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Week 7 MVFC Primer and Power Rankings

Last week’s topsy-turvey results shook up the MVFC along with the rest of the Championship Subdivision. This week’s matchups aren’t as high-profile as last, but there are still two top 25 matchups and at least one ranked team involved in every MVFC game. That is what you’d expect from a league with seven of its eleven teams in the top 25. Here is what to look for in week 7, the start of the second half of the season.

#7 South Dakota State (4-1, 1-1) @ Western Illinois (1-5, 1-2) – Noon – ESPN+ It is probably not a good week to be the team that has to play South Dakota State. There is no such thing as a good week to play SDSU in 2021, but it’s particularly rough to draw the Jacks the week after they lost by one at home in overtime. The result dropped South Dakota State five spots in the rankings and puts them in the position where they now need some help to have a shot at the league title. I imagine a trip to Macomb will be the cure to what ails them. The SDSU offense was solid in last week’s loss, putting up 559 yards, but it did commit three turnovers. I expect the Jackrabbits to put up big numbers against the leaky Western Illinois defense. The Leathernecks’ strength is the offense, particularly the passing game with Connor Sampson. WIU put up 449 yards through the air in a loss to Indiana State last week. That should be a bit of a concern for South Dakota State, as they allowed 377 yards on 24-32 passing, averaging 11.8 yards per pass allowed, against SIU. But the Jackrabbits will be able to cheat a bit against Western as they won’t have to respect the run as much as they did against the Salukis. While they’ve had a rough go of it this season, Western Illinois will not be intimidated by South Dakota State. The ‘Necks have already gone up against the likes of Eastern Washington, Montana and Southern Illinois who are all currently ranked in the top five. WIU went down to the wire with two of those three teams on their home field. If the Jackrabbits take WIU lightly or look ahead to UNI they may regret it.

My Prediction: That said, I don’t think SDSU will look ahead. They’re coming off a loss and they’re going to want to wash that taste out of their mouths. They’ve also seen what WIU can do at home. I think that Western will get some points, but South Dakota State will end up pulling away in the second half. I’ll go with a 41-21 SDSU final.

#3 North Dakota State (5-0, 2-0) @ Illinois State (2-3, 0-2) – 2pm – ESPN+ NDSU’s homecoming win over UNI coupled with losses by South Dakota State and James Madison pushed the Bison to #3 in the top 25 poll. They also stand with SIU as the only two teams without a loss in league play. Illinois State is coming off their best week of the Valley season so far….the bye. ISU is one of two Valley teams without a league win. The Redbirds played a strong first half against both Missouri State and Southern Illinois but failed to score in the second half of either game. They were outscored 35-0 against SIU after building a 17-0 lead and were outscored 27-0 by Missouri State after building a 20-14 lead. The problem for Illinois State has been consistency on offense. They’ve had two QBs this year. Bryce Jefferson has been a threat with his legs but a borderline non-entity throwing the ball. Jackson Waring has been more of a threat with his arm but is mistake prone. They’ve had two weeks to try and figure it out but will have their work cut out for them against the Bison defense. North Dakota State has allowed a total of 43 points in five games this year. One would imagine Waring has a better shot of making something happen than Jefferson, as the Bison defense is particularly stout against the run. But either way, this is not a team you want to face if you are in an offensive funk. The Redbirds have been better on defense but got gashed by Missouri State in their last outing and have not been particularly proficient at stopping the run. That plays right into NDSU’s strength as they prefer to pound the ball on the ground but have shown they can move the ball through the air as well. Ultimately, NDSU is a matchup nightmare for Illinois State. The Redbirds want to run the ball and slow down the run. NDSU does not allow teams to run and can kill you on the ground. It is a scenario that likely has NDSU licking their chops.

My Prediction: A lot of crazy things have happened recently in the league, but I just don’t see how ISU keeps up in this one. They really are not built to hang with a team like NDSU. I have the Bison winning 27-7.

