved and finished fifth overall at 5-3 in conference play.
The following year, 2017, SUU did even better.
The T-Birds were once again picked to finish seventh in the Big Sky, but instead they had a historic 9-3 campaign that saw them win the conference and advance to the second round of the FCS playoffs, a program first.
- Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. Rick Scuteri, AP
- Southern Utah Thunderbirds running back Jay Green runs the ball against the Weber State Wildcats during NCAA football in Cedar City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. Ravell Call, Deseret News
- Southern Utah cornerback Jalen Russell (1) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. Rick Scuteri, AP
In just two seasons, Warren made sure that Southern Utah maintained its status as one of the better Big Sky programs.
All of the positive momentum gained from those overachieving campaigns was lost, however, thanks to a dismal 2018 season.
SUU finished just 1-10 last year, in what was an injury-marred and otherwise forgettable campaign.
Ten months later, the disappointment of last season is still very much on the T-Birds’ minds.
“Our guys have been fired up for a long time from the disappointment of last season,” Warren said. “It’s going to be a great story for everybody when we do what we expect to do this season.”
In order for any sort of dramatic turnaround, the T-Birds will need to improve significantly on both sides of the ball.
Key to any jump on offense will be consistent quarterback play, and the T-Birds will look to Chris Helbig — who played in four games last year, before a shoulder injury cut his season short — and Tyler Skidmore to provide it.
The T-Birds return leader rusher Jay Green (829 yards and seven touchdowns) and fellow running back James Felila, not to mention wide receiver Landen Measom, who had both the most receiving yards of any SUU player (589), and the best yards-per-reception average (13.7).
Southern Utah moved the ball well enough in 2018, totaling 4,787 yards (32nd in FCS) at an average of 435.2 per game (27th). Scoring touchdowns proved difficult, however, as the T-Birds finished the year 80th in the country in points scored per contest (25.5).
For as unsuccessful as SUU was overall offensively last year, the team was significantly worse on defense.
The T-Birds ranked 118th among FCS teams in scoring defense in 2018, and allowed 41.5 points per game. SUU was also ranked 123rd (next-to-last) in total defense, having given up 541.2 yards per game.
New defensive coordinator Brandon Fisher has been tasked with overseeing a turnaround, and players like defensive linemen Lehi Afatasi and Watson Asi, and defensive backs Jalen Russell and AJ Stanley will be key to any improvement.
All told, seven of last year’s top 11 tacklers return, led by Stanley, who was third on the team with 66 tackles.
Any kind of turnaround campaign will not be easy, however.
The T-Birds play five teams ranked in the top 25 of the 2019 preseason FCS Coaches Poll, including a pair of top five teams in No. 4 South Dakota State and No. 5 UC Davis.
Thrown in UNLV and SUU has the 12th most difficult schedule in FCS this year.
Because of that, the T-Birds were picked to finish 11th in the Big Sky by media, 12th by the conference’s coaches.
The lack of outside expectations has done nothing to diminish optimism in Cedar City for the 2019 season. In fact, it has done the opposite.
“I’m just excited,” Warren said. “I love proving people wrong all the time, so the lower the better. This just gives us another opportunity to add to our story.”
2019 SUU schedule
- Aug. 31, at UNLV, 8 p.m. (MT), Mountain West Network
- Sept. 7, at No. 20 Northern Iowa, 3 p.m. (MT), ESPN 3
- Sept. 14, vs. Stephen F. Austin, 6:05 p.m. (MT), Pluto TV
- Sept. 21, at No. 4 South Dakota State, 5 p.m. (MT)
- Sept. 28, vs. Cal Poly, 6:05 p.m. (MT), Pluto TV
- Oct. 5, at Portland State, TBD, Pluto TV
- Oct. 12, at No. 9 Weber State, 6 p.m. (MT), KJZZ
- Oct. 19, vs. No. 5 UC Davis, 6:05 p.m. (MT), Pluto TV
- Oct. 26, vs. Idaho State, 2:05 p.m. (MT), Pluto TV
- Nov. 2, at No. 15 Montana State, TBD, Root Sports
- Nov. 16, vs. Northern Arizona, 2:05 p.m. (MT), Pluto TV
- Nov. 23, at North Dakota, noon (MT)