A change in recruiting philosophy and upgraded facilities have helped South Dakota State go from a first or second-round FCS playoff team to a quarterfinal or semifinal team in the late 2010s. The Jackrabbits have earned high playoff seeds, won Missouri Valley Football Conference championships, beaten rival and FCS juggernaut North Dakota State, and have sent players to the NFL.
But two things have been missing on SDSU’s program resume: Making the national championship game and winning it.
The Jacks crossed the first one off last Saturday with a 33-3 demolition of Delaware in the semifinals. They hope to cross the second one off Sunday with a win against Sam Houston in Frisco, Texas.
SDSU made the playoffs every season from 2012-2019. The Jacks lost in the second round the first three times and in the first round during the 2015 season. They got over the second-round hump with their first trip to the quarterfinals in 2016. Then another milestone was achieved in 2017 with a semifinal appearance, followed by another semifinal appearance in 2018.
The 2019 season ended in the second round.
SDSU was on the doorstep of a national championship game appearance, but the playoff exits were never pretty. The tough losses stung even more as the players watched the national championship on TV, especially with the Bison, a team SDSU beat in 2017 and 2018, hoisting the trophy.
“I watched the last three or four national championship games, especially the ones after we’ve made it to the semifinals and getting so close,” SDSU linebacker Logan Backhaus told HERO Sports. “Watching those games, seeing what we could have done in that game to get past that hump of getting stopped in the semifinals. It’s given me motivation every single year to watch those games and not be playing in them. So this year it’s going to be a surreal experience for me.”
The Jackrabbits have said all spring that this team has a different feel to it. They may not have the all-star players like a Dallas Goedert, Jake Wieneke, Zach Zenner, or Christian Rozeboom, but the Jacks are deeper with more talent spread across the two-deep.
They came into the spring season with championship expectations. With only six at-large bids in the 16-team playoffs, SDSU’s championship goals took a potentially devastating hit with an early-season loss at North Dakota. At the time, two losses in the regular season was thought to put a team on the wrong side of the postseason bubble, and the Jacks still had games remaining against Southern Illinois, Illinois State, and NDSU.
SDSU responded well and won its next three games against Western Illinois, Youngstown State, and SIU. The Jacks then endured four weeks between games due to Illinois State opting out and South Dakota dealing with positive COVID tests. Despite the long break, SDSU went to Fargo and handed NDSU a 27-17 loss in a game that decided the conference championship and No. 1 playoff seed. Traditionally, it was the type of big game that past SDSU teams came up short in.
In a position it’s never been in before as a top-two seed, SDSU showed the No. 1 slot was worthy. The Jacks dominated Holy Cross 31-3 in the first round, overcame a 20-7 deficit to beat SIU 31-26, and then finally got over the semifinal hump in convincing fashion by beating Delaware 33-3.
With plenty of former SDSU players coming to Frisco this weekend to witness potential history, the 2021 spring squad looks to check off the last missing item on an otherwise loaded FCS resume.
“Hearing from the older guys, those semifinals in those past years were really tough on them,” SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski said. “Just getting over this hump, it’s been a great feeling. It has put a chip on our shoulders and a lot of motivation throughout this entire team. We’re all feeling great going into this week.”