Mike Jones and the Lincoln Blue Tigers face an uphill battle.
The challenge consists of turning around a long-struggling football program in the most unforgiving football conference in NCAA Division II - the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
Often referred to as the SEC of Division II, the comparison isn't all that far off. While the MIAA can't match the SEC's seven national titles in a row, it does boast an impressive resume - seven championship-game appearances in the past nine years, including two titles (Pittsburg State in 2011 and Northwest Missouri State in 2009). Three MIAA teams are ranked in the national preseason poll, including two in the top six, and three more are receiving votes.
Lincoln, on the other hand, has gone 1-10 in both of the past two seasons, winning just one conference game in that span and hasn't had a winning season since 1972.
So uphill battle might be putting it lightly.
"It's a tough challenge," Jones said. "We're playing catch-up, we've been playing catch-up. I was talking to a coach last year who said, "Coach, you're doing a good job.' That's fine, but when everybody's starting on the goal line and going to the other goal line, but we're at the 50 and you're at the other goal line, we're still a long way from you. We're a little closer to the goal line, but we still have a lot of work to do.
"We still have to change some philosophies and mentalities on the team, but it's getting in the right direction."
As difficult as that challenge may be, Jones is as optimistic as ever entering his third year at the helm.
"We're going to be competitive," Jones said. "We can't let the emotions get to us. We have to be smart enough to understand, "You know what, we won one game in two years in the conference, so that's why they have us ranked there (last in the conference).' Only way we can change that is by proving it on the football field."
And Jones thinks that will happen.
"We still have the same mindset," he said. "We're going to have a winning football season."
A main reason? Continuity.
"Everyone has kids that have been in their program for a while," Jones said. "They understand what it takes to play in the MIAA. This is our third year. Other than Lindenwood and Southwest Baptist, those teams have been established for a while. We just brought football back. When you have three coaches in six years, you have no stability. You're trying to get stability.
"This year we'll have the biggest group of seniors, and that will help us. That's what you've got to do, you have to build on it, you have to keep kids here, you have stay consistent and keep the same coaches and gradually these guys will understand what we want and they'll become better football players because of it.
"When you've been in a losing program, we've had some guys who have been here for three, four or even five years, they haven't had the opportunity to win. Now the guys understand the challenge of being at Lincoln and being in the MIAA. Those guys had enough fortitude to stay here and say, "We're going to see this thing through, and hopefully because of that we'll turn this thing around.'"
So there's no doubt this will be Lincoln's best team in Jones' tenure, or that the Blue Tigers are certainly on the rise. But a winning season?
"It would surprise people immensely," Jones said. "For me to say we're going to have a winning season, and coaches will look at it and see we've only won two games in two years, one game in the MIAA in two years, everyone's going to scratch their head and say, "Why is coach Jones saying that?' But we have to get to a mindset now where it's, "Stop accepting being below average.' Lincoln's been like that for a while. We have to change that mentality."
And Jones thinks Lincoln is on that path.
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for something to get excited about this season, why not start with the Lincoln offense?
The Blue Tigers return just about everybody of note from the 2012 squad that set school records for passing yards (2,410) and total offense (3,734).
Starting quarterback Jacob Morris returns for his junior season after a year where he went 169-of-327 for 1,718 yards and 10 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
"I think Jake's going to have a good season," Jones said.
Leading receiver Maurice Woodard is back after putting together the second-best season in program history with both his 68 catches and 705 receiving yards. Khiry Draine, who had a hot start to 2012 before a season-ending injury, Andre Borney, Devoyius Mark and converted quarterback Percy Turner also help form a formidable receiving corps that ranked eighth in the MIAA out of 15 teams last season with 219.1 yards per game.
"I think we have a pretty good crew," Jones said. "I'm excited about the group."
Morris Henderson returns as the leading rusher (475 yards) with five touchdowns, with Jacob Morris rushing for 390 yards and six scores. Still, the group ranked 12th in the MIAA last season with 120.4 yards per game.
"You look at this league, you have to be able to run the ball," Jones said. "We weren't able to firmly establish the running game until probably six, seven games into the season. That's too far into the season. You have to be able to run the ball to open up the passing game. I really believe that. We throw the ball a lot, but we want to run the football."
Anchored by center J.J. Johnson and left tackle Roberto Limon, the offensive line is a group where Jones expects drastic improvement.
"We're going to be better up front," Jones said, also referencing how Lincoln has 10-11 quality linemen this season compared to six last year. "We're a lot bigger than what we were. We're stronger. Does that make us win more football games, no, but it gets us in position to win."
THERE ARE A lot more question marks on the defensive side of the ball, especially after all-everything cornerback O'Hara Fluellen's graduation.
Besides singling out defensive lineman Darryl Blackmon (team-high four sacks, fourth with 45 tackles last season), outside linebacker Kendrick Causey and defensive backs Markuice Savage (44 tackles, three interceptions, freshman All-American in 2012), Brian Smith, Robert Felton, Kerry Roby and Tevin Brock, playing time is available all over the field.
"Other than that, everyone's job is wide open, everyone is still competing, and that's good," Jones said. "If you have somebody pushing you on the team, once we get to game situations, hopefully we can run waves of guys."
Lincoln's defense got torched last season for a league-worst 41.6 points per game, but did rank seventh with 13 interceptions and ninth in pass defense (225.6 yards).
"We haven't stopped the run anywhere near what I'd like," Jones said, as the Blue Tigers allowed a MIAA-worst 206.6 yards on the ground in 2012. "We did a solid job getting turnovers, but we have to tackle better. That's the bottom line."
SPECIAL TEAMS SHOULD be much-improved over last year's league-worsts in punting, kickoff coverage, field goals and PATs thanks to the addition of kicker Andrew Fishel and punter Julio Segura.
"Without a doubt, the thing that had been our Achilles' heel is our special teams play," Jones said. "Part of it was that we had a kid that was punting that was a wide receiver last year. Then we had a kicker who was basically a track runner. Those two things should be improved."
THERE IS A small touch of local flavor on the Lincoln roster this season.
Three former Jefferson City Jays - senior wide receiver Draine, junior center Johnson and freshman defensive end Zainu Mansary - and one former Helias Crusader - freshman linebacker Justus Schulte - dot the roster.
There are also three former NCAA Division I players on the roster - senior defensive tackle Darryl Blackmon (Kansas State) and offensive linemen Jarve Dean (Houston), a senior, and Taurean Box (North Carolina State), a junior.
LINCOLN'S 11-GAME SCHEDULE features 10 MIAA contests, beginning with the season opener Sept. 5 at Lindenwood.
The only non-conference game is quite a treat, as the Blue Tigers will travel Sept. 14 to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to take on Football Championship Subdivision squad Grambling State in the Missouri Classic.
"The great thing is, other than Grambling coming in for Truman State, we're playing the same teams that we played last year," Jones said. "With Grambling, it's a great opportunity to play another historically black college.
"It's never easy in the MIAA. It's a great challenge, but I think these guys are up for it."
As Sept. 5 approaches, Jones isn't wavering. He's ready for a winning season.
"Our team bottom line is to have a winning season," Jones said. "We haven't had a winning season at Lincoln for 40-plus years. These guys are tired of hearing they haven't won just like the coaches are."