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Mayer: College football continues to climb in the Rushmore State

South Dakota State Univeristy's Cade Johnson (15) scores a Jackrabbit touchdown in front of University of South Dakota's Doug Lewis (31) during a game on Nov. 18 at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Matt Gade / Republic)

It's officially December and in South Dakota, it's still college football season.

That's not the case in Nebraska. And unlike our neighbors to the north, it's still football season for both flagship universities. Not just one.

That's how good college football has become in the Rushmore State.

While Cornhusker fans are patiently waiting to see who is hired as their third different head coach in five years, the Jackrabbits and Coyotes are eyeing deep postseason runs in the FCS playoffs. Regardless of today's outcomes, the 2017 season may already be the best ever for both South Dakota State and South Dakota in the Division I era.

And there's plenty of potential for more. But the path both teams have taken to this point has been an exciting sports narrative to follow.

The Coyotes' breakthrough campaign has been a whirlwind. Under second-year head coach Bob Nielson, USD raced out of the gates, winning the first six games of the season and reaching the No. 4 ranking in the FCS Top 25 coaches poll.

Nine days after the first loss of the season, three starting defensive backs were suspended indefinitely for connections to a sexual assault case. From there, the Coyotes dropped three straight games, including their ninth-straight defeat to SDSU (31-28 on Nov. 18).

Nonetheless, USD earned its first FCS playoff berth one day after the loss to the Jackrabbits, thanks in large part to the play of quarterback Chris Streveler. The former University of Minnesota quarterback was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive player of the year and he tossed for 378 yards and four touchdowns as the Coyotes earned a first round win 38-31 over Nicholls State.

Roughly two hours to the north of Vermillion, FCS playoff regulars SDSU have put together one of the program's most impressive seasons to date. Despite dropping two of their first three conference games, the Jackrabbits have rattled off five straight wins, including a 33-21 dismantling of North Dakota State. The furious finish to the season gave SDSU its first nine-win regular season in the Division I era, earned the Jackrabbits a first-round bye and the No. 5 seed. A team loaded with talent, both with former local standouts and potential NFL players, the Jackrabbits enter their seventh FCS playoffs with their best chance at reaching the championship game in Frisco, Texas.

Difficult contests (as to be expected when only 16 teams are left) loom for both SDSU and USD. The win-or-go home format of the 24-team FCS playoff football bracket brews plenty of drama and is certainly preferable to the FBS-level College Football Playoffs, which will cause much angst Sunday.

When South Dakota at Sam Houston State and South Dakota State vs. Northern Iowa both kickoff at 2 p.m., there's plenty for which South Dakota residents, not just Coyote and Jackrabbit alums, to be proud.

In short, it's a good time to be a college football fan inside South Dakota's borders.