There are three weeks left in the season and I would say the playoff picture is starting to take shape, but it really isn’t. There are still several questions left to be answered in the Valley and around the Championship Subdivision. Who will be seeded? Who will make the field? Who will win league titles? The answer to the last one (at least in the Valley) is probably NDSU, who is now the only remaining undefeated team in league play. They would have to lose twice to avoid at least a share of the title. Hopefully this week we’ll get a step closer to answering the other questions.
#17 Missouri State (5-3, 4-2) @ #7 Southern Illinois (6-2, 4-1) – Noon – ESPN3
We’ll lead off with a big one in Carbondale where Southern Illinois hosts Missouri State. For Southern Illinois, this is likely the biggest hurdle remaining between them and a seed/bye in the playoffs (and a league title should NDSU falter). Coming off their first FCS loss of the season at UNI, the Salukis still have a 6-1 FCS record and a great win at SDSU. They are lucky enough to avoid South Dakota and NDSU on the schedule this year, making this their biggest remaining game. If they can capture another quality win against Missouri State, they would only need to get wins at Indiana State and versus Youngstown State to get to 9-2 likely secure a seed in playoffs. For Missouri State, at 5-3, this is the first of two opportunities to likely cinch a playoff spot. If you assume the Bears can avoid a slip-up against 0-8 Dixie State on the final week of the season, they will need to at least split their next two games at Southern Illinois and at home against UNI to get to 7-4. If they can snag this one, they’re essentially playing with house money against UNI. If they lose, the UNI game becomes critically important. The Bears could also use a signature win to go along with their good wins over USD and Central Arkansas (and counteract their bad loss to Youngstown). So, both teams have a lot to play for here. This should be a solid contest between two very good teams. Both teams are balanced offensively and defensively. Both have very good quarterbacks and respectable run games. And both have been hit-or-miss defensively. If you take out Missouri State’s head scratcher against Youngstown, these guys have nearly identical resumes. I expect this to be a fun, tight, back-and-forth game between two of the better teams in the FCS.
My Prediction: I see this as two very evenly matched teams, and in that situation I typically go with the home team. I have SIU winning 31-28.
Youngstown State (2-5, 1-4) @ North Dakota (3-5, 1-4) – Noon – ESPN+
Sometimes you just have a dud of a season, and that is what I believe the North Dakota Fighting Hawks are experiencing this year. UND will not be in the playoffs after losing for the fifth time in eight contests last week at Missouri State. I am still convinced UND is one of the top 20 teams in the nation, but they have simply been unable to pick up that big win. Perhaps they just don’t know how to win, or perhaps their confidence is shot. Their losses to North Dakota State, @ South Dakota, @ SIU and @ Missouri State were by a combined total of 20 points, and none of those squads were able to separate themselves from the Hawks by more than a single touchdown by the final whistle. During that tough run, they hosted WIU and handled the overmatched Leathernecks. They took out their frustrations to the tune of a 34-10 win. I am expecting this game to be like that one. The Hawks are a good team, and a frustrated team. Looking to the other sideline, Youngstown is a team that has had its moments but are currently rocking a 3rd string QB and have lost five out of six games. One thing of note for YSU is that their third-stringer Mitch Davidson was statistically much better than backup Joe Craycraft last week against SDSU (although he was likely competing against backups by the time he got into the game). If Davidson does get the start, we’ll get our first real look at whether he can be a big contributor for the Penguins moving forward.
My Prediction: I think North Dakota gets their frustrations out this week to the tune of a 34-13 victory.
