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McFeely blog: Mixed bag this fall for FCS teams that surprised in 2020/21 spring season

Missouri State, Southern Illinois make playoffs again while three other upstarts don't fare so well

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Southern Illinois' Jajuan Blankenship tracks down North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller as Bryce Notree closes in to assist on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Carbondale, Ill. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — The COVID-riddled spring Football Championship Subdivision season was, well, something.

I continue to contend it was farcical, its credibility damaged by many factors. Those include but are not limited to top-ranked teams (Montana, Montana State, Sacramento State, Central Arkansas) opting to not play the season at all, other teams (too many to list) bailing out midseason, a team (UC Davis) declining a playoff bid because it just wanted its season finished, a team (Southern Illinois) essentially buying a playoff spot by making a late addition to its schedule, numerous games being cancelled because of positive COVID tests, one potential playoff team (Chattanooga) ending its season early because it was short players, some teams being devastated by opt-outs and transfers between the fall and spring while other teams went untouched ... just a whole bunch of silliness.

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I admit I stand nearly alone with this stance. Or at least I stand alone in having the cojones to say this publicly. Others agree with me (even some — gasp! — with FCS programs not based in Fargo) but don't want the hassle of dealing with the fallout from saying so. It serves them no purpose.
Many others haven't taken a shine to my opinion. In a never-ending quest to stand up for their home team doing well and justifying its success, they've failed to factor in all the ridiculousness that happened in the spring. This includes media members whose teams did better than expected or advanced to heretofore unseen heights.

Good thing is, I can stop beating this dead horse. The spring season was played, a champion was crowned, the world moved on. A full fall regular season was played. The FCS world returned to normal and the a full 24-team playoff field kicks off Saturday. Let us forever and always put the 2020/21 FCS season behind us.

With the playoffs beginning Saturday with eight first-round games, let's take a quick look at teams that had unexpected success in the spring season and how they fared this fall.

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My belief heading into this fall was unwavering. I said to anyone who would listen, "Let's see how these upstarts do over a full season when they have to play a full 11-game schedule including three non-conference games that might include an FBS. That's much different than playing a five- or six-game schedule with numerous breaks because of cancellations."

Turns out my skepticism was correct — 60% of the time. And it might get a bump higher depending on how a limping Southern Illinois team does in its first-round game at South Dakota on Saturday.

There were five teams that made the shrunken 16-team spring playoff field that I deemed "upstarts" based on their recent history in FCS — Delaware, VMI, Southern Illinois, Missouri State and North Dakota. All either attained playoff berths, high rankings, playoff victories or a combination of the three that they hadn't in recent years. Or ever.

The rest of the playoff field — the Sam Houstons, the James Madisons, the NDSUs, even Monmouth — had been good programs for years, making the postseason and winning games once there.

So here goes. The updates on the 2020/21 FCS upstarts (in alphabetical order). Some teams played games in the fall of 2020, but we've scrubbed those games from the record and so spring records reflect only games played in the spring.

Delaware (6-1 spring, 5-6 fall)

FCS keeps waiting for the Fightin' Blue Hens, a program with a great tradition of success that includes national championships in both Division II and FCS, to be better. It seemed the spring season was when Delaware's time had finally come after a decade of mostly mediocrity in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Head coach Danny Rocco's club won its first CAA championship since 2010 with a 4-0 record and then won two playoff games to advance to its first semifinals since 2010. That the Blue Hens were pasted 33-3 at South Dakota State should've been a warning for what was to come in the fall.

Delaware began the year ranked No. 5 and started 2-0, but lost four of five games to drop out of the Top 25. Two victories, including one over then-20th ranked William & Mary lifted the Blue Hens to 5-4 and gave them a chance at a playoff berth if they could win their last two contests. Alas, the Blue Hens lost their last two games to finish 5-6 and out of the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years.

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Missouri State (5-2 spring, 8-3 fall)

The Bears had not been relevant in football for 30 years and after losing three games in the fall of 2020 it appeared famed coach Bobby Petrino wasn't going to make much progress to change that. But Petrino brought in a slew of transfers and the Bears went 5-1 in the spring (only loss coming to traditionally powerful NDSU) and made the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Missouri State was hammered 44-10 in its playoff game at North Dakota, but the season was still an unquestioned success.

The Bears went 8-3 this fall, including a baffling loss at 3-7 Youngstown State, to continue their upward trend. Missouri State is without a doubt the surprising spring team that's continued its success the best.

