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Inside the Missouri Valley: Who are the biggest challengers in FCS to new-No. 1 SDSU?

With SDSU claiming the No. 1 spot for the first time in program history after a win over NDSU, here's a look at who could threaten the Jackrabbits over the rest of the season.

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South Dakota State wide receiver Jaxon Janke runs with the ball during a college football game against the University of South Dakota on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, at Dykhouse Stadium, in Brookings.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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BROOKINGS — There’s a new No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision.

South Dakota State took down then-No. 1 North Dakota State in Fargo to retain the Dakota Marker and claim the No. 1 spot in the Football Championship Subdivision Stats Perform Top 25 rankings for the first time in program history.

However, after taking down the team that’s held the top spot since the preseason and now that the entire country is chasing SDSU for the first time ever, it poses the question of who the biggest threat is to the now-top-ranked Jackrabbits. Here’s a look at a few teams who could put pressure on SDSU.

SDSU scored 16 unanswered points in the second half to rally past NDSU.

Sacramento State (6-0, No. 2)

The No. 2 team in the Stats Perform Top 25 is one of the six remaining unbeaten teams in the country, and is the No. 1 team in the Sagarin Ratings, aided by having a Football Bowl Subdivision win already this year.

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Sacramento State could challenge SDSU for the top spot even if the Jackrabbits don’t lose another game, simply due to how difficult of a schedule the Hornets have coming up. In the next three weeks, Sacramento State hosts No. 7 Montana and No. 17 Idaho before going on the road to No. 5 Weber State.

Third-team preseason All-American Marshel Martin has lived up to the preseason billing, with five touchdowns, 326 receiving yards and 28 receptions — all of which lead the team.

Sacramento State’s defense may be what keeps them from the top spot, though. While solid, the Hornets have the 25th-best scoring defense in the country, but their offensive firepower keeps them in every game. The Hornets are tied for second nationally in scoring offense, averaging 48.3 points per game, and they’re the only team in the top five of the Stats Perform Top 25 to have a top-five scoring offense. They also boast the third-best rushing offense in the country at 275.5 yards per game and Cameron Skattebo is tied with SDSU’s Isaiah Davis for fourth in the country in rushing yards at 740.

Even though Sacramento State won its FBS game by 31 points, it came against Colorado State, one of the worst teams at the FBS level. The next three games will be a proving ground for them, but should the Hornets make it through unbeaten, they could lay claim to the No. 1 spot.

SDSU traveled to Sacramento State in the playoffs last year and took down the Hornets 24-19 in a second-round matchup.

Weber State (6-0, No. 5)

Even with the gauntlet Sacramento State has coming up, Weber State may lay claim to the toughest stretch of games in the nation. All three of the Wildcats’ upcoming opponents are top-10 teams, with a trip to No. 3 Montana State followed by home games against No. 7 Montana and No. 2 Sacramento State.

Similar to Sacramento State, an unbeaten stretch would be tough to ignore and would give Weber State a serious shot at the No. 1 spot in the country.

The Wildcats already blew out Utah State, an FBS team that has a very real chance of making a bowl game this season. Other than a 24-point win over then-No. 21 Eastern Washington, Weber State hasn’t faced the stiffest of competition, but it’s taken care of business.

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Saturday's game marks the second time in FCS history that the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country meet during the regular season

Weber State boasts the 13th-best scoring offense in the country and the second-best scoring defense, having given up eight touchdowns through six games thus far. Opponents convert third downs at a 28% rate against the Wildcats, good for 10th-best in the country.

Led by a balanced offensive attack, Weber State has one of the best combinations of offense and defense in the country and can cause problems for any team, and it’s led them to the longest active winning streak in FCS at eight games.

Last time Weber State made the playoffs, it lost to Southern Illinois 34-31 in the first round in the spring 2021 season.

NDSU (5-2, No. 4)

Even though SDSU took down the Bison in the regular season, the threat of facing them again still looms.

NDSU has won nine of the last 11 FCS titles, and the Bison already have three wins in the MVFC. The season is, by no means, over for the Bison, who dropped to No. 4 in the country with their losses coming to Arizona and SDSU.

The Bison are still geared up for a run, having the fifth-best rushing offense in the nation led by Hunter Luepke, who had 58 rushing yards and a receiving touchdown against the Jackrabbits.

NDSU also has the No. 16 scoring defense in the country — a defense that allows the fourth-fewest passing yards per game.

With a potential top-four seed in NDSU’s future, a meeting in the semifinals — or potentially the championship — could be a chance for revenge for the Bison. If there's one thing the last decade has proven, the Bison know their way to Frisco.

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Even in the game this season, NDSU was up 21-7 at half before a Jackrabbit comeback kept the Dakota Marker trophy in Brookings. Coach Matt Entz has said the Bison's biggest hurdle right now is inconsistency and if NDSU figures it out, they're absolutely a contender.

