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Beyond the Empire: FCS (Missouri Valley Conference)

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In this first installment of Off Tackle Empire’s 2018 Big Ten non-conference preview, Iowa and Illinois look to avoid upsets at the hands of in-state foes.

Illinois State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome to the dying days of B1G 2018! As we count down to the start of Big Ten football, we’re previewing the Big Ten non-conference slate by conference affiliation. Stay tuned for all the G5 and P5 conference previews, along with our Closing Arguments prediction series for each Big Ten team.

We’re exactly a month from Big Ten football kicking off when the Minnesota Golden Gophers take the field against New Mexico State at 6pm on Thursday, August 30th, and Northwestern heads to Purdue for the first installation of conference play an hour later. Along the way, though,

The Missouri Valley Football Conference is no ordinary Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference. While only the North Dakota State Bison have ascended to the top of college football’s second tier as a member of the MVC [Western Kentucky won as a member of its predecessor, the Gateway Conference, in 2002; Youngstown State won four titles in the 1990s], five MVC teams finished inside the Top 20 and made the 24-team playoffs, the most from any conference.

Two of those teams, the #13 Western Illinois Leathernecks and #19 Northern Iowa Panthers (2017 rankings), will travel to in-state Big Ten counterparts to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini and Iowa Hawkeyes, respectively. Neither lasted long in the playoffs—the Leathernecks fell to surprise quarterfinalist Weber State in the first-round play-ins, while the Panthers dispatched Monmouth before falling to South Dakota State—but both return playmakers in 2018 who could help them put the scare in their upper-division opponents.

Bullet Points

  • In the last 5 seasons, MVC teams have won 2 games against Big Ten teams: Illinois State over Northwestern, 9-7 in 2016; North Dakota State over then-#13 Iowa, 23-21 in 2016.
  • Both UNI and WIU have FBS wins in the last 5 seasons: UNI over Iowa State, 25-20 in 2016; again over Iowa State, 28-20 in 2013. WIU over Coastal Carolina, 52-10 in 2017; over Northern Illinois, 28-23 in 2016.
  • The lost to NDSU was Iowa’s first loss to an FCS/D-1AA program; Illinois has, amazingly, never lost to an FCS/D-1AA opponent.
  • Of the 42 Big Ten non-conference games, in terms of Sagarin ratings from 2017: WIU is the Big Ten’s 12th-best opponent, while UNI is the 19th-best. Jesus.

The Games

Western Illinois Leathernecks (8-4, 5-3 MVC) at Illinois Fighting Illini (2-10, 0-9 B1G)

September 8 | 6:30pm CT | BTN

2017 Sagarin rating: 62 (76th percentile)
S&P+ Odds: 71% (+9.6 margin)

In 2017 the Leathernecks throttled FBS newcomer Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, 52-10, and behind efficient QB Sean McGuire, there’s a non-zero chance they claim another FBS scalp in 2018. There is, however, turnover at the HC position—Charlie Fisher bolted for the coveted Arizona State WRs job, leaving it to former co-OC Jared Elliott—leaving Western with a first-year HC and first-year coordinators, along with making up the offensive production of WR Jaelon Acklin (84 rec., 1369 yds, 10 TD). McGuire himself could cause Illinois problems, but replacing 4 of the 5 starting OLs hurts the Leathernecks.

The defense loses major production as well, though, including their leading tackler and two DBs. If Illinois can keep whoever’s starting at QB upright, the Illini should be able to rip through the Leathernecks. Stopping their two-headed RB machine, though—Max Norris and Steve McShane combined for over 1,200 yards—could be another matter. Still, it’s an FCS team, and the Illini should win the point of attack.

But, if we could—S&P+ is projecting less than a 10-point margin of victory. Holy shit. Illinois football 2018, folks. The rebuilding continues.

Northern Iowa Panthers (8-5, 6-2 MVC) at Iowa Hawkeyes (8-5, 4-5 B1G)

September 15 | 6:30pm | BTN

2017 Sagarin rating: 78 (nice percentile)
S&P+ Odds: 92% (+24.3 margin)

Death, taxes, and Mark Farley winning. In the new millennium, those have been the givens in Cedar Falls. The legendary coach and UNI grad, now prowling the UNI-Dome sidelines in his 18th year, has suffered just three losing seasons—all 5-6—since taking the reins in 2001 and claimed 4 FBS wins (Ball State in 2001, Iowa State in 2007, 2013, and 2016).

He’s got more of an uphill climb against his in-state rivals 88 miles down I-380, though—the Panthers are 0-4 against Iowa under Farley, though the 2014 contest was a 31-23 Iowa win and the Hawkeyes needed two blocked field goals to escape with a 17-16 win in 2009.

