South Dakota State on Thursday completed its 2013 football schedule with arguably the most important game of the season: A season-opening date with Butler.
Yes, that Butler. And, yes, it’s important for at least a couple of reasons. First, it’s a home game, giving the Jackrabbits six in the 12-game season. They haven’t had six home dates since 2007, the year before gaining postseason eligibility. Second, it’s a game against a non-scholarship counter. Butler was No. 85 in the Gridiron Power Index last season - not awful, but certainly a manageable foe for an SDSU squad with aspirations of a repeat playoff bid.
This is exactly what the Jacks have been hoping for after being locked into arguably too many difficult non-conference games. Those contests made sense when they were agreed upon - many prior to SDSU finding a real conference home in the rugged Missouri Valley - and helped drum up some interest. But it didn’t help the team in terms of gaining wins and/or developing younger players.
What’s more, FCS teams are allowed to play 12 games - instead of the usual 11 - in both 2013 and 2014. Not doing so may leave you at risk of missing out on the postseason by a game. That’s no longer a concern for the Jacks, and they’re continuing to explore options for 2014.
How did this game come together? Coach John Stiegelmeier started the process by calling Butler, a team that went 8-3 last year and shared first place in the Pioneer Football League. AD Justin Sell and associate AD Rob Peterson called folks, too, and it came to fruition. There was a cost, of course. Sell declined to disclose the exact amount that SDSU will pay for the game because he’s concerned that could hurt the Jacks in future one-game negotiations. He said it’s lower than the roughly $200,000 North Dakota State reportedly has payed for home games, but not by a lot. There’s less risk in that than there was, say, six years ago because the Jacks - coming off their second playoff berth in four years - now draw well at home regardless of the opponent.
To review, the SDSU non-conference slate looks like this: Home dates with Butler and Southeastern Louisiana plus road trips North Dakota and Nebraska.
“It’s the kind of schedule we’d like to have as we move down the road,” Sell said. “I’d love to play the Drakes and Valpos and Butlers. They’re interesting because they do have a little bit of name recognition.”
The Jacks hosted Valpo in 2006. The final: 69-6. A classic it wasn’t, but it counted as an NCAA Division I win - eight usually gets you in the playoffs - and allowed SDSU to ease into things. It’s a lot like a BCS power scheduling a low-to-middling FCS foe. Ideally, it means the team will have more in the tank if it makes the playoffs.
“My goal this season is not just to sneak in the playoffs - we want to try to get a seed,” Sell said. “Love to be off Thanksgiving weekend and have a home game or two or more.”
While that might seem like a bold statement, it’s an indication of the growing confidence in the athletic department. SDSU has made a playoff appearance in football and won three regular-season titles and four conference tournament titles in basketball - that’s men and women combined - in a span of 54 weeks.
On a related note, I’ll have coverage of the NCAA Division I basketball selection specials this weekend. One thing that stands out so far: Copious upsets in men’s conference tournaments and very few on the women’s side. The SDSU men are benefitting greatly, but the women aren’t getting any help.
Terry Vandrovec also posts regular updates on his Twitter page.