ST. LOUIS — Ranked in the Division I-AA national top 10 by several publications, Illinois State did no better than third in Tuesday's Gateway Conference preseason poll.
"It's no insult," ISU coach Denver Johnson insisted. "It speaks to the parity of the league and how really tough the Gateway Conference is. I'm going into my seventh season, and I can tell you the league has never been stronger. The road to the Gateway championship is a tough, tough trail."
While he considers preseason rankings "frivolous," Johnson and his staff have watched the national preseason polls consistently hold the Redbirds in high regard.
"When the magazines started coming out, Coach (Justin) Fuente came into the office one day and said 'I've got some good news and some bad news,' " Johnson said. "He said 'we're ranked seventh in the country.' I said 'what's the bad news.' He said 'we're picked fourth in the conference by the same magazine.'
"There are a bunch of teams in this league that can win it."
ISU linebacker Cameron Siskowic and wide receiver Laurent Robinson have received preseason All-America recognition and were named to the Gateway preseason team. Redbird defensive lineman Justin Martindale and linebacker Kye Stewart were honorable mention Gateway choices.
"Hands down, this is the best conference in America for I-AA football," Siskowic said. "The reason we probably don't get as much respect as we should (as a league) is we beat up on each other throughout the season."
The Redbirds will try to make the move from their 7-4 record of a year ago to a Gateway title and a I-AA playoff berth.
"Don't look past any team," Robinson said. "Come out 1-0 that week and go from there."
"We just need to be more consistent overall," said Siskowic. "We showed we have the firepower and the potential to do it. We beat a team (Northern Iowa) that played in the national championship game, 38-3. The seniors need to lead and we need to have people follow. Everything should just fall into place."
Johnson said he has "never been more pleased" with how his team has progressed in the offseason.
"We have a stallion in our strength staff in Coach (Rohrk) Cutchlow," said Johnson. "Coach Cutchlow and his staff have been administering our summer program. We've had virtually 100 percent of our returning players here all summer going through the program.
"Our football team's got the right frame of mind, the right attitude and the right mode of operation. We are extremely excited about this bunch of guys. We're ready for next week to come around so we can get on the field and start getting prepared to open up play."
The Redbirds report Aug. 2 and begin practice the next day. The season opener is Sept. 2 at Kansas State.
ISU quarterback Luke Drone completed 64.5 percent of his passes last season for the fifth best percentage in Gateway history.
Drone's performance, however, was only the third best in 2005. Northern Iowa's Eric Sanders set the conference record at 68.3 percent, while Western Illinois' Steve LaFalce was right behind at 67.4.
Final season for I-AA?
Gateway commissioner Patty Viverito said Tuesday she expects the NCAA to remove the labels of Division I-A and I-AA after the coming season.
"We will have a Bowl Division (the current I-A) and a Championship Division (I-AA)," Viverito said. "I expect that will be a reality as early as next season."
Northern Iowa reloads
The names at wide receiver may not be familiar for Northern Iowa. Still, they bear watching.
The Panthers have added Whitney Lewis, a transfer from Southern California and Pittsburgh transfer Terrell Allen as well as two junior college transfers at the position.