Indiana State (3-3, 1-2) @ #20 Missouri State (3-2, 1-1) – 2pm – ESPN+ Missouri State was just chugging right along en route to another playoff berth when they hit a roadblock in the form of the Youngstown State Penguins. I had drawn a line between the Valley haves and have nots in my mind. On one side you had the teams that have been ranked most of the year (NDSU, SDSU, SIU, UNI, MSU, UND) and South Dakota, while on the other you had the teams who have not been quite as strong (ISU Red, ISU Blue, YSU and WIU). Thus far, that line has proven itself to be pretty accurate, but Youngstown’s win over Missouri State was the first to blur it. The Bears had no trouble moving the ball as they amassed 503 yards of total offense. But they continually shot themselves in the foot with two interceptions and two fumbles while the Penguins played a clean game. They also struggled to stop the run, giving up 377 yards on the ground. Youngstown is one of the better running teams in the Valley, but that is a helluva lot of yardage. It was also uncharacteristic of Missouri State as their previous four opponents (Illinois State, Central Arkansas, South Dakota and even Oklahoma State) did the bulk of their damage through the air. The evidence points to it being more of an uncharacteristically bad performance by the Bears than a sign of a trend. But MSU needs to figure it out quick, because a loss to Indiana State would make it very difficult to hang in the playoff race. The Trees are coming off a big win over Western Illinois to get their record back to 3-3. They’ve made the most of their opportunities this year, getting blown out in their three losses and getting three wins by a combined total of 17. If they can go on the road and get a W over Missouri State, they really are not technically out of the playoff conversation. They host YSU next, and an opportunity to be 5-3 heading into contests with NDSU and SIU is there for the taking. If they do beat Mo State, they’ll likely have to do it the same way Youngstown did……on the ground. Peterson Kerlegrand ran for 178 yards last week against Western and continues to be Indiana State’s best offensive weapon. Anthony Thompson had his best game under center for ISU though, completing 15-21 passes for 226 yards and two TDs. His improvement makes the Sycamores offense more balanced.

My Prediction: I think Missouri State will return to form at home and will be able to bottle up Kerlegrand. Jason Shelley will be able to manipulate the Sycamore defense, and I don’t think Anthony Thompson is good enough to carry his team to victory in this one. I say the Bears win this one 31-14.

#22 North Dakota (2-3, 0-2) @ #4 Southern Illinois (5-1, 3-0) – 2pm – ESPN3 Whoever set up the Fighting Hawks’ schedule did them no favors. After opening the conference season with a hard-fought loss at home to (then) fifth-ranked North Dakota State, they had to travel to Vermillion in week two before hitting the road again to face another top five team in SIU. While they haven’t played terribly, they now find themselves in a situation where they have to beat a top five team on the road to avoid an 0-3 start to league play. Overall, their away schedule includes no gimmies with USD, SIU, Mo State and SDSU as their away opponents. This week is both a challenge and an opportunity. If the Fighting Hawks win, they go from being in a near desperate place to being in manageable shape. Their schedule eases up substantially after this week and if they come out of this game 3-3 with a road win against Southern Illinois, they will have a good shot to make the playoffs. If they lose, though, they are sitting at 2-4 and looking at needing to win out (including their final game at SDSU) to have a realistic shot at the postseason. Winning this game is going to be a tall order for UND, and a lot will depend on how well Southern Illinois plays. We have seen some extremes from the Salukis. They were shut out in the first half against Illinois State and trailed 20-0 against SDSU. They blew a 21-0 lead against Western Illinois and only managed a field goal in the second half. However, they won all those games. They are literally two plays away from being 1-2 in the conference with a bad loss, but they aren’t. They are 5-1 and ranked fourth in the country. For me the key to this one will be how well the North Dakota defense does against the SIU offense. The Salukis can be explosive but are also inconsistent. If the Fighting Hawks defense can contain them, something they were more-or-less able to do against NDSU and USD despite the losses, they’ll have a shot in this one. If SIU’s offense goes off I don’t think the Fighting Hawks have the firepower to keep up.

