Isn’t it fun? What the FCS spring season lacks in length and quality, it makes up for in pure, magical absurdity. The top national program was crushed by a flawless opponent two weeks ago, and the new No. 1 team had two scares early in the second half. Last week there were 31 plays and 19 were decided by a touchdown. On Saturday afternoon, the three played overtime almost simultaneously.
The first edition of March Madness at the college lived up to its name. And for the fourth full week of action, we once again look to the Missouri Valley Conference, where, no matter what, some very good teams won’t make the playoffs in a few weeks.
Message: Below are the STATS FCS Top 25 rankings on NCAA.com, all times are East Coast.
FCS bracketology and timekeeping in SVM
It’s spreadsheet time, so let’s talk about what the 16-team FCS spring tournament will look like when it’s announced in mid-April.
There will be 10 conference champions and 6 stakes, so the Autobids will look like this:
- Big Sky champion (Weber State?)
- Grand Master of the South (Kennesaw State ?)
- Colonial Master (JMU?)
- Champion of the Missouri Valley (now North Dakota).
- Master of the Northeastern Conference (Duquesne?)
- Master of the Ohio Valley (Jacksonville?)
- Master Patriot (Holy Cross?)
- Pioneer League champion (San Diego?)
- Southern Conference Champions (Chattanooga?)
- Master of the Southland Conference. (Nicholls?)
Take out the interim champions. Here’s how the other players in the STATS FCS Top 25 are doing right now:
4. Northern Iowa (2-1)
5. North Dakota (3-1)
6. Villanova (1-0)
8. South Dakota State (2-1)
10. Southern Illinois (3-1)
12. Sam Houston (1-0)
13. Albania (1-0)
15. Furman (2-1)
16. Eastern Washington (1-1)
17. New Hampshire (0-1)
18. Southeastern Louisiana (1-1)
19. Delaware (1-0)
20. Wofford (1-1)
21. South Dakota (1-1)
22. Illinois State (0-2)
23. UC Davis (1-0)
24. Monmouth (0-0)
25. Incarnate Word (2-0)
Six of those 18 teams – and more importantly, four of the top five – are from the Missouri Valley. The IMFC itself could barely fill Joe Lunardi’s final four list, and two other teams, South Dakota State (21st) and Illinois State (22nd), are just a game or two away from anything to do with the playoffs themselves.
There are five MVFC games on ESPN+ Saturday, and at least four of them are important to the playoffs.
4 Northern Iowa, 10 Southern Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+).
In our troubled world, it’s good to know that we can count on constants, even in the spring. Northern Iowa might be the best constant of all time. Namely, the Panthers are winning on the defensive side of the ball. An aggressive and vicious defense. They won 10 games in 2019 despite averaging just 21 points per game, while allowing just 17.7 points. They are fourth in the polls this spring despite averaging 20.3 points per game. Why? Because they only allow 11.3. They had 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks – Christian Boyd (3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) led in both categories. They responded with a 24-20 loss against BDSU and defeated Youngstown State and Illinois 41-10.
Now UNI visits an SIU team that likes to go in a different direction. The Salukis scored 38 points and 443 yards at NDSU and then scored 30 points in the final three quarters against Youngstown State to overcome a hangover and win 30-22. In styles that make fighting a division, this can be fascinating.
Southern Illinois impressed this spring with a big win over North Dakota State. The Salukis now have a chance to beat another top-four team when Northern Illinois travels to Belleville on Saturday. Byron Hetzler/Southern Illinois via AP
North Dakota (No. 3) against Western Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+).
As you’d expect with small sample sizes, the MVFC statements are a bit of a mess: North Dakota takes an incredible 3-0 lead and controls its destiny. But if the Fighting Hawks lose, five teams with one conference defeat could muddy things up quickly.
Of course, a) a few of those one-loss teams will have two losses after this week, and b) if UND loses, it probably won’t be WIU. The Leathernecks are tied this year after their loss against SDSU and have lost 15 of their last 16 games. It’s a preparation of sorts for what could be the greatest nickel trophy contest of all time: The next Saturday they come to Fargo to play against an injured but angry NDSU.
Missouri State, 21 South Dakota (2 p.m., ESPN+).
If Bob Nielson’s team wants a chance at the playoffs, it will need to perform well over the next two weeks. The Coyotes host Missouri 1-3 Bobby Petrino State this weekend, then visit Youngstown State 0-3 before a brutal run by NDSU, Northern Iowa and SDSU in consecutive weeks.
Bobby Petrino’s MSU Bears played in two games against Central Arkansas last fall, but after narrowly getting past WIU two weeks ago, they were crushed 25-0 by NDSU last Saturday. They let NDSU’s shaky offense get in the way in the big game, and they were held to just 3.5 yards per play with seven sacks. That last number might be of particular interest to Coyotes linebackers Brock Mogensen and Jacob Matheny, who have six PFLs and two sacks in two games.
Youngstown State, South Dakota, at 8 (3 p.m., ESPN+).
After two tough games on the road – a 24-20 win over Northern Iowa and a 28-17 loss to North Dakota – SDSU came home and took on WIU. John Stiegelmeyer’s nice offense has produced a lot of big plays, many by the receiving duo of Jackson and Jadon Janke (no relation…just kidding, they’re twins), who have combined to produce 24 catches, 457 yards and four touchdowns so far. Offensive linemen Pierre Strong and Isaiah Davis ran 20 times per game for 6 yards per carry, and quarterback Mark Gronowski ran for 80 yards to his name.
