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Traxler: December football becomes the standard for South Dakota State

Jacks will play 16th December playoff game on Saturday, seeking to become first unseeded team to win the championship

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South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier looks on during an FCS playoff football game Nov. 27, 2021 against UC Davis at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

It’s a Saturday in December and the South Dakota State University football team is still playing.

That has become standard practice for the Jackrabbits, who will play their 16th December playoff game since 2012 on Saturday at Villanova University for an FCS quarterfinal matchup outside of Philadelphia.

It’s yet another sign of the consistent program that head coach John Stiegelmeier and the Jackrabbits have built in Brookings. This 2021 season is the third time in the past five seasons that SDSU has had at least 10 wins or more. One of those “other” seasons was the Jacks’ spring campaign earlier this year that brought SDSU to Frisco, Texas, for the first time and ended at 8-2 after the national championship loss to Sam Houston State.

Getting to the playoffs, 10-win seasons, deep runs into the postseason: all of those elements point to a preeminent program in the FCS, which SDSU has continued to assert itself as.

“We have really high expectations for our program but it’s not something we take for granted,” Stiegelmeier said this week. “Our present players really don’t know any different. I have been here for 34 years and head coach for 25 years but every year we make the playoffs, I look at my wife and I say, ‘Everyone else expects this and I’m tickled to be in this situation, because I remember when we weren’t in this situation.’”

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South Dakota State running back Isaiah Davis carries the ball during an FCS playoff opening-round game against UC Davis Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
Marcus Traxler / Mitchell Republic

Stiegelmeier credited the team’s coaches, support staff and the university’s efforts as helping SDSU get to the point in which 10 wins and deep playoff runs are the expectation. Up and down the SDSU roster, the skill and talent of many of the positions has continued to improve, bringing the Jackrabbits closer to the top of the FCS mountain.

“There’s a lot of people that work really hard that allow us to answer this question and have 10 wins and they’re inside the locker room and in the football offices and university administration,” he said.

As an unseeded team, SDSU has more history it can accomplish. In the current 24-team form of the FCS playoffs, no unseeded team has ever won the national championship. One — Youngstown State in 2016 — has made the championship game. (Richmond was unseeded when it won the 2008 title, but that was when only four teams were seeded in a 16-team bracket.) The unseeded teams in the FCS bracket traditionally have a more difficult path to the FCS championship game, without a first-round bye and usually playing three or four road games to get to the championship contest.

“Our guys embrace statements like that and say, ‘Let’s be part of history,’" Stiegelmeier said.

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South Dakota State's Caleb Sanders celebrates a tackle for loss during a Missouri Valley Football Conference football game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 against North Dakota State at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

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Of the eight teams remaining in the FCS playoffs, two of them — James Madison and Sam Houston — are on their way out, moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision with the biggest schools in college football. Jacksonville State, another solid program in recent years that has played for a national championship, is also moving from FCS to FBS.

That will leave a slightly larger hole at the top of the division for football powers. Certainly, North Dakota State is still in that category and among the contenders again for this year’s national title. And South Dakota State is staking its claim to that top tier, as well. Montana and Montana State — two other strong programs that are geographic outposts like the Dakota schools that might make them tough to recruit to FBS — could also continue to see their stature in the FCS rise.

Despite having to go on the road, SDSU stands again as a real national championship contender, even if it hasn’t played perfect football recently. The Jackrabbits have the nation’s best 1-2 punch at running back, a capable offense with a number of playmakers, good line play, a well-rounded defense and the experience from the spring playoff run as well.

The travel and the demands of potentially making a championship run on the back of road games are difficult but all of the key pieces are there for SDSU to make a second trip to the national championship game in short order.

Related Topics: FOOTBALLCOLLEGE FOOTBALL
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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