TERRE HAUTE —
The great race is on.
The twists and turns of the Missouri Valley Football Conference have knotted Indiana State, Illinois State and Youngstown State in an exciting and tense last-week battle for at-large playoff bids in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
All three play their final games Saturday. The FCS playoff field will be announced at 9 a.m. Sunday with a broadcast on ESPNU.
The playoff situation is multi-layered and some aspects of it are beyond the control of all three of the MVFC teams fighting for the 10 at-large positions available in the 20-team field.
Here’s what we know for certain. North Dakota State is still No. 1 in the all-important Gridiron Power Index — the system the NCAA uses to guide the selection committee on its choice. The Bison (9-1, 6-1) are a lock and will get the MVFC’s automatic bid with a victory this weekend.
Northern Iowa (8-2, 6-1) can still get the MVFC’s auto bid if NDSU loses and UNI defeats Illinois State, but the Panthers will get an at-large bid even if they don’t.
Then it gets interesting.
Illinois State (7-3, 5-2) is currently in third place. ISU and YSU are tied for fourth, both at 6-4 and 4-3 in the MVFC.
Can the MVFC get five bids? It’s possible. When there was a 16-team field, the MVFC (then-Gateway Football Conference) had four bids in 2003, comprising 25 percent of the field at the time. Five bids would represent the same percentage.
The MVFC is currently ranked second in the GPI, behind the Southern Conference, and five teams are in the top 15, including No. 13 ISU. The MVFC sent out a release Tuesday indicating that no seven-win teams in the GPI’s top 20 have ever been left out of the FCS field.
But there are no guarantees. The Southern Conference has five teams in the top 20 too and it’s doubtful the NCAA committee is going to take half the playoff field from just two conferences.
There are other teams in conferences not rated as high, such as 8-3 Central Arkansas, that are behind the MVFC teams in the GPI but that are a legitimate at-large material. Central Arkansas is 8-1 against FCS competition and has won seven in a row.
The NCAA can’t take them all, so how does it shake out from the Sycamores’ perspective? First off, ISU has to beat Southern Illinois on Saturday to have any chance at all. ISU’s playoff chances start and possibly end there.
But if the Sycamores beat the Salukis, then what? Here are some things to consider:
• What is in ISU’s favor? — The Sycamores’ strength of schedule helps them. ISU does not have a bad loss and its nonconference schedule was stronger than the other two MVFC teams vying for at-large bids.
ISU has a blowout 44-16 win over Western Kentucky — a FCS team from the Sun Belt Conference. Illinois State didn’t play an FCS team and YSU’s only “game up” was a competitive loss at Michigan State.
That WKU game is the great mystery when it comes to ISU’s chances. The Hilltoppers have played well since then, improving to 5-5 in the Sun Belt, so in theory, that should do nothing but help the Sycamores.
However, the Sun Belt is the worst FBS conference by a significant margin and it’s questionable whether ISU’s win — dominant though it was — is going to be given greater weight than YSU’s road win at No. 1 North Dakota State last Saturday.
Besides that, ISU probably has the most significant marquee player between the three MVFC contenders. FCS leading rusher Shakir Bell is the kind of player that makes for good television and promotion.
• What’s up in the air? — A lot. There’s nothing to separate ISU, Illinois State and YSU when it comes to head-to-head play. They’ve gone 1-1 against one another, each winning a close game on its home field. None of the games were decided by more than a touchdown.
ISU (Western Kentucky) and YSU (NDSU) have signature wins. Illinois State does not, but the Redbirds get their chance when they host UNI on Saturday. An Illinois State win will almost certainly put the Redbirds in the field.
In the GPI, Illinois State is No. 12, ISU is No. 13 and YSU is tied at No. 15. A slip-up by any of them puts them in jeopardy of not making the field.
• What hurts ISU? — Of the three MVFC contenders, Illinois State and YSU will end the season “hotter” than ISU even if the Sycamores win Saturday.
ISU will finish 3-3 in its final six games with a victory. If YSU beats Missouri State on Saturday, it will have won five of its last six (the only loss a 21-17 loss at UNI). If Illinois State beats UNI, it will finish the season with six consecutive victories. It is an X-factor how much weight the committee puts on how a team finishes the season. In basketball, it is vital.
What also might hurt ISU is its poor attendance. Indiana State has put in a bid to host a playoff game, but the NCAA has to decide between YSU (which hasn’t drawn worse than 11,000 all season), Illinois State, which has topped the 10,000 mark twice and expects a crowd over 10,000 on Satuday, and Indiana State.
