By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Confession time.
I admit I'm addicted to preseason predictions. Thoughts of the journey ahead and the potential shaping of a conference race fascinate me.
That's what sports writers do, we give our opinions and hope the actual results don't stand in the way of them. When that happens, we then try to rationalize reasons for the errant predictions.
I've seen it all in sports. Upsets galore. Nothing should shock me. Surprise, yes. Shock, no.
As much as I love preseason predictions, I also realize they mean little, if anything at all. Coaches tell us so. Better yet, their teams remind us all the time.
Particularly surprising are defending MVFC champion and preseason favorite Southern Illinois starting 1-3 (with its first three-game losing streak since 2002) and No. 2 selection South Dakota State starting 0-3. Each has lost its conference opener, with SIU's defeat at Youngstown State last Saturday ending a 14-game conference winning streak.
Both teams appear to face must-win games on the road Saturday. SIU heads to Illinois State (3-1, 2-0), which sits in first place. South Dakota State visits Northern Iowa (1-2, 1-0).
Joining UNI in second place at 1-0 are surprising Western Illinois, which finished 1-10 last season, but is 3-1 thanks to an offense that is third in the Football Championship Subdivision with a 40.5-point average, and Youngstown State, also 3-1. Both programs have new head coaches, Mark Hendrickson at WIU and Eric Wolford at Youngstown State.
"I thought a lot teams were going to be improved," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said Wednesday. "I thought the team that we played last Saturday night was going to be a very good football team - Missouri State. I can see Youngstown improving. I knew Indiana State was going to improve. I just think it's a part of lower-tier programs like ourselves getting a little better and being able to compete every Saturday. B, you have to, knock on wood, stay healthy. Some teams do and some teams don't in our sport. I'm not really surprised."
The surprising start to the season has given Valley Football five teams in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 for the first time in nearly two years. Everybody is still trying to figure out who's best.
North Dakota State (3-1, 0-1) is the highest of the group at No. 13 and its three wins already match last year's season total. But consider the Bison went to the University of Kansas to beat a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, then a week later lost its conference opener at Northern Iowa.
UNI has the second-highest ranking at No. 17. Youngstown State is 22nd, Illinois State 23rd and Southern Illinois 24th.
"You can't say that you're waiting for a team to play, a team that's way ahead of everybody," said Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley, whose squad leads the FCS in rushing defense, but is 1-2 because of a minus-eight turnover ratio.
"For instance, in some conferences, you say, 'Boy, when we get to them that's going to be the game to decide everything.' I think every week that we line up right now it will decide a lot.
"To get to the end, you're going to have to go through the journey of every week of lining up against a very good team. You look at South Dakota State, look at Missouri State. Missouri State has been in some overtimes and played very well. You look at Southern (Illinois), you look at Northern Iowa, we're all in a very similar situation. The focus shouldn't be on wait-til-we-play- them. You better figure out that you gotta play now."
The way so many conference teams have become competitive and the standings have changed from recent years, is, according to North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl, "the lay of the land of Valley Football and certainly the lay of the land of college football.
"That's one of the things that makes college football great. I think the conference title is up for grabs for anybody. The teams change during the course of the year also because of either injuries or chemistry or breaks one way or the other."
Missouri State (1-2, 0-1) remains a dangerous team despite a 44-41 double- overtime loss at Illinois State. The only team that doesn't figure to factor into the race is Indiana State, which had lost 60 of its previous 62 games heading into the season. But with a win on Saturday against Division II Quincy, the Sycamores would improve to 2-2.
The Valley Football race could stabilize, especially if Southern Illinois and South Dakota State get on track and play as people expected of them heading into the season. Either way, the title race appears wide open and wacky.
"You back a team into a corner, sometimes it's on the ropes, they'll fight back. We expect to get Southern Illinois' best on Saturday," Spack said.
"Naturally, we're not happy with the start," said SIU coach Dale Lennon, whose team has been set back by injuries. "We had high expectations coming in. We still do, there's a lot of football left to be played."
WAITING ON INJURED STARS
The two big injuries during last weekend's action have moved into this week.
Villanova wide receiver/kick off returner/Wildcat leader Matt Szczur suffered a high ankle sprain against Penn and coach Andy Talley calls him "questionable" for the defending FCS champions' CAA Football game at William & Mary on Saturday.
