In the FCS Huddle: Missouri Valley sheds the FBS tacklers
The game is circled on calendars within the Southern Illinois football program.
Aug. 31, season opener at the University of Illinois.
"Any time an FCS team gets to play on a big stage with a Big Ten team, that's an opportunity that's exciting," SIU coach Dale Lennon says, with training camp fast approaching. "It's helped us, I think, in our summer training knowing that that's the first game of the season for us. It will help us in pre-fall (camp) just knowing that our game's going to have to be at a very high level. It's a chance, too, for a lot of our players to prove they are a good football caliber."
In a few years, however, the Salukis may have to get juiced over opening a season against, say, Northern Illinois instead of Illinois. Or against Bowling Green, Western Kentucky or some other lesser program.
The Big Ten no longer wants its teams to schedule FCS opponents after the 2015 season, which has been a frightening prospect to FCS schools this offseason, especially in a Missouri Valley Football Conference which shares a geographic footprint.
FCS schools have waited to see if the other four so-called high-resource conferences in the FBS - the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC - will follow the Big Ten's lead on scheduling.
To date, the answer appears to be no.
"We will continue to play guarantee games whether they are Big Ten teams or not," MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said on Monday as her conference announced its preseason poll and team. North Dakota State led the way as a unanimous favorite. Southern Illinois, prepping, of course, for Illinois, was picked seventh in the 10-team conference.
"Our hope is that as the FBS playoff selection criteria becomes more solid that they'll recognize that playing our teams in many ways makes more sense both financially and competitively than some of the bottom FBS team options that they might consider."
Buoyed by a recent NCAA study on the affects of FCS-to-FBS reclassification - the numbers suggest the move can be a financial disaster - FCS commissioners have been trumpeting that the bottom half of the FBS looks more like the top half of the FCS than it does the five top FBS conferences which have talked about breaking away from the rest of Division I football.
The Missouri Valley sits pretty for any type of restructuring within Division I. Home to two-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State, the conference is capable of beating Big Ten teams, as the Bison did at Minnesota in 2011, or putting a scare into others, as Northern Iowa did at Wisconsin and Iowa last season.
"It's hard to have a crystal ball and actually project what's going to happen," said Eric Wolford, whose signature win as Youngstown State's fourth- year coach was at Pittsburgh last year.
"There's a lot of talk of five major conferences and obviously they're going to have quite a bit of influence over the NCAA, or at least they feel like they will. On the flip side, I think you have to look at it from a fan's standpoint of just overall and general (that), do those teams just want to play each other? Now you're not going to have as many eight-, nine-, 10-win teams. Is that going to be attractive as they want?
"What happens to the next group of a Sun Belt, Big East, the MAC. Will they start giving us opportunities to play them more frequently than maybe they have wanted to in the past, which would be something that we would encourage."
North Dakota State keeps plugging along as a team FBS opponents might want to avoid while coach Craig Bohl is in charge in Fargo. The Bison, who open their season on Aug. 30 at defending Big 12 co-champion Kansas State, has a 6-3 record against FBS teams since their program joined the FCS level in 2006.
NDSU has finished 14-1 in each of the last two seasons, beating Sam Houston State each time in the national championship game. The Bison swept all 39 first-place votes in the Missouri Valley preseason poll and had a conference- best 10 players on the preseason all-conference team. Four of the selections - left tackle Billy Turner, linebacker Grant Olson, cornerback Marcus Williams and place-kicker Adam Keller - made the all-conference first team last December.
"We are excited," Bohl said. "We are also very conscious and aware that the last two years the two losses that we have had are against Missouri Valley teams at our home field and neither one of those teams were in the playoffs. So I think it's a real case in point of the competitive nature of Missouri Valley football."
It's something the Big Ten schools and others from the power conferences should keep in mind about the Missouri Valley if they are looking to drop them from their schedules.
With the depth in the conference - the three that went to the FCS playoffs last season all posted wins there, and three other members posted winning seasons - Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley astutely pointed out Monday that the Missouri Valley has gone from having excellent balance with good teams to excellent balance with great teams.
Viverito concurred, saying the conference is ready to play the hand that it is dealt in the future.
"If the line is drawn to separate the top of FBS from the rest," Viverito said, "the Valley teams should fare well in the next level of Division I football, however it's defined."
MISSOURI VALLEY FOOTBALL CONFERENCE PRESEASON POLL
Voted on by Coaches, Media and Sports Information Directors
1. North Dakota State (39 first-place votes), 390 points
2. South Dakota State, 323
3. Northern Iowa, 269
4. Illinois State, 264
5. Youngstown State, 253
6. Indiana State, 197
7. Southern Illinois, 188
8. Missouri State, 123
9. Western Illinois, 77
10. South Dakota, 61
PRESEASON ALL-MISSOURI VALLEY TEAM
QB- Brock Jensen, North Dakota State, Sr.
RB- Shakir Bell, Indiana State, Sr.
RB- David Johnson, Northern Iowa, Jr.
RB- Zach Zenner, South Dakota State, Jr.
FB- Jordan Neukirch, Illinois State, Sr.
WR- Dorian Buford, Missouri State, Sr.
WR- Ryan Smith, North Dakota State, Sr.
TE- MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois, Jr.
OL- Chris Elkins, Youngstown State, Sr.
OL- Jimmy Holtschlag, Western Illinois, Sr.
OL- Dan Kruger, Northern Iowa, Sr.
OL- Billy Turner, North Dakota State, Sr.
OL- Bryan Witzmann, South Dakota State, Sr.
DL- Cole Jirik, North Dakota State, Sr.
DL- Doug Peete, South Dakota State, Sr.
DL- Leevon Perry, North Dakota State, Sr.
DL- Colton Underwood, Illinois State, Sr.
LB- Grant Olson, North Dakota State, Sr.
LB- T.J. Lally, South Dakota State, So.
LB- J.J. Raffelson, Western Illinois, So.
LB- Tyler Starr, South Dakota, Sr.
DB- Calvin Burnett, Indiana State, Sr.
DB- Martinez Davis, Western Illinois, Jr.
DB- Caleb Schaffitzel, Missouri State, Jr.
DB- Marcus Williams, North Dakota State, Sr.
PK- Adam Keller, North Dakota State, Jr.
P- Ben LeCompte, North Dakota State So.
RS- Ryan Smith, North Dakota State, Sr.
QB- Sawyer Kollmorgen, Northern Iowa; QB- Kurt Hess, Youngstown State; WR- Brett LeMaster, Northern Iowa; OL- Josh Aladenoye, Illinois State; OL- Jermaine Barton, Illinois State; OL- FN Lutz III, Indiana State; PK- Tyler Sievertsen, Northern Iowa; DL- Anthony Grady, MIssouri State; LB- Jake Farley, Northern Iowa; LB- Travis Beck, North Dakota State; P- Austin Pucylowski, Southern Illinois.