Every season it seems like in football, regardless of division, we have surprise breakout teams. And on the other hand, we also have those head-scratchers; those teams that don’t live up to their supposed potential.
This season is no different than any past season. Both the positive and negative areas have teams that fit the criteria this year in the CSN West so far at the mid-point in the season. Some teams are playing above their heads, while others are not living up to expectations.
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
The surprises also showed their head last week when four of the top five teams in the GPI lost.
Let’s see who is where and what might happen the rest of the way in the CSN West – the Big Sky, Missouri Valley, Pioneer League, and Southland Conferences.
Who are the most surprising teams thus far in each of the CSN West Conferences?
The biggest surprise in the Southland has to be Southeast Louisiana. SLU has an 0-4 mark within their out-of-conference games but the Lions have won their first three games within the conference to sit currently atop the SLC standings at 3-0. I predicted that the Lions would finish seventh in the eight team league.
The Lions have defeated Northwestern State, Lamar, and McNeese State in their three conference wins.
We shall see if SLU can keep it up when they play last year’s playoff teams of Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State in the second half of the season.
The surprising honor for the Big Sky has to go to Northern Arizona. I had projected the Lumberjacks to finish tenth in the 13 team league. NAU currently sits at 5-1 overall and 3-0 within league play.
NAU’s lone loss is to FBS Arizona State to start the season. The Lumberjacks did, however, defeat their second FBS opponent in Nevada-Las Vegas. NAU has also won impressively on the road at Montana and at North Dakota.
The Lumberjacks avoid playing Montana State and Eastern Washington—two of the top teams in the GPI this week—but end the season with another top team in the Big Sky in Cal Poly. Based on the schedule, it looks very likely NAU will be seeing postseason action for the first time since 2003.
In the Missouri Valley, another Jacks team in the Jackrabbits of South Dakota has to the be surprise of the first half. SDSU sits atop the MVFC standings at 3-0 and are 5-1 overall just like the NAU Jacks. I had SDSU finishing sixth in the 10 team league.
SDSU’s lone loss was also to an FBS team in Kansas. The Jacks have defeated Indiana State, Western Illinois, and Missouri State to start the MVFC schedule. SDSU has also defeated two other CSN West teams in Southeast Louisiana and UC Davis.
SDSU has the toughest part of their schedule left with a road game at Northern Iowa this week and road trips to North Dakota State and Southern Illinois yet to go with home games with Youngstown State and rival South Dakota. Two more victories in this group seems likely to send these Jacks back to the playoffs after a three year hiatis.
The Pioneer League surprise has to go to Butler, who sits tied atop the PFL standings at 4-0 and are 5-2 overall. I had the Bulldogs finishing fifth in the league in my preseason predictions.
The Bulldogs have defeated Campbell, Dayton, Valparaiso, and Marist within league play. Butler has the tougher part of their schedule in the second half of the year when they host Jacksonville and travel to Drake—the two teams that Butler is tied with currently at the top of the standings.
What teams have been the biggest disappointments in the CSN West?
The biggest disappointment overall within the West has to be Montana and Northern Iowa so far. These two teams were co-champions last year in their respective conferences of the Big Sky and Missouri Valley.
The Grizzlies have had many off the field issues but most including myself thought they would overcome these issues to finish high in the BSC standings. Montana currently sits at 1-3 within the league and 3-4 overall.
The Grizzlies lost to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah at home and Eastern Washington on the road.
It would take a minor miracle to see Montana back in the postseason this year—a place most FCS fans have come accustomed to seeing them.
Northern Iowa currently sit at 1-5 and are winless through three MVFC games. The Panthers have lost to Youngstown State, North Dakota State, and Southern Illinois thus far and are out of the playoff race already.
What teams are playing right up where they expected to be playing?
Eastern Washington and Montana State are the two teams that look right where they should be in the Big Sky race from the pre-season picks standpoint. Eastern Washington defeated Montana State last week and both teams sit at 5-1 overall. EWU owns a victory over FBS Idaho.
In the Missouri Valley, North Dakota State, who is the defending national champion, had a slip up last week against Indiana State but still the Bison are ranked as the top Gridiron Power Index team. The Bison have defeated FBS Colorado State and sit at 5-1 overall.
In the Southland, both Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas, who were playoff teams last year, are playing similar ways as last year. UCA owns a victory over SHSU but both are equal in the SLC standings.
In the Pioneer Football League, Drake is the team playing as expected. The Bulldogs sit undefeated in league play at 4-0 and the lone two loses were two Top 25 GPI teams in Montana State and Indiana State.
We are starting to get a clearer picture who might and who will not be playing on or after November 24 (the opening round of the FCS playoffs). The next five weeks will be exciting to see how these four FCS conference races take shape.
And who knows, maybe a team will emerge in the remaining five weeks in either the three West automatic qualifying conferences of the Missouri Valley, Big Sky and Southland to steal a playoff spot away.
I personally can’t wait to find out how this season ends.
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CSN West Game of the Week
McNeese State (4-2, 1-2 Southland) @ Sam Houston State Bearkats (4-2, 2-1), 8 p.m.
A year ago, the Bearkats defeated the Cowboys in Lake Charles 38-14. So far this year, McNeese State has two losses both in Southland Conference play have come by a total of two points to Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana. Sam Houston State has lost to Central Arkansas and to FBS Baylor.
Cowboy quarterback Cody Stroud has led MSU to an average of 235 yards per game, which is tenth in the FCS. On the other hand, Sam Houston State has won three straight games following the 24-20 loss at Central Arkansas. The Bearkats rank first in the SLC in rushing, with 259 yards per game, which is seventh in the FCS.
This game will likely be determined on how well the defenses play. Both defenses have given their share of points up this season and since both teams are good on offense, I could see this being a high scoring game.
This is the first true home game for the Bearkats since early September and it is also their homecoming game.
I think, however, that the Cowboys will be hungrier. I like McNeese State in an upset here.
McNeese State 35 Sam Houston State 31