#13 Northern Iowa (5-3, 3-2) @ Illinois State (3-5, 1-4) – Noon – ESPN+
Can the Redbirds play spoiler again? At 3-5 and 1-4 in conference play, ISU’s season is effectively over (from the standpoint of competing for a spot in the postseason) but their lone league win did a lot of damage. Illinois State went on the road and beat a South Dakota team that was flying high after a victory at UNI. The result knocked USD down a peg and now likely forces them to beat a DSU to get to the postseason. Since that loss to South Dakota, UNI has turned its season around with wins over (then) 6th ranked South Dakota State and (then) 3rd ranked Southern Illinois on back-to-back weeks. Throw in their earlier victory over (now) 16th ranked Big Sky co-leader Sacramento State, and UNI has put themselves in outstanding playoff position. Enter the Redbirds who are looking to repeat their season spoiling shenanigans. The typically moribund ISU offense put up 31 points last week against WIU but committed three turnovers. Their typically stellar defense was gouged by Western Illinois for 408 yards including an atypical (for Western Illinois) 110 yards on the ground. That doesn’t bode well for them in this matchup against the Panthers who prefer to run the ball. ISU has struggled to move the ball against most Valley teams this year. UNI should offer a tougher challenge than Western, and they are extremely adept at stopping the run. The run is ISU’s bread and butter, and if they can’t get anything going on the ground they may struggle against the Panthers. ISU’s style really plays to UNI’s strengths. Their best bet is going to be to force UNI to beat them through the air and try to get some big plays themselves on playaction.
My Prediction: I am very wary of an ISU upset here, but the stats on the page say Northern Iowa should win this one. I expect UNI to force Bryce Jefferson to throw the ball, and I think that if he is throwing it often there is a decent chance UNI can get their hands on it and force turnovers. If the Panthers can establish the run, they should be in good shape. I have UNI winning 27-13.
#23 South Dakota (5-3, 3-2) @ Western Illinois (2-7, 2-4) – Noon – ESPN+
The South Dakota Coyotes are going to have a big task on their hands the final two weeks of the season to try and get themselves into the playoffs. Just how big depends on the results of this game. The Yotes could have all-but wrapped up a playoff spot with a win in this one had they not stubbed their toe against Illinois State at home two weeks ago, but what’s done is done, and they absolutely need this one to have a realistic shot at the postseason. The magic number for MVFC teams is usually 7-4, and South Dakota sits at 5-3 which leaves them needing a 2-1 finish to hit that mark. Their last two games are against North and South Dakota State, two of the better teams in the country. They’re going to have to win at least one of those games to get to the playoffs. But to set that scenario up, they must beat the Leathernecks on the road this weekend. That is easier said than done for South Dakota. Their only win in Macomb all-time was their 2017 nail biter that occurred with NFL caliber QB Chris Streveler under center in their only FCS playoffs season. Speaking of QBs, we don’t know who is going to start at the position for USD. Carson Camp missed most of the ISU game after an injury, but they’ve had a bye week to rest up their guy and get him prepped for this one. His presence would make a Coyote victory substantially more likely. Backup Cole Stenstrom showed flashes against Illinois State but lacks the experience and talent of Camp. The Coyote defense has been very solid this year and has shown they are capable of keeping the ‘Necks Connor Sampson in check. For their part, the WIU offense woke up a bit last week in a 38-31 win over Illinois State but had been struggling in the two weeks prior. They eclipsed the 400-yard mark for the first time since October 9th and (even better) got a significant contribution from their running game. WIU tends to be hit-or-miss but has been very tough at home where they lost by 6 to Eastern Washington, took SIU to OT and beat Illinois State last week (but also lost to SDSU 41-17). This is a very dangerous game for South Dakota, especially if Carson Camp isn’t available. They’re going to need their defense to make some plays.
My Prediction: So much of this one is predicated on the health of Camp. South Dakota knows the stakes and with Camp I think they pull out a hard-fought win. Without Camp, this one is probably a 50/50 at best. I am going with the Yotes by a score of 27-21. I am rooting for them, as I think a USD-SDSU game with playoff implications for both teams would be must see TV.
