After seven weeks of play, only five FCS teams remain undefeated. Some, like BR-1 North Dakota State and BR-11 Coastal Carolina, we saw coming. We ranked each of these schools almost exactly where they’re at now before the season started. Harvard is undefeated, but with their strength of schedule it would be surprising if they weren’t. However, there are two undefeated schools we didn’t see coming.
Illinois State started the season at BR-33, the worst preseason rank of any currently undefeated FCS team. That was after they finished last season 5-6 and in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley Football Conference standings.
Their freshman quarterback, Blake Winkler, did pretty well — for a freshman. He finished fifth in the conference in passing efficiency and completed 127-of-217 passes (58.5%) for 1,637 yards, 12 TDs, and 8 INTs. Sophomore running back Marshaun Coprich finished eighth in the MVFC in rushing with 884 yards and 9 TDs in 10 games. The Redbirds finished seventh in the 10-school conference in scoring offense (24.7 ppg).
This season, Coprich, much like his namesake, has been a beast. Through just five games, he’s already scored more rushing TDs than he did in all of last season (11) and is on pace to surpass his yardage total next week. His 730 rushing yards trail only Zach Zenner of South Dakota State University for the MVFC lead, and no back in the conference with more than 100 carries has a better yards per carry average than Coprich’s 6.8. He has yet to rush for under 100 yards in a game.
The Redbirds also have a new quarterback. Tre Roberson transferred in from Indiana after Nate Sudfeld was named starter, and has been a huge upgrade from Winkler so far. He’s the most efficient QB in the MVFC and has accounted for 238.4 yards per game of total offense, second most in the conference.
With these guys in the backfield and Lechein Neblett (leading receiver in the MVFC) catching passes, the Illinois State offense has put up 43.2 points per game this season, nearly 20 better than their average from last season, and ten more than second place Southern Illinois (33 ppg).
The defense has been similarly impressive. Sophomore Pat Meehan anchored the defense from his inside linebacker spot last year and finished the season fourth in the conference in tackles per game (8.3), to earn himself a second team All-Conference nod. He led the team to ninth best scoring average (29.5 ppg) in the conference.
This season, he’s back at it, but this time he’s got help. Underclassmen DraShane Glass and Oshay Dunmore each have a pair of interceptions, Collin Keoshian and David Perkins are both in the conference’s top ten in sacks, and junior linebacker Teddy Corwin has nearly as many tackles as Meehan. As a unit, the defense has allowed less than 10 points per game on average and they’re only six turnovers away from matching their season-total from 2013.
Illinois State has already beat BR-12 Eastern Illinois and BR-6 South Dakota State pretty comfortably, but the real tests are yet to come. The Redbirds still have a road trip to Northern Illinois and home games against Youngstown State and Southern Illinois left on their schedule, and each of these teams is tougher than Eastern Illinois, who might have been ranked too high to start the season. Fortunately, they won’t have to play perennial MVFC power North Dakota State in the regular season, so it’s entirely possible they’ll finish undefeated and earn an excellent seed in the FCS playoffs.
Even though they won’t face them in the regular season, if Illinois State has FCS title aspirations, they’ll have to face North Dakota State eventually. They haven’t beat the Bison since 2010, but they haven’t started a season 6-0 since 1967. If the Redbirds win this weekend at Western Illinois, that’s exactly what they’ll be. So who knows? Maybe streaks are meant to be broken.