Two weeks remain in the 2021 MVFC football season and six teams are still in the running for a playoff spot with 4-5 likely to get in. NDSU is probably in already. SDSU, SIU and Mo State are on the cusp of qualification. South Dakota too, if they can pull an upset in one of their last two games. UNI remains alive but probably needs to finish 2-0 to be in the conversation. All six contenders are in action this week, with all but two playing each other. I will break it down for you below.
#5 North Dakota State (8-1, 5-1) @ Youngstown State (2-6, 1-5) – 11am – ESPN+
A loss to SDSU ended North Dakota State’s perfect season and dropped them to #5 in the most recent poll, but the Bison still have a very manageable path to an outright Missouri Valley title and likely home field advantage in the playoffs until at least the semifinals. A win at Youngstown this week would clinch at least a share of the league title for NDSU, and that would be welcome after they missed out on Valley title in the spring for the first time since ‘Nam. Youngstown State has had their moments this year. They have two wins over teams that will very likely be in the playoffs. But they’ve also lost their (seemingly) most winnable games on their schedule against Indiana State and Western Illinois, and have gotten blown out several times. The Penguins are coming off a good performance at North Dakota last week in which they led for most of the game and only blew it in the end. However, Youngstown does not match up well against North Dakota State. They are a team that relies heavily on the run, both from their backs and their QB. North Dakota State is typically very stout against the run (last week notwithstanding). To beat them you need to put the ball in the air, and Youngstown State is not very good at that. I also don’t see how Youngstown, who has allowed no fewer than 24 points in a single game this season, plans to slow down the Bison offense. This one is just a mismatch up and down and it would take an exceptional performance on both sides of the ball for YSU to give this game a run.
My Prediction: I honestly see this one getting ugly. It is senior day for the Penguins, so perhaps you’ll see an inspired performance. But the Bison defense is built to stop YSU’s best weapons. I have NDSU winning 34-7.
#15 Southern Illinois (6-3, 4-2) @ Indiana State (4-5, 2-4) – Noon – ESPN3
I am a little bit concerned for SIU in this one. The Salukis lived on the edge, winning several close games early in the year to vault to a 6-1 record and a #3 national ranking. Since then, they have lost consecutive games to UNI and Missouri State. Those results have tempered expectations in Carbondale. SIU went from being MVFC title contenders with a shot at homefield throughout the playoffs to a squad that just needs a W to get good mojo going again (and ensure they make the playoff field). A seed seems unlikely after the last two weeks, and while SIU’s #3 ranking may have been a bit of smoke and mirrors, this is still a solid football team (albeit one whose confidence must be shaken). This game will be played on Senior Day in Terre Haute, a place where Indiana State is 3-1 this season. If the game is not a blowout early, ISU is going to fancy their chances. The Trees are 4-0 in games decided by 11 points or less and have been outscored 149-15 in their five losses. It is not very often that a team that has been outscored by over 100 points has a shot to crack .500, but if the Trees can win this game at home they’ll have a real shot at a winning season. They aren’t playoff contenders, but they have more than pride to play for. SIU has plenty to play for too, no doubt. But they better not take their foot off the gas because they feel their opponent isn’t as challenging on paper. It might burn them.
My Prediction: All that said, I don’t think the Salukis will take ISU lightly. This should be one of those blowout ISU losses. SIU’s defense should be able to contain Indiana State’s mediocre offense, and I would expect Nic Baker to be able to find holes in the Trees’ defense. ISU has been very good against the worst teams on their schedule but have consistently gotten blown out against the better ones. SIU wins 37-7.
#4 South Dakota State (7-2, 4-2) @ #19 South Dakota (6-3, 4-2) – 1pm – ESPN+
Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the most consequential South Dakota Showdown game of the Division I era. This isn’t the first time USD has played SDSU with both teams in the playoff race (it is the second), but it is the highest ranked matchup of the two teams in their DI history. Fresh off their gigantic win over North Dakota State, SDSU now comes into this one with a path to a seed and a bye in the playoffs. The same could technically be said for South Dakota, who would certainly be in the mix for a seed if they beat both NDSU and SDSU on consecutive weeks to end the season. For the Coyotes, though, it’s more about just getting into the playoffs. At 6-3, South Dakota probably needs a win over either SDSU or NDSU to claim a spot in the postseason bracket. Playing in front of what will likely be a sellout crowd in the Dakotadome, rather than in Fargo, it seems like this week is their best opportunity to do it. No matter what happens, you can bet the atmosphere in the DakotaDome is going to be electric, and if the game is close the final moments will be must see TV for FCS football fans. This is an underrated rivalry. South Dakota is the most recent winner of the contest, as they broke a long string of losses to SDSU (that dated back to the D2 days) in 2019 (and last year’s game was cancelled). The Jacks have been an up-and-down team this year, losing at home to UNI and SIU but beating NDSU. This will be their toughest road test since at least the opener against Colorado State. If they win, they likely would only need to beat UND at home next week for a seed. South Dakota has one of their best teams, if not their single best team, since they moved into DI and the Valley. A win here would probably get them into the playoffs and cement the squad as at least the second-best Coyote team in the FCS era. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I can say that FCS fans should have this one on if at all possible. It should be great.
My Prediction: I don’t flipping know. I want to see more Valley teams in the playoffs, so I’ll go with South Dakota 30-28 on a last second field goal.
