Coastal Carolina is the talk of college football at 9-0. Its ranking, No. 14 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls, is the highest ever for a Sun Belt Conference team.
Even ESPN is taking note. Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis and the crew are headed to the "Surf Turf" in Conway, South Carolina, the first ESPN College Game Day appearance for the Chanticleers.
For Alex Spillum, a former standout at Chanhassen High School, a starting safety on the Coastal Carolina defense, it has been a special year for so many reasons.
"This team is special in a way where everyone plays for one another. No one is out there for just themselves. You're out there for your team; nobody wants to let their teammates down," he said.
That bond has been unbreakable this season. They've run the table thus far in conference play, already clinching a spot in the Sun Belt Conference championship on Dec. 19 in a rematch with Louisiana-Lafayette.
Every game at this point is as important as the next, or the ones before.
"We know that if we lose a game, the rankings go away. I'd say we have been ranked since like our fourth game. It's something we're all proud of, but we know with the spotlight we're in, we can't have any mistakes," Spillum said.
The latest College Football Playoff rankings showed Coastal Carolina at No. 20; the highest among non-Power 5 football conference teams.
Spillum learned the hard way about letting his team down as a junior at Chanhassen High School. He was suspended six games. He remembers sitting on the sidelines in street clothes. He remembers what it was like for his parents in the stands.
Here was a good kid who made mistakes.
"I let people down. I let my team down. I let my family down. I've done a lot of reflection about that," Spillum said.
He was given a second chance over the final four games of the 2015 Storm season, totaling 10 catches for 223 yards and a touchdown. He also added 24 rushes for 233 yards.
When the ball was in Spillum's hands, anything could happen. He was electric.
"He wanted to be a better version of himself. He stopped hanging out with the wrong crowd and I remember he was in the weight room every day during the summer after his junior year. He transformed himself so much even from his junior year of football to track in the spring. His physique, his strength," said former Chanhassen head football coach Mike Bailey.
When Bailey took over as head coach of Chanhassen from Bill Rosburg in 2016, he looked at what neighbor Chaska was doing with its offense, taking the best athlete on the team (Justin Arnold, Alex Strazzanti) and putting them at quarterback.
For Spillum, a state participant in the 4x200 relay, high, triple and long jump as a senior in track and field as well as playing basketball, it was his athletic ability that made the switch from receiver to quarterback work so well.
Bailey also believes it was his confidence that played out all season.
"I remember that summer, we're going over who we're going to play at quarterback and we just kept coming back to Spillum. He's just different. His outright speed. His ability to twist and bend. We thought, 'How do we not start with the ball in his hands every play,'" Bailey said. "Our first game against Armstrong, who we had lost to the year before, he makes this great corner throw to Trey Prince. We knew Spills would be able to run the ball, but we didn't know he'd throw the ball with such touch. I also remember against Holy Angels, we run this quarterback counter and he makes two guys miss and is gone into the end zone. I said, 'We got something here.'"
Spillum led Chanhassen to nine straight wins, a section championship game versus Mankato West. He rushed for 1,081 yards with 12 touchdowns, throwing another 12 scores and more than 900 yards.
"I was a little shocked he had that trust in me. It was a big jump, but one I was really excited for, as I knew with me getting the ball in my hands more often meant I had a better chance at colleges seeing me," Spillum said.
It was during his senior season with the Storm where he received a message on Twitter from Coastal Carolina Assistant Coach Curt Baldus, who went to college with current Chanhassen Head Coach Cullen Nelson at Gustavus Adolphus College.
"It said something like, 'I like the way you play. You'd be a great safety.' I hadn't heard from them in a couple of months and then all of a sudden an offer came. That's where I wanted to play I knew," Spillum said.
"Typically to me, the best safeties are, they were quarterback-minded athletes. They lead the secondary, they make the checks. They are kind of utility guys. You have to be athletic and Alex is definitely athletic. We just had to teach him the position," Baldus said.
Baldus, now with the Florida State University program after working for Coastal Carolina from 2013 to 2019, grew up in Chaska, his father Dennis a former principal in District 112. Curt was quarterback for the Hawks for three years. Dennis, who was an assistant coach at Gustavus Adolphus College following retirement, is now on the Chanhassen High School staff.
