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Beyond the Empire: Missouri Valley, the Best FCS Conference

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Can Indiana State or Youngstown State pull an upset of Northwestern or Michigan State? Are NDSU and SDSU contenders? Will a Missouri Valley school go FBS anytime soon? Catching up with the best conference in FCS football and a guy who knows it all about them!

North Dakota State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

There aren’t many FCS teams on the Big Ten schedule—only six total, with one (Fordham) already having lost to Nebraska. And that’s probably more than the number of blogs out there dedicated to those various FCS conferences!

But we’re approaching a healthy number of FCS-over-FBS upsets in 2021 (not going to beat modern records of 16 set in 2013 and 2000):

And so we should talk about the conference that might do it on a grander scale than any other FCS conference: the Missouri Valley.

The MVC has given us some of our finest FCS-over-B1G upsets of the last decade—you know what, hell, let’s list ‘em:

  • 2016: North Dakota State def. #13 Iowa, 23-21
  • 2016: Illinois State def. Northwestern, 9-7
  • 2011: North Dakota State def. Minnesota, 37-24
  • 2010: South Dakota def. Minnesota, 41-38
  • 2007: North Dakota State def. Minnesota, 27-21
  • 2006: Southern Illinois def. Indiana, 35-28

Was that mostly an excuse to get our Minnesota readers/writers to start drinking at 9am? Who’s to say.

But it is to say we’ve got a pair of MVC-versus-Big Ten games on the 2021 schedule—conveniently, this weekend!—and that we oughta know if there’s any reason we should expect another upset. Plus, it’s the Midwest! We want to know about the local FCS squads, since a fair number of you graduated from them, live nearby, or watch them on ESPN+ like the sickos you are.

And to do that, we found a Missouri Valley expert.

Meet MVC Beat, your legit, go-to source for all things Missouri Valley. He’s an MVC grad and remains close to the conference today, and he’s absolutely worth a follow @BeatMVC and a bookmark of MVC Beat. We really appreciate him taking the time to answer our questions!

That’s no small feat, by the way: I have been dropping lines to various NDSU, SDSU, and general MVC blogs and message boards for three years of doing this, and I will honestly tell you—this is maybe the best Beyond the Empire we’ve ever done. MVC Beat: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Part I: Big Ten vs. Missouri Valley—The Basics

Michigan State Spartans (1-0) vs. Youngstown State Penguins (1-0)

September 11 | 11am | BTN | MSU -25.5 | O/U not found
YSU in 2020: 1-6 (Sagarin #160)

OTE: After an appearance in the 2016 FCS Championship Game under then-second-year HC Bo Pelini, the Penguins had a 2017 marked by what-ifs and then declined throughout 2018 and 2019, leading Pelini to resign in 2020 with NCAA recruiting violations in his wake. New HC Doug Phillips picked up the pieces and lost 3 of the Penguins’ 6 losses by one score in 2020, but YSU struggled, particularly on offense. [ed. note: since this article’s writing, Youngstown beat Incarnate Word, 44-41, in an OT banger.]

Where are they in 2021? What stamp or identity will Phillips be putting on the program?

MVC Beat: I am sure most of your readers know about Youngstown State’s past and B1G connections, but I will give a bit of a history lesson anyway. In the 90s, the Penguins were an unstoppable juggle knob at the FCS level (then called Division I-AA). They won four national titles (in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997) under the guidance of some guy named Jim Tressel. Tressel compiled a 135-57-2 record in fifteen years at YSU, which ultimately got him the head job at Ohio State. After his run at tOSU came to an end he returned to Youngstown as University President, where he remains to this day for some reason.

Things haven’t gone as well for the Penguins this millennium, and their run to the 2016 title game was more of an aberration than a sign of the program’s return to dominance. YSU has only qualified for the playoffs twice since the year 2000 and even that 2016 national runner-up team had a three-loss regular season and did not earn a national seed. As great as it was, that 2016 season was really the only bright spot for the Pelini brothers at YSU as none of their other teams really even sniffed the postseason.

