For the third time in three years, South Dakota State and Montana State meet on the gridiron.
It’s the best FCS non-conference game of the year, featuring two top-three teams who squared off in the last two semifinals.
Sure, it’s only Week 2. But a game like this has lasting impacts on the FCS playoff and national title picture.
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Can SDSU Deliver On The Hype?
SDSU will have to search the dark corners of other fan message boards if it wants to get any bulletin board material. Certainly, no media is providing it.
“SDSU vs. the field.”
The Jackrabbits are loaded, and are being treated as such by FCS followers. They have a mostly same-look two-deep as last season’s national title squad that outscored its four playoff opponents 168-66.
SDSU now faces the scenario where it will get every opponent’s absolute best shot. Just about every team will treat it like a program-changing opportunity. If the Jacks get beat at some point, opposing players will probably storm the field. Fans may storm the field if it’s on the road. And FCS social media will be tweeting about it from all over the country. That’s what happens when the defending champs get knocked off.
That’s a lot of weight on young men’s shoulders.
How do they handle that pressure? Do they play tight? If they fall behind 10 points in any game, do they feel that weight even more and things snowball? The veteran experience and moxie of the roster suggest this won’t be a problem, even with a different-looking coaching staff. But until you face that weight in the moment, you don’t fully know how you’ll handle it.
Can Montana State Close The Gap?
MSU has been on an incredible run in Brent Vigen’s two seasons as head coach.
The Bobcats reached the 2021 national championship. And after losing a historic senior class, they were even better in 2022 despite falling one round short of their 2021 finish.
But how the Bobcats have lost in the last two brackets created a question of how close are they really to winning a national title.
MSU had a super-talented front seven in 2021 that featured two NFL Draft picks. Yet it allowed 380 rushing yards in a 38-10 loss versus North Dakota State.
MSU had an elite rushing attack in 2022, leading the FCS with 332.4 rushing yards per game entering the semifinals. Yet it ran for only 52 yards on 34 attempts in a 39-18 loss at SDSU.
Now, Tommy Mellott did get hurt early in the NDSU game. And Sean Chambers did get hurt early in the SDSU game. That drastically changed MSU’s offense. But the play in the trenches shaped those ball games more than anything else.
The next step for the Bobcats is to win a national title. We’ll see if they can close the gap on Saturday. Many believe this will be a much tighter game than last year. MSU looks to prove it has reached the upper-upper echelon of the FCS.
Early Playoff Implications
We get a great glimpse early in the season of what the national title picture looks like. Is it a season where SDSU rolls to a second-straight championship? Or can MSU add its name to the race?
The result is going to play a huge role in the playoff seeds.
Seeding and matchups are so crucial in how far a team can advance. The difference between the No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed is massive. Even the No. 3 seed vs. No. 4 seed can be the difference between reaching the title game or losing in the semifinals.
And usually, playoff resumes for the top four seeds are pretty similar.
An early loss for SDSU or MSU doesn’t mean a top-two seed and home-field advantage is out the window. But the Jacks still have five more currently-ranked teams on their schedule. The Bobcats have four, all on the road. Getting a top-two seed with two FCS losses seems unlikely.
Beyond just the win/loss result, the margin of victory could be a factor for the playoff committee come November. Let’s say SDSU wins on Saturday. And let’s say MSU and NDSU finish 10-1 with similar strength of schedules and the same number of ranked wins. If MSU loses by 21 points at SDSU and NDSU loses by seven at SDSU, that could be the difference between who gets the No. 2 seed and who gets the No. 3 seed.
One could make the argument that if SDSU didn’t have to travel to California, then to Pennsylvania, then to Montana during the 2021 playoffs, the game may have played out differently rather than a 35-21 MSU win in the semifinals.
One could argue that if Chambers didn’t get hurt early in last year’s semifinals, and if the field wasn’t as icy for an MSU team that struggled to defend power run teams and offensively relied on getting to the edge with the offensive lineman out in space, that we would have seen a different type of game rather than a 39-18 SDSU blowout win.
SDSU fans ripped anyone on social media who had the lukewarm take of “Hey, the win/loss outcome would have been the same if the weather was fine, but the slippery surface probably tilted the scales toward SDSU even more.”
Yet earlier this week, SDSU head coach Jimmy Rogers said, “You look back at the film and the footing wasn’t always the best. Our guys at times were playing a little bit faster than them. I’m not going to look at that film and say that the weather did not impact that game. The weather did impact that game.”
Regardless, football is football, both teams play under the same conditions, and every team deals with injuries.
No team is at full strength once preseason camp is underway. SDSU may be without All-American MLB Adam Bock. MSU may be without All-Conference OL JT Reed and last week’s starting RB Lane Sumner. But SDSU is loaded at LB, as is MSU at OL and RB.
Rarely do you have two top-notch FCS squads at their full best. But Saturday is pretty dang close to it compared to the last two matchups.
Clear skies, (close to) full health, can’t (make an excuse if you) lose.