Once again, the backstretch of the Missouri Valley Football Conference has been wild with more than half the league in the hunt for an FCS playoffs bid. A dominating nonconference performance by the league as a whole has led to talks of the Valley getting six teams in the 24-team bracket. But, more likely than not, there will be five.
With two games left, six teams all have very strong cases to make the playoffs. A seventh has an outside shot if it wins out. So let’s break down the best and worst case scenarios for each of these teams.
Obviously, the easy answer for best case is two wins and the worst case is two losses. But we’ll go more in-depth than that and look at things such as playoff seeds and what they should hope happens to other teams.
Rankings according to the FCS Coaches Poll
No. 6 North Dakota State
Record: 8-1, 5-1 MVFC
Remaining games: vs. No. 10 South Dakota, @ No. 20 Illinois State
Best case: The Bison dropped in the Top 25 rankings with their first loss last weekend, but should be considered a No. 2 seed if they win out. Two more wins gets them six ranked victories, which would be the most in the FCS. NDSU would also win the MVFC title outright, which should be good enough for the No. 2 seed behind James Madison. The Bison should also hope for SDSU to win out to make their loss to the Jackrabbits look better and get SDSU on the other side of the bracket as a No. 4 or 5 seed.
Worst case: It just seems unreasonable to predict NDSU going 0-2. The Bison have not lost back-to-back games since 2009, let alone three in a row. But if they go 1-1, that might drop them to a No. 4 or 5 seed, which means going to JMU in the semifinals. Another bad scenario is finishing 10-1, but the committee deciding to give the No. 2 seed to Jacksonville State, also 10-1 but with less quality wins.
No. 10 South Dakota
Record: 7-2, 4-2
Remaining games: @ No. 6 NDSU, vs. No. 5 SDSU
Best case: Once looking like a lock for a playoff seed, the Coyotes have lost two of their last three. Two wins here obviously gets them that seed. But going to the Fargodome for a win is tough, although USD did do it in 2015. The key is the last game. If the Coyotes can knock off SDSU, the two would likely finish 8-3 and USD would win the head-to-head to likely earn a seed over the Jacks.
Worst case: USD is on a slide and faces its two toughest opponents to end the regular season. It’s hard to picture a 7-4 Valley team missing the playoffs. But there could be more than a couple 7-4 teams for the playoff committee to choose from. Yes, the Coyotes have an FBS win, but if it comes down to it, would the committee let in a team who lost four of its last five games?
No. 5 South Dakota State
Record: 7-2, 4-2
Remaining games: vs. No. 20 Illinois State, @ No. 10 USD
Best case: SDSU is starting to roll and has jumped right back into the national title picture with its second straight regular season win against NDSU. Even with two losses on their record, adding two more ranked wins may get the Jacks a Top 4 seed. That all depends on if the committee likes their resume over JSU or Central Arkansas. Another Bison loss could also see SDSU jump them in the seedings.
Worst case: There is a very real thing called an “NDSU hangover.” Teams are usually beat up after playing a physical Bison team. Add on any team that has gotten a rare win on the Bison, and the next week is sometimes a struggle. The Jacks can’t treat keeping the Dakota Marker in Brookings as their Super Bowl. They’ll say they’re over the game and are focusing on the next opponent. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to mentally do it. One more loss, especially against USD, could force them to play a first-round game.
No. 20 Illinois State
Record: 6-3, 4-2
Remaining games: @ No. 5 SDSU, vs. No. 6 NDSU
Best case: Two more wins definitely gets the Redbirds a seed. But as one of the more up-and-down teams this season, defeating the Jacks and Bison back-to-back weeks doesn’t seem likely. ISU suffered a terrible loss to Southern Illinois, then beat ranked USD and Youngstown State. But last week, it led WIU 14-0 at halftime before losing 31-14. Best case (and most realistic) scenario for the Redbirds is to split and host a first-round game at 7-4.
Worst case: It all depends which Redbirds team shows up in these games. How do you explain a 42-7 loss to Southern Illinois? SDSU is rolling and the Bison likely will be playing for a Top 2 seed in the regular season finale. It’s hard to see the Jacks losing this weekend. It’s just as hard to see NDSU losing in the final week. There’s a chance ISU goes 0-2 and misses the playoffs.
Record: 5-4, 4-2
Remaining games: @ Missouri State, vs. Indiana State
Best case: The Panthers at one point were 2-3, but now look to be playoff bound with games against two teams at the bottom of the MVFC. A 7-4 UNI team with wins against SDSU, YSU and USD makes the playoffs. It should also be pointed out that one of its losses is to Iowa State, who turns out is pretty good.
Worst case: UNI always seems like that one team that has a head-scratching loss each season. The Panthers can’t afford that to happen these last two weeks. One bad loss sends them to 6-5. And there will be too many teams in front of them in the Valley to sneak in with that record.
No. 13 Western Illinois
Record: 6-3, 3-3
Remaining games: @ Indiana State, vs. Southern Illinois
Best case: Last year saw the Leathernecks sputter down the stretch and miss the playoffs. They hope to avoid that this season. Once 5-1 with an FBS win, they have lost two of their last three. But two very winnable games remain. There is a small chance three teams from the MVFC get seeded. If WIU goes 8-3 and SDSU loses its next two, the Leathernecks could sneak in the Top 8.
Worst case: No way the Leathernecks finish 6-5 this season. But last season they slipped up against SIU to finish 6-5 and basically ending their chance at the playoffs. Again, a 7-4 Valley team isn’t guaranteed to make the bracket. If WIU suffers one bad loss down the stretch, it could be an excuse for the committee to leave the Leathernecks out once again.
Record: 4-5, 2-4
Remaining opponents: @ SIU, vs. Missouri State
Best case: The Penguins once looked like a Top 5 team in early October. But four straight losses gave them five losses early. They should win out, and past 6-5 Valley teams have made the playoffs before. YSU needs to hope UNI, WIU and Illinois State go 0-2 and the committee favors its 6-5 record with close losses to quality teams.
Worst case: Unless YSU gives up on the season, it should finish 6-5. But with just one quality win against SDSU and several other teams with record and head-to-head advantages, the defending national runner-ups are watching the playoffs from home.