Obviously, Doug Phillips was thrown a pretty significant curveball last year when the first season of his rebuild was moved to the spring. As you said, the Penguins were not very good but they did show signs of life. They took eventual national runner-up SDSU to the brink in a two point loss and also lost by a single possession to playoff quarterfinalists Southern Illinois. Still, they finished 1-6 and had trouble moving the ball. Phillips has a unique background. He was a GA for Tressel at YSU in the 90s, but has limited D1 coaching experience. He was a high school coach for many years in the 90s and early aughts and after a short return to collegiate coaching in the mid-2000s, he spent a long time as a school administrator (working as a principal and superintendent). He only returned to the coaching ranks in 2016 at age 47 as a low level assistant for Iowa State and has quickly moved up to his position at YSU. It has been an unusual and winding road for him.

Phillips brings a Big Ten style of play to Youngstown. He will want to play physical and run a ball control type of offense. But his Penguins were picked just 9th in the eleven team MVFC this year. So the rebuild is still in the early stages. I think he will get them competitive again, it will just be a slower process than some Penguin fans would like.

Northwestern Wildcats (0-1) vs. Indiana State Sycamores (1-0)

September 11 | 11am CT | BTN | NU -26.5 | O/U not found
Indiana State in 2020: DNP — 5-7 (3-5 MVC) in 2019

OTE: The Sycamores opted out of the 2020 season, but Curt Mallory (son of Indiana HC Bill, for Big Ten folks) has turned the program around from an 0-11 2017 season into a capable, mid-tier MVFC program. [ed. note: since asking these questions, the Sycamores beat Eastern Illinois 26-21.] With so much change in the last two years of college football, any idea what Northwestern fans should expect from the Sycamores?

MVCB: Before I talk about this year’s Indiana State squad, I first have to make sure you understand something. What Curt Mallory has done has been nothing short of remarkable. When I was in school at Northern Iowa in the mid-to-late 2000s, Indiana State was the absolute pushover of the Valley. When the Trees came to town, you knew you were going to see the second stringers and possibly third-stringers by the end of the game. From 2005-2009 ISU Blue went 2-54. TWO AND FIFTY FOUR. This also happened to them. It wasn’t just the mid-2000s either. They had three winning seasons (but no playoffs) in 2010, 2011 and 2012 but then went right back to it with a 1-11 mark in 2013 and the aforementioned 0-11 season in 2017. .One year removed from an 0-11 season…..one year….and they were 7-4. They should have made the playoffs that year but the committee did them dirty by leaving them out (in my opinion).

All that said, you asked if I had any idea what Northwestern fans should expect from the Sycamores. Honestly? Not really, no. When a team takes an entire season off it becomes difficult to get a read on them. I can say a few things, though. They have actually already played a game in week zero and they beat Eastern Illinois 26-21. The Trees were outgained pretty substantially in that one, 378-245, but forced three turnovers and allowed none to pull out the win. EIU was picked last in the weak Ohio Valley Conference, while Indiana State was picked to finish 10th out of eleven MVFC teams. So that game might have been a bit of a pillow fight. Indiana State did not have anyone on the preseason All-MVFC first or second team (although that can at least partially be attributed to their spring season opt out). However their starting QB in week one, Anthony Thompson, is a senior transfer from Northern Illinois who threw one pass for negative five yards in three years as a Huskie (which I guess is good for a 58.0 QB rating). Your calling them a “capable, mid-tier MVFC program” is pretty accurate if not even a little bit generous at this point.

Part II: The Conference

OTE: Front-runners? Is it still North Dakota State and everybody else? Southern Illinois and South Dakota State made quite a splash in 2020 by taking down the Bizon and advancing to the FCS Championship, but is it still a pretty clear 1a/1b pecking order in the Valley?

MVC Beat: I’ll preface this by saying the MVFC is far and away the best FCS conference in the country. It just is.

There are CAA fans on the east coast who might disagree with me, and maybe even some out west in the Big Sky. But those people are wrong. Look at records, computer rankings, National Championships, playoff performances and basically any other metric and the MVFC comes out on top by a wide margin. And it isn’t just NDSU. Programs like SDSU, North Dakota, Northern Iowa, and Illinois State have also been consistently among the best in the country on a regular basis. Other programs like Youngstown State and Southern Illinois have been down lately but have a strong history behind them.

People in Big Ten country can understand east coast bias. That is what the folks in the CAA have if they say their league is better. It isn’t.