#2 North Dakota State (8-0, 5-0) @ #9 South Dakota State (6-2, 3-2) – 2pm – ESPN+
This is about as big a Dakota Marker as they come. While it isn’t a battle of undefeated teams as some hoped it would be, this is a hugely important game in the Championship Subdivision. For SDSU, it is the start of a challenging end to the season that includes a trip to Vermillion and a home contest against North Dakota. They’re probably not going to win the Valley or get a top two seed at this point, but a seed and a bye is still within their reach if they win out. The yellow and blue lack a signature win beyond their season opening victory over FBS Colorado State. But they have a golden opportunity to get one here playing at home. Dykhouse Field hasn’t been particularly good to SDSU this year, though, as both the Jacks’ losses occurred on their home turf. NDSU was underestimated at the start of the year, but they have done nothing but win (usually in dominant fashion). Despite some instability at the QB position, the Bison have outscored their opponents 268-65. Opponents are scoring (on average) single digits against them. One slight knock against NDSU is that their two biggest wins (UNI and Mo State) occurred in Fargo, but a win in Brookings could put that criticism to bed as well. NDSU is likely going to win the league title and be seeded yet again regardless of the outcome of this game, but a Bison win over SDSU more-or-less ensures that the road to Frisco will go through Fargo once again. I think the Bison QB (whoever it may be) will be the key here. If NDSU can make big plays through the air, their dominant run game and defense should take care of the rest. If South Dakota State can slow the Bison passing attack and make them one-dimensional, they will have a shot. SDSU is a balanced team that can beat you on the ground and through the air. Their offense is capable of putting up a lot of points, and they will be one of the better challenges this Bison defense has faced this year. Can SDSU break the 20-point barrier against the Bison? No one has so far.
My Prediction: This might be my toughest call of the year. I am excited to see this one, and I am expecting a great game. I think SDSU will score more points than anyone has against NDSU so far this year…..maybe somewhere in the 24 range. Can the Bison O keep up? I think they can, and they will nip the Jackrabbits 27-24. Or not. Who knows?
AROUND THE FCS
So, the Valley games are covered. Here are some of the big games to look for throughout the rest of the FCS this week.
-Sacred Heart (5-3) @ St. Francis (4-4): These are two of the three teams that are tied for first in the NEC. Winner will remain alive in the conference race.
-#20 William and Mary (6-2) @ Delaware (4-4): Now squarely in the playoff hunt, can Bill and Mary get another decent W for their resume, or will they be the latest CAA team to fall off? They play JMU next week.
-#18 VMI (6-2) @ #14 East Tennessee State (7-1): This is a HUGE game in the SoCon that is just dripping with both conference title and playoff implications. It is on ESPN+ during most of the MVFC games but keep your eye on it nonetheless, Valley fans.
-St. Thomas (5-2) @ Davidson (6-1): St. Thomas isn’t eligible for the playoffs (being D3 for the last several decades is apparently a huge advantage) but they could find themselves in the Pioneer League lead with a win here. They are a field goal against San Diego away from being undefeated in the league and 6-1 total (with a loss only to UNI) in their first year as a DI team. Impressive no matter what league you’re in.
-#10 Villanova (6-2) @ Elon (4-4): TBH, this is only a big game if Elon wins.
-Tennessee State (5-3) @ #15 UT-Martin (7-1): The Skyhawks are seemingly the OVC’s best team, but TSU is one of two teams (along with SEMO) who could still steal the autobid from them (which could ultimately take a bid from a bubble team).
-#6 Southeastern Louisiana (7-1) @ #22 Incarnate Word (6-2): UIW is hanging around the bubble at 6-2 with no signature wins (beyond a mediocre FBS win over a 2-6 Texas State team) and two bad losses. They have one hell of an opportunity to prove their validity at home this weekend.
-Rhode Island (5-3) @ UMass (1-7): Rhody has lost three in a row, but luckily have a chance to right the ship against the FBS punching bag that is the UMass Minutemen.
-#4 Montana State (7-1) @ #5 Eastern Washington (7-1): If you’re up for a game that could decide one of the top four, if not top two, seeds and the league title in the nation’s second-best league……this might be for you! Its on ESPN+ and should be getting to the best parts just after NDSU-SDSU is ending.
-#8 UC-Davis (7-1) @ Northern Arizona (4-4): NAU has a chance to climb back into the playoffs discussion if they can beat both Davis and Montana at home in the next two weeks. So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance.
-#25 Eastern Kentucky (6-2) @ Stephen F. Austin (5-3): The winner of this game gets to continue to be in the playoff picture.
This is where I would normally do power rankings, but the league has become such a twisted mess at this point that I am simply going to forgo that practice this week. No matter what I do I will look dumb, and you all won’t like it. So NDSU is #1, and the rest you can figure out yourselves. I’m not your mom.
And that’s all for this week. I’ll catch you on Monday with the recap. GO VALLEY!