For the last handful of years, the Missouri Valley Football Conference has undoubtedly been the best league in the FCS. Having the six-time national champs North Dakota State helps, but it is also the most competitive and talented conference from top to bottom.
The MVFC has dominated FCS opponents in nonconference games when looking at the total records:
- 2017: 18-4
- 2016: 13-6
- 2015: 16-3
- 2014: 23-1
Because of this dominance, the MVFC has gotten a lot of respect from the playoff committee, tying the record with five bids in three of those four years. The Valley has cashed in during the postseason.
Just look at these playoff numbers since 2014:
- 3 different teams have played in the national title game, including two in the 2014 season
- 4 different teams have made the semifinals
- 5 different teams have made the quarterfinals
- 8 of the 10 teams have made the playoffs at least once
- 19 combined playoff appearances
It’s hard to argue against this conference being the clear-cut best in the FCS. But the 2018 season could see a changing of the guard. For the first time in a long time, there’s a lot of uncertainties on just how good the Valley will be.
The Bison appear to be as strong as ever. After that, though, it’s fair game on guessing who’s going to finish 2-6 in the standings.
South Dakota State is coming off its best season in program history with a trip to the semifinals. But a majority of its explosive offense is gone, including NFL Draft prospects Jake Wieneke and Dallas Goedert. South Dakota appeared in its first postseason, but quarterback Chris Streveler had the entire team on his back and is now gone. Western Illinois expects to make it back to the playoffs, as does Northern Iowa, but both lose key playmakers and the Leathernecks have a first-year head coach.
If you noticed a theme, it’s that there are a lot of “buts” for these traditionally solid programs. The conference could continue its dominance if these question marks get answered in a positive way. Otherwise a down year for the MVFC could be on the horizon. So who would fill that void as the top conference in the FCS? It comes down to two obvious choices: the Big Sky Conference or the Colonial Athletic Association.
The CAA should be strong, per usual. James Madison will contend for a national title. Delaware is quickly on the rise. Blue bloods like New Hampshire and Villanova will compete for playoff spots with the likes of Richmond, Stony Brook and Elon.
But it’s the Big Sky that is most intriguing. After a stretch of disappointing seasons, the largest conference in the FCS is on the verge of returning to glory.
EWU returns a stacked team with one of the best quarterbacks, Gage Gubrud, in the subdivision. The two Montana schools were once consistently at the top of the FCS not long ago. Those days appear to be coming back into the light as Jeff Choate is building something special at Montana State and Bobby Hauck returns to get the talented Grizzlies back to the team their passionate fan base knows and loves.
RELATED: Top 40 Big Sky Recruits in 2018
Then you have Southern Utah and Weber State looking to return to the playoffs after sharing the conference title. The Wildcats almost knocked off the defending national champs and eventual runner-ups JMU in the quarterfinals.
Northern Arizona went 6-2 in conference play, reaching the playoffs, and Case Cookus could challenge Gubrud as the best quarterback in the league. UC Davis is on the rise with wide receiver Keelan Doss returning as a Top 3 finalist for the Walter Payton Award. Sacramento State was 7-4 overall and 6-2 in the conference last season. And North Dakota and Cal Poly were playoff teams in 2016, but injuries set them back in 2017.
Not to mention, Idaho is transitioning back to the FCS from the FBS and should make the Big Sky even more competitive.
The large conference creates unbalanced schedules. For example, UND won the conference title in 2016, but avoided playing teams like EWU and Montana. That’s what makes it difficult when deciding which teams should receive an at-large bid into the playoffs.
Three teams (EWU, Montana and Sacramento State) finished 7-4 overall and didn’t make the postseason in 2017. Meanwhile, a 7-4 MVFC team is almost a lock to make the playoffs. Even 6-5 records have gotten the nod over 7-4 teams from other conferences.
But with the expected rise of the Big Sky and the question marks surrounding the MVFC, 2018 could be the year teams get the head-to-head nod from the playoff committee over Valley squads. A big deciding factor in this could be nonconference games.
These are all massive matchups to determine how the Big Sky and MVFC stack up against each other:
- SDSU vs. Montana State
- UNI @ Montana
- USD vs. Northern Colorado and @ Weber State
- WIU @ Montana State and vs. Montana
- NDSU vs. Cal Poly