By Joe Scalzo
They were picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley’s preseason poll and started the season with four victories, including one against a BCS school.
Then, a loss to North Dakota State started a four-game conference slide that cost this team a playoff shot and prompted fans to question the direction of one of the most tradition-laden programs in the FCS.
Last year, this described Youngstown State.
This year, it describes Northern Iowa.
“I would have never dreamt that,” North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said of UNI’s 0-4 league record. “It [beating the Panthers] came down to one drive for us.”
Northern Iowa has tied an FCS record with three straight overtime losses, including a double-overtime defeat two weeks ago a South Dakota team that went winless in the MVFC last year.
That result may be the biggest surprise in a season full of them in the FCS’ top-rated conference.
“Other than watching them [other MVFC teams] on film in the dark room, I haven’t paid too much attention to specifics or the drama of each of their games,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “It’s hard-fought conference. I’ve said this before, it’s much like the SEC in that any week anybody can beat anybody and that just gives you a little idea as far as the depth [of the league].
“Half the teams in our league are going to get a loss on Saturday. That’s just the way it is. Fortunately, we’re still the top-rated conference and we should be.”
Like the SEC, the MVFC’s top team (NDSU) has won the last two national titles and is well on its way to its third. And like Missouri and Auburn in the SEC, the MVFC’s second-best team is a bit of a surprise.
But after a shaky first few weeks, YSU (7-1, 4-0) has looked like a legitimate playoff contender over the past five games, all of them wins.
“It feels good right now that we’re in control of our own destiny,” YSU senior cornerback Dale Peterman said. “We haven’t lost any league games, and we want to keep it like that.
“This next four-game stretch is the most important of the season and the team realizes that so we’re just going into practice each and every day basically like it’s a playoff game. If we want to accomplish our goals that we set forth at the beginning of the season, we just have to come out every day and play hard.”
How much parity is there? Consider this: The MVFC’s bottom five teams — Indiana State (0-4), UNI (0-4), Western Illinois (1-4), South Dakota State (2-3) and Southern Illinois (2-2) have all made the playoffs at least once since 2009.
Meanwhile, the teams ranked 2-5 in the MVFC — YSU, Illinois State, South Dakota and Missouri State — have combined for just one playoff berth since 2007. (Illinois State made it last year.)
“In a way, every year you’re kind of surprised what happens,” YSU quarterback Kurt Hess said. “Ultimately, when you sit back and reflect on it, you say, ‘You know what? This probably could have happened and this should have happened.’
“It shows you how hard it is in this conference to stay focused constantly and week in and week out, you need to prepare. If you don’t, there’s a team ready to take you out. Everybody’s hungry for wins.”