Eastern Washington lists running back/return specialist Taiwan Jones, who suffered an abdominal contusion against Montana State, as "probable" for the Eagles' visit to Big Sky Conference rival Weber State on Saturday.
Villanova's injuries go way beyond Szczur. Talley said the Wildcats planned to rest 14 players at Tuesday's practice.
"I've never seen this type of injury (problem) at our place. It's beyond belief," said Talley, whose top-ranked Wildcats have won the last six meetings with William & Mary, which is ranked seventh.
TOP 5 BATTLE
It doesn't get much better than No. 1 Villanova at No. 7 William & Mary, but the CAA's other big matchup on Saturday seems just as good: No. 5 Delaware (4-0, 1-0) at No. 3 James Madison (3-0).
Delaware's defense has been firing all season, as the Blue Hens are top ranked in the CAA in scoring defense and total defense. James Madison isn't far behind, ranking second in scoring defense and third in total defense.
Delaware is rolling offensively as well, with grayshirt freshman Andrew Pierce ranking third nationally with 149.5 rushing yards per game, and the Blue Hens tied for second in the conference in scoring offense and sitting second in total offense.
The one unit that has to catch up is JMU's offense, which is fifth in scoring offense and sixth in total offense. Not awful numbers, obviously, but head coach Mickey Matthews is still looking for some rhythm.
Quarterback Drew Dudzik powered the Dukes to their 21-17 upset of Virginia Tech, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for one. But Matthews was upset by last Saturday's 10-3 win over Liberty, though his offense got a lift when redshirt junior Scott Noble came off the bench to supply 89 yards on 17 carries in the second half.
"We should be very motivated offensively this week after that fiasco Saturday night," Matthews said. "And the running backs are just one of the problems. We had a lot of problems up front.
"No one played well on offense. We did not have a good grade on offense, from the quarterback to receiver to tight end.
"If we don't play better on offense (against Delaware), we'll never be in the game because the young running back's really helping them."
James Madison won 20-8 last year at Delaware. Blue Hens coach K.C. Keeler said he can envision another low-scoring game and fully expects JMU to correct its problems.
"They've kind of reinvented themselves a little bit," he said. "They run a little pistol [offense] and they're causing some issues with that. They give you just a number of different formations and a number of different personnel groupings."
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
The Big Sky Conference has done an excellent job with video review of possible player infractions this week. In the first month of the season, the conference has issued three suspensions, a half-game suspension for a punch thrown in a game and two one-game suspensions for hits to the head that it deemed in violation of NCAA rules.
Hopefully, other conferences will start to match the job the Big Sky is doing this season.
FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...
In the FCS Huddle has been projecting the potential FCS playoff field since the preseason. The projections are a long-range look at the season and can be found here.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER ...
Jacksonville quarterback Josh McGregor leads the FCS with 13 touchdowns passes. Tied for second place is another Pioneer Football League quarterback, Morehead State's Zach Lewis, whose 12 TD passes match Jackson State's Casey Therriault ... Georgetown has lost all seven all-time meetings with Colgate, but will be in Hamilton, N.Y., on Saturday with a chance to take a commanding lead in the Patriot League. The resurgent Hoyas (3-1, 2-0) have defeated 2009 Patriot champ Holy Cross and now take aim at the 2010 Patriot preseason favorite. They will need to contain Colgate quarterback Greg Sullivan and running back Nate Eachus to pull an upset ... Fordham senior Xavier Martin is 146 rushing yards away from the 3,000-yard mark in his career ... The big game in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday is No. 10 Montana State (3-1, 1-0) visiting upset-minded Sacramento State (2-2, 1-1), which has won four straight at home dating to last season. Montana State coach Rob Ash is going for his 200th career win (he's 23-15 in four seasons with the Bobcats) ... Montana is fortunate to have 2009 Oregon transfer Justin Roper to take over for quarterback Andrew Selle, who has been lost to a career-ending shoulder injury. This season, Roper is 41-for-57 (71.9 percent) for 523 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions. He is this week's Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week after helping to rally the Griz past Sacramento State ... Josh Hoke's Big South Conference record of 40 field goals at Coastal Carolina from 2003-06 could fall to one of two kickers this weekend. Liberty junior Matt Bevins has 39 field goals in his career and Hoke's successor at Coastal, Justin Durham, has 38 ... No. 25 Liberty will christen its renovated and expanded Williams Stadium - which now seats 19,200 - on Saturday night against Savannah State ... Tennessee State's 29-18 win over Florida A&M last Saturday in the Atlanta Classic brought out the FCS season's biggest crowd - 54,202 at the Georgia Dome. On Saturday, Tennessee State will play in its fourth and final "classic" game of the season, against North Carolina AT&T at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Of course, the Tigers will play in three NFL stadiums this year because their home stadium is LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. ... Appalachian State leads the FCS in on-campus attendance average at 28,963 through two home games ... Changing up its tough non-conference schedules has its advantages for Dartmouth, whose teams were usually buried early in recent seasons. Coach Buddy Teevens' Big Green are off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 1997. They visit defending Ivy League champion Penn on Saturday ... Arkansas-Pine Bluff senior wide receiver Raymond Webber has turned up his game this season. He is close to surpassing last season's 36 receptions for 392 yards with 29 receptions for 370 yards in three games. His four touchdown receptions already equal last year's total ... Great West Conference member Southern Utah will try to end a 10-game losing streak against Big Sky opponents when quarterback Michael Herrick and Northern Arizona visit Cedar City on Saturday ... South Dakota State's Ryan McKnight was generally considered to be the best center in the FCS, but coach John Stiegelmeier has moved the 6-foot-1, 295-pound senior to starting left guard, with sophomore Will Castle taking over at center ... A bye week falls at the right time for Norfolk State standout running back DeAngelo Branche, who suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder against Bethune-Cookman last Saturday, missing much of the second half. He is expected back for the Oct. 9 game at South Carolina State ... Lamar, which has returned to playing football for the first time since 1989, will hold a reunion of about 200 former players on Saturday. The group will include 99-year-old Bob Kinnear, Lamar's oldest living former football player (he was a running back and cornerback on the 1932 team that posted an 8-1 record). The reunion centers around the Cardinals (2-2) hosting Sam Houston State.
JUST THE PICKS
Last Week's Record: 49-17 (.742)
Season Record: 232-61 (.792)
Thursday, Sept. 30
X-Hampton (2-1, 2-0 MEAC) at Delaware State (0-3, 0-1), 7:30 p.m.
X-UT Martin (1-3, 1-1 OVC) at Tennessee Tech (1-3, 0-1), 8 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 2
Albany (1-2) at X-Yale (2-0), noon
San Diego (1-3, 1-0 PFL) at X-Jacksonville (3-1, 1-0), noon
X-Harvard (1-1) at Lafayette (0-3), noon
Alcorn State (3-0) at X-Mississippi State (2-2), noon
Campbell (1-3, 0-1 PFL) at X-Butler (2-2, 0-1), noon
X-No. 5 Delaware (4-0, 1-0 CAA) at No. 3 James Madison (3-0, 0-0), 12:05 p.m.
X-Princeton (1-1, 0-0 Ivy) at Columbia (1-1, 0-0 Ivy), 12:30 p.m.
Georgetown (3-1, 2-0 Patriot) at X-Colgate (1-2, 0-0), 1 p.m.
Western Carolina (1-3, 0-1 Southern) at X-The Citadel (2-2, 0-1), 1 p.m.
Monmouth (0-3, 0-0 NEC) at X-Duquesne (3-1, 1-0), 1 p.m.
X-Robert Morris (3-1, 2-0 NEC) at St. Francis, Pa. (1-2, 0-1), 1 p.m.
Valparaiso (0-4, 0-1 PFL) at X-Dayton (3-1, 1-0), 1 p.m.
Bryant (3-1, 0-1 NEC) at X-Wagner (1-2, 0-1), 1 p.m.
X-Central Connecticut State (2-2, 1-0 NEC) at Sacred Heart (1-3, 0-2), 1 p.m.
Morehead State (2-2) at X-Georgia State (2-2), 1 p.m.
Coastal Carolina (1-3) at X-No. 11 Richmond (1-2), 1 p.m.
Brown (2-0) at X-Rhode Island (1-2), 1 p.m.
