(STATS) - A race that features seven STATS FCS Top 25 teams is about as competitive as it can get, especially in a Missouri Valley Conference that sits ahead of two FBS conferences in popular national power ratings.
The latest MVC school to crash the rankings is No. 20 Western Illinois, which shares the conference lead with third-ranked Illinois State. The surprising Leathernecks will look to end the Redbirds' home winning streak at 15 as each squad prepares for its chance to get a leg up in the conference race Saturday.
The Valley has been so strong that expert Jeff Sagarin has it ranked ahead of the Sun Belt and Conference USA of the FBS, as well as the West Division of the Mountain West and East portion of the Mid-American.
"I wouldn't say we're in the hunt yet," WIU coach Bob Nielson said. "It's a great league. But we're in a good position and we've improved every week. We've got guys excited about where we're at, and we've just got to keep building on that as we move forward."
The Leathernecks (4-2, 3-0) are coming off a 24-19 win over then-No. 12 Northern Iowa to enter the polls for the first time since the end of the 2010 season. It began a stretch of six games to finish the season against foes currently in the Top 25.
The Redbirds (5-1, 3-0) realize they'll have to pass a tough test to extend their home winning streak, which became the longest in the nation when North Dakota State's 26-game run came to an end with last week's loss to South Dakota.
WIU never trailed against the Panthers while Trenton Norvell passed for 263 yards and a touchdown to Joey Borsellino. Nikko Watson rushed for 115 yards and a score on 35 of the Leathernecks' 46 attempts.
Watson is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and his yardage last week marked his lowest of the four games in which he's played.
The Redbirds overcame a 21-point deficit before kicking a 34-yard field goal as time expired to win 37-34 at Western in last year's meeting.
"They have a lot of weapons and they're a physical group up front," ISU coach Brock Spack said. "We're going to have to play very well to have a chance to be successful."
Marshaun Coprich ran for 114 yards and a touchdown in last season's matchup and enters averaging 6.0 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns during a five-game 100-yard rushing streak. He ran for 139 and two scores in last Saturday's 38-2 victory at Missouri State.
The matchup in Bloomington highlights three MVC games between ranked squads this week.
WENTZ OUT FOR BISON=
North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman broke the depressing news Tuesday that quarterback Carson Wentz is expected to miss six to eight weeks after having surgery to repair a fractured wrist suffered in last week's 24-21 upset loss to South Dakota.
The eighth-ranked Bison (4-2, 2-1) hope Wentz, a senior who helped guide them to a fourth straight FCS title last season, will be able to return for the playoffs. Redshirt freshman Easton Stick will get the start Saturday at No. 18 Indiana State.
''Carson means a lot to this program both on and off the field, and nobody on this team is more disappointed about this setback than he is,'' Klieman said. ''We're still going to count on him to help lead this team and mentor our younger players.''
"It's a big challenge and we've got our work cut out for us," coach Mike Sanford said. "We're very excited about being home and having a team of North Dakota State's caliber coming in."
NO LUJAN, NO PROBLEM=
South Dakota State junior Zach Lujan used his pocket-passing abilities to help the sixth-ranked Jackrabbits get off to a 3-1 start while throwing nine touchdowns. Lujan, though, has been on the sidelines with a high ankle sprain for the last two weeks, and dual-threat freshman Taryn Christion has stepped up in a big way.
Coach John Stiegelmeier said Christion originally was supposed to redshirt this season, but it's a good thing he didn't. Christion has completed 60.5 percent of his passes with two touchdowns in wins over Indiana State and Youngstown State while also rushing for 174 yards and two more scores.
Stiegelmeier said Lujan will regain his starting job once he's fully healthy, but Christion's efforts in his place have Stiegelmeier thinking he'll use a two-QB system for the first time.
"It's really what you call a positive problem," Stiegelmeier said. "We've got two good players."
SDSU (5-1, 2-1) on Saturday hosts No. 22 Northern Iowa (2-4, 0-3), a team Stiegelmeier said is much better than its record indicates.
The Panthers have lost three straight by a combined 16 points. UNI fell 31-28 at home to SDSU last year, then ran off six consecutive wins before losing to Illinois State in the second round of the playoffs.
"If you get a couple of those wins and execute a couple plays, you flip that (record) in a heartbeat," coach Mark Farley said. "That's football. It'll all balance itself out in the end, so we're just getting ready for South Dakota State."