Conference play is now upon us, and my job just got a whole lot easier. During nonconference play, I had to write up to eleven previews each week. When Valley teams are playing each other, my volume of writing required goes down. On the flip side, I was able to be nice to everyone each week and lean homer. I can’t do that anymore because everyone is MVFC now. So, I apologize in advance if you think I hate your team. I don’t. I love you all. The league slate will start with less of a bang and more of a “meh”. There are six ranked teams in the Valley and none of them are playing each other. Still, there are some interesting games with playoff implications this week. My preview of the week is below. All games are on Saturday.
-#2 South Dakota State (2-0) @ Indiana State (2-1) – Noon - ESPN+: Indiana State will get a shot at the #2 team in the country in the 2021 fall MVFC opener. The Sycamores’ confidence must be riding high after their last second victory over Eastern Kentucky last week. EKU provided such low production value for the stream, ESPN’s “Bad Beats” had to “create their own scorebug because there wasn’t one”. ISU is 2-1 with a close win over Eastern Illinois to go with last week’s Eastern Kentucky win. They also hung tough against the Big Ten’s Northwestern. They have shown a proclivity for beating teams with “Eastern” in their name, however that won’t help against SDSU (although Brookings is located in the eastern part of the state). The Sycamores may be feeling good about themselves, but it is going to take more than confidence to beat the Jackrabbits. At 2-0 with a blowout win over FBS Colorado State and another over D2 Lindenwood, SDSU is ranked second in the land for a reason. They can beat you several different ways. The rabbits have a stellar run game with Pierre Strong, Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson. Their QB transfer Chris Oladokun is a great FCS signalcaller, who can beat you with his arms and his feet. They have a great receiving corps with the Janke brothers. And if that isn’t enough, their defense can shut you down. This will be the Jackrabbits’ first test against an FCS opponent, and Indiana State must be pumped to get a shot at this game at home. However, it is not as if Memorial Stadium is known as an intimidating environment for opponents. ISU will likely give Kurtis Wilderman his first start of the year after his heroics last week. Wilderman played in several games in 2019. Peterson Kerlegrand carries the load for ISU on the ground.
My Prediction: ISU has shown they are a better team than we thought with their early season results. That said, South Dakota State is on another level right now and have no real weaknesses. SDSU wins 37-16.
-Illinois State (2-1) @ #7 Southern Illinois (2-1) – 2pm - ESPN+: After a strong nonconference showing, Nick, Nic and the ‘Dogs will look to get the conference portion of the season off to an equally strong start when they host Illinois State. The Redbirds have certainly fallen hard since they were a quarterfinal team in 2019. They started the spring season in the top ten before only managing one win and quitting midway through the year. This year, while they are 2-1, they haven’t looked like a team that is going to push for a playoff spot. Illinois State struggled to pull away from Pioneer League Butler, got absolutely shut down by Western Michigan, and needed late game heroics to oust lowly Eastern Illinois last week. Bryce Jefferson is a solid running QB, but he really struggles to move the ball vertically. After a shoulder injury, he was removed in favor of Jackson Waring in the last game. However Waring wasn’t terribly effective either. ISU will have to establish the run this week to have a chance. Cole Mueller is the man that will be relied on to make that happen. The freshman back has averaged 9.3 yards per carry over 28 carries this year. He will need to make some magic, and ISU will need improvement out of their QB. SIU has had an opposite trajectory since 2019. The Salukis went 7-5 in 2019 and thought they might end their decade-long playoffs drought. After they were left out, they responded with a 4-3 spring that was good enough to get them into the field where they upset Weber State on the road in the first round. Now Southern Illinois is rated in the top ten with a strong QB (Nic Baker), a strong running game (Javon Williams Jr, Justin Strong), and a strong defense. SIU has backed up their strong ranking with blowout wins over SEMO and Dayton and a close loss at Kansas State. I know Saluki fans loved Stone Labanowitz, but I love the leadership Nic Baker is providing. The Salukis look like one of the top teams in the country and a candidate to make a deep run in the playoffs.
My Prediction: There really isn’t much going for Illinois State here. They are playing on the road with their backup QB running an offense that has sputtered, particularly through the air. SIU is a strong squad and should be ready to go at home. I have SIU rolling to a 31-13 win.
-Western Illinois (0-3) @ Youngstown State (1-1) – 5pm - ESPN+: This game probably won’t have any playoff implications at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intriguing. At first glance, it seems like YSU should be the big favorites against the winless Leathernecks at home. Not so fast. Western Illinois may be 0-3, but they have played arguably the toughest schedule of any FCS team in the nation including contests against the MAC favorites and a pair of top ten FCS teams from the Big Sky. They showed well in two of those games, the most recent of which was a 62-56 loss to Eastern Washington in which the Leathernecks put up 643 yards of total offense. The more I see of QB Connor Sampson, the more impressed I become. WIU’s lack of a rushing game means that teams know they’re going to throw, yet he continues to put up phat stats each week. It doesn’t hurt to have Dennis Houston on the other end of his passes. WIU may have trouble keeping teams out of the end zone (they’ve allowed 19 TDs already in just three games) but they won’t back down in a shootout. Youngstown State has also done some impressive things this year. They are 1-1 (only playing a 10-game schedule). The loss was a blowout to Michigan State, but the win was an exciting 44-41 OT triumph over UIW. The Cardinals won their next two games after their loss in Youngstown including a 42-34 win over FBS Texas State. With a bye last week, YSU has had two weeks to prep for this one. QB Demeatric Crenshaw is a true dual-threat QB, and Jaleel McLaughlin is one of the best backs in the league. YSU can put up points as well, especially against this defense.
