In the end, USF’s season actually ended before Augustana’s did.
I was in my truck driving home from Bob Young Field after covering USF’s 24-14 win over Wayne State, wondering if enough teams above the Cougars in the standings would lose to allow them to hop into the top six, when I turned on the radio just in time to hear Jeff Fylling call the end of Augie’s 38-35 win over Southwest Minnesota State, as the Mustangs missed a 43-yard field goal in the final seconds that would’ve forced overtime.
When the playoff pairings were released Sunday, USF found out for certain that their season was over. That’s a tough break for them. In the first few years I started covering the NSIC after Augie joined, 9-2 virtually guaranteed a playoff spot, 8-3 gave you a pretty good chance, and even 7-4 might be good enough to land you in the Mineral Water Bowl.
But in USF’s case — nothing. Season over. Minnesota State, at 11-0, gets the top seed in the region, while Minnesota Duluth, who went 10-1 with only a last second loss at St. Cloud State, barely got in at No. 6. Winona State finished 9-2 and missed the playoffs, but they’re going to the Mineral Water Bowl (where they’ll play Lindenwood, the team USF beat in the 2009 NAIA title game).
It’s a tough blow for USF, because they had a hell of a season. The NSIC South is nasty, and the Cougars also beat two of the best teams in the North in St. Cloud State and Bemidji State. They lost — convincingly but not embarrassingly — at Minnesota State, and by a point at Winona. I imagine USF players and coaches are going to literally lose sleep over the loss to Winona, but they shouldn’t. The Cougars very easily could’ve lost to Bemidji (had the Beavers been healthy that day) or Augie. You don’t get every break.
What should (and does, I promise) bother them is that 9-2 wasn’t good enough.
I don’t know why the region was redrawn like it was, but it screwed the NSIC, MIAA, GAC and GNAC.
Four conferences in one region, and only six playoff spots. As strong as both the MIAA and NSIC are, six would be appropriate for just those two leagues. How good are Harding and Henderson State? I don’t know, and that’s not even the point. Winona State made the playoffs over more deserving NCC teams plenty of times in the past.
The point is, the NCAA Division II ranks continue to swell, as new schools make the jump from NAIA every year.
Leaving out the absurdity of putting a Minnesota-Iowa-Dakotas-Nebraska conference in the same “region” with a conference whose teams are from Arkansas, the Division II playoffs simply need to be expanded. There are roughly 170 teams in Division II and growing. 24 seems like small number for a playoff.
Several NSIC coaches I’ve talked to have expressed serious concern with the difficulty they’re going to have reaching the playoffs going forward, so it will be interesting to see if it becomes a talking point at the national level. The FCS expanded their playoffs last year, so there is precedent.
At the FCS level, 8-3 is plenty for a playoff spot, whereas teams in Division II’s Super Region 3 basically now enter their season knowing that one loss puts their playoff hopes in jeopardy. You shouldn’t have to go undefeated to reach the postseason.
As for USF and Augie, individually, a few thoughts on both teams’ seasons.
I picked USF to go 7-4 before the season. I figured 8-3 as a best-case scenario, and something like 4-7 or 5-6 as a worst-case (and unlikely) scenario.
There was never a doubt in my mind that USF would be able to compete right away. I knew even in their NAIA days they were a better program than half the teams in the NSIC, but I wasn’t sure how they’d stack up against top teams like St. Cloud, Mankato, etc. With 25 seniors, they were ready.
Taylor Perkins, Carrington Hanna, and Jeremiah Oates were all better than I expected. Hanna in particular was extremely impressive. I wish he were a couple inches taller. He’d be a legit NFL prospect.
I liked the linebackers a lot going into the season, and they still exceeded my expecations. So did the secondary.
The run game struggled at times, in part because Kristian Porter was never fully healthy, but there were moments when Porter and Jordan Taylor played big roles in winning games. I thought the Cougars were underwhelming on both the offensive and defensive lines, and it says a lot about their playmakers that they were able to overcome that to win nine games.
So much has been said about USF “just knowing how to win” over the years that it’s become a cliche. But like a lot of cliches, it’s true. I thought they outcoached a few of their opponents, and won a few games without being anywhere near their best.
As disappointing as it will be for USF to miss the playoffs, their guys were in a pretty good mood after Saturday’s win over Wayne. They had fun this year, making new road trips for the first time, proving people wrong and proving to themselves what they had long suspected: That they’re pretty good.
I expect them to take a step back next year — they lose damn near everybody — but I would think they bought themselves some equity with their debut season.
As for the Vikings…
I’ve heard rumors already that Mike Aldrich will be fired this week following a 5-6 season.
That would surprise me, and I’ve gone on record as saying I don’t think he deserves it. Then again, a lot of coaches get fired when they don’t necessarily deserve it, and the Augie job is an attractive one.