Lincoln, Pa. (1-3) at X-Howard (0-3), 1 p.m.
Fordham (2-2) at X-Holy Cross (1-3), 1 p.m.
X-Presbyterian (0-4, 0-0 Big South) at VMI (1-2, 0-0), 1:30 p.m.
X-No. 18 Furman (2-1, 1-0 Southern) at Wofford (2-1, 0-0), 1:30 p.m.
Samford (2-2, 0-1 Southern) at X-No. 21 Elon (1-3, 0-1), 1:30 p.m.
Marist (1-2, 0-1 PFL) at X-Drake (2-2, 1-0), 2 p.m.
Western Illinois (3-1, 1-0 MVFC) at X-No. 13 North Dakota State (3-1, 0-1), 2 p.m.
No. 24 Southern Illinois (1-3, 0-1 MVFC) at X-No. 23 Illinois State (3-1, 2-0), 2 p.m.
No. 22 Youngstown State (3-1, 1-0 MVFC) at X-Missouri State (1-2, 0-1), 2 p.m.
X-SE Missouri State (3-1, 2-0 OVC) at Eastern Illinois (0-4, 0-2), 2:30 p.m.
Northern Arizona (2-1) at X-Southern Utah (1-3), 3 p.m.
X-Prairie View A&M (1-3, 1-2 SWAC) at Mississippi Valley State (0-4, 0-3), 3 p.m.
X-McNeese State (1-2, 0-0 Southland) at Northwestern State (1-3, 0-0), 3 p.m.
X-North Dakota (2-2, 0-0 Great West) at South Dakota (2-2, 0-0), 3 p.m.
Dartmouth (2-0, 0-0 Ivy) at X-Penn (1-1, 0-0), 3:30 p.m.
X-No. 1 Villanova (3-1, 1-0 CAA) at No. 7 William & Mary (3-1, 1-1), 3:30 p.m.
Cornell (0-2) at X-Bucknell (0-3), 3:30 p.m.
No. 16 Eastern Washington (2-2, 1-1 Big Sky) at X-Weber State (2-2, 1-1), 3:30 p.m.
X-No. 12 Montana (2-2, 1-1 Big Sky) at Northern Colorado (2-2, 1-1), 3:35 p.m.
Grambling State (2-1, 2-0 SWAC) at X-Alabama A&M (2-2, 1-1), 4 p.m.
X-Tennessee State (2-2) at North Carolina A&T (0-4) in Indianapolis, 4 p.m.
X-Bethune-Cookman (3-0, 1-0 MEAC) at Morgan State (1-2, 0-0), 4 p.m.
X-No. 10 Montana State (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky) at Sacramento State (2-2, 1-1), 4:07 p.m.
X-South Dakota State (0-3, 0-1 MVFC) at No. 17 Northern Iowa (1-2, 1-0), 5:05 p.m.
Quincy (0-4) at X-Indiana State (1-2), 5:05 p.m.
Gardner-Webb (2-2) at X-Old Dominion (2-2), 6 p.m.
X-No. 14 New Hampshire (2-2, 0-1 CAA) at Maine (1-3, 0-1), 6 p.m.
X-No. 9 South Carolina State (2-1, 0-0 MEAC) at Florida A&M (2-2, 2-0), 6 p.m.
Kentucky State (2-3) at X-Eastern Kentucky (0-3), 7 p.m.
Murray State (1-3, 1-1 OVC) at X-No. 4 Jacksonville State (4-0, 2-0), 7 p.m.
X-No. 8 Massachusetts (3-1, 1-0 CAA) at Towson (1-3, 0-1), 7 p.m.
Savannah State (0-4) at X-No. 25 Liberty (2-2), 7 p.m.
X-Sam Houston State (1-2) at Lamar (2-2), 7 p.m.
X-Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-2, 0-1 SWAC) at Southern U. (1-2, 0-1), 7 p.m.
Texas Southern (1-3, 1-1 SWAC) at X-Alabama State (3-1, 3-1), 8 p.m.
UC Davis (1-3) at X-San Jose State (1-3), 8 p.m.
Idaho State (1-3, 0-2 Big Sky) at X-Portland State (1-2, 0-0), 8:05 p.m.
No. 15 Cal Poly (3-1) at X-Fresno State (2-1), 10 p.m.