South Dakota State University carries must-win mode into finale vs. University of South Dakota



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BROOKINGS, South Dakota — South Dakota State's playoff chances can be summed up in one word: if.

If the Jackrabbits beat South Dakota on Saturday in Brookings then they will have a regular-season resume that's at least worthy of consideration by the FCS playoff selection committee. The subsequent conversation is moot without that.

Maybe a win is all they need - that would be three in a row and a total of eight. Or perhaps they need games they aren't involved in to go certain ways, too, in order to get a nod from the selection committee.

For a variety of reasons, the pre-finale situation seems less cut-and-dried this time for an SDSU program that has earned three bids over the last five seasons. Twenty-four berths will be awarded - 11 to conference champs and 13 to at-large selections - on Sunday morning.

As of Thursday, 31 teams remained in the mix for 19 unclaimed spots. The Jacks are among the jumble.

"The only statement we have in it, the only time we should spend on that topic is to be as good of a football team as we can be on Saturday," coach John Stiegelmeier told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/11Cvfpx). "That means to do everything you can to win each play."

He's right in the sense that SDSU (7-4) is a heavy favorite against unranked South Dakota (2-9). Rivalry or not, the selection committee likely won't view this as a statement game.

The Jacks got into the postseason last year at 8-4, too, but all of those wins were against NCAA Division I teams. This season, they beat a Division III club, having tried unsuccessfully to secure a sixth home game against an FCS peer. The alternative: consecutive bye weeks.

A 41-3 win over Wisconsin-Oshkosh won't count toward the playoff conversation. It's not a deal breaker, either, as SDSU isn't the only team under consideration that has a lower-level victory. Montana, Montana State and Northern Arizona - to name a few - are in the same boat, while Sam Houston State has a Division II loss working against it.

Still, the Jacks aren't lacking in strength of schedule largely because the Missouri Valley Football Conference - again - is the top-rated league in the FCS. They're in line to finish no better than third in the Valley, while facing five top-25 teams, winning two - both on the road - and dropping three. The closest thing they have to a bad loss is a 30-27 defeat to nationally ranked Youngstown State.

In terms of polls, another element that gains at least cursory consideration from the selection committee, SDSU is ranked as high as fourth (Massey Ratings) and no lower than 16th (media poll). The Jacks got to that point despite a rash of injuries, the most noteworthy being the two-month absence of four-year starting quarterback Austin Sumner because of a broken foot suffered in the first quarter of the season opener. The selection committee does account for injuries, according to Valley associate commissioner Mike Kern, collecting that information from schools prior to Selection Sunday.

Sumner has started the last three games, leading SDSU to more than 1,000 yards and 91 points over the last two.

The Jacks could benefit from reputation, having reached the second round of the playoffs the last two years and boasting national award candidates running back Zach Zenner (Walter Payton Award; Walter Campbell Trophy) and receiver Jake Wieneke (Jerry Rice Award). Star power is not on the list of criteria, but it can't hurt.

Do the Jacks believe that they're in if they win Saturday?

"I've had more of the mentality that if we win out, there's a chance," said Zenner, the fourth player in FCS history to rush for more than 6,000 yards. "But I am keeping track of the (other) teams probably more than I ever have."

The Academic All-American is wise to do so in the sense that the Valley has not gotten the benefit of the doubt from the committee in recent years, gaining three playoff spots in 2012 and two in 2013 despite being ranked No. 1 in both seasons. Going into Saturday, six of 10 conference clubs have hopes of reaching the postseason.

No league has ever gotten that many bids - the record is five, set several times by the Colonial Athletic Association - meaning that somebody may be set up for a bitter disappointment Sunday barring a couple of losses Saturday.

"We're tied for fourth in the league," Stiegelmeier said. "I know we're in a great league, but it hasn't changed anything in terms of getting teams into the playoffs."

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