ISU’s best attended game was a homecoming crowd of 8,255. For its biggest game in years — a matchup against No. 1 NDSU on Nov. 5 — attendance was just 6,412. It is very important for ISU to draw well this Saturday for its final home game against SIU. It is very important for ISU to focus its marketing efforts toward its large student body — who didn’t show up in the numbers they should have for the NDSU contest.
How much does attendance factor in? Well, the NCAA wants to make as much money as it can, so it doesn’t hurt to draw.
Would attendance break a tie between actually making the field or not? I doubt it, ISU will likely have to play on the road anyway, but I also don’t doubt that ISU doesn’t want to test attendance as a deal-breaker, because the Sycamores will get broken.
The bottom line is this … ISU needs to win. A loss by YSU to Missouri State in Youngstown would do ISU a world of good. A loss by Illinois State wouldn’t hurt either.
It’ll all shake out Saturday. Gentlemen, start your engines. The playoff race is on.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (812) 231-4272. Please follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.
TERRE HAUTE —
The great race is on.
ISU picks up the defense to take down Eastern Illinois
When it's cold outside, it takes a while for your car engine to crank.
It wasn't cold inside Eastern Illinois' Lantz Arena on Saturday, but the same principle applied for the Indiana State men's basketball team.
Once the Sycamore engine revved up, the Sycamores cruised to a 66-48 victory over the Panthers.
Michigan State shakes up national title chase with win over Ohio State
Michigan State shook up the BCS title chase again Saturday night.
The No. 10 Spartans regained the lead on Connor Cook's 9-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price with 11:41 left and upset No. 2 Ohio State 34-24 to take the Big Ten title and put Auburn back in the national title hunt.
Zurek, one of ISU's best defenders, also working hard off the court
Winning basketball teams need glue players, the term sometimes used when referring to someone who helps hold it all together.
In some cases, that means getting the ball in the right place at the right time. Or having a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
It’s more often than not coming away with a loose ball on the court. It’s deflecting so many passes that you become the player that most annoys the opponent.
For Indiana State, that’s Natasha Zurek. The junior athletic training major was inserted into the starting lineup for the past two games.
Zurek leads the Sycamores with 16 steals through six games, which isn’t surprising to anyone on the team.
EIU might come at right time for ISU
Sometimes an opponent lines up just right on the schedule that suits a team’s needs.
That’s true for Indiana State as it travels to play Eastern Illinois at 8 p.m. today at Lantz Arena. And it’s not because the Panthers have struggled, even though they have.
Young gun: Freshman Belyea leads Engineers to second straight victory over Saint Mary-of-the Woods
Freshman women’s college basketball players sparked Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and Rose-Hulman on Wednesday in Hulbert Arena. Playing her first major minutes of the season, Rose-Hulman guard Kristen Belyea was the clutch shooter for the Engineers. In the second half, Belyea knocked down 4 of 6 from the field and 2 of 3 from the 3-point arc to help the Engineers earn a second straight victory in the rivalry with a 74-54 decision.
Strickland leads RHIT men to win
Rose-Hulman opened its Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference men's basketball season with a 66-50 victory at Anderson University on Wednesday.
Metro: Boys county title games set for tonight
A pair of championship games in the Vigo County middle school boys basketball tournament will be played today in West Vigo High School’s main gym. At 6 p.m., Woodrow Wilson will take on Sarah Scott for the sixth-grade title. Then at about 7:30, Wilson and Honey Creek will tangle for the seventh-grade crown.
METRO ROUNDUP: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Rose-Hulman set to battle for Clabber Girl trophy
With the Clabber Girl Trophy hanging in the balance for the 21st time, the Rose-Hulman women’s basketball team will welcome crosstown rival Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to Hulbert Arena today for a 7:30 p.m. matchup.
The Engineers (0-4) will look to defend their title after capturing the Clabber Girl Trophy for the first time since 2008 with last season’s 80-74 victory.
ISU’s Underwood named first team All-MVC
Sophomore linebacker/defensive end Connor Underwood was named to the all-Missouri Valley Football Conference first team on Monday, heading a list of five Indiana State players honored.
Red-hot Strickland leads Engineers past Wabash 77-68
Julian Strickland tied his career-high point total with 31 Monday night — his third consecutive 30-point game this season — as host Rose-Hulman downed Wabash 77-68 in Hulbert Arena.
Metro sports: ISU women play today at No. 15 LSU
Indiana State’s women finish a three-game road swing by playing nationally ranked LSU at 12:30 p.m. today at Baton Rouge.
Rose-Hulman women fall short to Marian
A clutch 3-pointer and free throws down the stretch sealed the home victory for Marian University in Saturday’s competitive 50-45 nonconference victory over the Rose-Hulman women’s basketball team.
