It's a big year for the University of Sioux Falls and Minot State University. Both universities are taking the final step in the three-year transition from the NAIA, and are competing as "provisional status" members of NCAA Division II during the 2011-12 school year.
Overall, it's been a much shorter, less arduous road than the one traveled by the likes of UND, NDSU, USD and SDSU (transition to NCAA Division I takes four years), but the final year will be, by far, the most difficult.
During the first two years, or "candidacy period," the schools were allowed to compete for conference and NAIA championships. And while both have spots reserved in the NSIC next year, there's nothing, aside from pride, to play for in 2011-12. USF and Minot State are in their own version of athletic purgatory.
Scheduling is always one of the biggest hurdles to clear for any transition team. Without the eight to ten guaranteed conference football games, athletic directors Willie Sanchez (USF) and Rick Hedberg (MSU) had to work much harder to fill out their slates for 2011. The final drafts are impressive, if not a little intimidating.
The Cougars may have a case for having Division II's toughest three-game stretch to open the season. Jed Stugart's team will kickoff the new era on Sept. 1 (On MidcoSN) against Washburn University (Kan.). The Ichabods, members of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, were a legit 8-4 last year. They were 0-4 against conference rivals that qualified for the D-II playoffs, but the losses were by a combined 22 points.
One of those defeats came at the hands of USF's next opponent, Northwest Missouri State. The Bearcats fell to Minnesota-Duluth in last year's national semifinals and are favored to win their sixth consecutive MIAA title. Did I mention that they are three-time national champions (1998-99, 2009) and four-time runners up (2005-2008)? They're good.
USF continues to raise the bar on Sept. 17, when they travel to Lake Charles, La. for a date with Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse McNeese State. The Cowboys are ranked No. 13 in the College Sports News' Preseason Top 25. Through prior conversations with Stugart, it's clear he understands what his team is getting into in terms of the opponent's speed and athleticism. The Cougars have never seen anything like it.
That's not the only FCS game on the schedule for the Cougars. While not part of the aforementioned stretch, it's impossible not to mention USF's regular season finale at UND on Nov. 5. The Cougars stunned the Fighting Sioux, 28-13, in 2009. It was a landmark win for USF, and an embarrassing loss for the tradition-rich UND program. I think it's safe to say the Fighting Sioux will take things a little more seriously this time around. On the other hand, USF will be eager to prove it wasn't a fluke.
Minot State, which finished 6-4 in its final NAIA season, begins the D-II era with back-to-back games against future conference rivals Bemidji State (Aug. 25) and Concordia-St. Paul (Sept. 3). Both opponents finished in the top 5 in the NSIC last season (BSU finished 5th; CSP was 4th) and should give the Beavers an idea of just how ready they are to be part of, arguably, the top Division II conference in the country. If last year is any indication, there's still some work to be done. MSU was outscored 62-24 in losses to the same two teams in 2010.
Up next for Paul Rudolph's team will be perennial D-II power, Texas A&M-Kingsville (Sept. 10). The Javelinas were 10-2 last year, ending with a second round playoff loss to Northwest Missouri State. It was the 22nd postseason appearance for the program, which also boasts seven national championships. Two players from that 2010 team are now in NFL training camps, bringing the school's list of active NFL players to five.
From there, the Beavers head to Bozeman, Mont. for a date with FCS contender, Montana State (Sept. 17). The Bobcats are coming off a 9-3 season, which ended with an ugly second round playoff loss to North Dakota State. Considering the team's 30-7 regular season pounding of last year's FCS national champion Eastern Washington, many in Bozeman were left wondering what might have been. With 14 starters returning, expecations are sky high at MSU and across the country. The Bobcats, recently picked to finish 2nd in the Big Sky, debuted at No. 6 in the CSN Preseason Top 25.
Like USF, Minot State saved its' most intriguing game for last. The Beavers will travel to San Antonio, Tex. on Nov. 19 to take on the University of Texas-San Antonio at the Alamo Dome. UTSA, an FCS Independent, is playing its inaugural season. There's some obvious excitement about the program, indicated by the reality show currently airing on Fox Sports Southwest. The Roadrunners have a big name coach in Larry Coker, who guided the University of Miami to a national championship in 2001. The team also appears to have a decent amount of talent. Five players made Phil Steele's FCS Preseason All-Independent Team. Six others are listed as Players to Watch in the FCS College Football Preview Magazine.
With all of the big games on the schedule for both schools, it's easy to overlook the fact they'll be facing each other not once, but twice. Both games--USF at Minot St. on Sept. 24 and Minot St. at USF on Oct. 29--will be televised live on Midco Sports Network. The series fills a need for games in 2011, but both sides are also hoping it helps jump-start a long and healthy rivalry. Either way, it should make for some great TV.
Good luck to both programs in 2011. Life will get back to "normal" soon.
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