My Prediction: The Fighting Hawks are desperate, and crazy things can happen when a good team gets desperate. Southern Illinois is a very good team who has had a bit of good fortune in getting their last two wins. I think the talent level of these two teams is closer than the rankings make it look, and the intangibles make it a very tough call. Give me Southern Illinois at home, 28-20.

#21 South Dakota (4-2, 2-1) @ #16 Northern Iowa (3-2, 1-1) – 4pm – ESPN+ After a few weeks of league play, three tiers of teams have emerged in the MVFC. On one end, there are the three teams that are looking very likely to make the playoffs and pushing for seeding (NDSU, SDSU, SIU). On the other end, there are four teams that are not likely to be in the postseason conversation (ISU Red, ISU Blue, YSU, WIU). And in the middle, there are four teams that are fighting for 2 or 3 remaining Valley playoff spots (UNI, USD, MSU, UND). The games between these four squads are going to be crucial when it comes to determining who makes the playoff field. USD will have played all three by the end of this week and will have put themselves in a very good spot if they beat UNI. The Panthers haven’t faced anyone else in the group yet (and wont see UND), but badly need this one at home with a trip to SDSU next week and a home contest against SIU following that. The winner of this game will be in great shape for a playoff spot, while the loser won’t be out of it, but will probably need to beat at least one of the big three to get in. UNI likely needs the game a little more than USD does due to their playing at home, and I think we’ll learn more about the Panthers in this one than in any game they’ve played so far. Games at Iowa State and NDSU were always going to be tough, and Youngstown and St. Thomas were overmatched in the dome. Sacramento State was a test, but UNI switched QBs at halftime so you have a bit of a wrench thrown in that one as well when analyzing it. If they handle the Coyotes, I am ready to buy on the Panthers. I am also ready for Theo Day to have his breakout game as the Panther signalcaller. He has been up and down most of the year so far, and there are several reasons/excuses as to why. But this is the game I need to see him take a step forward if Northern Iowa is truly going to be a contender. Much of the same could be said about South Dakota, although I think they’ve already had a very good statement game with their win last week against North Dakota. They’ve performed decent-to-well in each of their games this season, and already have three blowout wins against full-fledged FCS teams. Beating UND at home is great, but a win over UNI on the road would certainly make the nation take notice (at least amongst FCS circles). The Coyotes continue to fly under the radar for some reason despite a very solid season thus far. The question for USD will be whether they can move the ball against UNI’s defense. It is probably the best defensive unit they’ve seen so far.

My Prediction: I think the Panthers will win at home, 27-17.

That is it for this week’s Valley preview. Here is a look at some of the other big games across the country in the Football Championship Subdivision this week.

-#9 Montana State (5-1) @ #19 Weber State (2-3) – Friday - ESPNU: The Wildcats have had a tough luck season with a very difficult schedule, and they are their season is kind of on the line here. Montana State has blown through their schedule since a season opening 19-16 loss to Wyoming, but this will certainly be their toughest test to date. The game will take place Friday night and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

-Yale (2-2) @ UConn (0-7): Just how far can UConn fall? The Huskies get a second shot at beating an FCS team. They’ve already lost to Holy Cross, Vanderbilt and UMass.

-Dartmouth (4-0) @ #23 New Hampshire (3-2): A rare look into the quality of the Ivy League as one of their members faces a school that is technically, for now, in the top 25.

-#10 East Tennessee State (6-0) @ Chattanooga (2-3): ETSU should win, but this game represents a trickier possible stumbling block for the undefeated Buccaneers that it might seem.

-VMI (4-2) @ Mercer (4-1): These schools sit as the 26th and 28th best vote getters in the poll and a win by either puts them in the thick of the playoff race and SoCon title hunt.

-Eastern Kentucky (4-2) @ Central Arkansas (2-3): Both of these teams are receiving votes in the poll and the winner will be in the playoff discussion while the loser is realistically out.

-North Carolina A&T (3-2) @ #15 Kennesaw State (4-1): The Owls have been quietly playing well after a rocky start. If North Carolina A&T is going to make a run at the Big South title, the time has come to make it happen.

