116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Headed into the final week of the regular season, the Northern Iowa football team is on the razor's edge of the FCS playoff bubble.
The playoff hopes for the Panthers (5-5, 3-4) will require a win Saturday against Western Illinois (2-8, 2-5), and it needs to be in dominant fashion.
Along with a decisive win over the Leathernecks, a South Dakota State (7-3, 4-3) loss against North Dakota on Saturday could prove to be a key development for the Panthers. A Jackrabbits loss to UND would leave SDSU with an identical Missouri Valley Football Conference record to UNI’s, with the Panthers holding the tiebreaker from their Week 8 win at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
With so many moving parts set to potentially affect UNI’s playoff hopes, The Gazette reached out to Sam Herder of Hero Sports, one of the FCS’ preeminent playoff prognosticators, who quickly pointed out UNI’s need for an SDSU loss.
“The committee is a little different every year as members rotate in, but one constant is the committee really factoring in strength of schedule, who you played, and most importantly who you beat,” Herder said. “There have been 9-2 and 8-3 teams in the past that haven't made the (playoffs) because they didn't beat anyone. No team right now has more wins against currently-ranked opponents than UNI with three — Sacramento State, SDSU and Southern Illinois. UNI's 6-5 resume is going to be better than a lot of teams' 7-4 resumes. The problem is there may be five MVFC teams better positioned to make the playoffs if SDSU beats UND.”
There’s plenty of recent precedent of 6-5 MVFC teams getting at-large bids, including the Panthers in 2018. Other recent examples are Western Illinois in 2015 and Illinois State in 2016. However, Herder points out that “the bubble” could be too packed this season to allow for a 6-5 MVFC team, especially if SDSU defeats UND, meaning six MVFC teams would be in the playoffs.
“There are multiple examples of 6-5 MVFC teams getting in over teams from worse conferences that have better records, like UNI doing it in 2018 over an 8-3 Monmouth team,” Herder said. “I believe the committee will do its due diligence discussing UNI this year. But if five other MVFC teams get in and the Big Sky gets five teams in, that's eight of the 13 at-large bids. The CAA will likely get two at-large bids. The Southland will get one. The SoCon will get one or two. So there just may not be enough bids to go around for a sixth MVFC team. UNI will want to see teams like Mercer, Chattanooga, VMI, Rhode Island, William & Mary and Monmouth lose.”
Along with the uncertainty surrounding the Panthers’ playoff chances, there’s uncertainty when it comes to which players have decided to walk during Senior Day ceremonies on Saturday.
The NCAA’s granting of an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic has put tough decisions on the plate of student-athletes, so, courtesy of a request to UNI Athletic Communications, the following seniors will be departing the program — Mason Neisen, Korby Sander, Bradrick Shaw, Tyler Hoosman, Austin Evans, Zac Kibby, Alfonzo Lambert, Kyle Fourtenbary, Jared Brinkman, Riley Van Whye, Nick Simpson, Nate Murphy, Trevor Penning, Nick Ellis, Antoine Frazier, Isaiah Weston, Daric Whipple, Jacob Coons, Brawntae Wells and Tim Butcher.