During the long, long 2018 FCS offseason, there were many discussion points to get us through the dog days of summer. One of them was whether the Missouri Valley Football Conference was going to remain the top league in the subdivision.
It was a fair question, although fans in the Midwest didn’t seem to think so. The MVFC lost a ton of talent – 13 of the 15 All-MVFC First Team offensive players and nine of the 15 First Team defensive players. Meanwhile, the CAA has several experienced teams getting one year better and the Big Sky is quickly on the rise with a ridiculous amount of potential playoff teams.
After Week 1, questioning the Valley’s strength is an even more fair question.
Of the nine games fully played, the conference had just two Division I wins. North Dakota State defeated Cal Poly and Southern Illinois won at Murray State. Indiana State defeated a Division II team and Illinois State beat an NAIA program.
South Dakota suffered a "good loss" at Kansas State, 27-24, and South Dakota State's game at Iowa State was canceled due to weather. Missouri State lost 58-17 to Oklahoma State.
Then, things got ugly.
In the extremely important Valley vs. Big Sky games, the MVFC went 0-2 in 50/50 matchups. Western Illinois lost 26-23 at Montana State. Northern Iowa lost by the same score at Montana, but was down 26-0 at halftime and had its senior quarterback get benched after going 5-of-20 for 24 yards and an interception. Montana was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big Sky coaches poll. UNI was picked to finish third in its conference.
Yeah, that’s super not good for the Valley.
But we’re not done yet. The biggest blow to the MVFC’s reputation was Youngstown State, picked to be the fourth best team in the Valley, allowing 16 fourth-quarter points and losing 23-21 at home to non-scholarship Butler, a team the Penguins were favored to beat by 34.5 points. People forget YSU is a program that appeared in the national title game two years ago and still has key players from that 2016 team.
So, the Big Sky has a 2-1 advantage right now in the Challenge Series, something that’s going to be taken into heavy consideration by the playoff committee. The conference also notched two FBS wins in Week 1 by UC Davis and Northern Arizona.
The Big Sky is back = confirmed.
Then in the CAA, Villanova added an FBS win, James Madison looked as good as ever and Maine and Rhode Island made the conference even more competitive by knocking off two teams, New Hampshire and Delaware, that were thought to be JMU’s biggest challenge.
If the MVFC wanted to prove it’s still the best conference in the FCS, it didn’t do a good job of showing it in Week 1.
There’s some catching up to do. And Week 2 has some key games. SDSU hosts Montana State in a huge matchup and Northern Colorado visits USD. Illinois State also has an important game against the OVC's Eastern Illinois. Four teams face FBS opponents, with the only potential upset being WIU over Illinois.
In other words, the Valley’s nonconference record against Division I opponents may not be sitting pretty on Sunday.
Where you finish in the conference standings is obviously important. But what you did in the nonconference is just as valuable. In the past, a 6-5 Valley team has gotten the playoff nod over 7-4 or 8-3 teams in other conferences. If the MVFC doesn’t bounce back and prove itself these next few weeks, that’s not going to happen this November.
Is it time to hit the panic button? Of course not. This is only a sample size of one week. But the MVFC has had this sort of untouchable reputation for the last four seasons. That reputation took a hard hit to start 2018. And for a conference that faced offseason doubts for the first time in a while, it didn't do itself any favors.