That said, NDSU has dominated the league for a long time. They’ve dominated the entire FCS for a long time. They’ve won eight of the last ten national titles. They’ve earned the right to be assumed the best until proven otherwise. However, the league feels about as open as it has in awhile. South Dakota State, not the Bizon, were picked by the coaches and media to be the league champions this year (NDSU was second). NDSU is ranked only 4th preseason in the STATS FCS poll. SDSU is 3rd, Southern Illinois is 7th, North Dakota is 8th, Northern Iowa is 21st and Missouri State is 24th. The Bison have been the beneficiary of elite, NFL-caliber QB play for the entirety of their run. First it was Carson Wentz, then it was Easton Stick, and then it was Trey Lance. Last year, the didn’t have an NFL caliber QB and coincidentally they didn’t win a national title. Instead they had Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland who was eventually benched for freshman Cam Miller. Frustrated with the lack of playing time, Noland transferred down and will be the starter this weekend for some team called South Carolina. Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson will be the starter this year in Fargo, and while NDSU will be good no matter what, he will need to be great for them to be dominant again.

SDSU has QB issues too. Their stud freshman QB injured himself in the national title game last spring and wont play this year. They’ll go with senior USF and Samford transfer Chris Oladokun under center in the meantime. If he is decent, SDSU has a great chance to win the title as they are built on defense and the run first anyway. Stud running back Isaiah Davis did some cool stuff in the title game last year, bringing his team to the brink of a natty with the backup QB in for most of the game.

SIU, North Dakota, UNI, Missouri State and Illinois State all have their pros and cons too, and are all top 10 to 30 type FCS teams, but I am sure I have already lost almost everyone by this point with my FCS nonsense.

Hi one guy still reading! If you are truly curious you can check out my blog.

Realignment: The Texas and Oklahoma news obviously doesn’t affect the Valley yet, but with North Dakota State having proven they can hang on an FBS level (at least one or two weeks a year) and new emerging FCS programs like Augustana (Sioux Falls) and St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN), will the Valley change its makeup any time soon?

The Valley’s makeup, to this point, has been dictated in large part by basketball. Most of the schools in this league that aren’t green are basketball schools first. NDSU is football first and North Dakota is a hockey school, but most everyone else probably does more damage on the hardwood (or at least fancies that they do). The MVFC is mostly made up of football playing schools from the Missouri Valley Conference and Summit League, with the exception being Youngstown State who is the only football playing member of the Horizon. The league is closely tied to the MVC, but is legally separate with its own commissioner and leadership system. That is why I always refer to it as the MVFC and not the MVC. The two are separate entities.

So the most likely changes to the MVFC’s membership would likely be tied to the Summit or MVC. The most recent example is North Dakota, who moved from the Big Sky to the Summit to join the other Dakota schools recently and also joined the MVFC as a result. The MVC has flirted with expansion and may make a serious go at it with their new commissioner Jeff Jackson starting this year. The league has flirted with Murray State for basketball reasons and if that happened, the Racers would likely join the MVFC for football as a result. Northern Colorado to the Summit/MVFC has been out there as a rumor for some time as well. The other possibility of league membership change would be if a team moved up to FBS (NDSU being the most likely candidate, but Missouri State and Illinois State do have the profile to be a MAC or C-USA school too), or if Western Illinois closes down entirely as a school.

That said, I do think that top 10 caliber FCS programs could compete in G5 conferences pretty quickly. NDSU would be a contender in the MAC most years, in my opinion. Schools like NDSU, SDSU, Illinois State, UNI and North Dakota could compete at the MAC level in short order.

I don’t think the difference between the top FCS and the mid level G5 is that great at all. In 2019 the only MVFC over FBS win was SIU’s blowout of UMass. But SDSU lost to Minnesota 28-21 after leading in the 4th quarter, Iowa State required three overtimes to beat UNI 29-26, Kansas beat Indiana State 24-17 and Illinois State gave up a late pick six in a 24-10 loss to Northern Illinois. [ed. note: since responding to these, South Dakota again gave Kansas all they could handle, while South Dakota State whupped Colorado State in a game for which they were briefly favored.]

The Valley: We’d love to know a little more about you, too! Give us the view of the college football (or college sports) world from your corner of the Valley. Any of the towns have must-stop places for a burger, a beer, or some weird regional food we should know about? (Where’s the best chislic in Brookings, for example?)

