Welcome to a new series in our summer FCS coverage. We'll take a look at each 2016 FCS Playoff quarterfinalist and discuss how their fan base should feel entering this season. Can they make another playoff run? Are they a national title contender? Should they be worried about a drop off?
We'll talk about it all each week for the following quarterfinal teams:
The anticipation in Brookings for South Dakota State football should be at its peak right now. SDSU is coming off a historic season where it snapped an eight-game losing streak to North Dakota State to bring home the Dakota Marker. The Jackrabbits split the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with the Bison at 7-1 for its first conference title. And they were seeded in the FCS playoffs and advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time.
SDSU has been one of the more consistently solid FCS programs, making the playoffs every season since 2012. But let's call it like it is: nationally, the Jackrabbits have lived in the Bison’s shadow.
NDSU won five national titles from 2011-2015 while SDSU failed to get out of the first or second round, being eliminated twice by the Bison in 2012 and 2014.
The 2014 Jacks were certainly good enough to win a national championship. But being within a bus trip to Fargo matched them up with the Bison in the second round, resulting in a 27-24 loss in the final minute of the game.
Last season, No. 8 SDSU and No. 1 NDSU squared off again, this time in the quarterfinals. Leading up to the game, the talking point was is this the year the Jacks fully close the gap. Their 19-17 win at the Fargodome earlier in the season may have come in the final second, but the Jackrabbits had 213 more yards on offense.
The Bison gave an answer to that talking point, though, humbling SDSU in a 36-10 win with a 40:55-19:05 time of possession advantage.
While the loss was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise historic season, SDSU showed its ready to take that next step. And with its 2017 roster, that next step is expected to happen this season. If the Jackrabbits want to step completely out of NDSU’s shadow, this is the year to do it.
For a team that hasn't reached the FCS semifinals yet, SDSU shouldn't be shy when it comes to national championship expectations. NDSU and James Madison, the defending champs, are looked at as the 1A and 1B teams this year.
The Jacks should be looked at as No. 3.
Offensively, they are loaded, bringing back a majority of the starters. Most importantly, MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Taryn Christion returns at quarterback and has two future NFL Draft picks to throw to in tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke. The two accounted for 170 catches for 2,609 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Leading rusher Brady Mengarelli also returns behind an experienced offensive line.
The Achilles' heel for the 2017 Jacks is the defense. If the unit can be just above average, SDSU has a legit shot at winning it all. But giving up 27.3 points per game like it did in 2016 won't get the job done. The defense has holes to fill, especially at outside linebacker. Tackles leader Christian Rozeboom is one of the best young linebackers in the FCS and defensive tackle Kellen Soulek is an all-American caliber player. The entire unit needs to improve, though.
SDSU's offense is useless on the sidelines. If the Jackrabbits run into a ball-control team, like JMU or NDSU, and can't get off the field defensively, they're in trouble.
No doubt about it, the Jacks are a top team in the FCS entering the season. But they shouldn't be satisfied with another conference title and a quarterfinal or semifinal appearance. A trip to Frisco, Texas, should be the ultimate goal. Windows close quickly for FCS national championship contenders. Besides NDSU, the last team to reach the title game two years in a row was Sam Houston State in 2011 and 2012.
With Goedert, Wieneke and Mengarelli being seniors, the time is now for SDSU.
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