Last year when Missouri State made the spring playoffs, I thought their act was a touch of smoke and mirrors. That was validated (in my mind) when they got blown out by North Dakota in the first round of the playoffs. This season I didn’t consider them a serious threat as I figured a full fall schedule would reveal their true nature. But here they are at 6-3 with wins over the likes of SIU and South Dakota, on the cusp of a second consecutive playoff berth. The Bears don’t actually need to win this game to get into the playoffs. They could lose this game and win at winless Dixie State next weekend to get to 7-4 and probably get into the postseason. But a win here would more-or-less seal the deal and likely set up MSU with a manageable first round draw. UNI would be in a similar position had they not shot themselves in the foot last week with an anemic performance at Illinois State. It has been UNI’s nature to underachieve in the last half of the Farley era, and this season is looking like pretty much every other for UNI in the last decade. The Panthers can still likely get into the postseason with a victory in this game and at home against WIU in the final week, but they’re going to have to make some serious adjustments to have a chance to make that happen. This isn’t a good matchup for Northern Iowa. Shelley is a mobile QB who can beat you with his arms and legs. The Bears have a balanced offense AND defense, which should cause UNI issues. The Panthers are absolutely determined to run the ball, and if they can’t establish the run they will simply not score. They won’t try and adjust and will instead keep slamming their head into the wall over and over like a malfunctioning toy car. MSU hasn’t been particularly good against the run this year but last week held SIU to 36 yards on 31 carries. UNI will always run it on first down, will usually run it on second down, and will run it on third down if the distance is five yards or less. MSU will know it is coming and if they can bottle it up, you can expect the Panthers to punt literally ten times like they did last week.
My Prediction: Bears win at home, 24-10.
Illinois State (4-5, 2-4) @ North Dakota (4-5, 2-4) – 2pm – ESPN+
This is the only game in the Valley this week that does not involve a ranked team. While it is probably the least relevant game in terms of national importance, it should still be competitive. These were the last two MVFC teams to win a league contest, but both have won two out of their last three. The Birds’ two wins came against ranked teams in South Dakota and UNI, while the Fighting Hawks handled Western Illinois and Youngstown State. Illinois State’s win over UNI came in OT and happened despite Illinois State only putting together 139 yards of total offense in regulation. It was the Redbird defense who scored their only TD before overtime on a pick-six and held UNI to 1.5 yards per rush. The defense was the key to the Redbirds’ win over South Dakota too, but it let them down in their loss to Western Illinois. All that is to say, this team goes as far as their defense carries them, and that unit’s performance will likely be the key factor in this game. North Dakota is more balanced, and is a decent, above average team. They’ve won every game they should win and have only lost to quality opponents who are in the playoff mix. If that trend holds, they should win this one playing at home. This was a top ten team for the first part of the year and a quarterfinal playoff team last year. Their top ten rating was a bit higher than they probably should have been, but this is still a solid team who has just had some tough luck this year.
My Prediction: I have the Fighting Hawks at home, 20-9.
AROUND THE FCS
That’s all the MVFC action coming up this week. Some of the key games happening this week around the FCS are below.
-Maine (4-5) @ UMass (1-8): Another chance for the FCS to get yet a win over the FBS. UMass absolutely sucks. Sucks real, real bad.
-Davidson (7-1) @ Dayton (5-4): Davidson can be the first FCS team to clinch a playoff spot with a win.
-Eastern Kentucky (6-3) @ #1 Sam Houston (8-0): EKU isn’t really a serious playoff contender but if they beat the best team in Conference USA, they will become one. Bubble teams ought to root for Sam.
-New Hampshire (3-6) @ Rhode Island (6-3): The Rams got an FBS win to get back onto the playoffs radar but are still on the soft side of the bubble. A loss here would put their chances on ice.
-Stony Brook (4-5) @ #8 Villanova (7-2): The Wildcats are probably a playoff team already but would more-or-less cinch it with a win here.
-Holy Cross (7-2) @ Fordham (6-3): The winner of this one probably wins the Patriot League auto bid (definitely if its Holy Cross). Holy Cross might be a bubble team with a loss? Probably not, but bubble teams should root for them just to be safe. They do have an FBS win (UConn) and a decent W over Monmouth.
-Delaware (5-4) @ Richmond (4-5): The Blue Hens are hanging by a thread in the playoff race. That thread would be cut if they lose here.
-#21 VMI (6-3) @ Furman (4-5): VMI is right smack on the bubble and can’t afford to take an L here.
-#9 Montana (7-2) @ Northern Arizona (4-5): A bit of a tricky one for Montana who would like to have a playoff spot essentially wrapped up before they play Montana State next week with a win.
-#22 Chattanooga (6-3) @ Mercer (6-2): This is essentially a playoff elimination game in the SoCon between two very bubbly teams.
-#2 James Madison (8-1) @ #25 William and Mary (6-3): The Tribe can basically lock up a playoff spot with a win here. A loss puts them very much on the bubble.
-#17 Incarnate Word (7-2) @ Nicholls (5-4): UIW is two wins away from the Southland autobid. A Nicholls win would give them a shot to share the title and possibly steal the autobid next week against Southeast Louisiana.
-Stephen F. Austin (6-3) @ Central Arkansas (5-4): Two squads on the extreme periphery of the playoff bubble, the loser would be popped.
-#7 Eastern Washington (7-2) @ #6 UC-Davis (8-1): Both teams are probably in, but there are lots of seeding implications here. Probably the FCS game of the week.
I don’t do power rankings anymore because I hate them and they’re dumb, so that is all for this week! I’ll see you on Monday for the weekly recap. GO VALLEY.