CARBONDALE — SIU football coach Nick Hill was confident his team's 2019 season was not over after Saturday's 21-7 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State.
He may be right, but the Salukis left Saluki Stadium in wait-and-see mode after finishing the regular season 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. SIU has one of only three wins by an FCS program over an FBS program, beating UMass 45-20 early in the season, and played seven of its 12 games on the road. The NCAA FCS selection committee will have to mull over SIU's strength of schedule, the eye test, and if the strongest league in the country deserves five bids out of the 24 in the field for the fourth time in the last five years.
"We're a playoff team," Hill said after the game Saturday. "Anybody that watches that game knows, and watches the last six weeks of the season, and the Missouri Valley play. And I've said that the last six weeks, I really think we're a top-10 team, and I think if you ask North Dakota State's coaches about the level of play, of players that are on this team, I think they would say the same thing."
Top-ranked North Dakota State (12-0, 8-0 MVFC) rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns, but was held to its lowest offensive output of the season. After racking up 700 yards of total offense against South Dakota Nov. 16 and 690 in a 57-21 win over Western Illinois, the Bison finished with 392 yards against SIU and a season-low 21 points. The Salukis sacked quarterback Trey Lance twice (NDSU had allowed seven sacks all year entering the game) and dropped what would have been his first interception of the season when safety Qua Brown dropped a pass that nearly hit him in the chest.
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The committee might not care about any of that, but might look fondly on SIU's strength of schedule. The Salukis beat UMass and lost to five teams that might all be in the playoffs. Southeast Missouri State, which was 18th in the country at the beginning of the year and finished off a 9-3 season Saturday, beat SIU 41-28 in both teams' opener. Arkansas State went to 7-4 after defeating Georgia State Saturday, and No. 5 South Dakota State (8-4) and No. 6/7 Illinois State (8-4) will be in the field, along with the Bison, who should be the No. 1 seed.
"Came from being not that good of a team for the last couple of years, and we turned the program around," SIU running back Javon Williams Jr. said. "Now we're 7-5, just played with the No. 1 team in the country, and showed that we got what it takes."
History may also be on SIU's side. With No. 9/10 Northern Iowa (8-4), the MVFC will almost certainly get four teams into the playoffs. The committee has awarded the MVFC five bids three times in the last five years, in 2014, 2015 and 2017. In the 2010s, the Valley is a combined 59-25 in the postseason (50-16 against teams from other leagues). Only one other FCS conference even has a winning record in the postseason during this decade, the CAA, which is 40-36.
SIU's 5-3 finish in the conference could also be historical. Since the FCS playoffs expanded to 24 teams in 2013, 25 MVFC teams have finished 5-3 or better in league play. Twenty-one of them made the bracket, including 21 of the last 22 in the past five years. Indiana State went 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the MVFC in 2018 and didn't make the postseason, but the Sycamores only had six Division I wins because the opened the season with a 49-0 win over Division II Quincy.