(STATS) - The Missouri Valley Conference boasts six teams in the STATS Top 25.
It's no secret the MVC ranks as one of the best leagues in the FCS. The difference this week is that it added a new chapter to the narrative by placing five schools in the top 10 for the first time in its history.
That makes for a compelling weekend to open the conference slate - No. 3 North Dakota State visits fifth-ranked South Dakota State and fourth-ranked Illinois State hosts No. 7 Northern Iowa.
"It's tremendous. There's not a team you can rest on," ISU coach Brock Spack said. "You never have any breathing room on Saturday afternoon. From top to bottom, it's the most competitive league I've ever been a part of. There really isn't that much of a disparity in talent. If you win the Missouri Valley, you have a chance to do some damage at the national level."
That's exactly what Spack's Redbirds and the Bison did last season before facing each other in the national championship game, with NDSU scoring a touchdown in the last minute to claim its fourth straight title.
The Jackrabbits almost put an end to that run, holding a lead in the final minute of the second-round matchup before Carson Wentz hit RJ Urzendowski with a 12-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds remaining to give NDSU a 27-24 win.
SDSU (3-0) enters this meeting as the MVC's only unbeaten team and with its highest ranking ever. Sophomore Jake Wieneke, who caught a touchdown pass but finished with just three receptions for 29 yards in the playoff loss, ranks second in the FCS with 528 receiving yards and third with six TD grabs, including two in a 34-10 win over Robert Morris last week.
Wieneke will be shadowed by NDSU senior standout C.J. Smith, arguably one of the top cornerbacks in the FCS.
"They're playing at a high level," Bison coach Chris Klieman said. "With Wieneke, nobody's really slowed him down. He's really offensively been the difference in the three games that we've seen this year. We're looking forward to another great battle on Saturday."
Northern Iowa (2-1) dealt NDSU (2-1) its only loss last season and also handed the Redbirds (2-1) their lone regular-season defeat. The Panthers' win over Illinois State came despite All-American Marshaun Coprich's 166 yards rushing and three touchdowns, but Coprich's 148 yards helped the Redbirds get revenge with a 41-21 victory in the second round of the playoffs.
UNI now looks to end ISU's 14-game home winning streak - second-longest in the FCS behind NDSU's 25-game run - and could use a two-quarterback system featuring dual-threat Illinois transfer Aaron Bailey and pocket-passing senior Sawyer Kollmorgen.
Bailey has seen the field the most and threw for 218 yards and a touchdown while running for two more scores in a 34-20 win at Cal Poly on Sept. 19.
Both teams are coming off a bye.
"We just have to make sure that we get our team prepared to go on the road and have a good plan," Panthers coach Mark Farley said. "We'll go with the (quarterback) that is moving the football the best at that time. The fortunate thing is that both are working well together right now and on their edge of their seat ready to play."
Some watching at Hancock Stadium won't even have seats. Illinois State announced it will host a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd for the marquee matchup.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE'S STELLAR D=
It shouldn't be a shock that first-year coach Bo Pelini, who has made a living building feared defensive units, has the 10th-ranked Penguins thriving on defense. YSU (2-1) is giving up an FCS-low 237.7 yards per game and surrendered 87 in a 48-3 rout of St. Francis, Pa. on Sept. 19, the fewest it has allowed since Alabama A&M gained 68 in the 1979 playoffs.
The Penguins could get a tougher test from South Dakota (2-1), which racked up 476 yards in a 52-0 win over Drake two weeks ago prior to its bye.
"I think we're a work in progress," Pelini said. "I think we have a chance to be a good defense as the year goes on. I don't think we're there yet. I think our kids are learning and working hard at it. At the end of the day, if we keep progressing like we are, we have a chance to be pretty good."
INDIANA STATE'S HEALTH=
Linebacker Connor Underwood, considered one of the best NFL prospects in the FCS, suffered a pulled hamstring in a 29-28 win over Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 19 and is considered a game-time decision when the 21st-ranked Sycamores visit Missouri State.
That may not bode well for an Indiana State defense that ranks eighth in the 10-team league in yards allowed per game at 433.0.
"(The Bears) are probably foaming at the mouth," coach Dave Steckel said.
Steckel said he expects to have running back LaMonte Booker (sprained knee) and linebacker Kendall Walker (concussion) back from injuries.
WHAT ABOUT US?=
The only MVC game not featuring a ranked team pits Southern Illinois at Western Illinois in a matchup of 1-2 squads. The Salukis easily could be the seventh ranked team in the league, though.
They came within a late 2-point conversion of winning at Indiana on Sept. 5 and lost to SE Missouri State the following week on a field goal with five seconds remaining. SIU won last week by a 34-13 score over then-No. 10 Liberty.
The Salukis rank fifth in the FCS in total offense with 536.7 yards per game, but they've also committed 10 turnovers.
"We knew we were capable of being a good football team, but we just hadn't been able to close it up to this point," coach Dale Lennon said. "I think it gets even more difficult now with Western. I think we have a lot of things in common with them and I think we're teams with similar backgrounds right now."
The Leathernecks are coming off a bye after losing 34-27 at then-No. 1 Coastal Carolina. Senior Nikko Watson rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns in his season debut for WIU, which led by a point midway through the fourth quarter.