Spring Preview: 5 Things to Watch From Alabama football

Are you not entertained? What the FCS spring season lacks in length and quality, it makes up for in pure, magical nonsense. The best program in the country got blown out by an unranked opponent two weeks ago, and the new No. 1 has now been scared twice into the second half. There were 31 games last week, and 19 were decided by a touchdown. Three went to overtime almost simultaneously on Saturday afternoon.

College football’s first run of March Madness has lived up to the moniker. And in the fourth full week of action, our eyes focus back on the Missouri Valley Conference, where, no matter what happens, some really good teams are going to be left out of a playoff spot in a few more weeks.

Note: Rankings listed below are the STATS FCS top 25 found at NCAA.com, and all times are Eastern.

FCS Bracketology and reckoning time in the MVC
‘Tis the season for Bracket Math, so let’s lay out how the FCS’ 16-team spring tournament will take shape when announced in mid-April.

You’ll have 10 conference champions and six at-large bids, so the autobids will look something like this:

Big Sky champion (Weber State?)

Big South champion (Kennesaw State?)

Colonial champion (JMU?)

Missouri Valley champion (at the moment, North Dakota)

Northeast Conference champion (Duquesne?)

Ohio Valley champion (Jacksonville State?)

Patriot champion (Holy Cross?)

Pioneer League champion (San Diego?)

Southern Conference champion (Chattanooga?)

Southland Conference champion (Nicholls?)

Take those tentative champions out, and here’s how the rest of the STATS FCS top 25 currently takes shape:

  1. Northern Iowa (2-1)
  2. North Dakota State (3-1)
  3. Villanova (1-0)
  4. South Dakota State (2-1)
  5. Southern Illinois (3-1)
  6. Sam Houston (1-0)
  7. Albany (1-0)
  8. Furman (2-1)
  9. Eastern Washington (1-1)
  10. New Hampshire (0-1)
  11. Southeastern Louisiana (1-1)
  12. Delaware (1-0)
  13. Wofford (1-1)
  14. South Dakota (1-1)
  15. Illinois State (0-2)
  16. UC Davis (1-0)
  17. Monmouth (0-0)
  18. Incarnate Word (2-0)

Six of those 18 teams — and more importantly, four of the top five — are from the Missouri Valley. The MVFC would nearly fill a Joe Lunardi-esque Last Four In list by itself, and two more teams, No. 21 South Dakota and No. 22 Illinois State, are only an upset or two away from having a playoff case themselves.

There are five MVFC games on ESPN+ on Saturday, and at least four of them have major playoff implications.

No. 4 Northern Iowa at No. 10 Southern Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+)

In this topsy-turvy world of ours, it’s good to know we can rely on constants, even in the spring. Northern Iowa might be the best constant of all. The Panthers, you see, win with defense. Nasty, aggressive defense. In 2019, they won 10 games despite averaging only 21 points per game because they were only allowing 17.7. This spring, they’re fourth in the polls despite averaging 20.3 points per game. Why? Because they’re only allowing 11.3. They’ve made 17 tackles for loss with eight sacks — 300-pound Khristian Boyd (3.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) leads the way in both categories. They responded to a 24-20 loss to SDSU by suffocating Youngstown State and Illinois State by a combined 41-10.

Now UNI visits an SIU team that likes to take things in the other direction. The Salukis put up 38 points and 443 yards on NDSU, then put up 30 in the last three quarters against Youngstown State to overcome a hungover start and win 30-22. In the “styles make fights” department, this one could be fascinating.

No. 3 North Dakota at Western Illinois (1 p.m., ESPN+)

As you expect with tiny sample sizes, the MVFC standings are a bit of a mess: North Dakota leads the way at a surprising 3-0 and very much controls its own destiny. But if the Fighting Hawks slip up, five teams with one conference loss could muddy the waters in a hurry.

Granted, a) a couple of those one-loss teams will have two losses after this week, and b) if UND loses, it’s probably not going to be to WIU. The Leathernecks are 0-2 this year after a blowout loss at SDSU and have lost 15 of their last 16 overall. This is a tuneup of sorts before maybe the biggest Nickel Trophy game of all time: They visit Fargo to play a wounded but angry NDSU next Saturday.

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Missouri State at No. 21 South Dakota (2 p.m., ESPN+)

Any playoff chances Bob Nielson’s South Dakota squad have require smooth sailing over the next two weeks. The Coyotes host Bobby Petrino’s 1-3 Missouri State this weekend, then visit 0-3 Youngstown State the next before a brutal run of NDSU, Northern Iowa and SDSU in consecutive weeks.