Spillum's defensive back experience was a single game, the Minnesota High School All-Star Game at U.S. Bank Stadium weeks after the 2016 prep season.
Like Spillum, Baldus went from high school quarterback to defensive back in college.
"I was only 5'10. There was nothing like zone read, stuff I would have been good for. I just decided to go play defense. I felt like I would have a better chance at playing early. I loved football, it didn't matter where I was on the field," Baldus said.
"I always figured I could switch to defensive back, but my first year, it was a tough transition. I remember thinking I could get on the field right away playing receiver. I just stayed patient, kept working on the thing coaches were telling me and just trusting that I could do it. I couldn't be happier where I am now," Spillum said.
He played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2018, mainly special teams, though he did play extensively in one contest with South Alabama. He came away with 11 tackles.
Like Bailey a few years back, the Coastal Carolina staff knew they had something here.
"It was like a half game, too. To have a game like that in your first game, yeah, that's not normal. He just has a knack for things. I kind of figured it was only a matter of time before he figured it all out before he could start getting better and better," Baldus said.
Spillum started eight games last season, and was sixth on the team with 43 total tackles on the season, including 22 solo tackles, before a chest injury sidelined him the final three contests.
This season, through nine games, he has 41 tackles (26 solo) with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and three pass break-ups.
"I'm definitely a lot more comfortable out there now. Knowing I'm where I belong. I feel like I can play with the best right now. Really, it's about the little things, being disciplined in my game. Knowing the coverages, knowing the checks. I really feel like there's still a lot more left in me to show. Talk is talk, though. I had to show it on the field," Spillum said.
"He had to learn how to backpedal. He had to learn how you stand, how you move. Everything was new. He came a long way with fundamentals, how you play, how the game works from a defensive perspective. Even managing life and school from a place you're not from. He took a chance that not everybody takes. He had a good attitude and tried to get better and that's what happened. He did it. I'm proud of him," Baldus said.
There's no doubt programs such as Coastal Carolina have been more seen in 2020 nationally as some larger conferences such as the Big Ten pushed back their start of the season and have had interruptions with COVID.
Fox Sports One picked up the Chanticleers for a road opener game at Kansas on Sept. 12. ESPN followed by carrying seven of the last eight games on one of its main channels. It's why some are calling Coastal Carolina "America's Team" right now.
Saturday's clash with No. 25 Liberty (9-1) was canceled due to COVID concerns. The Chanticleers will bring in another of the four teams in the FBS with nine wins in No. 8 BYU. The game is set for 4:30 p.m. locally on ESPNU.
It is the first-ever FBS top 25 nationally ranked opponent inside Brooks Stadium.
"We're always wearing a mask in meetings, and we have a face shield over that to help with contract tracing. We saw the opportunity at the beginning of the season, being one of the conferences that was playing, to show the country what we could do. Having family and friends all over being able to watch all but one of my games, it's been really special," Spillum said.
Spillum's parents, Dan and Wendy, each have been in person for two wins. They both made the trip Nov. 21 for a 34-23 win over Appalachian State. Spillum said that day was the most special moment of the season thus far — a game he intercepted a key pass as well.
Last season, some of Spillum's former coaches at Chanhassen, including Bailey, made the trip to Kansas to see him play in-person.
"I knew he would be athletic enough to play. When PJ Fleck and his staff came in at Minnesota, we had his receivers coach Matt Simon (now offensive coordinator) come for a visit. I was telling him about Spillum. His athleticism, his ability. He was taking advanced math classes all the time, so he was attractive to college programs," Bailey said. "My biggest concern was moving a guy who was touching the ball every play and moving him into a role where he was playing defense for the first time in years.
"He had to wait his turn to just get a sniff of the field. He was going to have to get up early, be in the weight room each day, put in all that work just hoping to get a chance. It's a Division I program. There's a lot of kids with talent. I'm just really happy and proud he stuck with it. He's worked to be where he is," Bailey added.
The kid who wore sweatpants under his pads at late-season practices at Chanhassen is now the kid receiving the brunt of jokes from teammates about wearing long sleeves to practice on chilly days in South Carolina.
Spillum is where he belongs. Less than 15 miles from Myrtle Beach. Making an impact on the football field with a plan to finish his MBA at the university. Finishing off the next three weeks with wins, a Sun Belt Conference championship and a bowl game appearance, seems to be all that's left.