Published October 20, 2013
1. A month ago, the top half of the Missouri Valley seemed pretty clear.
North Dakota State was the obvious No. 1, with South Dakota State (which started 3-0) and UNI (which started 4-0, with a win over Iowa State) in the next tier.
I thought those three teams would make the playoffs, with Youngstown State and Southern Illinois battling for the fourth spot.
Now? Well, North Dakota State is still the clear No. 1, but Northern Iowa is 0-3 in the conference (with a surprising overtime loss to South Dakota on Saturday) and South Dakota State is 1-3 (with a two-touchdown loss to Missouri State on Saturday). There's a decent chance neither of them will be in the postseason.
Youngstown State, meanwhile, has won a school-record seven straight MVFC games and is tied with the Bison atop the league standings with a 4-0 record entering this week's open date.
2. YSU has four games left and the Penguins can clinch a playoff berth by winning two of those. That might even be enough to get a first-round bye, followed by a home game.
(Note: The top eight teams in the FCS playoffs are seeded, get first-round byes and host second-round games. The other 16 can bid on a home game, and it'd be a mortal lock for YSU to get one of those bids since it's based on things like fan support and facilities.)
Obviously, YSU wants to do more than sneak in — outside of last year's game, the Penguins have traditionally played North Dakota State very tough — but my point is they have put themselves in a very good position heading into the last month of the regular season.
3. Maybe the most encouraging part about Saturday's 24-14 win over Western Illinois was the Penguins won by double digits on a day when they were far from their best.
The weather was lousy — as tight end Nate Adams said, "It's Youngstown football weather" — and the pass game was lousy and YSU's tackling was often lousy, but good teams find ways to win those kinds of games.
When it was obvious that Kurt Hess wasn't on the same page with his receivers — and that the Leathernecks' coverage was giving YSU fits — offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery kept giving the ball to freshman RB Martin Ruiz, who had a career-high 199 yards.
The defense didn't play its best game but it was good enough. (I thought DE Kyle Sirl and CB Dale Peterman played particularly well.) Bottom line: YSU is 12-0 under Wolford when it holds the opposing team to 20 points or fewer.
4. Afterward, YSU coach Eric Wolford scolded the media for underestimating Western Illinois, saying, "I told you guys on Tuesday that they were a good football team. You guys know I'll never mislead you. I'll tell you the way it is."
5. Two thoughts on this: First, Wolford is a pretty straight shooter, but like every coach, he tells the media every week that this week's opponent is a good football team. Also, they're well-coached. (I will give him credit for this: He didn't try to call Morehead State a good football team. He didn't say they were bad, he just sort of talked around it.)
The reason every coach does this is because when the game is closer than expected, they've covered their bases.
Second, the Leathernecks aren't awful, but they're not a good football team. Not on this planet or any other one. They've got a pretty solid defense and a decent running back, but their quarterback looks like a freshman (he is) and their special teams are lousy and two of their three wins came over Hampton and Quincy.
To me, a good football team wins at least half its conference games, which hasn't happened at WIU since 2010. Western Illinois is 1-3 in the MVFC this year and would need to go 3-1 down the stretch to finish .500. That ain't happening.
6. Surprisingly, though, South Dakota might be a pretty good team.
YSU beat the Coyotes 13-10 at Stambaugh last year (although you never really got the feeling that YSU wasn't going to win) and I was impressed by how hard they played.
South Dakota was picked to finish 10th in the preseason poll and started conference play with a two-touchdown loss to Western Illinois. Then the Coyotes won a pair of three-point games over Missouri State and Indiana State (which seems to have imploded) before shocking UNI on the road in double overtime.
Suddenly, what looked like an easy win for YSU coming out of its open week is looking like a tough test.
7. As most readers know by now, the FCS expanded its playoff pool from 20 to 24 teams, with one of those slots going to the Pioneer League champion.
That means 11 conference champions will get an automatic bid, with 13 others getting at-large bids. (There are 124 FCS teams, although not all of them compete in the postseason.)
It's the second time the FCS has expanded the playoffs in three years — it went from 16 to 20 in 2010 — and there's no reason why YSU shouldn't become a perennial playoff contender under the new format.
8. Wolford signed a five-year deal in December, 2009, and he'll probably get an extension if he can get YSU to the playoffs. Even if the Penguins had imploded this year, he was going to be back for that fifth year. With declining enrollment/state funding, the university doesn't have money to buy out football coaches right now.
Fortunately, that's not an issue. It's taken Wolford longer than many expected, but the program is in pretty good shape right now with lots of talent in the younger classes, although the QB position is a big question mark heading into next year.
9. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern aren't eligible for the playoffs since they're transitioning to the FBS, but the way things are going, neither one would make it anyway.
Appalachian State, which won three straight FCS titles from 2005-07 and has made the playoffs the last eight years, is just 1-6.
Georgia Southern is a little better at 4-2 but still has to play Florida in the finale.
They could be headed for a rocky transition.
10. I'm working on a story about YSU's 1993 national championship team, so look for that in next Sunday's paper. Should be a fun one.
In case you missed it two years ago, here's my story about the 1991 team.