My Prediction: I am really excited for this game because I think it is going to be a shootout. YSU appears capable of scoring and should do well against WIU’s defense. WIU is capable of scoring too. YSU has the advantage playing at home. This is a very tough one to call. I am going to go with the upset special and say WIU wins 45-42.
-South Dakota (2-1) @ #18 Missouri State (1-1) – 7pm – ESPN3: It makes sense that this game is being played during prime time, because this is by far the game of the week in the MVFC. A lot of Valley fans would have balked at that at the beginning of the year, but it is true. South Dakota is not ranked but they should be. I think they get overlooked because there are already six ranked teams in the Valley. Their body of work is just as good or better as just about any team in the 11-25 area in the rankings. After a three-point loss to the Big 12’s Kansas, South Dakota blew the doors off a pair of Big Sky teams in Northern Arizona (34-7) and Cal Poly (48-14). Both games were over by halftime (the Coyotes were ahead 27-0 and 41-7 at the break respectively). NAU then followed their loss to the Coyotes up with a win over Arizona. South Dakota has been solid through the air (Carson Camp has completed 63% of his passes for 3 TDs and no picks), on the ground (their top four rushers all average over five yards a carry) and defensively (their first team hasn’t allowed a TD to an FCS team yet). The Yotes still have several doubters, and this is their first chance to quiet those doubts. A win on the road over a ranked team will do that. Missouri State has its share of doubters too. They started the year in the rankings after making the playoffs in the spring for the first time in nearly three decades. But the way they got there (several close wins and only one of true quality) and the way they got knocked out (blowout loss to North Dakota) put their validity in doubt in many FCS fans’ minds. But Bears were close to pulling off an upset of Oklahoma State in week 1 (23-16 loss) and beat a ranked Central Arkansas in a thriller in week two. They look like they are for real. Utah transfer Jason Shelley is going to be a very good FCS quarterback. He is a strong leader and can beat you with his arms and his legs. Kevon Latulas is a solid back as well. Missouri State is showing last year was no fluke. They are a solid FCS squad. I truly believe there are seven MVFC teams with playoff talent, these two among them. But I doubt the Valley will get seven bids, so this game could be crucial at the end of the year.
My Prediction: I really struggle with this one. Both teams have played so well, and I have yet to fully 100% buy in on either of them. MSU has the advantage playing at home, but South Dakota must have sky high confidence. I am expecting a great game, but if I have to make a pick, I am going to go with Missouri State 27-24. Shelley and his experience relative to the Coyotes’ freshman Camp will be the difference. I am really looking forward to this one.
That is all for this week in the Valley, but here is a quick look at some other notable matchups throughout the FCS this week.
-#11 Villanova (3-0) @ #6 (FBS) Penn State (3-0): Do I think the Wildcats will win? No. But I’d love to see another competitive game against a big-time foe by an FCS team and Wildcats are not going to back down.
-#21 New Hampshire (3-0) @ Pitt (2-1): The Panthers lost to Western Michigan last week. Stranger things have happened.
-#24 Richmond (2-1) @ Virginia Tech (2-1): The Hokies are pretty good, as their opening weekend win over North Carolina would attest. We’ll see if the Spiders can hang.
-McNeese State (1-2) @ UIW (2-1): If the Southland does get multiple bids this year, this game will likely be a big part of why. The Cardinals are coming off an FBS win over North Texas.
-Holy Cross (2-1) @ #20 Monmouth (2-1): This is another game that might determine whether one of the smaller conferences gets multiple bids. The Crusaders will be playing for the Patriot League, the Hawks are playing for the Big South.
-Butler (2-1) @ St. Thomas (1-1): One wonders if St. Thomas is in line for its first win as a DI program over a DI team. Both squads got blown out by Valley teams but hung in there admirably for a half earlier in the season
-Presbyterian (2-1) @ Dayton (1-1): I am on the Presby train. Please give me more of their insane style of play in the Pioneer League. Dayton is one of the league’s better teams. We’ll see how it goes!
-San Diego (0-3) @ Davidson (1-1): Interesting that the Pioneer League scheduled this one in September. It may decide the league champion.
-Wofford (1-1) @ #22 VMI (2-1): The Keydets quest to defend their SoCon title begins here.
-Maine (1-2) @ Northern Illinois (1-2): I have my eyes on another possible FCS-over-FBS upset here. Maybe? But probably not?
-UT Martin (2-1) @ #9 Jacksonville State (2-1): The Gamecocks up-and-down season continues with this interesting matchup with an OVC team putting up a quietly good season so far.
-#1 Sam Houston State (2-0) @ #25 Central Arkansas (1-2): Playing on the road, this might be the toughest test remaining for the defending champs. Jax State would disagree, home or away. Either way it is one of the tougher tests of their relatively weak (compared to the rest of the top 5) slate.
-#12 UC Davis (3-0) @ #14 Weber State (1-2): Weber is a good team and they’ve played a tough schedule but they’re going to have to start getting Ws or they might find themselves on the outside looking in come Thanksgiving weekend.
That is all for this week. I’ll be back with my recap of the week on the other side.