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.