The Missouri Valley Football Conference has five teams ranked in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll and three teams in the Top 10. For a number of those teams, we still aren't quite sure yet on how strong they are.
Thankfully, Valley play is upon us to provide a better understanding.
Look at teams like South Dakota State, Illinois State and Youngstown State. The three are a combined 10-0 against FCS opponents, but none of those wins came against strong teams. That makes it tough to gauge where these MVFC programs are on a national scale.
South Dakota State has held the No. 3 ranking all season. A lot of us voters are putting stock in the amount of talent returning off of last year's semifinal team. But we're still waiting for the Jackrabbits to truly show they're a team set for another run to the semis and possibly beyond. Redshirt freshman quarterback J'Bore Gibbs has only started in two of the four games (first and the latest) and has been good but inconsistent at times.
The Jacks have blown out their three weaker FCS opponents, and the most telling sign of this team's strength is nearly beating Minnesota to start the season. But close FBS losses don't always mean that the FCS team is in store for a special season. SDSU does appear to be loaded this year. But the Jacks can confirm that against ranked MVFC foes.
Illinois State is one of the more interesting teams in the Top 10 at No. 10. The Redbirds haven't done anything yet to wow anybody, but voters are confident in the talent Illinois State has. We'll see how the Redbirds stack up against NDSU this weekend.
And how about Youngstown State? Not including the Ivy League's Princeton, there are three undefeated teams in the rankings. North Dakota State is 4-0 and No. 1. Villanova is 5-0 and No. 5. And Youngstown State is 4-0 and … No. 18?
Well, that's because the Penguins have beaten teams with a combined record of 7-12. They can prove their worth with the first two MVFC games coming against Northern Iowa and SDSU.
Speaking of Northern Iowa, who is ranked No. 13 … where do the Panthers really belong in the polls? An overtime loss to Iowa State seems to be carrying a lot of weight. UNI then handled a below-average Southern Utah team, edged an OK Idaho State team and then lost an ugly game at No. 5 Weber State, 29-17.
Hell, we can throw a few more teams into this "conference play will reveal what kind of team this is" category.
Is Indiana State, who was preseason ranked No. 16 but has since fallen out of the poll, a playoff team with starting quarterback Ryan Boyle out for the year with an injury?
Southern Illinois is getting votes in the poll mostly because of its 45-20 win against FBS UMass. But let's be real, UMass wouldn't make the playoffs if it were an FCS team. But the Salukis can gain more respect by knocking off traditionally strong Valley teams.
And then there's North Dakota State. The Bison have answered a lot of offseason questions, and it appears there won't be any Frisco/Plano hotel cancellations from 701 area codes. But the nonconference wins don't tell us everything about this team. What will is how the Bison fare against four ranked teams in the next five games with three of those matchups coming on the road.
Is NDSU still the clear-cut best team in the FCS? Can SDSU take the next step? Can Illinois State and YSU return to the playoffs? So far, the nonconference has given us a "possibly" type of answer. But answers to those questions will become more confident in the coming weeks.
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