Shenandoah University football coach Paul Barnes doesn't mince words about this year's schedule -- in his 13 years coaching the Hornets, he's never seen a schedule more sobering than this year's slate.
"I think from top to bottom, it's probably our toughest schedule yet," said Barnes, now in his 11th year as the Hornets' head coach after serving two years as an assistant under former head coach Walter Barr. "But we always have had the philosophy -- we'll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. And I truly believe that."
Entering its first season in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, Shenandoah first must make it through a stern trio of non-conference games, including a pair against their erstwhile USA South Conference rivals.
First, though, the Hornets pay a return visit to Stevenson to open the season on Sept. 1. Shenandoah hosted the Mustangs in their first-ever game last year at Shentel Stadium, and came away with a 49-21 victory in a shootout that featured a staggering five-touchdown performance by former SU star wide receiver Rico Wallace. Wallace is gone now, competing for a roster spot with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Stevenson returns nearly its entire roster from last year's team, a mostly freshman group that nonetheless knocked off USA South traditional power Christopher Newport in overtime for the program's first win last year.
Then comes back-to-back home games against longtime USA South foes Ferrum and Christopher Newport, the two schools which finished ahead of the Hornets last year in the conference standings and the top two picks in the USA South again this year. SU lost to Ferrum, 41-28, and dropped a 27-20 overtime decision to the Captains last year to drop the Hornets' combined record against those two programs to 5-18.
Challenge or opportunity? Maybe both.
"Honestly, I think it's pretty exciting," Hornets senior tailback Carl Joseph said. "We're getting to play a lot of tough teams, teams that have been in the playoffs. We actually have to prove ourselves, that we belong.
"We're not favorites, but it's OK, though. We just have to come together as a team and bond and go out there and play. If we play as one we'll succeed, no doubt."
Following that non-conference slate, the Hornets officially take the long-awaited plunge into ODAC competition with a Sept. 22 matchup at Bridgewater. The Eagles, of course, are no strangers to Shenandoah. Last year's loss to Bridgewater dropped SU's all-time record against the Eagles to 1-11.
An Oct. 6 homecoming matchup with Guilford marks SU's first venture into uncharted territory -- the schools have never met on the football field, yet share the dubious distinction of tying for last in the ODAC preseason coaches' poll.
"I really could care less what any poll says -- it's where you're at, at the end of the year," Barnes said. "So I'm not worried about it. I know one thing is this -- when we get in the ODAC, we have played the ODAC for a lot of years and we're ready for it."
Shenandoah renews a rivalry on the road against Catholic on Oct. 12, looking to even the all-time series at 4-4 with a win.
Then its back home for a first-ever matchup against Hampden-Sydney, the top pick in the preseason ODAC poll, on Oct. 20. From there, SU has a week to get ready for No. 2 in that preseason poll, as Randolph-Macon comes to Winchester on Oct. 27.
By then, the Hornets will have gotten a full taste of ODAC competition.
"I'm very excited," SU junior linebacker Josh Rogers said. "Me personally, I just want to go out and show that just because we're going to a new conference doesn't mean that we're not going to be as good as we were last year with our defense, or even throughout the whole team."
Comparing the two leagues -- the USA South and the ODAC -- at SU's media day on Saturday, Barnes described the biggest noticeable difference as line play. The ODAC offensive and defensive fronts tend to be bigger, stronger and deeper. It's a message the Hornets seem to have gotten.
"Coach stresses that every day, that we're going to have to work harder because we're going against good offensive lines," Hornets sophomore defensive end Ian Griffin said. "It's not going to be like the USA South o-lines."
The Hornets wrap up the season with two road games in November, making first-ever visits to Emory & Henry and Washington & Lee.
It will mark the end of a long, draining season -- whether triumphant or deflating remains to be seen. Regardless, the Hornets are eager to get on with it.
"You know what? If it's easy, we don't want it," Joseph said. "We want a challenge. We want to challenge ourselves every game. We want to work to be the best."
One thing's for certain -- the Hornets have their work cut out for them this season.
-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at email@example.com