The Valley will get another chance to beat the hell out of itself this weekend. There isn’t much left to say about this league that hasn’t already been said. It is the best league, top to bottom, in the FCS. Every single team is competitive in some fashion. There are literally no weeks off. The teams at the top of the standings are national championship contenders, the squads in the middle can make a deep playoff run, and even the teams at the bottom can pack a punch (just ask Eastern Washington). Squads like Missouri State, South Dakota, UNI and North Dakota are fighting for their playoff lives when they would probably be comfortably in the field in most leagues. The teams at the bottom could compete in the Big Souths, Southlands and OVCs of the world. This week we have more matchups of teams clawing for playoff positioning. A preview is below.
#10 South Dakota State (5-2, 2-2) @ Youngstown State (2-4, 1-3) – 1pm – ESPN+
The Jackrabbits are looking discombobulated. Last week against UNI they lost their second consecutive home game and I gotta say, they didn’t look right. QB Chris Oladokun was missing open receivers, guys were dropping passes, the defense was giving up big plays and the Jackrabbits could not establish their run game. Some of that had to do with Northern Iowa’s solid defense. But SDSU was simply not making plays they typically make. In three weeks’ time, SDSU has fallen from the favorite to win the national title to a team that might be playing on the opening weekend of the playoffs. A seed is still possible for the ‘Jacks as they still have a home game against NDSU from which to regain their street cred. But it could also go the other direction. After they play the Bison, SDSU has a road contest against archrival South Dakota, not to mention a home game against pesky North Dakota remaining. That schedule makes this contest oh so critical for SDSU. It likely tempting to look ahead to the bigger matchups on the horizon, but if SDSU loses at the Ice Castle they’ll need to be more concerned about just making the postseason field than whether they’ll get a seed. For their part, Youngstown is also coming off a disappointing loss. They lost starting QB Demeatric Crenshaw early and fell to Indiana State 28-17. I have not been able to find word on Crenshaw’s status. If he is unable to go (which seems likely), SDSU will benefit from having Joe Craycraft under for Youngstown center instead on Crenshaw. Craycraft is a senior and more experienced than Crenshaw. But Crenshaw has an ability to make plays with his legs that keeps defenses guessing. Craycraft is more of a pocket passer, although he can make things happen on the ground too (he had 5 carries for 29 yards last week). YSU is more dynamic and unpredictable with Crenshaw.
My Prediction: The temptation to look ahead to NDSU is probably there for the Jackrabbits and I think this game could be surprising early. However, if the Jacks can bottle up Jaleel McLaughlin and force Craycraft to beat them with his arm they should be OK. I am picking SDSU, 27-10.
North Dakota (3-4, 1-3) @ #17 Missouri State (4-3, 3-2) – 2pm – ESPN+
This game features two very good teams that absolutely must have this W. The Fighting Hawks’ postseason effectively began last week with their home win over Western Illinois. After starting league play in the FCS top ten, they lost three hard-fought games to three good teams and fell out of the top 25. After their win over WIU they are 3-4 and now enter this game with Missouri State with a chance to finally get over the hump and get a win (instead of a near miss) over a good team. This is their biggest hurdle before their final game of the season at South Dakota State. If the Hawks can beat Mo State, they’ll have home games with Youngstown and Illinois State the following two weeks before a trip to Brookings to end the year. UND’s true talent level is better than their 3-4 record suggests. Their three-game losing streak included losses to the current #2 and #3 teams in the country by a combined nine points, and a TD loss at a top 25 USD team. However, Missouri State is playing dang good ball themselves. After a surprising and disappointing loss at Youngtown State three weeks ago, the Bears rebounded with a 30-point win over Indiana State. Last week they took NDSU to the brink in Fargo, a solid game plan and early offensive execution giving them a lead after three quarters. A QB swap helped NDSU escape, but the Bears were closer to an upset than most teams get in Fargo. Missouri State’s next three games are this week’s contest against North Dakota, then games at SIU and at home against UNI. Their margin for error is small due to their loss to Youngstown and they probably need to win at least two of those three games to get into the playoffs. That makes this game crucial, but if they perform like they did last week I like their chances at home. Both teams have a ton to play for in this game. It should be a fun FCS battle.
My Prediction: I could honestly flip a coin here. In that situation I usually lean toward the home team. I will say Missouri State wins 27-24.