No doubt the Vikings underachieved for a second straight year. In fact, you could say they took a step back for a second straight year. Last season they lost five games by a total of less than 30 points. This year they lost a couple close ones — by six to Mary, by four to Wayne, by eight to Duluth and by one to USF — but they also lost at home by 38 twice.
The Viking offense was one of the best in the league. Josh Hanson had a terrific season, throwing for an NSIC-record 32 touchdowns, and Dajon Newell ran for over 1,000 yards. The defense, however, underachieved for much of the season then bottomed out at the end. And, of course, the kicking game cost them potentially three wins (Mary, Wayne, USF).
I don’t think it’s unfair to hold Aldrich accountable for the kicking failures, but I’d point out that if the Vikings were simply able to execute extra points and short field goals, they’d have won somewhere closer to 16 games over the last two seasons as opposed to 11. I think it’s a lot harder for a coaching staff to build a team good enough to win 8 games a year than it is to find a coach who knows when to bench a kicker. I could’ve put Josh Hanson in for Drew Behrens. I couldn’t have recruited and coached the talent to be good enough to play with teams like Duluth and USF. You don’t want to lose sight of the forest for the trees, or however that stupid saying goes.
It’s also very important to note how much the NSIC has improved in just a couple years. In Augie’s first couple years in the NSIC, there were at least four or five games that you knew going into the season were pretty much guaranteed wins. That’s no longer the case. It’s easy to say that Mike won with Brad Salem’s players in 2010, but the last two years have been with mostly Salem’s players as well, and when Salem was here going 8-4, at least half the league’s teams were pushovers. They obviously aren’t anymore.
A couple years ago I did weekly picks of every single NSIC game during the football season, and I got about 90 percent of them right. There just weren’t any upsets. This year, as anyone who followed my weekly blogs knows, I swung and missed on a lot of picks, and that was just with Augie and USF. There were dozens of other upsets around the league through the season. I would bet that if I had done picks for every game every week I would’ve struggled to get more than 70 percent of them right. That’s good for the league, but bad for a coach whose fans expect nothing less than 10 wins.
That said, the Vikings are playing in a jewel of a $13 million stadium, and they suddenly can’t win there. They’re 5-6 at Kirkeby-Over in the last two seasons, and the last three home games of this season were painful.
They played well in the loss to USF, though it was devastating to fans for obvious emotional reasons, while the last two home games were a 52-14 loss to Mankato and a 73-35 loss to Winona.
It seems like this team is a lot more comfortable on the road. It’s great to be able to find a way to focus and play well on the road, but it’s inexcusable to be noncompetitive at home, and the Vikings struggles at the KO are troubling.
The Vikings do have a bright future. Dajon Newell and Grant Gebhardt still have two years left. CJ Ham has three. From the offensive line to the secondary, the Vikings played lots of very young players this year. Because of the presence of Josh Hanson, Austin Luecke and others, there was a perception that this was a veteran team, but it really wasn’t.
Luecke will be a tough loss, but good linebackers grow on trees, and Augie has a handful of good ones coming back.
Quarterback, on the other hand, will be interesting. Hanson was what every coach craves — a high school recruit they developed themselves and turned into a three-year, All-Conference caliber starter. He will not be easy to replace.
Will Tanner Foth be given one year to run the show next year? Or will they look to start grooming one of the youngsters? Erik Brakke will be a sophomore and Trey Heid a redshirt freshman. Justin Heinrich will be a junior.
I’m assuming Aldrich will be back. This year’s sophomore class was his first recruiting class, and from Newell to Gebhardt to Matt Gerry, Sam Thorson, Nate Kirby, Jake Lee and several freshmen who also made an impact — it’s obvoius he’s brought in some great talent.
But after consecutive disappointing seasons, some changes need to be considered. Perhaps Aldrich should designate a defensive coordinator. He acts not only as DC, but also as the team’s defensive backs coach. That makes him very hands-on, which can be a good thing, but maybe he’d be better served as an overseer. Jed Stugart is a former defensive coordinator himself, but he still kept Jon Anderson as his DC when he took over at USF, and that’s worked pretty well. A kicking specialist on staff might help, too, considering how badly they’ve struggled in that area. Not sure if AD Bill Gross would be open to adding to the coaching staff.
Either way, if Aldrich comes back next season, you’d have to assume he’ll be under pressure. Not necessarily to get back to the playoffs, because that might not be realistic for next year’s team, but certainly to prove he’s the right guy to keep this program near the top of the NSIC.
Note: The NSIC All-Conference teams will come out this week, and as you know, I like to make fun of them because of how unnecessarily large they are, honoring over half the league’s starters. So I put together my own All-NSIC team. Just 27 guys out of the league’s 16 teams — it’s a very exclusive list, I actually spent a lot of time putting it together. I’ll post it in this space tomorrow. Be excited.
In the end, USF’s season actually ended before Augustana’s did.