Among the more than 30 transfers Petrino brought in this fall was quarterback Jason Shelley (Utah, Utah State) who was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference's offensive player of the year. He's been a godsend for an offense that has good skill players, but a subpar offensive line. Without Shelley's mobility and playmaking ability, the Bears might've been a 6-5 or 5-6 team. As it was, they nearly landed a top-eight seed and first-round playoff bye.

Missouri State hosts Tennessee-Martin on Saturday in a first-round game, a game the Bears should win easily, and then they'll travel to No. 8-seeded Montana State in the second round. The Bobcats will be favored, but nobody in FCS would be surprised if Missouri State wins.

North Dakota (5-2 spring, 5-6 fall)

No team benefitted more in perception from a successful spring season than UND. Other than a Big Sky Conference title in 2016, the Fighting Hawks had mostly been a borderline playoff team or worse and had not won an FCS postseason game prior to the spring season.

But UND went 4-1 in the spring and was ranked as high as No. 2, claiming a tri-championship with 5-1 SDSU and Missouri State in the Hawks' first year in the Valley. UND won its first-ever FCS playoff game by whipping Missouri State in the first round before losing at top-ranked James Madison in the quarterfinals.

That led to high hopes and high expectations heading into the fall. The Hawks began the season ranked No. 8 and were picked to finish third in the Valley behind SDSU and NDSU.

But after losing an emotional 16-10 decision to the Bison at the Alerus Center in the most-anticipated Division I game in Hawks' history, UND lost its next two games on the road to drop out of the national rankings and put its playoff hopes in jeopardy. A loss in Week 9 at Missouri State gave UND five defeats on the year and effectively ended their postseason hopes with three games left in the regular season.

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UND finished 1-5 on the road, continuing a problem that's plagued the team in recent seasons.

After a upstart spring, the Hawks reverted to what they've been for most of their FCS history — a team on the borderline of the playoffs, with one or two games making the difference.

Southern Illinois (5-4 spring, 7-4 fall)

The Salukis had a weird spring. Severely limited in preseason practice because of poor weather in Carbondale, they got drilled in their opener at UND. They turned around the next week and pounded then-No. 1 NDSU for a massive victory in program history. From there, it was a mixed bag.

Illinois State and Western Illinois opting out of the season got under head coach Nick Hill's skin to the point of numerous tweets and statements from SIU. At 3-3 and likely to miss the playoffs, the Salukis convinced Southeastern Louisiana to travel by bus to Carbondale (SIU paid for travel costs) for a hastily scheduled contest won 55-48 by Southern Illinois. That was enough to get the Salukis into the playoff field as the last team with a 4-3 record.

The Salukis then traveled to third-ranked Weber State and won, advancing to the quarterfinals at No. 2 SDSU. SIU lost just 31-26 and the FCS world was smitten.

SIU began the fall season ranked seventh and started off strong, going 6-1 with its only loss at FBS Kansas State. That got the Salukis the No. 3 ranking. But they've lost three of their last four games in mostly ugly fashion and will have to travel to South Dakota for a first-round game. SIU's run defense hasn't been good and it's been badly on the wrong side of the time of possession in four of its last five contests.

The Salukis are 2.5-point underdogs at USD. The winner of that game will play at NDSU, where it will be heavy underdogs.

According to a Twitter account that tracks players entering the transfer portal and the offers they are receiver, Southern Illinois is already active in offering transfer defensive players.

The fall season can't be deemed completely unsuccessful because the Salukis reached the playoffs, but a loss at South Dakota would put a dent in whatever momentum they believed they'd generated off the surprising spring season.

VMI (6-2 spring, 6-5 fall)

The Virginia Military Institute was 11-45 from 2015-19 under head coach Scott Wachenheim. That included 0-11 in 2017 and 1-10 in 2018. So when the Keydets went 6-1, won the Southern Conference for the first time since 1977 and advanced to the playoffs it was one of the best storylines of the spring season. VMI even challenged No. 1 James Madison in the first playoff game, losing only by a touchdown.

For a program that had been so down for so long, it showed the spring season offered opportunity where perhaps little had existed in a normal season. Wachenheim was named the FCS' Eddie Robinson Award as national coach of the year for the Keydets' efforts.

The fall season got off to a good start for VMI, but in the end the often undermanned program couldn't hold up. After a 6-2 start had them ranked 18th and in firm control of their playoff destiny, the Keydets lost their last three games to finish 6-5 and out of the playoff field. VMI finished tied for fourth place in the Southern Conference behind East Tennessee State, Mercer and Chattanooga.

The good news is the Keydets had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in years. The bad news is with other programs returning to normal after the truncated spring season, the same issues that plagued VMI prior to the spring are likely to return.

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