(STATS) - The Missouri Valley figures to be well represented in the FCS Playoffs once again. With three weeks remaining in conference play and so much parity in the league, however, there's plenty of uncertainty as to which teams will advance to the postseason.
The conference sent an MVFC-record five teams to the field last year, and also sent as many as four in 2003. A similar number looks imminent with six teams ranked in the STATS FCS Top 25, while unranked Western Illinois (4-4, 3-2) sits in the middle of those teams in the standings.
A thin margin of error remains for nearly all these squads, though, with perhaps the exception of No. 2 Illinois State (7-1, 5-0) and sixth-ranked North Dakota State (6-2, 4-1). The league could receive more leeway from the selection committee given the quality of play and the fact that Valley teams went 16-3 in nonconference play against FCS schools.
The postseason begins with first-round games Nov. 28.
"There's a big logjam of a lot of teams in there ... Somebody is going to rise above the situation," Indiana State coach Mike Sanford said. "There's going to be a lot of things decided the next three weeks. I think we have a fantastic conference and to me, I think we should have a bunch of teams in the playoffs. But how that's going to be decided by the committee, I have no idea."
Seven MVFC teams with three or more league losses have reached the playoff over the past 30 seasons, including last year with Indiana State, which became the league's second team ever to reach the playoff despite a .500 record in conference play. That likely means No. 17 Northern Iowa, 21st-ranked Youngstown State and No. 23 Indiana State - all 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the MVFC - are very much in play for the postseason.
That said, the loser of Saturday's matchup in Cedar Falls between the Panthers and Sycamores will be at a distinct disadvantage. UNI has reached the playoffs in eight of 14 seasons under coach Mark Farley and advanced to the second round last year before falling to eventual national runner-up Illinois State.
Sanford called his team's 27-24 road loss to the conference-leading Redbirds last week "devastating." Indiana State led 24-9 late in the third quarter before surrendering 18 unanswered points over the final 17:33.
The Sycamores ended a nine-game losing streak in the series with a 20-19 home victory last season, going ahead on a 38-yard TD pass from wide receiver Chris O'Leary with 2:12 left.
IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT=
Illinois State (7-1, 5-0) controls its own destiny in the conference race. The Redbirds are looking to win the league outright for the first time since 1999 after sharing the championship with North Dakota State last season.
The Redbirds, who don't play the second-place Bison, extended their FCS-best home winning streak to 17 games ahead of this weekend's visit to No. 11 South Dakota State (6-2, 3-2).
"I think we're taking everybody's best shot. That's part of being in the scenario we were in a year ago and being where we're at right now," coach Brock Spack said. "Every Saturday brings on a different challenge and a different scenario. We'll see how we do this weekend."
Spack's group has a tough test ahead in facing a stout Jackrabbit defense that has allowed two TDs in the last four games.
"You don't have to have draft choices to play good defense, you have to have 11 guys that do their job," coach John Stiegelmeier said. "That's where we're at right now, just a bunch of scrappy football players doing their job."
Saturday's game is the last ever at South Dakota State's Coughlin-Alumni Stadium. The Jackrabbits have gone 180-108 there while calling it home since 1962. They'll begin play Sept. 10 at the new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, a facility that will boast a capacity of 19,340, up from 11,000.
"I'm a traditional guy, a sentimental guy. So it's going to be different," Stiegelmeier said. "But the change is really good. I don't want our players to get caught up in it at all other than playing their best football. Ideally the thought goes back to all the guys that played here and paid their dues and they have special memories of Coughlin-Alumni."
ASCENDING IN THE RECORD BOOKS=
A year after Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson became the first player in conference history with more than 4,000 yards of offense, Southern Illinois' Mark Iannotti is on pace to finish with the second-most by a Valley player. While Roberson accounted for his league-record 4,250 yards in 15 games, Iannotti is averaging 360.9 yards of offense, which would put him at more than 5,400 if he played the same number of contests.
Redbirds running back Marshaun Coprich ran for 165 yards in last week's victory over Indiana State, giving him 4,379 to surpass former North Dakota State back John Crockett for sixth in league history. Coprich figures to move up another spot this weekend, with the 4,396 yards by Western Kentucky's Lerron Moore from 2003-06 within reach. Given Coprich's per-game average of 143.8 yards, he's on pace to finish second at 4,810 by the end of the regular season. Zach Zenner's conference-record 6,548 yards from 2011-14 remains a more distant goal.
Missouri State's Chris Sullens could become the league's all-time leader in punt yardage this weekend when the Bears visit Youngstown State. Sullens' 11,252 yards are the most among active FCS players and just shy of Mike Krause's record 11,313 yards for Western Illinois from 1985-89.