The Missouri Valley Football Conference could become the first FCS conference to have five playoff teams in three consecutive seasons in 2016. But the preeminent conference in the FCS appears strong enough to take its success to a higher level.
The MVFC could gain six playoff bids — one-quarter of the 24-team field — which would be a first.
Behind five-time reigning national champion North Dakota State, the MVFC has 18 playoffs wins over the last two years, when its playoff qualifiers have matched the FCS single-season record previously held by CAA Football. The CAA had five in both 2007 and ’08 when the field was only 16 teams deep, then again in 2011 when there were 20 qualifiers.
So the 10-team Missouri Valley would love to take the standard to a higher level.
“It would take a perfect storm for any conference to exceed five playoff teams in a single season,” said Missouri Valley associate commissioner Mike Kern, “but if it were to happen, the MVFC is poised to be the first.”
To gain six qualifiers in 2016, the MVFC will likely need to dominate non-conference opponents in the way it has done the last two regular seasons, but particularly 2014, when it posted a 23-1 record against non-conference FCS teams in the regular season.
A quick start to the season is vital because the 10 Valley teams will continually knock each other off in conference action, which will lower records and decrease the candidacy of teams for at-large playoff bids.
However, Western Illinois’ schedule was so impressive last season that it became the first 6-5 team to earn an at-large bid. The only other five-loss team to gain one was Indiana State, another Valley program, when it was 7-5 heading into the 2014 playoffs. Both teams validated their selections by winning first-round playoff games.
In 2016, let’s start with the obvious: North Dakota State will be one of the MVFC playoff qualifiers.
The Bison have separated themselves while setting not just an FCS record, but an NCAA mark, for consecutive national championships. Six might be their number this year as well as head coach Chris Klieman returns 14 starters to a team which will have a superb run game, defense and home-field advantage inside the Fargodome, and even an experienced quarterback because redshirt sophomore Easton Stick went 8-0 as a starter last season while Carson Wentz, No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, sat out with a broken wrist.
The next wave of teams includes Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Illinois State – all potential top-10 programs and similar in that they should have excellent offenses and will have to prove they haven’t lost too much on defense. All three teams have been eliminated by North Dakota State in one of the last two postseasons, including Illinois State in the 2014 national championship game, when the MVFC became the first FCS conference to field both finalists.
Western Illinois expects to build on last year’s success with the return of 17 starters, while Youngstown State has an experienced team that has been on the playoff doorstep in recent years. Last year, the Penguins joined the five playoff qualifiers in the top 30 of the NCAA’s Simple Ratings System, which is similar to the college basketball RPI.
Indiana State’s playoff bid has been hurt severely by quarterback Matt Adam sitting out this season to improve his academics. That has opened the door to South Dakota to be a dark horse under new coach Bob Nielson, who led Western Illinois to the playoffs last year.
Only Southern Illinois, the former MVFC power which is rebuilding its program, and Missouri State, whose only win last year was against a Division II team, don’t appear ready to contend for playoff bids.
That leaves eight possible hopefuls. Six making the playoffs from the FCS’ strongest conference isn’t out of the question.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Richard Svaleson/NDSU)