Southern Illinois, Illinois State make their case for FCS playoffs
Selection Sunday arrives more than once a year.
Maybe the stage isn't quite as big as it is for the NCAA basketball tournament, but there will be anticipation and local interest when the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) playoff pairings are announced at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.
Southern Illinois is hoping to make the 24-team field for the first time since 2009, while Illinois State has a chance to get a top-eight seed and first-round bye.
Both teams lost on Saturday. But while Illinois State had a discouraging loss at Youngstown State with its backup quarterbacks forced to play, SIU believes it cemented its bid with a competitive 21-7 loss to No. 1-ranked North Dakota State.
"Without a doubt, we're a playoff team," SIU coach Nick Hill said after the game. "Anybody that watches that game knows it. Really the last six weeks, I feel like we're a top-10 team. I think we've proved we're a good football team."
Hill played quarterback at SIU during the school's run of seven straight playoff appearances from 2003-09, which began under coach Jerry Kill, who went on to Northern Illinois and Minnesota.
Hill mentioned the past six weeks because two of the team's best players, running back D.J. Davis and safety Jeremy Chinn, missed losses to Illinois State and South Dakota State to open the Missouri Valley Conference season.
Chinn is regarded as one of the best NFL prospects in FCS. When those two returned, the Salukis (7-5) won five in a row before running into the most dominant program in FCS on Saturday.
"Maybe we're not where we're at if we didn't go through those growing pains," Hill said. "But when your two best players aren't playing and now they're playing, I would say in the last six weeks we proved we deserve to be in that (playoff) field."
Illinois State (8-4) appeared to be headed to its best season since reaching the FCS title game in 2014, but starting quarterback Brady Davis was lost for the season with a knee injury last weekend.
So that left the Redbirds with true freshman Jack Baltz and redshirt freshman Bryce Jefferson at QB. That pair struggled badly, going a combined 3-for-16 through the air for 30 yards and 3 interceptions, in a 21-3 loss to Youngstown State.
"There was a lot of deer in the headlights type of reaction," ISU coach Brock Spack said after the game, according to The Pantagraph. "Being a true freshman and playing in a game like this is tough."
The good news is running back James Robinson, who ranked fourth in FCS rushing yards heading into Saturday's action, is healthy. Illinois State's top receiver this season is 5-foot-8 true freshman Kacper Rutkiewicz from Hersey.
Other starters from the area are linebacker Dylan Draka (Wheeling), the team's second-leading tackler; right tackle Cole Anderson (Warren), defensive end Romeo McKnight (Crystal Lake Central) and fullback Timothy McCloyn (Huntley).
Illinois State was ranked sixth in the FCS poll this week, so there's an outside chance they could still get a top-eight seed. Two other top-eight teams lost Saturday -- South Dakota State and Montana. Two weeks ago, the Redbirds beat South Dakota State on the road 27-18.
The Missouri Valley is generally regarded as the best FCS conference. North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois should be locks to get in, so if Northern Illinois gets a bid, it would likely be the fifth MVC team to make the field.
The state's two other FCS programs struggled through rebuilding seasons. Eastern Illinois went 1-11 under first-year coach Adam Cushing, as did Western Illinois with second-year coach Jared Elliott. Both WIU (2017) and EIU (2015) made the playoffs not long ago.
Two area teams, North Central and Wheaton, advanced to the second round of the Division III playoffs on Saturday.