-Sacramento State (3-2) @ #5 Montana (4-1): It feels like the Griz should win this one at home going away, but a Sac State upset would really rationalize my inclusion of this team that has no top 25 votes in in my projected field of 24 last week.

-Presbyterian (2-3) @ Davidson (3-1): What fresh nonsense are the Blue Hose going to get into this week against the favorites in their league?

Now that the season is past the midway point, I am going to do my first MVFC power rankings of the year. I figure it is silly to do preseason rankings (I think preseason polls are stupid) because it is based on nothing…..100% guessing. But now that we have some data to operate off, I am ready to make my initial list. This ranking is based mostly on how the team has performed so far, considering strength of schedule, ease of victory/defeat, and other intangibles. It wasn’t easy to put together for this league. Here is what I have for the midway point.

11- Illinois State (2-3, 0-2): When I started this endeavor, I didn’t think that the Redbirds would end up here. But the Valley is really good and Illinois State hasn’t shown me much this year. They edged a 1-5 OVC team and handled a bad Pioneer League team but have gotten blown out by the rest of their schedule.

10- Western Illinois (1-5, 1-2): Western has some great performances against elite teams and they beat Youngstown State. Shouldn’t they be ahead of YSU? Maybe, but at the end of the day only one MVFC team has only one win and it is WIU. Their loss to Indiana State last week made it easier to put them here.

9-Indiana State (1-2, 3-3): The Sycamores got destroyed by both South Dakota State and South Dakota but came back to beat Western Illinois last week. ISU has three legit FCS wins including a pretty good one at Eastern Kentucky, and they hung tough against Northwestern.

8-Youngstown State (2-3, 1-2): Tough to rank the Penguins ahead of Western Illinois since they lost to the ‘Necks at home. But they have two wins over ranked teams in Missouri State and Incarnate Word while WIU is 1-5.

7-North Dakota (2-3, 0-2): Are there six MVFC teams that are better than North Dakota? If so, it is only because the league is absolutely loaded. UND is a very good team and they’ve had a rough schedule. That record is bound to improve. But there is no denying that they are currently on the bottom of the league standings. All the teams ahead of them on this list are ranked, too. Someone had to end up here.

6-South Dakota (4-2, 2-1): I struggled with where to put the Coyotes, but their loss to MSU ultimately kept them in the middle of the list. They’ve looked dominant at times this year and just picked up a solid win over UND. They have a chance to really move up this list if they win at UNI this weekend.

5-Missouri State (3-2, 2-1): I couldn’t decide where to put MSU. They beat USD and have a good win over UCA. They also played OK State tough. But they lost to Youngstown last week. After they play Indiana State this week the rest of their conference games are against ranked teams, two of which are in the top 5 (and they’ll play those on the road). So we’ll find out just how good they are soon enough.

4-Northern Iowa (3-2, 1-1): The Panthers got knocked around pretty good at the Fargodome last week, but that is a tough task for anyone. They played Iowa State tough, beat a decent Sac State team soundly on a tough road trip and blew out two inferior teams at home. We’ll find out a bit more about the Panthers this weekend when they host South Dakota.

3-South Dakota State (4-1, 1-1): At the end of the day, SDSU is probably a more talented team than Southern Illinois but life isn’t always fair and the Salukis beat SDSU in Brookings. The Jackrabbits had coasted over mismatched teams for the better part of a month before taking the L last week. The schedule heats up a bit soon (but they play WIU this week).

2-Southern Illinois (5-1, 3-0): The Salukis have won all their FCS games, gave Kansas State a good run, and worked their way into the top five nationally. But they have not been invincible. They are literally two plays away from being 3-3. They’re a great team but it remains to be seen if they’re national title contenders.

1-North Dakota State (5-0, 2-0): Throughout this season only one team in the league has won each of its games with little drama. The only contest that was at all in doubt in the fourth quarter was a win at a ranked UND team. UNI gave them a little trouble. Overall, the Bison have won all five games with little trouble. Hard to find a weakness with this team. They deserve the top spot.

And that is it for this week’s preview. I’ll see you again on Monday with my recap and playoff projections. Until then, GO VALLEY!

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