What's the telltale sign that college football season is upon us? When I get the annual email from the Missouri Valley Football Conference asking for preseason predictions and preseason all-conference teams.
That email showed up in my inbox on Monday so the days until football begins are getting near.
Part of the annual exercise is determining the pecking order of the league. To properly do so for football, in my opinion, you have to pick the league games one-by-one. Why? Every schedule is different. For example, the lucky team that has the bye against North Dakota State is good for at least one spot up the standings. That lucky team this year? Indiana State.
But as I look at the width and breadth of ISU's schedule to see how I think the Sycamores will fare — a schedule that features a school-record seven home games — I kind of look at it like a military strategist looks at a battle map. Where are the weak points? Where can the Sycamores get out-flanked to deep-six their season? Where is the most important component that must be won at all costs?
I could easily rank the games in terms of importance, but rather than do that, let's look at the schedule a different way and define how these games fit into the greater scheme of things. And and most important? How they fit into ISU's ambitions to earn a FCS playoff bid and compete for the MVFC championship.
I rank these categories in terms of importance from least to most important.
• Nonconference obligations: Dayton, Sept. 7 and Eastern Illinois, Sept. 22 — I originally had "filler" in there instead of "obligations", but filler has a far stronger connotation than I intend. The bottom line is that winning both is the barest minimum ISU must do to have a successful season.
Dayton, being the home opener, is important in the sense of giving the fans and team something positive to grow on. It's hard to blow off EIU — ostensibly a rival — as an "obligation" but the bottom line is that if ISU harbors any hopes of a successful season? It beats the Panthers at home, period.
• Money game: at Kansas, Aug. 31 — The most important thing about a money game is the paycheck that comes with it. Anything past that is gravy for most FCS teams, ISU included. The Jayhawks — with new coach Les Miles and familiar face in former ISU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski — are coming off of a 3-9 season and might be the best chance for ISU to beat a Power Five school since it nearly took down Indiana in 2012.
And maybe the Sycamores will do just that. If they do? Bully for them and their playoff hopes. But if they don't? It really doesn't matter that much in the grand scheme of playoff contention. It's all about the cash.
• Must-win conference home games: Western Illinois, Oct. 12; Southern Illinois, Nov. 2; Youngstown State, Nov. 16 — No conference game is a given. In hindsight, ISU's home loss to Missouri State was probably the most costly loss of the 2018 season. So take nothing for granted, ever.
OK, having got that coachspeak disclaimer out of the way, the only way a MVFC team is being taken seriously as a playoff or conference championship threat is if they take care of business on home soil against these three MVFC opponents. The impact of these games will increase as the season stakes get higher — the YSU game should inevitably be bigger than the WIU contest — but taken as a whole it's a must that ISU goes 3-0 against this troika.
• The most important nonconference game: Eastern Kentucky, Sept. 15 — What? Not Kansas? This game is far more impactful to ISU's playoff hopes.
Eastern Kentucky is annually in the hunt for a FCS playoff bid. ISU fans know this because the Sycamores went to EKU in 2014 and won the program's most recent playoff win against the Colonels. EKU was one of the programs ISU was in the hunt with for the final FCS playoff spot last season.
In other words? This could be a tiebreaker kind of contest if ISU is on the playoff bubble. Plus, it's ISU's second home game of the season, and like the Dayton game, the Sycamores have to set a tone that they mean business against a peer school. Think of this game in terms of impact like the Liberty home game was in 2014. A win here can give ISU a big leg up in making the playoffs.
• Start well, finish well on the road: at South Dakota, Oct. 2; at Missouri State, Nov. 23 — Though ISU has a near-NFL-sized home slate, two of its five road games begin and start the MVFC season.
South Dakota starts MVFC play on Oct. 2. The Coyotes were beaten in overtime at Memorial Stadium in 2018, but ISU has not played well at all in its previous two visits to the DakotaDome. The Coyotes also have Austin Simmons back at quarterback, one of the most experienced signal-callers in the league. It will be a tough game.
Missouri State will likely be the last place pick for most, but ISU has had trouble with the Bears in the Dave Steckel coaching era at Missouri State. It's the regular season finale, and undoubtedly, something will be riding on the game. Both road games offer a chance to open and close the way ISU wants to — as well as demonstrate some road toughness.
• Prove-it road games: at Illinois State, Oct. 26; at Northern Iowa, Nov. 9 — In addition to being two difficult teams to play regardless of the venue, ISU has a long history of futility against both of these programs on the road that it would do well to erase.
ISU hasn't won at Illinois State since 1997 and hasn't at Northern Iowa since 1988 — the only win ISU has ever achieved at the UNI-Dome. Few of the road games in either series were close. UNI has won in Cedar Falls by an average margin of 41.4 points since 2007. Though ISU lost by a field goal on the Redbirds' home turf in 2011 and 2015, it has also given up 70, 69 and 55 points in three of the last seven games there.
You never take road games for granted, ever, no matter the caliber of opponent, but it would be a step in the right direction if ISU could split what are two of its toughest road games to crack bi-annually. It would also send the league a message that the Sycamores are for real.
• The most important game of the season: South Dakota State, Oct. 19 — The toughest conference home game of the season will go a long ways towards determining whether the Sycamores are for real or not. Excellent quarterback Taryn Christion has moved on and the Jackrabbits have questions elsewhere, but SDSU has established itself as one of the MVFC's stalwarts, so a win over them carries meaning.
Win this game? ISU begins its second half of the season the right way and is likely in the conference race for the long term. Lose this game? It's not fatal, but it's a missed opportunity for the Sycamores to make a statement about how far they've come as a program.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.