Never before like this.
The South Dakota State University football team has made the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs 10 times since moving to Division I, including nine straight seasons now after earning the automatic bid from the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
But in a spring season like never before, the Jackrabbits are still covering new ground. SDSU (5-1) has never before been the No. 1 overall seed, guaranteed to have home-field advantage on the road to Frisco, Texas.
Put simply, they’re a national championship contender, maybe even favorite, for the first time. The Jacks play Holy Cross in the playoff opener at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in Brookings, with the game available at ESPN3.com.
SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said that the team has heard the noise about potentially having an easier road to the national championship game. For a team that focuses on going “1-0” in each practice and game, he said his team will focus on tuning it out.
“It’s just static … You need to clear the static or the noise out of your life, and practice and focus on the task at hand. … They’re mature guys, I think they’ll do that. I know they’ll do that,” he said.
Holy Cross played just three games this season in an abbreviated Patriot League schedule and won them all, earning that conference’s automatic bid. The Crusaders are in the playoffs for a second straight season. While they played few games, the team has the nation’s second-best rushing defense per game at 44 yards per contest, while rushing for more than 200 yards in each of Holy Cross’ three wins.
Here’s a look at the top storylines as SDSU prepares for a playoff run:
He’s a freshman
SDSU provided a surprise in Game 1 when they named freshman Mark Gronowski as the team’s starting quarterback. And the Naperville, Illinois native has stood out as a major reason why the Jackrabbits are deserving of the national title talk.
He led the Jacks to game-winning drives against Northern Iowa and Youngstown State and had a 55-yard field-flipping run against NDSU to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. In six starts, the 6-foot-3 freshman accounted for nearly 240 yards of total offense per game and 14 total touchdowns, ran for 100-plus yards three times, completed 57 percent of his passes and is among the candidates for national Freshman of the Year. On Thursday, he was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year.
Gronowski won a three-man battle for the starting job entering the spring, beating out J’Bore Gibbs and Keaton Heide, both of whom started during the 2019 season. Going back to the start of start of 2019 at Minnesota, SDSU has had four starting quarterbacks, including Mitchell native and former Jackrabbit Kanin Nelson.
On the ground
SDSU’s been able to be balanced offensively thanks to Gronowski and the passing attack, but the Jacks continue to make their hay on the ground. They have the nation’s No. 6 rushing offense at 233 yards per game, which is tops in the Valley. That has been accomplished through a three-man rushing attack that includes Gronowski and running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis.
The Jacks ran for 392 yards in a blowout win at Southern Illinois on March 20 and then had a month-long break due to COVID-19 cancelations and postponements before rushing for 305 yards at normally stingy NDSU. Over the last four games, SDSU has rushed for nearly 6.5 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns.
That success has set the table for the team to finish in the red-zone, scoring on 20 of 21 attempts in the first six games. The offensive line includes Parkston native and senior center Wes Genant, who was an all-Valley honorable mention selection, along with all-league honors on the first team for Strong and right tackle Garret Greenfield.
On the other side of the ball, SDSU has a top-25 rushing defense and has allowed 15.8 points per game, which ranks in the top-10 nationally. All six games were played within the Missouri Valley, which makes up five of the 16-team FCS playoff field.
Time to talk about that static again. If SDSU wins on Saturday, they would host either Weber State or Southern Illinois on May 1 or May 2. The Jacks defeated SIU 44-3 on March 20, but both Weber State and Southern Illinois have spent time this year in the discussion of the top teams in FCS.
SDSU’s win over NDSU last weekend by a 27-17 score — and the convincing nature of how SDSU won — legitimized the Jackrabbits as national championship contenders.
If SDSU advances, they will face a strong opponent in the second round and potentially play either undefeated Delaware or a Jacksonville (Ala.) State team that has played 11 games already since last fall and defeated FBS Florida International and put a scare into Florida State.
But the bottom half of the bracket is much tougher than SDSU’s top half, in that it includes the last 10 national champions (NDSU eight times, James Madison and Eastern Washington), plus No. 2 seed Sam Houston, and two more Valley foes in Missouri State and North Dakota.
SDSU’s playoff hopes have come to an end at the hands of North Dakota State four times in the last decade. If those teams are to meet again, it will be in the national championship game on May 16 in Frisco, Texas.