Strickland pours in 30, but the Engineers fall in home opener
Carroll University withstood a last-minute challenge by Rose-Hulman to earn a 67-64 men’s basketball victory in the Engineers’ home opener Saturday afternoon in Hulbert Arena.
Indiana State holds off hot-shooting Pepperdine
Indiana State’s men’s basketball team is very much a work in progress defensively. Evidence of that came Saturday when Pepperdine shot 57.8 percent against the Sycamores in the fourth-place game of the Great Alaska Shootout.
But when it came down to winning time? Pepperdine’s Waves crashed on the rocks of ISU’s defense.
Hoosiers gain 692 total yards, re-claim Oaken Bucket
Although his team fell well short of defending its possession of the Old Oaken Bucket Saturday against Indiana, Purdue’s freshman quarterback Danny Etling — a Terre Haute South grad — showed poise and talent in bringing the Boilermakers back in the second half in a 56-36 loss.
Sycamores outpace Seawolves
Indiana State wanted a better defensive effort in its Great Alaska Shootout consolation semifinal game against host Alaska-Anchorage on Friday, but the Seawolves weren’t going to give the Sycamores an orthodox offense to assess themselves with.
Prep/Metro roundup: Marshall girls pick up big wins at Robinson
Marshall’s Lions got a huge girls high school basketball victory Friday afternoon at the Robinson Thanksgiving Tournament, downing Mt. Carmel and 2013 Illinois Miss Basketball Tyra Buss 57-53.
Uneven Sycamores fall 63-62 to Tulsa
Indiana State loses to Tulsa 63-62 in opening game of Great Alaska Shootout
Tulsa's switching defenses confounded Sycamores
Tulsa paid Indiana State the respect they feel the Sycamores earned with a 3-1 start and a win at Notre Dame on Nov. 17.
So the Golden Hurricane threw multiple defenses at the Sycamores.
On target: Sycamores spreading the wealth with their shooting
Indiana State’s men's basketball team did many things right during the 2012-13 season, but one thing it couldn’t get a handle on was its 3-point shooting. The Sycamores shot 32.1 percent from 3-point range, ranked 252nd in the nation. It was going to take a lot of work to improve ISU’s percentage. So far, hard work has had its own reward.
O’Leary eyes return to Hulman Center
Former Terre Haute North standout Matt O’Leary is hoping to help Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser turn the program into a new chapter of success in a new conference.
College report: Gardner jumps at chance to play for ISU
Cody Gardner enjoyed his freshman baseball season at Wright State and earned more time on the field than he honestly expected to get. Coach Rob Cooper departed WSU after last season to take over at Penn State, however, and Gardner jumped at the chance to return to his hometown as an Indiana State Sycamore and perform for the school where two members of his family previously excelled.
Young Evansville team unable to threaten Indiana
Indiana coach Tom Crean surprised everyone by starting senior walk-on Jeff Howard. Evansville didn’t give themselves the chance to surprise the Hoosiers.
Metro roundup: Rose star is conference POW
After a career-high 31-point performance on Saturday night, Rose-Hulman senior Julian Strickland has been named Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week.
NCAA championships: Runners face muddy course, stiff winds as well as each other at Gibson course
More than 500 runners were prepared for a muddy course, but the NCAA’s elite also had to fight a wind chill in the teens Saturday at LaVern Gibson Championship Course.
Nothing was going to stop Oregon’s Edward Cheserek, who upset defending champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech or women’s champion Abbey D’Agostino, who adds her first NCAA title in cross country to her four national titles on the track.
ISU defeats Truman
What do you expect when a Division II team pays a visit to a Division I arena?
In Truman State’s case, you can expect a pretty good showing. Indiana State had some nervous moments against the Bulldogs, but the Sycamores prevailed 80-69 on Friday at Hulman Center.
ISU football closes out season against SIU
Indiana State’s football team had its last practice of the 2013 season Thursday and it had a jovial climax.
Favorites look to win at NCAA cross country championships
Two consensus thoughts prevailed in the hunt for the NCAA cross country individual championships: Kenyan Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech is the heavy favorite to repeat as men’s 10,000-meter champion and Dartmouth senior Abbey D’Agostino, last year’s runner-up, will be tough to stop from winning the women’s 6,000-meter race.
ISU’s Underwood family affected by Illinois tornado
Indiana State defensive end Connor Underwood can be forgiven if football wasn’t the biggest thing on his mind this week as the team prepared for its season finale against Southern Illinois today.
New officiating edict could help ISU's Odum
For ISU, one player immediately comes to mind as far as who might benefit most from the new rules -- senior point guard Jake Odum.
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