NDSU has never lost to SDSU in the postseason, posting a perfect 4-0 record with the teams’ last meeting coming in 2018 when the Bison rolled to a 44-21 semifinal victory.

The rest

Both schools from Montana haven’t had the toughest of schedules to this point but are still dangerous teams. Montana State has the eighth-best scoring offense in the nation, but has struggled defensively. The Bobcats also beat Eastern Washington early in the season when the Eagles were No. 15, but EWU has since fallen out of the rankings and is 1-5. Montana State knocked SDSU out of the playoffs last season and took down the Jackrabbits 31-17 in the semifinals in Bozeman, advancing to face NDSU in the title game.

Montana boasts a much better defense than Montana State — the Grizzlies are the sixth-best scoring defense in the country, just one spot behind SDSU — but isn’t nearly as potent offensively. While still having the 16th-best scoring offense, the Grizzlies are tied for 40th nationally in first downs gained and tied for 23rd in third-down percentage.

Montana defeated SDSU 24-17 in the first round of the playoffs in 2015 in Missoula.

Holy Cross is unbeaten and its only one-score game came in a win over FBS foe Buffalo. However, the Patriot League’s lack of elite teams would make it hard for the Crusaders to jump SDSU, but a playoff matchup would be intriguing given Holy Cross has the 17th-best defense, 11th-best offense and is second nationally in turnover margin. Last time the two teams met in the playoffs, Holy Cross suffered a 31-3 defeat in Brookings in the first round in the spring 2021 season.

There's also the story of Jackson State and Deion Sanders' squad. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders is No. 3 in the country in passing touchdowns and passing yards at 22 and 1998, respectively. However, should the Tigers win the SWAC, they'd go to the Celebration Bowl rather than the FCS playoffs.

Last week’s scores

Saturday, Oct. 8

South Dakota State 23, North Dakota State 21
Illinois State 12, South Dakota 10
Youngstown State 48, Indiana State 42
Southern Illinois 30, Western Illinois 7
Northern Iowa 41, Utah Tech 14

Atop the Valley

One top performance from the conference for the week:

Despite a 48-42 loss to Youngstown State, Indiana State’s redshirt freshman quarterback Cade Chambers posted a career-best 311 yards passing and three touchdowns through the air. He also added a pair of rushing scores, including an 11-yard run to trim the deficit to three points in the third quarter.

Check this out

One top play from this past week’s games:

Just like last week’s top play, SDSU running back Isaiah Davis would not go down on this touchdown run against NDSU en route to a 23-21 win over the Bison.

This week’s games

Rankings are from the Stats Perform FCS Top 25.

Saturday, Oct. 15

Illinois State at Indiana State, 12 p.m.
No. 14 Southern Illinois at South Dakota, 2 p.m.
No. 1 South Dakota State at No. 20 North Dakota, 3 p.m.
Youngstown State at Western Illinois, 3 p.m.
Missouri State at Northern Iowa, 4 p.m.

The Jackrabbits are 6-1 overall, 4-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and have won six-straight contests after a season-opening defeat at Iowa.

The Valley game of the week

One Missouri Valley game we’re eager to watch this week:

No. 1 South Dakota State at No. 20 North Dakota: Newly minted at No. 1, the Jacks won’t have long to celebrate, heading back north to take on No. 20 North Dakota. UND is 4-2 on the season, with three of those wins coming against teams that were ranked at the time. But if the Fighting Hawks are going to earn a win over SDSU — something they did in Grand Forks in spring 2021 — they will need to dial in their defense, which ranks 75th in the country in scoring defense allowing 31 points per game. UND has the advantage of coming off a bye week and SDSU has before seen the effects of a physical matchup with NDSU manifest itself against its next opponent.

It's worth noting how good the slate of FCS games outside of the Missouri Valley is next week, with four other ranked matchups including a top-five contest in Bozeman and a top-10 battle in Sacramento.

The Valley in the NFL

  • Indiana State product Robert Tonyan continued his solid season with his best game yet. The tight end caught 10 passes for 90 yards during the Packers’ 27-10 loss to the Jets on Sunday.
  • During the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 38-15 win over Cleveland, 2022 fourth-round pick and former SDSU Jackrabbit Pierre Strong Jr. logged a 5-yard run for his first career carry.
  • During a Thursday night contest against the Bears, Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz went 12-for-22 passing without a touchdown or interception. However, the former Bison suffered a fractured finger and is reportedly out four to six weeks.
  • Former Northern Iowa lineman Spencer Brown exited the game against Chiefs and did not return for the Bills.
Zech Lambert is a sports reporter for the Mitchell Republic. He graduated from Penn State University in May 2022 and began at the Mitchell Republic in July 2022. He can be reached at zlambert@mitchellrepublic.com or on Twitter @Zech_Lambert.
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