CANTON, Mo. -- Respect is a nice reward the Culver-Stockton College football team is reaping for its recent run of success.
By no means, though, do the Wildcats lose their underdog edge.
"We play in a tough conference and people that we beat last year got better," C-SC coach Tom Sallay said. "They went out and recruited. There are really good coaches in our league, and they don't want to lose to Culver-Stockton this year. So we're always going to have to be a program that does things with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.
"Even if they do say they recognize, we have to understand just because they say it they probably don't actually feel it. We have to put ourself in position to be successful and do what we have to do every single day."
If so, the Wildcats will earn the respect they're being given.
C-SC was picked to finish second in the Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division, according to a poll of the league's coaches released this week. The Wildcats received one first-place vote and tied with William Penn with 44 points overall.
Grand View received the other five first-place votes and is the favorite in the North. Benedictine is picked to win the South Division.
"It's a big deal for our guys, especially for the guys who are going to be seniors who came in with nothing but me and our staff selling them a dream," Sallay said. "For them to get some recognition for all of their hard work and time and just sticking around, that's a big deal."
The Wildcats are coming off a 6-5 season in which they finished second in the Heart North with a 4-1 record. The six victories were the most by a C-SC football team since 2001, and this is the highest the Wildcats have landed in the coaches' poll.
They return nearly every starter on offense, led by first-team All-American tackle Andrew Rupcich. Last season, the Wildcats ranked seventh in the NAIA in passing offense with 3,208 yards, and passing yards per game with 291.6 yards. The C-SC offensive line allowed just 13 sacks, ranking 14th in the NAIA.
Conference coaches know what C-SC returns, which is the reason for the lofty ranking, but Sallay insists polls don't mean much unless you follow through on the field.
"I always tell our guys, ‘They could have ranked us No. 1 in the country, but it doesn't matter until you go and beat somebody,'" Sallay said. "You have to enjoy your wins for a little and be proud of what you're doing, but none of that stuff matters until you go out and beat people."
The process of doing that begins soon.
The Wildcats will return to campus late next week, go through the proper COVID-19 protocols and then start practicing. Because of the need for masks and social distancing, the entire fall camp will take on a different look, but it's all done with the same end game in mind.
C-SC wants to play September 12, when it is scheduled to open the season at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo.
"We'll have to change quite a bit, but it might not be a bad thing in the end," Sallay said. "It might be a more productive way to practice and get everybody coached every day. The way we will break up practice will allow us to coach up every single kid every single day, at least give them a certain amount of attention."