The Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2014 was the SEC West of the FCS ranks. Over the course of the year, including the FCS playoffs, Valley teams played 34 non-conference games against non-FBS competition. Their last such loss was Indiana State's second-round playoff loss to eighth-ranked Tennessee-Chattanooga, and Indiana State had been literally the last at-large team into the playoff field.
The first was on September 13, when South Dakota fought hard but lost 28-20 on the road at Montana. Montana was ranked #4 at the time, and would go on finish the season 9-5, entering the playoffs as the 12th ranked team in FCS. It was the only regular-season non-conference loss the conference would suffer to a non-FBS opponent as the Valley racked up an insane 32-2 record in such games.
A week later, South Dakota would dispatch 22nd-ranked Northern Arizona 28-21 at home, a loss which in the end very well may have kept the Lumberjacks themselves out of the playoffs. The win left South Dakota at 2-2, but this is where we remind you that they were playing in arguably the best league in college football relative to its competition.
So it probably won't startle anyone to learn that the Coyotes haven't won a game since. They were steamrolled in conference play, outscored 131-300 on the way to an 0-8 mark. The Coyotes dropped every league contest by at least 11 points and failed to have a single player named as even a second-team All-Valley selection. Despite going 2-10, the Coyotes were ranked 51st in Kenneth Massey's FCS ratings, but that was obviously more a reflection on the conference than on the squad.
It was a dark offseason in Vermillion.
South Dakota lags behind their bigger Bison cousins and their siblings from South Dakota State, having made the jump to Division I four years later than the other two. But in a world where their in-state rival has made three straight playoff appearances and North Dakota State has won four straight national championships, that's not an excuse Coyote fans are prepared to accept. The reality is harsh: South Dakota is 3-21 in three years as a member of the Valley, and they're going to have to become competitive sooner than later. Otherwise Joe Glenn, who took over as head coach in 2012 -- the same year the Coyotes joined the Valley -- will be needing to seek other employment.
The problems for South Dakota last year were two-fold: they couldn't pass, and they couldn't stop anyone. The offense only completed 53% of its passes, averaging 6.24 yards per attempt and 11.77 per catch; they had no passing play for over 43 yards all season. On defense, they gave up 5.6 yards per carry and a frightening 234.5 per game on the ground; they also allowed 8.9 yards per attempt and 232.2 per game in the air.
On the other hand, they were at least in the middle of the pack in the Valley carrying the ball, running for 165 yards per game at a 4.5 pace per carry. No, that's not great either, and starting running back Jasper Sanders graduated, taking his 697 yards at 5.4 per touch with him.
Injuries were a factor last year. The Coyotes lost eight opening-day starters to the medics for some portion the seaosn.
To underscore the depth concerns, South Dakota only had 80 players in spring practice. (Before you say, "Yeah, but FCS," remember that FCS roster limitations are no different from FBS. Only the scholarship limits differ, and most FCS teams still have 85 players receiving at least a partial scholarship.)
In some respects, South Dakota will mirror Jim Dickey's famous 1982 Wildcats squad this year, as a large portion of the Coyote squad redshirted last year. Sophomore Ryan Saeger, who started four games last season in lieu of the injured Kevin Earl, appears to have won the job. Neither were particularly effective last year, and Saeger was picked off four times in South Dakota's spring game.
That game was a first-team affair, offense vs defense; USD didn't report the final score, but based on the scoring system and the information in the post-game recap we'll take a guess and say it was about 28-13 for the defense.
Joining Saeger in the backfield? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Two redshirt freshmen saw most of the action in the spring game: Anthony Vigneri, a converted running back, and Clay Fisher, who was an option quarterback in high school. Both are Omaha products, Vigneri from Gross and Fisher from Millard North. Last year's starting feature back, Trevor Bouma, missed the spring game as he continues to recover from a late-season broken arm. Sophomore Khorey Kilgore was expected to see a lot of action in the spring game, but he too was injured.
Starters Eric Shufford and Riley Donovan return to a receiving unit which is probably the squad's deepest. It was junior Ben Kramer who was most productive in the spring game, though, hauling in four passes for 42 yards. That was half the offense's entire passing game right there. Shufford, however, is one of only three Coyotes to appear on the Valley's end-of-season individual leader boards. He was ninth in the league in yards per game receiving at 58.6, and was the league's fifth-best kick returner at 17.8 yards a pop. (The other two were the aforementioned and now-graduated Sanders and junior kicker Miles Bergner, who was 16-17 on field goal attempts.)
The defense has apparently been reworked, with a simpler scheme installed and several players either changing position assignments or changing positions altogether.
The upshot: while they're probably not facing the destruction that opened their 2014 season in a 62-13 loss at Oregon, that's got more to do with K-State's offense than anything. Even last year's offense probably wouldn't have done that to them simply on philosophical grounds, but with the questions surrounding this year's unit the Coyotes will likely leave Manhattan feeling they've made progress. Yet even with those questions, this game should amount to little more than a full-speed practice against live competition for Kansas State; the Coyote offense simply doesn't have the horses to compete with the Wildcat defense.
Next Thursday, assuming all goes as planned: Pervis will check in with the early preview of Texas-San Antonio.