Indiana State (4-4, 2-3) @ #3 North Dakota State (7-0, 4-0) – 2:30pm – ESPN+
Who will be the starting QB for North Dakota State? That is the biggest question surrounding this game. Quincey Patterson, who has started every game for NDSU this season, is the likely answer. He has not been bad for the nation’s #2 ranked team, but he hasn’t lived up to the lofty standards set by other recent NFL caliber QBs who have made their way through Fargo. While he has only completed 55% of his passes and has only 6 TDs and 4 interceptions, he is NDSU’s leading rusher on the season with 422 yards on 79 carries and 6 TDs on the ground. Cam Miller’s entrance into their victory over Missouri State last week gave NDSU a spark. His style is very different from that of Patterson. While he can make plays with his legs (and did) his strengths are his arm and his decision making. It remains to be seen whether that style is more suited to NDSU’s offense than Patterson’s over the long haul. It was needed in that situation, but Missouri State’s game plan was set up to stop Patterson. Miller had the element of surprise in his entrance into the game. Teams will likely be more prepared for him moving forward. If NDSU does decide to go to Miller, they ought to do it now. Indiana State’s defense isn’t particularly stout, and it will be a good chance for him to get his feet under him before the Bison go to Brookings to face SDSU next week. I don’t think they will, though. Patterson is the man for NDSU, with Cam Miller as a weapon they are confident they can deploy when needed. Indiana State has put together a decent little season. The Trees are 4-4 with four legitimate wins over DI teams, including a win at (now) #25 Eastern Kentucky. I think Indiana State would compete in the OVC, Big South, or Southland. But the bigger fish of the MVFC are probably more than the Sycamores can chew. ISU already has blowout losses to SDSU, South Dakota and Mo State. I expect a similar ending here.
My Prediction: When ISU plays a close game, they tend to win. But when they lose, they lose big. You don’t typically see a team with a 4-4 record rocking an overall score of 137-229. I think this will not be close and NDSU will run all over ISU Blue. Final score 48-7.
Illinois State (3-4, 1-3) @ Western Illinois (1-7, 1-4) – 3pm – ESPN3
This might not be the most titillating Valley matchup of the week, but there is still some intrigue to this in-state rivalry. While both teams have struggled this year, they have both shown some competency on one side of the ball. Illinois State has been playing defense at an elite level for the last two weeks. First, they held North Dakota State to 20 points despite being on the field seemingly the entire game and getting absolutely nothing from their offense. Last week the Redbird defense keyed a 20-14 victory over South Dakota, their first league win of the season. It helped that ISU was facing USD’s inexperienced backup for most of the game instead of Carson Camp, but they were still able to bottle up the Coyotes for most of the game. There is probably an iteration of the multiverse where Illinois State is still a playoff contender as they have no bad losses and now have a good win against South Dakota. If they did somehow win out, which would include wins over UNI and UND, they would probably be in the discussion. First things first, though, they must win in Macomb. Although it has failed them recently, Western Illinois’ calling card has been their offense. While ISU’s defense was mediocre but has emerged in the last two weeks, WIU’s offense was clicking but has been held in check the last two weeks. Western had put up 56, 38, 30, and 27 points before the last two weeks when they could only manage 17 and 10 against SDSU and North Dakota. Those squads’ top tier defenses probably had something to do with the Leathernecks’ struggles. But ISU has a good defense too. Western has not been able to run the ball much at all this season, but their passing game can be fun to watch when it gets going. This will be a battle of the suddenly stellar ISU defense against the suddenly struggling WIU offense. That battle will determine who wins this game.
My Prediction: I think Western’s offense will awaken from its slumber at home and make life difficult for ISU. The ‘Birds were able to key in on the run against run-first NDSU and a USD team rocking a backup QB. They can key on the pass here, but that is a bit more difficult to execute than keying on the run. WIU won’t score a ton, but enough to outpace the sluggish ISU offense. I have the Leathernecks by a score of 27-17.
