Ole Miss will pay Southeastern Louisiana the princely sum of $450,000 to come to Oxford and play a football game this Saturday.

Now that may not sound like much money at the Southeastern Conference level. After all, Ole Miss operates on an annual athletic budget that exceeds $120 million.

But for the Southeastern Louisiana Lions, that money is a godsend. It’s a huge chunk of an overall athletic budget of about $14 million. At the NCAA’s Division I FCS level, football teams are allowed 63 scholarships. That 450 grand will fund tuition for nearly all 63 this school year.

“Obviously, it’s a huge pay day for us,” said SLU athletic director Jay Artigues, a Bay St. Louis native and Belhaven graduate. “We try to play one FBS team a year and I always try to make it a game we can travel by bus instead of flying. Our travel expenses come out of the $450,000. If we flew, it would cost $75,000 to charter the plane. Our total expenses – buses, motel, meals – comes to about $33,000.”

So Southeastern will clear approximately $417,000. It will be the second biggest payday in SLU history. The Hammond-based Lions received $500,000 to make the much shorter trip to LSU last year. LSU drubbed Southeastern 31-0. And that’s why the larger, richer FBS teams, which are allowed 85 scholarships, play these games, that is, to pick up an easy victory in a game that is part of a lucrative season ticket package.

Rick Cleveland

It doesn’t always work that way. Already this season, two FBS teams have been toppled by FCS teams. Central Arkansas defeated Western Kentucky 35-28 on Aug. 29 and Southern Illinois walloped UMass 45-20 on Sept. 7.

Ah, you say, but those are not SEC level programs. It couldn’t happen to Ole Miss, could it?

It already has. In 2010, Jacksonville State defeated Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels 49-48 in double overtime.

It happened to Kansas last year when Nicholls State, which plays in the same Southland Conference as SLU, defeated the Jayhawks 26-23 in overtime. North Dakota State famously defeated 13th ranked Iowa in 2016. The Citadel knocked off South Carolina in 2015. Georgia Southern stunned Florida in 2013.

Remember the Maine? Mississippi State does. Maine defeated State 9-7 in 2004.

It happens. It doesn’t happen that often, but it happens. There were 111 of these FBS-FCS matchups in 2018. The FCS teams won only seven. FCS teams beat FBS teams nine times in 2017, 10 times in 2016.

Few Ole Miss fans who were there will forget the sickening feeling on Sept. 4, nine years ago, when Jack Crowe’s Jacksonville State Gamecocks stunned the Rebels with a two-pont conversion in the second overtime. “Without a doubt, the worst loss of my career,” Nutt said.

Said Crowe, who had lost to The Citadel as head coach at Arkansas, “If you stay in this game long enough, it goes both ways.”

Now then, here’s the kicker: Two weeks ago, in its opener (and only game thus far), Southeastern whipped none other than Jacksonville State 35-14.

Now here’s the double kicker: Cole Kelley, the quarterback who threw for two touchdowns in that game for SLU, already has quarterbacked a team to victory at Ole Miss. In 2017, he threw three touchdowns to help Arkansas overcome a 24-point deficit and beat the Rebels 38-37. He transferred to SLU this off-season.

And Kelley doesn’t even start for the Lions. Chason Virgil, a transfer from Fresno State, starts for the Lions at quarterback. The SLU lineup is peppered with FBS transfers. Running back Devonte Williams played two years at Indiana and made the Big Ten Conference all-freshman team in 2016. Wide receiver Anthony Spurlock, a former three-star prospect out of New Orleans, transferred to SLU from Western Kentucky.

Micheal Spurlock Credit: SLU athletics

The Southeastern head coach is Frank Scelfo, who has been an offensive assistant at Tulane, Arizona and in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. One of his assistant coaches is none other Micheal Spurlock, the former Ole Miss star and one of the greatest Mississippi high school players in history at Indianola. Spurlock, who played for Scelfo in Jacksonville, coaches Lions wide receivers and coordinates the special teams.

Earlier in the week, Scelfo used Micheal Spurlock to illustrate how the Lions approach Saturday’s game.

“Micheal’s excited,” Scelfo said. “He’s got a lot of friends and fans over there, but he’s very proud to walk out there on that field with this football team. That makes me, as a head coach, feel good. He’s not thinking about going in there and getting a big paycheck. Hell no, we’re coming in there to play and play well and at the end of the day have a chance to win the game.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.