MVC Beat: I have spent the bulk of my life in Iowa, South Dakota and Chicago. I actually lived in Evanston for a time. My alma mater is Northern Iowa. The two main parts of Cedar Falls are Main Street and the Hill. On Main Street you’re going to find the young professionals, young families, and 40-somethings. The bars and restaurants there are a touch more sophisticated. The Hill is right off campus….like literally across the street. You’ll find the college bars there. My favorite bars in college were the OP (which has outstanding pizza) and Suds which is a total townie bar and is located right above UNI’s grossest bar, Sharky’s. Sharky’s is the place to be if you’re up at 2am looking for companionship.

A lot of stuff has changed in the decade plus since I went there (including the burning of a legendary-and-infamous Chinese place), but those things remain constant. Brown Bottle is a real nice place that has been around for awhile and is pretty legendary in Cedar Falls too. The hill is a (somewhat long) walk to the UNI-Dome and McLoed Center, but you’d have to drive from Main Street.

Part III: Predictions and Picks

OTE: Who wins the Missouri Valley Conference in 2021? Any dark-horse teams we should be looking out for? If we want to follow the conference this fall, too, how can we do that, both on TV and social media?

MVC Beat: As I said before, it is as wide open as it has ever been. I think it will come down to QB play. If Quincy Patterson is stellar, NDSU will be hard to beat. But SDSU might have the best overall team, hence why they are picked first. I’ll pick them to get the title.

As for dark-horses, North Dakota and SIU both reached the quarterfinals last year and are ranked in the top ten in the country. Seventh ranked Southern Illinois has big Nic energy after Nic Baker won the QB job over fan favorite Stone Labanowitz. It was a bit of a surprise as Labanowitz led SIU to their first playoff win in over a decade and was named preseason Second Team All-MVFC. He chose to transfer after he got the news (leaving a kind-of-weird Dear John note on Twitter), and SIU’s QB depth is now very young and thin behind Nic Baker. Eighth ranked North Dakota is about as solid all around as you can get. They have some doubters still despite a quarterfinal run last year and if they do it again this year, it will be time to quiet those doubts.

Northern Iowa is ranked 21st which is low for them. They are two years removed from a top ten finish and were ranked second going into the fall season last year. They were hit hard by COVID as several players transferred to larger schools or declared for the draft and they ended up going 2-3. Don’t be surprised to see them jump back into the top ten and into the playoffs this year.

Missouri State is coached by Bobby Petrino (yes, that Bobby Petrino) and is rated 24th after making the playoffs for the first time since 1990 last season. They still have serious doubters and a lot of it is justified but they have the chance to shut them up this season. Illinois State was a top ten team two years ago and entered last year ranked 7th before an abbreviated 1-3 season that was abandoned midway through. South Dakota and Youngstown are down but show signs of life. Indiana State is a mystery after taking the spring off. Western Illinois will also participate.

If you want to follow the Valley (for both football and basketball) the best way is through an ESPN+ subscription. Every MVFC football game, and nearly every MVC basketball game is covered by ESPN+ or ESPN3 (CBS sports gets a smattering of basketball games as part of their deal). The quality is great and the games are archived immediately after. It is one of the perks of being a small school fan. It is much easier to be a cord cutter.

You can also obviously follow the goings on on my blog, MVC Beat, or through my Twitter handle @BeatMVC. Even if you aren’t an FCS fan, its a fun place to be during basketball season.

OTE: Michigan State-Youngstown State and Northwestern-Indiana State. Obviously the default picks here are Big Ten wins, but is there any reason either game could be closer than expected?

I honestly don’t really think so. The MVFC is not sending its best into Big Ten country. Youngstown and Indiana State were picked 9th and 10th in the league. The Penguins are rebuilding and Indiana State has been struggling to find its identity on the gridiron for decades. The Trees gave Kansas a run in 2019, but Kansas is obviously a hot mess.

If you were facing one of the better teams, I might have more to say. There is a bit of a history, after all.

But in these cases I think both Northwestern and Michigan State will win easily. I’ll say Michigan State 38-14 and Northwestern 31-10.

Poll

Any FCS-B1G upsets here?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Nah. 2-0.
    (75 votes)
  • 3%
    1-1: MSU goes full Illinois
    (4 votes)
  • 15%
    1-1: September Northwestern, man
    (16 votes)
  • 9%
    0-2: B1Gpocalypse NOW
    (10 votes)
105 votes total Vote Now

I’m not kidding when I say that of the interviews we’ve done—and you should read our ongoing B1G-MAC series!—this is some of the most fun I’ve ever had. A huge thank-you to MVC Beat, who you should go read and follow this damn instant on his website and Twitter @BeatMVC.