Meet the Midwest league that actually dominates in college football
A month into college football season and already the Big Ten is taking more lumps, with seven teams losing to unranked opponents during the Sept. 15 weekend.
It seems to be an annual tradition, the Big Ten climbing into a back seat on college football's luxury RV, while the SEC stays planted behind the steering wheel.
Well, it turns out there is another league that dominates college football and it's right here in the Midwest. It features national champions, regular playoff qualifiers and multiple teams from Illinois.
We're talking about the Missouri Valley Conference, the best league in the Football Championship Subdivision, the second level of college football.
An MVC team has won the national championship in six of the last seven years. Granted, it was North Dakota State every time, but two other MVC schools have reached the title game in the past four years (Illinois State in 2014 and Youngstown State in 2016) and two more schools have gotten at least to the playoff quarterfinals (South Dakota State and Northern Iowa).
Last year, the MVC received five of the 24 playoff slots, most in the country. You heard that correctly, FCS finishes its season with a 24-team playoff. No bowls.
Plenty of grads reside in the Chicago area, but the MVC might be the best-kept secret in college football.
"This league it's an absolute blast to play in, because every single week you've got to bring it and it really requires you to be at your best," Western Illinois coach Jared Elliott said. "I'm from Tennessee, so I'm kind of from that SEC country and there's always the perception that down South, that's where all your athletes are and that's where your speed is."
Every team in the MVC has players from the South, but most are local. The league is sending players to the NFL, including some who may be on your fantasy team, like Carson Wentz (North Dakota State) and David Johnson (Northern Iowa).
The local schools are doing well. Illinois State is ranked No. 9 in this week's FCS poll after moving up a level to beat Colorado State last weekend. Western Illinois made the playoffs last season and knocked off No. 16 Montana in its last game. Southern Illinois is in rebuilding mode with third-year coach Nick Hill, but had the nation buzzing for a few minutes on Sept. 8 with a 38-35 halftime lead in an MVC-SEC matchup at Mississippi.
Illinois State coach Brock Spack was a player and longtime assistant coach at Purdue. He quickly became an MVC believer after taking the Redbirds job in 2009.
"I coached and played in the Big Ten for 22 years. I can tell you this league, from top to bottom, is the best I've ever been in, just from a competitive standpoint," he said. "You have to come ready to play every week or you're going to get beat."
Finding the right fit
Illinois State dominated its annual game against Eastern Illinois 48-10 Sept. 8. The offensive stars of that game were a good microcosm of the type of players you see in FCS.
Quarterback Brady Davis is a transfer from Memphis. Receiver Spencer Schnell is an undersized slot from Elkhart, Indiana, who originally walked on at Ohio University before eventually settling at ISU. His father Dave Schnell played QB at Indiana in the 1980s.
Then there's running back James Robinson, a player who hardly qualifies as going under the radar. He finished a stellar high school career at Rockford Lutheran as the state of Illinois' all-time leading rusher.
"I'm from Rockford, so I know the area pretty well," Spack said. "We offered him first as a freshman. He got offered by Iowa in the spring of his junior year. He didn't take the scholarship right away and they filled up and moved on. At an early age, he didn't have great grades, but he got better and he got a real good test score.
"I was at that (Big Ten) level. I can tell you, you move on really quick if they're not quite there. They just didn't want to wait on him. We were able to wait on him, we hung in there with him and that's how we got him."
The main difference between the levels of college football are number of scholarships. FBS schools can give 85, while FCS has 63. Typically, there is plenty of talent, not as much depth.
"It would be cool to play at a bigger school, but we get to test ourselves against those schools," said Robinson, who ran for 184 yards at Colorado State. "I didn't really care if I went to FCS or somewhere bigger. I fit in really well here."
Gateway to success
The start of this process began in 2008 when the seven-team Gateway Conference added North Dakota State and South Dakota State from the Great West Conference. South Dakota became the league's 10th team in 2012 and North Dakota is in the process of moving from the Big Sky to Missouri Valley to become No. 11.
Jerry Kill had just completed a run of five straight playoff appearances at Southern Illinois when the expansion came about. He's back in Carbondale as athletic director.
"Right before that, I was absolved of the process and went to Northern Illinois," Kill said. "When they were talking about it, I said, 'Hey, you better know what you're getting into now, because I'm telling you, North Dakota State, they beat Big Ten teams, Big 12 teams. Their budget's unbelievable.' I said, 'Don't kid yourself now. If you add them, you're adding a big-time school.' "
The Dakota schools are their states' main universities, which gives them an edge in resources and fan support. That makes it tough to keep up with North Dakota State, but it also seems clear the Bison's success helped elevate the entire league.
"I'll never forget in 2012, coach (Craig) Bohl was at North Dakota State at the time," Spack said. "He said, 'You know what Brock? You can win the national championship. I'm telling you, you can win it. This league is just so well prepared for that and it's so much fun.' "
Bohl, now at Wyoming, was nearly prophetic. Illinois State made an impressive run to the 2014 title game by traveling to two corners of the U.S. to beat Eastern Washington and New Hampshire in the playoffs. The Redbirds then lost to North Dakota State in a competitive title game.
"There are some leagues that are very top-heavy and there's a big gap between those schools and the others," Elliott said. "You don't really feel that way all the time in the Missouri Valley. No question North Dakota State is the front-runner, but when you look at the scores in this league, there are very competitive games."
The Big Ten has good teams, but is more bottom-heavy than top-heavy some years. Meanwhile, North Dakota State is again the top-ranked team in FCS and a strong favorite in the MVC, but expect plenty of playoff contenders when conference play begins this week.