But enough about that. Can the Panthers do it in 2017?

All signs point to “No.” The Panthers struggled with injuries and inexperience on the offensive line in 2017, and still relied on a running game which averaged under 4.0 YPC even after sacks were factored out.

Marcus Weymiller will get the bulk of the carries (and Wildcat—Wild Panther?—appearances) for the Panthers, who spread it around when they do throw the ball—after Indianapolis Colts draft pick Daurice Fountain, no Panther had more than 38 catches or 500 yards, but 8 caught double-digit passes and 5 were over 200 yards. If UNI falls behind—which they likely will—QB Eli Dunne (2704 yards, 62.5% completion, 26:11 TD:INT) could sling it a bit...but the 6’5” senior isn’t a threat to run, and the Panthers allowed 3.6 sacks/gm in their losses and 2.5 sacks/gm overall. That doesn’t look good against an Iowa team that wins games in the trenches.

Things aren’t much better on the defensive side. UNI has just one senior on the defensive line (Bryce Douglas, who coincidentally is the only one listed at more than 300 pounds). The Panthers forced 30 turnovers (21 INT, 9 FR) in 2017 but replace both cornerbacks

The Conference

The Standings

It’s North Dakota State and everyone else. The Bison should mash again, but after them, it’s anyone’s guess. South Dakota has to replace Chris Streveler (he of Minnesota cast-off and current Winnipeg Blue Bomber fame) at QB, but the ‘Yotes return 9 defensive starters and a QB in Austin Simmons who filled in for Streveler in two wins. They’ll jockey with UNI and South Dakota State for runner-up status, and though the Jacks lost TE Dallas Goedert to the NFL Draft (2nd round, Philadelphia), senior QB Taryn Christion is a record-setter who should make other playmakers look good by association.

I’ve got those four making the playoffs, with Youngstown State being the final team to join them in the postseason. Nathan Mays will make the step forward at QB, and with a two-headed RB attack and a defense that allowed just 19 ppg in 2017, look for the Penguins’ favorable home schedule (hosting both OOC FCS games, plus USD and UNI) to bolster a 7-4 finish that ekes them into the FCS first round. Don’t count out Illinois State, but the Redbirds’ defense is retooling. I’ll take Penguins-Leathernecks-Redbirds rounding out positions 5-6-7.

Southern Illinois, Missouri State, and Indiana State round out the bottom of the conference, with the Sycamores getting a shout-out for being especially terrible. You do the math.

The Culture

Get yourself to Brookings and check out the new digs, but it’s all about the domes in the MVC. Whether it’s the FargoDome, Vermilion’s DakotaDome (home of the South Dakota Coyotes), or Cedar Falls’ UNIDome, the prairie side of the Missouri Valley (the ones actually in/adjacent to the Missouri Valley) is home to the quirks that make the Big Ten’s regional FCS brethren so distinctive.

Coaching Connections

  • We all remember our old Nebraska friend Bo Pelini, who’s still cooking up tough defenses and a strong rushing attack with the Youngstown State Penguins.
  • Remember when Brock Spack was the hot coaching commodity in seemingly every Big Ten search? He’s still at Illinois State and has cooled off, with consecutive 6-win seasons tanking his value for Thump’s lists.
  • In terms of coaches from the MVC who might get hired into the FBS...there’s not much. South Dakota coach Bob Nielson, winner of two D-II natties at Minnesota-Duluth, could see his stock rise with a 10-win season, but it’s really just Pelini and NDSU’s Chris Klieman, who is starting to pop up in searches for the next Kansas Jayhawks coach. Our condolences.
  • Curt Mallory, son of the late Bill Mallory, is tasked with rebuilding Indiana State. He went 0-11 in his inaugural campaign, just like his father in 1984, his first campaign in Bloomington.

How They’ll Fare

All due respect to the Leathernecks and Panthers among us...but no scalps this year. I expect Western to have a few gadgets ready to put the scare in the Illini, but I like the Illini by a couple touchdowns. Iowa chokes the life out of UNI and wins by three scores or more.

That’s it—1500 words on the Missouri Valley. I apologize.

Poll

How does the Big Ten fare against the Missouri Valley?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    2-0: Easy wins for both
    (55 votes)
  • 37%
    2-0: Iowa romps, Illinois struggles
    (172 votes)
  • 1%
    2-0: Iowa struggles, Illinois romps
    (9 votes)
  • 15%
    2-0: Both struggle but win
    (72 votes)
  • 26%
    1-1: Illinois loses
    (121 votes)
  • 3%
    1-1: Iowa loses
    (18 votes)
  • 3%
    0-2: The tablets are in my top pocket
    (17 votes)
464 votes total Vote Now