YSU is coming off a 30-22 loss against SIU, but SDSU probably has too much firepower here.
Illinois State, 22-5 North Dakota (3 p.m., ESPN+).
The final game of MVFC weekend gives us another chance to see what NDSU is capable of this year. Bison quarterback Zeb Noland had his best performance yet against Missouri State, but he was only asked to throw 16 passes and still faced a sack and threw the ball under 10 completed attempts. Jaylen Bussey’s rebounding was too much for MSU, and the defense really started to slack off, but the only time the Bison were called for passing this year – against SIU – they failed.
It’s still not the best team in the ISU Brock Spack, but the Redbirds will challenge NDSU’s offense. They allowed just 3.9 yards per game and had 16 TFLs, seven sacks (by seven different players) and 12 deflected passes in just two games.
In other words, they have a much better defense than SIU’s, which kept NDSU from holding the Bison to 14 points.
Coach Prime Watch: Always invincible!
Mississippi Valley State v. Jackson State (3 p.m., ESPN2).
Last Saturday we got a glimpse of things to come when Jackson State won 33-28 over Grambling. While much of the army of FBS transfers that Deion Sanders is assembling are not yet eligible to play, one of them, former Missouri linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr, has already entered the game.
The game itself was excellent. JSU used a 20-0 run at halftime to build a double-digit lead, but Broderick Fobbs’ G-Men got back in the game and took a 28-27 lead into the fourth quarter. JSU retook the lead before the goal line was rattled off. First, Kenan Fontenot forced Kaimani Clark to the ground on GSU’s No. 1, and Quincy Mitchell recovered the ball and gave Grambling one last chance to win. Miller then did some backtracking by attacking the flanks and Keilon Elder pulled away on 1 JSU. Kionte Hampton restored the lead and Coach Prime’s Tigers led 2-0.
Jalon Jones and Jackson State got off to a good start with a win over Grambling. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
It was quite something. JSU has not won a game since 2012 and has lost its last five games by an average of 43-24. Sanders hasn’t drafted all of his big recruits yet, but he still put in a strong performance – Tyson Alexander ran 17 times for 184 yards, and Jalon Jones completed 12 of 18 passes for 180 yards – in a miraculous victory. And if they’re not hungover, they should be able to beat MVSU before a four-game series (at Alabama State, Prairie View A&M, Southern, Alabama A&M) decides the SWAC East title.
More games to watch
Saturday afternoon: Holy Cross v Lehigh (noon, ESPN+).
The Patriot League season finally gets underway Saturday, and defending champion Holy Cross is probably everyone’s favorite. Quarterback Connor Degenhardt and linebacker Jacob Dobbs should make the Crusaders a real powerhouse.
Saturday afternoon: Nicholls, no. 7, no. 12 Sam Houston (1 p.m., ESPN+).
It’s a little overshadowed by MVFC’s big week, but this match eliminates the top two five and could decide the Southland crown. Nicholls was unapproachable in a small sample size, but SVSU has the offense to beat anyone.
Saturday afternoon: Rhode Island vs. 6 Villanova (1 p.m., FloFootball.com).
Quarterback Daniel Smith and his new championship team didn’t set the world on fire in last week’s 16-13 victory over Stony Brook, but he did complete nine passes to Rayjoun Pringle for 171 yards and a score, and the Wildcats defense should be able to handle what URI has to offer as the Rams finally make their spring season debut.
Saturday afternoon: Charleston Southern vs. 9 Kennesaw State (1 p.m., ESPN+).
Last week, KSU defeated Division II Shorter University in an outstanding Kennessean performance – 60 runs for 311 yards, three passes for 27 – but now the Owls’ season will be in full swing against a good Charleston Southern team.
Saturday afternoon: No. 15 Furman v. ETSU (1 p.m., ESPN+).
The SoCon pecking order is very dynamic right now, but Furman 1-1 probably needs a win over Randy Sanders to stay in the hunt. The Paladins saved their season last week with a win in overtime over Samford, but the ordeal isn’t over yet.
Saturday afternoon: 23 UC Davis, no. 2 Weber State House (3 p.m., Pluto TV).
After last week’s game against Cal Poly was postponed, Weber State will take on the Dan Hawkins Aggies for the second game after beating Idaho a week ago. Bronson Barron of the University of Idaho was dynamic against Idaho State, but the difficulty increases here.
Saturday night: Northwestern State vs. 18 SELA (7 p.m., ESPN+).
SELA kept Southland’s hopes alive with a one-point win over McNeese last week. Next up is a Northwestern State team that was much better than expected against Nicholls last week. Too bad NichollsUSA isn’t a #SouthlandAfterDark offering, but it could still be fun.
Sunday afternoon: Jacksonville State, 10, UT Martin (2 p.m., ESPN+).
So far, the OVC standings are in JSU’s favor; after a 3-1 fall, they are 2-0 in the spring with easy wins over Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State. However, UTM protection can be challenging: After two games, the Skyhawks have allowed just 29 points and 4.7 yards per game.
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