The ISU Redbirds have four games left in their regular season, including trips to No. 4 North Dakota State and No. 1 South Dakota State. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Dan Verdun
If the 24-team FCS playoff field was being set today, the Illinois State Redbirds remain still very much up in the air, according to a trio of national analysts.
Part of the reasoning, the media members say, is that the Missouri Valley Football Conference isn’t considered as strong as it has been in past seasons.
“It’s not,” Kevin Marshall of FCS Nation Radio told Prairie State Pigskin, “but saying that, I think the teams at the bottom are better than they have been.
“It’s really weird to say the conference isn’t as good, but maybe the top teams aren’t as good (as in the past). We’re used to seeing North Dakota State just run all over people.”
Sam Herder, Senior FCS Analyst for HEROSports, said, “The MVFC probably ends up getting four teams in (the playoff field), but three wouldn’t be a surprise either.”
Although rankings aren’t the be-all and end-all, they do give a snapshot of the national picture.
This week’s Stats Perform FCS Top 25 poll features four MVFC teams: No. 1 South Dakota State (7-1 overall, 5-0 MVFC); No. 4 North Dakota State (5-2, 3-1); No. 20 Southern Illinois (5-3, 4-1) and No. 23 North Dakota (4-3, 3-2).
The Big Sky Conference has five teams ranked, including Sacramento State (7-0, 4-0) at No. 2, Montana State (7-1, 5-0) at No. 3 and Weber State (5-1, 3-1) tied with Holy Cross (7-0, 3-0) of the Patriot League at No. 5.
GridIron Heroics FCS writer Brian McLaughlin tweeted, “Big Sky is the top league in 2022, but how many seeds will it get?”
Like the Missouri Valley, the Colonial Athletic Association and Southern Conference each have four teams ranked.
Where the Redbirds stand
Illinois State, meanwhile, rests five spots outside the Top 25. The Redbirds, 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley, received 26 votes.
ISU has four games remaining on its schedule:
- Saturday at North Dakota State
- Nov. 5, hosts Youngstown State (4-3, 2-2)
- Nov. 12 at South Dakota State
- Nov. 19, hosts Western Illinois (0-7, 0-4)
Should the Redbirds go 2-2 in those games left on the schedule, Illinois State would be at 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference.
“The Valley would automatically get any 7-4 team, sometimes even 6-5, into the playoffs (in past years). That’s because it had marquee non-conference wins. That is not the case this year,” Herder said.
As things stand, Illinois State’s non-conference schedule included Wisconsin of the FBS Big Ten (38-0 loss), Valparaiso of the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League (28-21 win) and Eastern Illinois of the FCS Ohio Valley Conference (35-7 win).
The combined record of the five teams Illinois State has beaten is 13-23. Only one — Valparaiso — has a winning record at 4-3.
Three of ISU’s wins have come over teams with one or two wins.
To date, the Redbirds’ lone conference loss was to rival Southern Illinois, 19-14, on Oct. 1 at Hancock Stadium in Normal. The Salukis were ranked No. 19 at the time.
“Seven-and-four from a Valley team? Normally you’d say yes, and not really even think twice about it,” Marshall said. “Maybe one of the two between Southern Illinois and Illinois State will get in, maybe both, it depends on how they finish.
“But I don’t believe we’ll see a 6-5 team in the playoffs this year.”
McLaughlin posted his playoff bracket projection Tuesday night. McLaughlin has both Illinois State and Southern Illinois in the field.
Three Valley teams for one spot?
“There looks to be a realistic scenario where Southern Illinois, North Dakota, and Illinois State all finish 7-4,” Herder said. “SIU would have the best shot out of this group with a Power 5 win (over Northwestern) and head-to-head wins over both (ISU and UND).”
Illinois State does not play North Dakota and Missouri State this season, given the MVFC’s 11-team structure.
If both ISU and UND finish at 7-4, Herder gives the edge to the Fighting Hawks.
“UND would probably be the next favorite. A 7-4 UND team wouldn’t have any wins over teams in playoff contention, just like a 7-4 Illinois State team, but UND would have a Top 5 strength of schedule to possibly warrant getting an at-large bid,” Herder said.
Still, there is a month of football to be played.
“A lot of results elsewhere would have to go the MVFC’s way to get five teams in,” Herder said. “The national perception of the Valley this year isn’t strong enough for a five-bid league. Of course, UND or ISU could pull some upsets over South Dakota State and/or North Dakota State and make it a better possibility.”
Marshall said, “This is a perfect Brock Spack (ISU) team. They’re lying in the weeds. People aren’t talking about them a whole bunch. We’ll see where they finish, but I like Brock Spack football teams.”