With one week to go, the NSIC race and playoff picture is taking shape.
MSU-Mankato, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, can clinch the conference crown with a win over Upper Iowa. I wouldn’t completely rule out the Peacocks in that one, but it’s pretty close to a slam dunk.
Assuming the Mavs get it done, can they win it all? Absolutely they can. They came close last year, losing in the semis to Valdosta State, who went on to win the national championship.
It was well known going into the season that MSU had almost everyone back from that team, so it’s no surprise that the Mavs have rolled through the conference undefeated, running their streak of consecutive NSIC wins to 21 and ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the Division II polls.
They have three running backs that could start for most any team in Connor Thomas, Andy Pfeiffer and Chad Zastrow, and yet QB Jon Wolf is their leading rusher. Wolf hasn’t thrown much, but that’s clearly because he doesn’t have to, not because he can’t. In Saturday’s 52-17 bombing of USF, Wolf was 12-for-14 for 198 yards. In the first half, working against a difficult wind, he was 8-for-8. Wolf has thrown just one interception on the season.
The Mavs offensive line is big, physical and dominant and their D-line might be even better. When you always win the battle at the LOS you always win games, especially when you have the kind of talent the Mavs do at the skill positions.
On top of all that, this team has a ton of confidence. Whereas last year’s season was played under the cloud of the Todd Hoffner controversy (they obviously rallied through the adversity, but still), this season has been free of the off-field distractions, leading to a narrowed focus.
"We all talk about going 1-0 each week but I love the way our guys have really taken that approach seriously," coach Aaron Keen said after the win over USF. "They’re not thinking about the playoffs. They were thinking about beating Sioux Falls this week, and now we’ll turn our focus to a very good Upper Iowa team. If you can get your kids to really believe in the process and stay in the moment you can have success and our kids really believe in it."
Still, they’re aware of what they’re capable of. The run they made last year proved they’re as good as the best teams in the country, and they know they’ve only gotten better since.
"We got a taste of it last year," said Wolf. "This year we feel like we can make it back and finish the deal."
As for the rest of the NSIC, there’s still plenty of stuff to shake out in the season’s final week.
UMD and St. Cloud State are both 9-1, and both will likely finish 10-1, as Duluth visits Northern State and St. Cloud hosts Moorhead.
Duluth would punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win, as they sit 4th in the latest regional rankings. SCSU, however, is just 7th, having dropped three spots in a week despite winning. Only the top 6 get in. There’s still a good chance they get back in if someone else loses, but it’d be nice if two-loss teams could get into the playoffs (or at least have a shot). For one-loss teams to be on the bubble is distressing.
It’s pointless for me to even get into the secret inner workings of the regional rankings, but I can at least repeat, as I have ad nauseum since last year, that putting four conferences in one region (especially when two of them are the NSIC and MIAA) is a bad deal for everyone when the playoff field only includes 24 teams. If SCSU finishes the season 10-1 and doesn’t get in it’ll be a chilling notice to the rest of the teams in the region: Lose one game and risk having your playoff hopes dashed.
There’s no way to spin that as a positive. Yes, you could argue it means that only the cream of the crop are in the postseason, and yes, you could argue it makes the regular season that much more important. But it also means an overwhelming majority of the teams in the nation will feel like the second half of their season is meaningless, which could lead to some bad, boring football. Remember, this isn’t like Division I-A where there’s a hundred Bowl games to shoot for, or I-AA where teams can still get in the playoffs with three and sometimes even four losses.
Sometimes teams get off to slow starts or don’t find themselves until late in the season. Sometimes teams have injuries early that they recover from late. When the playoffs are this exclusionary (not to mention not necessarily weighted fairly due to regional alignment), there’s bound to be teams capable of winning a national championship who don’t even get to come to the dance, not to mention all the other good teams who essentially have their dreams die as soon as they lose their second game of the season. That sucks, and it needs to be addressed.
Of course, the NSIC and MIAA do have that little consolation game, the Mineral Water Bowl, which pits the top non-playoff teams from the respective leagues against one another.
Obviously that will be St. Cloud if they don’t get in the playoffs, and it would be a bitter consolation for them, considering how high expectations were entering the season. But if the Huskies do get in, the Mineral Water Bowl could end up being a nice epilogue to the season for someone.
Right now Winona State, Upper Iowa, and SMSU are all tied at 6-4. SMSU visits Augie, UIU hosts MSU-Mankato, and Winona visits Concordia.
I don’t like UIU’s chances to beat the Mavs, so they’re out. I’m fairly certain Winona will take care of Concordia, but I assume they’d still need Augie to beat SMSU, because the Mustangs won the head to head with the Warriors.
If they all lose and all finish 6-5, I don’t know who would get the nod. USF and Mary can also finish 6-5, but USF has lost to UIU and Winona, Mary has lost to UIU, SMSU has lost to USF and….well, I’ll let someone else figure it out if that scenario develops.
In the meantime, I’ll just point out, as the beat writer for Augie and USF, what a missed opportunity they had as far as the MWB.
The Vikings are 4-6, but the overtime loss to Minot State, the 10-7 home loss to Wayne State and last week’s 28-24 loss to Winona are all games they could’ve won. They could be 6-4 or even 7-3, and very much alive for the MWB. Coming off a losing season and in their first year under a new coach, it would’ve been a nice way to go out.
Same deal for USF. The Cougars got pounded by Duluth and Mankato, but their other three losses came by a combined 14 points. They could legitimately be 8-2. I don’t know if I’d say they necessarily deserved to win any of those three, but let’s say they don’t waste all those chances early in the game at Upper Iowa. They’d be 6-4 right now, heading to Wayne State this Saturday still alive for a postseason game. Considering they graduated 25 seniors from last year, the MWB would also be a meaningful accomplishment for the Cougars.
Both USF and Augie were good enough to earn that extra game this year, but neither played well enough to get it.
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