#3 Southern Illinois (6-1, 4-0) @ #16 Northern Iowa (4-3, 2-2) – 4pm – ESPN+
Northern Iowa started to dig themselves out of a hole with their big win at South Dakota State last week, but there is still work to do if the Panthers want to get back to the postseason. For a Valley team, 7-4 is where you want to be to feel relatively secure in your spot in the playoffs. For the Panthers, that means a 3-1 finish is required. If you assume UNI wins at Illinois State and at home against Western Illinois (which is not a safe assumption), they will need to split their other two games to get to 7-4. One of those games is this week at home against SIU, the other is on the road against 17th ranked Missouri State. Both are tall orders. The last time Northern Iowa took the field at the UNIdome, they got clobbered by South Dakota. Obviously, a much better effort will be needed to beat a well-rested and well-prepared Saluki team coming off a bye. The Salukis’ balanced offense could present problems for the UNI defense and if SIU is able to run the ball consistently, the Panthers will struggle. On offense, Northern Iowa will have to find a way to establish the run and selectively hit the big play (like they were able to do against South Dakota State last week) to win this one. SIU is coming off a well-deserved rest after three consecutive games that were won on the final play. Their wins have garnered them a #3 national ranking, and an opportunity to win the Valley and have home field advantage throughout most of (if not all) the playoffs. They’ve already handled some of the league’s toughest teams and they do not play South Dakota or North Dakota State. On paper, this is their toughest challenge remaining. If Southern can get past this one there are few big challenges standing between them and a league title.
My Prediction: . This game has the feel of the good old days. Before the invasion of the Dakotas, these two teams were perennially the class of the league and very good rivals. With two weeks to prepare, and few tough ones to distract them on the horizon I am going to go with SIU on the road here. I have SIU winning 30-24.
AROUND THE FCS
That’s it for the Valley this week, but as the FCS season continues to rattle to its conclusion, here are some of the other big games going on across the country.
-William & Mary (5-2) @ #4 Villanova (6-1): I think the Wildcats are legit and the Tribe are smoke and mirrors. We’ll find out this weekend.
-Stetson (2-4) @ Presbyterian (2-4): There is nothing remarkable about this game other than that the mighty Blue Hose are playing in it.
-Furman (4-3) @ Chattanooga (4-3): This is an elimination game.
-Elon (4-3) @ #5 James Madison (6-1): This really isn’t that great of a game but there isn’t a lot to pick from this week so I’m including it.
-Davidson (5-1) @ Morehead State (5-2): The winner of this game will have the inside track to being the Pioneer League rep in the playoffs. They are the only two undefeated teams remaining in the league.
-St. Francis (3-4) @ Duquesne (4-2): These are two of the four teams (essentially) tied for the NEC lead. The other two have the week off.
With the nonsense that has happened the last couple weeks, power rankings are pointless. But I’m gonna do it anyway! Here are my power rankings through last week.
11.) Western Illinois (1-4, 1-7, Down One): Four straight losses and while they were competitive before, the losses are starting to turn into blowouts. Hard to say WIU is anything but a cellar dweller at this point.
10.) Youngstown State (2-4, 1-3, Down Two): The Penguins have those two top-25 wins that are head scratchers but have struggled more than they’ve looked good this year. And now they may be down a QB.
9.) Illinois State (3-4. 1-3, Up Two): The Redbird defense has come alive and gotten them out of the cellar. Now if only their offense could wake up, they might have something in Normal.
8.) Indiana State (4-4, 2-3, Up One): This is a team with four legit DI wins. They have won every game they’ve been competitive in this year and gotten blown out four times. That is efficiency. Their fans should know quickly whether to tune out or keep watching.
7.) North Dakota (3-4, 1-3, Down One): Stayed in the playoff race with a win over Western at home but it isn’t enough to warrant moving up the rankings.
6.) South Dakota (5-3, 3-2), Down One): The uncertainty over Connor Camp’s health makes South Dakota a tough team to rank right now.
5.) Northern Iowa (4-3, 2-2, Up Two): I have the Panthers just head of a team they lost to at home and just behind a team they beat on the road. Rankings are dumb. Why am I even doing this?
4.) South Dakota State (5-2, 2-2, Down One): SDSU has that big FBS win, but the rest of their Ws lack substance if you look closely at it. A trip to Youngstown can’t help that cause, but the Dakota Marker in two weeks could.
3.) Missouri State (4-3, 3-2, Up One): The Bears move up after a loss, which is weird. But they went into Fargo with a great game plan and nearly escaped with a W. It took a QB change to beat them. You could make an argument for at least three teams to be in this spot.
2.) Southern Illinois (6-1, 4-0, No Change): SIU had the week off and stay at #2.
1.) North Dakota State (7-0, 4-0, No Change): It was a struggle, but the Bison are still undefeated and there is no reason to change their status at the top.
That is it for this week! You’ll see my recap of the week on Monday. I’ll have a preview of the MVC basketball season coming out as soon as tomorrow. Until then, GO VALLEY!